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Psychology, Religion, and the Law PDF Print E-mail

Jeremiah Gutman

delivered at the
International Coalition for Religious Freedom Conference on 
"Religious Freedom and the New Millenium"
Tokyo, Japan May 23-25, 1998

Instead of reading the paper I had prepared, I am going to address some of the issues, especially in light of so many insightful and informative remarks that have been made both earlier and in this session.

First, I suppose I should say who I am religiously, since it is only fair that everybody know where everyone is coming from. My parents were atheists, and they brought me up to be an atheist. I have never changed my mind on that. I have represented and continue to represent religious people. I applaud the definition that we heard earlier from Professor Malony, because in American law, religion has been very broadly defined in an area in which I have had a good deal of experience. That has to do with military conscientious objection. U.S. law provides when there is a military draft, a person cannot be compelled to serve if that person has a religious objection to participation in war.

Originally, the religious objection exception was granted only to Mennonites, Quakers, and a few other groups whose official policy was pacifist. It was denied to persons who didn’t belong to those particular religions. I find offensive and contrary to American constitutional law the very concept of a religion having to be recognized. Therefore, the courts were faced with objections to participation in war by men—there was and still is no female draft in our country—who said they didn’t belong to any religion but refused because it offended their conscience, their sense of right and wrong. And the draft boards said nonsense. You are not a Quaker, you are not a Mennonite, you just said you weren’t religious. The exception goes only to religious people.

That went up to the Supreme Court, which held that such an objector only thinks that he is not religious. If you object on the grounds of morality and offensiveness to your conscience, whether you like it or not you are religious and are entitled to the exemption to military service. So we have had for 25 or 30 years the concept that religion is not what many people in the lay sense think it is. It is a much broader concept.

As a matter of fact, what it has done is to separate the concept of morality from the concept of what most people think of as religion and religiosity. You can be a moral person and perform only those things which you think are good and not belong to any organized religion. The Court has affirmed that concept in these conscientious objection cases.

Now Dr. Coleman talked a good deal about the interaction between psychiatry and law and between those two and religion. I want to take off a little bit on that. A doctor of psychiatry in Massachusetts some years ago certified a client of mine as having joined the Hare Krishna group because his will had been captured and he had no free will. Therefore, he said, my client ought to be in a psychiatric hospital. So he was put in a psychiatric hospital and was examined by the staff, who hadn’t been properly prepared. They said there is nothing wrong with this guy.

When the report came back to the judge, he said to the certifying psychiatrist, “Well, they have had him there now for the period of time provided by the statute and they find there is nothing wrong with him.” This psychiatrist took that as support for his view. I quote from his testimony:

The absence of symptoms merely demonstrates the depth of pathology. The fact that there is nothing wrong with him proves that there must be something terribly wrong with him, otherwise you would be able to see there was something wrong with him.

It is hard to beat logic like that. We would all be in the booby hatch based on that kind of thinking. The judge didn’t buy it, and the man was freed. He went back and rejoined his religion.

In another case in which I participated, the psychiatrist said this young woman is terribly unhappy with the choice she has made in joining the Unification Church. The young woman said no she wasn’t. She was happy with her religion, and she felt comfortable and satisfied. The doctor said she only thinks she is happy. You can’t win. There is another lawyer who used the law to support his theory justifying kidnapping (called deprogramming) and unlawful imprisonment, including assaults. Some victims were actually beaten up, and they certainly had to be assaulted to take them away in the first place.

His argument went as follows: The United States, in its wisdom, during the Civil War in the 1860s, passed what is called the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which provides that human slavery is no longer permitted in our country. (It took a long time, but we finally got around to saying that human slavery was not a good idea and was against the law.) This famous professor, who is practicing in California, came up with the theory that the Unification Church in particular, but other churches and religious organizations as well, violates the Thirteenth Amendment because it enslaves the minds of the people whose minds they have washed. Since their will has been overcome, they are slaves; therefore, by capturing and freeing them we are enforcing the Thirteenth Amendment.

The law, as well as psychiatry, can be perverted. It is perverted by people who want to preserve things as they are. One of the things I think we should address is the concept in the American and other constitutions of separation between religion and government. Many states have official religions. Britain has an official religion. The queen is the chief minister of that religion. Israel has an official religion, Judaism. Thailand has an official religion. Many, many states have official religions. The problem with an official religion is that every resident of that state is compelled against her will by payment of taxes to support a religion that she may not believe in.

That I find offensive. The very concept that the state and the religion are one and that the state can enforce or support a religion by placing a burden upon everyone, whether or not they belong to the religion, is dangerous. The United States, despite the First Amendment calling for separation of church and state, gives tax exemptions. Some states support religion more directly, the way it is done in Italy where you indicate on your income tax return which religion you want your money to go to. But you can’t say you don’t want it to go to any religion.

If the state is supporting a religion, then it can dictate to the ministers of that religion what they must preach. Otherwise, the source of funds can be cut off. Similarly, if the religion depends on public funding, it is going to kowtow to the politics of the moment. And then they become prostitutes of opportunism.

The United States glories in having been founded by people seeking religious freedom. Our children are taught to venerate the Pilgrims who fled England to be able to worship as they chose. But when the Pilgrims got to the colonies, they established their own religion. So they became the persecutors. That is a tradition in American history; we have persecuted all new religions. In our historical shortsightedness, we think in terms of how the Hare Krishnas and the Unificationists and the Children of God (now called the Family) are being persecuted, as though this is something new. But it is not new.

The Pilgrims persecuted those who refused to worship in their churches, in their way. A famous Protestant minister named Roger Williams fled Massachusetts because his way of looking at Christ was different than the official way. He went a few miles down the coast and established Rhode Island, which is now another state in the United States. There he established his own group as the persecutors. When the tablets of God were found by the Mormons in the United States, they were persecuted. When the Catholics arrived from Italy and Ireland in the 19th century, the Protestant majority in the United States persecuted them.

The common denominator is that the people in power in any place at any time tend to view the arrival of a new set of ideas as dangerous to the status quo, as dangerous to the ability of those exercising power to maintain their grip on power. Therefore, the new, the novel, becomes the object of discrimination and persecution. This isn’t a new concept, and it is certainly not limited to the United States.

People can believe in concepts in a way that is perhaps religious. One of the arguments against a particular religion may be a look at what they believe: It is inconsistent with logic and rationality. But that is what many religions are about. Many religions glory in that aspect of their tenets. That is, you believe on faith. You don’t have to believe because it can be demonstrated scientifically. The scientific demonstration of the divinity of Christ is yet to be established. Yet there are hundreds of millions of people in the world who believe it, not because it can be proven but because they choose to believe it. They have been socialized to believe it. If I choose not to believe it, that should be my freedom. If they choose to believe it, that should be their freedom.

Not that they tolerate me or that I tolerate them. But I recognize their independent integrity, their humanity, their dignity, and the right of each individual to believe that which he believes to be so.

Other concepts of beliefs are persecuted in the same way. In the United States we like to think of ourselves as being able and willing, even anxious, to look at all sides of an issue. That is baloney. We teach our children to believe that the capitalist system is the best economic system and that the way we do things, by elections rather than fiat or monarchy, is the best way to organize a political system. When people come along with such a concept as communism or socialism and challenge the concepts of democracy and capitalism, the democrats and capitalists get very excited. When the Protestants came along at the time of the Reformation and challenged the infallibility of the pope, the people who were making a good living and feeling very secure by depending on the papacy got very excited.

The argument is never “I am going to protect my interest” or “we are going to perpetuate ourselves in power.” The argument always becomes, “You are Satan, you are possessed, you are deceived. We have the truth.” I say beware of anyone or any religion or any government, whether supported by its religion or otherwise, which says there is only one truth and you better believe it because we get it directly from the source, whatever you choose to call it. There is only one truth and we have it. That is a terribly dangerous thing. It leads to suppression, tyranny, and dehumanization of the individual.