The Curious Case of John Errol Ferguson, Part 2

By Joseph Laycock

While Judge Glant’s decision was applauded by the families of Ferguson’s victims, its wider implications are disturbing. Richard Dawkins is surely dancing in celebration to see that a judge in a Southern state compared the delusions of a schizophrenic murderer to “normal” Christian beliefs. Our legal system has repeatedly struggled to define what constitutes “religion.” “Insanity” has proved to be a similarly difficult concept to pin down. The line between the two may be the most difficult to define of all.

During the “cult wars” of the 1970s, there was an attempt to medicalize new religious movements such as the Hare Krishnas and the Children of God. Opponents of these groups declared that these movements were “cults” and that they recruited members through brainwashing. The unusual beliefs of these groups, it was argued, were not religious convictions protected by the First Amendment but a form of insanity induced by mental trauma. Because participation in a cult was regarded as a mental illness, counter-cult activists argued that cult members be placed under a conservatorship by their family members. Under such conservatorships, adults would revert to the legal status of a minor. In 1977, five conservatorships were granted in California, but were overturned on appeal. In 1980, a carefully worded bill known as the Lasher Amendment was proposed in New York, altering state law to grant conservatorships for cult members. Only a veto by the governor stopped the Lasher Amendment from being signed into law. Significantly, the anti-cult legislation of the 1970s made the converse claims of Judge Glant. Advocates of conservatorships claimed that beliefs that were nominally religious were actually a form of insanity. Judge Glant argued that the claims that Ferguson’s lawyers presented as insanity were actually religious beliefs.

All of this discourse assumes an “either/or logic” in which a religious worldview cannot be insanity and visa-versa. Dr. Tonia Werner, one of the psychiatrists who examined Ferguson, explained that he had a “hyper-religious” belief. The prefix “hyper” appears to be an attempt to make a categorical distinction between Ferguson’s delusions and mainstream religious views. Of course, religion scholars have long argued that “religion” is a second-order category that is always imposed on the beliefs of others from the outside. For this reason, the distinction between religious truth claims and mental delusions cannot be taken for granted. Furthermore, the sociology of knowledge teaches us that the distinction between madness and religion is often socially constructed.

Setting aside the moral question of whether Ferguson should be executed for his crimes, I find Judge Glant’s argument unsettling. Despite the testimony of both psychiatrists and religion scholars, Glant appears to have arbitrarily decided where the line between insanity and religion can be drawn. For practical reasons, the law requires that this line be drawn somewhere. However, it seems clear that Glant’s decision was motivated by a desire to execute a murderer rather than a sincere attempt to navigate the incredibly complex issues surrounding Ferguson’s deviant worldview and Florida’s standards for mental competence. The comparison between schizophrenic delusion and Christian doctrine is actually a creative way of circumventing a federal law banning the execution of the mentally incompetent.

Philosophically, the Lasher Amendment and Glant’s decision appear to take opposite views regarding insanity and religion. But from a sociological perspective they are similar. In both cases the line between religious conviction and mental illness was cleaved in such a way as to support the will of the majority against the rights of the minority. When deviant religions were declared protected by the First Amendment, their religion was medicalized as insanity. When a deviant criminal was protected under the Eighth Amendment, his medical condition was dismissed as religion. Regardless of how religion and insanity are defined, in both cases the deviant party is the loser.

In The Principals of Psychology, William James argued that the supernatural claims of religion and the claims of “sheer madness” both represented alternative worlds separate from our shared world of “practical realities.” However, our legal system requires that these subjective worldviews––however we classify them––do have consequences in our everyday word of practical reality. The case of John Errol Ferguson demonstrates the need to think more critically about categories such as religion and madness. These categories are not given but socially constructed. They are so fluid precisely because they deal with beliefs and experiences that exist outside of our shared reality. When those in authority apply inconsistent or self-serving criteria to define these categories it becomes a particularly insidious form of hegemony.

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One Response to The Curious Case of John Errol Ferguson, Part 2

  1. Russell McCutcheon says:

    “Glant appears to have arbitrarily decided where the line between insanity and religion can be drawn…” What other way, than arbitrary and self-serving, is there to do this…? A wonderful series of posts but your description of the slippery relationship between these taxons seems to me to slip into a normative assessment concerning a better, more just, more critical, whatever, way to do it that the “arbitrary” way this judge does. To rephrase, why is this episode “unsettling” as opposed to a wonderful example of how these categories/judgements inevitably work in the world–whether they are swinging in our favor or not…?

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