Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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(1941-) Professor of Sociology and Judicial Studies and Director of the Center for Judicial Studies, University of Nevada at Reno. Ph.D., sociology, Washington State University, 1968; J.D., Nevada School of Law, Old College, Reno, 1986; admitted to Nevada Bar, 1986. B.A., M.A., sociology, Texas Tech University, 1964, 1965. President, Association for the Sociology of Religion, 1986. Richardson has traveled widely abroad and has held visiting appointments at the Department of Sociology at the London School of Economics (1974-1975); the Department of Psychology of Culture and Religion at the University of Nijmegen, the Netherlands (Fulbright Fellow, 1981); and the University of Queensland, Sydney University, and University of Melbourne (1993-1994). Active in Nevada politics, Richardson served as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 1992.

James T. Richardson has been an outstanding figure in American sociology of religion for more than two decades. He was practically the first sociologist of religion to become involved in the study of the "new religions" that were attracting young people at the end of the 1960s. Over the years, Richardson has made pioneering contributions to a number of interrelated subareas of contemporary sociology of religion; these include the development of "youth culture fundamentalist" sects out of the diffuse "Jesus Movement" of the very early 1970s (Richardson et al. 1979), revision of received "sect-church" models to accommodate recent alternative religions (1978), extension of received "movement organization" models to identify the distinctive features and varieties of "religious movement organizations" (RMOs), development and politicization of the contemporary concept of "cult," conversion and commitment processes in religious movements (1985a), economic problems and adaptations of new and marginal religious movements (1988a, 1988b), social and legal conflicts surrounding recent unconventional religious movements (Bromley and Richardson 1983), distinctive patterns of exiting and disaffiliation from contemporary religious movements (Richardson et al. 1986), processes of stereotyping and opinion formation regarding "cults," and the demystification of recent agitation over alleged omnipresent Satanist conspiracies and the posited explosion of Satanic ritual abuse (Richardson et al. 1991).

What is distinctive and particularly valuable about Richardson's work is its tendency to link different areas and disciplines, such as law and social psychology, law and economics, sociology and clinical psychology, the sociology of conversion and the sociology of occupations. In this latter context, Richardson's concept of "conversion careers" pinpointed patterns of religious "serial monogamy" among young "seekers" in the 1970s (Richardson and Stewart 1978). Although Richardson has not been explicitly associated with new microeconomic "rational choice" models of religion, he appears to have anticipated the insight, subsequently formulated by Rodney Stark and others, that the (often unpredictably) shifting policies of the Internal Revenue Service represent the most salient environmental factor affecting the adaptive evolution of new religious movements and shaping their transformative patterns of institutionalization (Richardson 1985b).

The interface of psychology and sociology also has been prominently featured in Richardson's work. A notable critic of typifications of conversion processes in unconventional religions in terms of pathological "brainwashing" (1993), Richardson has been the author (and coauthor) of several important reviews of psychiatric and psychological studies that bear upon the mental health of members of controversial movements. Richardson has published a number of articles in psychology journals, most notably a seminal piece, with Brock Kilbourne, that analyzed the latent functional equivalence and general relationship between religious movements and professional psychotherapists. As a result of their roles as competitive healers, continuous tension between them is more or less institutionalized (Kilbourne and Richardson 1984). Kilbourne and Richardson have published several sociological analyses of healing movements.

Although some of the publications of Richardson referred to here have not received the attention that in retrospect they seem to have warranted, some of his works have been enormously influential. Richardson's article "The Active and the Passive Convert" (1985a) encoded the fundamental duality that discriminates divergent contemporary models of religious conversion and underlies controversies over alleged cultic "mind control."

Richardson has been a committed fighter for religious freedom and the rights of religious minorities. He has served as either an expert witness or a consultant in several court cases, and he collaborated in writing an amicus brief submitted by the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion that influenced an important appellate decision involving the Hare Krishna movement. Richardson's concern with religious freedom is broadly cosmopolitan and reflects his frequent travels and experiences as a visiting scholar abroad. A number of his recent articles analyze legal developments in Europe and Australia.

Thomas Robbins


D. G. Bromley and J. T. Richardson (eds.), The Brainwashing-Deprogramming Controversy (Toronto: Mellen, 1983)

B. Kilbourne and J. T. Richardson, "Psychotherapy and New Religions in a Pluralistic Society," American Psychologist 39(1984):237-251

J. T. Richardson, "An Oppositional and General Conceptualization of Cult," Annual Review of the Social Sciences of Religion 2(1978):29-52

J. T. Richardson, "The Active vs. Passive Convert," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 24(1985a):163-179

J. T. Richardson, "The 'Deformation' of New Religions," in Cults, Culture and the Law , ed. T. Robbins et al. (Chico, Calif.: Scholars Press, 1985b)

J. T. Richardson, "Changing Times," Sociological Analysis 49S(1988a):1-14

J. T. Richardson (ed.), Money and Power in the New Religions (Toronto: Mellen, 1988b)

J. T. Richardson, "A Social Psychological Critique of 'Brainwashing' Claims About Recruitment to New Religions," in The Handbook of Cults and Sects in America , Vol. B, ed. D. G. Bromley and J. K. Hadden (Greenwich, Conn.: JAI, 1993): 75-98

J. T. Richardson and M. Stewart, "Conversion Process Models and the Jesus Movement," in Conversion Careers , ed. J. T. Richardson (Beverly Hills, Calif.: Sage, 1978): 24-42

J. T. Richardson et al., Organized Miracles (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction, 1979)

J. T. Richardson et al., "Leaving and Labeling," Research in Social Movements 9(1986):97-126

J. T. Richardson et al. (eds.), The Satanism Scare (New York: Aldine, 1991).

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