I recently had lunch with a good friend. For context this friend is not Mormon, but grew up in Utah. We spoke of the idea that atheism is not a kind of declaration of knowing there is not a god, but a lack of belief in a god or gods because of insufficient evidence. We arrived on the topic of Thomas Paine who influenced a modern popular atheist Christopher Hitchens who we both admire. Thomas Paine (1737-1809) was an English born political activist who is counted as a founding father of America. He authored two of the most popular pamphlets that influenced the revolutionary war. The most influential pamphlet was Common Sense which was so influential that John Adams said, “Without the pen of the author of Common Sense, the sword of Washington would have been raised in vain.”
Paine, as was many of the founding fathers, was a deist as his belief system. Deism is the belief in a supreme being who created the universe but does not intervene in it. The god of deism has been described as a master watchmaker who builds a complex watch with all of its intelligently crafted moving parts, winds it up, starts it, and is finished, never to return to interfere with its creation. Paine rejected the declared prophecies and miracles of religion, writing: “it is revelation to the first person only, and hearsay to every other, and consequently they are not obliged to believe it”. He also points out that the Christian revelations appear to have altered over time to adjust for changing political circumstances. Urging his readers to employ reason rather than to rely on revelation, Paine argues that the only reliable, unchanging and universal evidence of God’s existence is the natural world. (Wikipedia, Age of Reason) His views were not universally accepted, evidenced about a hundred years later Theodore Roosevelt when would call him “a filthy little atheist.” (Inside the Mind of Joseph Smith, p. 48)
There is an interesting connection between Joseph Smith and Thomas Paine. Joseph Smith’s mother Lucy Mack Smith became interested in religion before Joseph Jr. was born and began attending Methodist meetings. Her father-in-law, Asael Smith, disapproved. Asael “came to the door one day and threw Tom Paine’s age of reason into the house and angrily bade him read that until he believed it.” (Lavina Fielding Anderson, ed., Lucy’s Book: A Critical Edition of Lucy Mack Smith’s Family Memoir, Signature Books, 2001, p. 291) Paine respected Christ but condemned Christianity saying it was “too absurd to belief, too impossible to convince and too inconsistent to practice.”
Joseph Smith grew up with parents that were aware of Paine’s teachings. It is logical to believe the ideas produced by Thomas Paine would have influenced Joseph’s early religious thinking. Because the work of Paine was mostly against the teachings of the Bible, as were many of the enlightenment thinkers, it would be well served to have a second witness of Christ, vis-a-vis The Book of Mormon to balance the criticism. The Book of Mormon is not a retort to Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason, but there are stories that display a kind of direct retort to his ideas. The story that first came to mind was the Antichrist Korihor. Others include Sherem and Nehor.
The setting of the story for the Anti-Christ Korihor begins in the book of Alma. The sons of Mosiah, along with Alma the younger, have converted entire cities of Lamanites to Christianity. Those people are experiencing great prosperity because they are obedient to the commandments of God. They enact a religious freedom laws. People are happy. The scripture story is below:
Alma 23: 1 Behold, now it came to pass that the king of the Lamanites sent a proclamation among all his people, 3…that the word of God might have no obstruction.
Alma 30: 12 …this Anti-Christ, whose name was Korihor, (and the law could have no hold upon him) began to preach unto the people that there should be no Christ. 20 But behold they took him, and bound him 22 And it came to pass that the high priest said unto him: Why do ye go about perverting the ways of the Lord? Why do ye teach this people that there shall be no Christ, to interrupt their rejoicings? Why do ye speak against all the prophecies of the holy prophets? 23 …And Korihor said unto him: Because I do not teach the foolish traditions of your fathers, and because I do not teach this people to bind themselves down under the foolish ordinances and performances which are laid down by ancient priests, to usurp power and authority over them, to keep them in ignorance, that they may not lift up their heads, but be brought down according to thy words. 24 Ye say that this people is a free people. Behold, I say they are in bondage. Ye say that those ancient prophecies are true. Behold, I say that ye do not know that they are true. 25 Ye say that this people is a guilty and a fallen people, because of the transgression of a parent. Behold, I say that a child is not guilty because of its parents. 26 And ye also say that Christ shall come. But behold, I say that ye do not know that there shall be a Christ. And ye say also that he shall be slain for the sins of the world— 27 And thus ye lead away this people after the foolish traditions of your fathers, and according to your own desires; and ye keep them down, even as it were in bondage, that ye may glut yourselves with the labors of their hands, that they durst not look up with boldness, and that they durst not enjoy their rights and privileges. 28 Yea, they durst not make use of that which is their own lest they should offend their priests, who do yoke them according to their desires, and have brought them to believe, by their traditions and their dreams and their whims and their visions and their pretended mysteries, that they should, if they did not do according to their words, offend some unknown being, who they say is God—a being who never has been seen or known, who never was nor ever will be. 29 Now when the high priest and the chief judge saw the hardness of his heart, yea, when they saw that he would revile even against God, they would not make any reply to his words; but they caused that he should be bound; and … be brought before Alma. 32 Now Alma said unto him: …And now, believest thou that we deceive this people, that causes such joy in their hearts? 36 And Korihor answered him, Yea. 37 And then Alma said unto him: Believest thou that there is a God? 38 And he answered, Nay. 39 Now Alma said unto him: Will ye deny again that there is a God, and also deny the Christ? For behold, I say unto you, I know there is a God, and also that Christ shall come. 40 And now what evidence have ye that there is no God, or that Christ cometh not? I say unto you that ye have none, save it be your word only. 41 But, behold, I have all things as a testimony that these things are true; and ye also have all things as a testimony unto you that they are true; and will ye deny them? Believest thou that these things are true? 42 Behold, I know that thou believest, but thou art possessed with a lying spirit, and ye have put off the Spirit of God that it may have no place in you; but the devil has power over you, and he doth carry you about, working devices that he may destroy the children of God. 43 And now Korihor said unto Alma: If thou wilt show me a sign, that I may be convinced that there is a God, yea, show unto me that he hath power, and then will I be convinced of the truth of thy words. 44 But Alma said unto him: Thou hast had signs enough; will ye tempt your God? Will ye say, Show unto me a sign, when ye have the testimony of all these thy brethren, and also all the holy prophets? The scriptures are laid before thee, yea, and all things denote there is a God; yea, even the earth, and all things that are upon the face of it, yea, and its motion, yea, and also all the planets which move in their regular form do witness that there is a Supreme Creator. 45 And yet do ye go about, leading away the hearts of this people, testifying unto them there is no God? And yet will ye deny against all these witnesses? And he said: Yea, I will deny, except ye shall show me a sign. 46 And now it came to pass that Alma said unto him: Behold, I am grieved because of the hardness of your heart, yea, that ye will still resist the spirit of the truth, that thy soul may be destroyed. 47 But behold, it is better that thy soul should be lost than that thou shouldst be the means of bringing many souls down to destruction, by thy lying and by thy flattering words; therefore if thou shalt deny again, behold God shall smite thee, that thou shalt become dumb, that thou shalt never open thy mouth any more, that thou shalt not deceive this people any more. 48 Now Korihor said unto him: I do not deny the existence of a God, but I do not believe that there is a God; and I say also, that ye do not know that there is a God; and except ye show me a sign, I will not believe. 49 Now Alma said unto him: This will I give unto thee for a sign, that thou shalt be struck dumb, according to my words; and I say, that in the name of God, ye shall be struck dumb, that ye shall no more have utterance. 50 Now when Alma had said these words, Korihor was struck dumb, that he could not have utterance, according to the words of Alma. 51 And now when the chief judge saw this, he put forth his hand and wrote unto Korihor, saying: Art thou convinced of the power of God? In whom did ye desire that Alma should show forth his sign? Would ye that he should afflict others, to show unto thee a sign? Behold, he has showed unto you a sign; and now will ye dispute more? 52 And Korihor put forth his hand and wrote, saying: I know that I am dumb, for I cannot speak; and I know that nothing save it were the power of God could bring this upon me; yea, and I always knew that there was a God. 53 But behold, the devil hath deceived me; for he appeared unto me in the form of an angel, and said unto me: Go and reclaim this people, for they have all gone astray after an unknown God. And he said unto me: There is no God; yea, and he taught me that which I should say. And I have taught his words; and I taught them because they were pleasing unto the carnal mind; and I taught them, even until I had much success, insomuch that I verily believed that they were true; and for this cause I withstood the truth, even until I have brought this great curse upon me. 54 Now when he had said this, he besought that Alma should pray unto God, that the curse might be taken from him. 55 But Alma said unto him: If this curse should be taken from thee thou wouldst again lead away the hearts of this people; therefore, it shall be unto thee even as the Lord will. 56 And it came to pass that the curse was not taken off of Korihor; but he was cast out, and went about from house to house begging for his food. 57 Now the knowledge of what had happened unto Korihor was immediately published throughout all the land; yea, the proclamation was sent forth by the chief judge to all the people in the land, declaring unto those who had believed in the words of Korihor that they must speedily repent, lest the same judgments would come unto them. 58 And it came to pass that they were all convinced of the wickedness of Korihor; therefore they were all converted again unto the Lord; and this put an end to the iniquity after the manner of Korihor. And Korihor did go about from house to house, begging food for his support. 59 And it came to pass that as he went forth among the people, …and as he went forth amongst them, behold, he was run upon and trodden down, even until he was dead. 60 And thus we see the end of him who perverteth the ways of the Lord; and thus we see that the devil will not support his children at the last day, but doth speedily drag them down to hell.
My friends response: “Man, Korihor seemed like a pretty reasonable dude. He never said he knew there was no god, only that he did not believe there was a god.”
This peculiar story in the middle of the Book of Mormon is a direct rebuttal to the deist philosophy of Joseph Smith’s time. Whether conjured in the mind of Joseph or translated from the golden plates, it is an archetype of the taught response to the philosophies of those who question the probability of a god who intervenes in our lives and dictates how we must think, act, and worship.
There are main themes that can be derived from the premise of the passage. One, the church sometimes teaches one thing and does another if it fits the narrative of the faith. i.e. declaring religious freedom and then arresting and bringing to the prophet someone teaching an opposing philosophy. Or teaching thou shalt not kill, unless you are Nephi, and a voice in your head tells you it’s okay to chop off Laban’s head, then it’s okay.
Second, when the first group of people bound Korihor and asked why he was preaching against the coming of Christ, they listened to his position, but “would not make a reply to his words.” But instead bound him (again) to be brought to the chief judge Alma. This method of thinking can be useful when one really does not have a good answer for things. But this method also lends itself to the unfortunate forfeiture of one’s critical thinking faculties, and places them at the foot of another ape, or someone sometimes referred to by some as prophets, seers, and revelators. This idea of, “I am unsure how to answer these questions, but I trust the people in charge have good answers” permeates the zeitgeist of Mormondom. This system infantilizes the believers and paternalizes the leaders, pacifying even the most intelligent, critical, and reasonable followers into loyal subjects.
Korihor challenges the teachings of the believers as one that keeps them in emotional and psychological bondage. This bondage is fashioned out of the rituals and traditions of past leadership and the subsequent indoctrination of children. It is fashioned out of the teachings of power and authority over the mind of its followers, quite literally keeping them in ignorance, or as Korihor puts it, “that they may not lift up their heads.” This influence of control is capriciously taught as freedom. One fictional totalitarian government from the book 1984 by George Orwell had three slogans for maintaining its power over the people, one of which seems appropriate here, “ignorance is strength.” It is quite a remarkable facet of the Mormon church that I once believed in 100%. The idea that others have been faced with difficult questions and are able to remain faithful, why should I question anything? Korihor challenges this very concept, and demands of the individual the self-respect to ask questions, reason with yourself, and do not practice deliberate ignorance as a form of moral and intellectual strength.
Alma the chief judge challenges Korihor’s teaching that there is no evidence of god and turns the table by saying, “what evidence have ye that there is no god?” Alma seems to think he has caught Korihor in an epistemological trap. But in fact, Korihor readily admits that, “I do not deny the existence of a God, but I do not believe that there is a God; and I say also, that ye do not know that there is a God.” I am not convinced there is a god, but I am convinced that others do not know their belief in their god is true. What makes you so special that you know something that I do not? Omar Khayyam, an 11th century mathematician and sometime philosopher from Iran put it this way:
“And do you think that unto such as you
A maggot-minded, starved, fanatic crew
God gave a secret, and denied it me?
Well, well—what matters it? Believe that, too!”
Alma teaches us another main theme in Mormonism, if you are unsure how to respond to a question bare your testimony. Alma’s rebuttal and call upon evidence of god begins with him saying, “I have all things as a testimony that these things are true.” And, you have “the testimony of all these thy brethren, and also all the holy prophets? The scriptures are laid before thee, yea, and all things denote there is a God.” Are these solid arguments for the existence of god? For me personally, I can get behind the idea that Alma also uses about the design of the universe when he says, “even the earth, and all things that are upon the face of it, yea, and its motion, yea, and also all the planets which move in their regular form do witness that there is a Supreme Creator.” However, I subscribe to the idea spoken of by Stephen Hawking, “If you believe in science, like I do, you believe that there are certain laws that are always obeyed. If you like, you can say the laws are the work of God, but that is more a definition of God than a proof of his existence.” (London Telegraph Oct 2001)
In true Mormon fashion, it is taught in the Book of Mormon that there are consequences for disbelief. Using inductive reasoning, we can create a list of how the beliefs of someone like Korihor are to be perceived by the common faithful member. Those that question, or have an opposing spiritual view as you, should be seen as Korihor was described:
- thou art possessed with a lying spirit
- the devil has power over you
- ye will still resist the spirit of the truth
- the hardness of your heart
- it is better that thy soul should be lost than that thou shouldst be the means of bringing many souls down to destruction
- thy lying
- thy flattering words
- God shall smite thee
Korihor is conveniently struck dumb by god, through Alma’s word. Korihor gives a glimpse into even more common perceptions Mormons have of apostates. Korihor, after realizing the existence of god because he is struck dumb tells us:
- I always knew that there was a God
- The devil hath deceived me
- He taught me that which I should say
- I taught because they were pleasing unto the carnal mind
- I taught, even until I had much success, insomuch that I verily believed that they were true
- Korihor’s followers see “they must speedily repent, lest the same judgments would come unto them”
- Korihor did go about from house to house, begging food
- he was run upon and trodden down, even until he was dead
The chapter ends like this:
60 And thus we see the end of him who perverteth the ways of the Lord; and thus we see that the devil will not support his children at the last day, but doth speedily drag them down to hell.
Check out my initial blog post about my crises of faith that describes more in depth the views on those that fall into apostasy.
From a faithful perspective, Gerald Lund, a former general authority of the church, and popular Mormon themed author published a paper in 1992 entitled An Anti-Christ in the Book of Mormon—The Face May Be Strange, but the Voice Is Familiar on this very story. In it he describes the Korihor passage as a story of an evil missionary, a man who seeks to preach false doctrine and proselytize people to his way of thinking. Lund provides a scholarly and faithful interpretation.
Lund says the main “practical conclusion of Korihor’s philosophy… [is that] there are no ultimate values set by religion or tradition which put us in jeopardy of some eternal punishment. Therefore, we can live as we please without fear of eternal consequences. This is the heart of the matter. This is what it is all about.” This really is what it is all about, can humans have objective morality without god? Can morality be sourced through reason and human nature alone? The entire platform of a personal hero of mine, Sam Harris, is based on this idea. His book, The Moral Landscape, outlines his argument and its explanation would be better served in its own blog post.
The humanistic movement believes it is possible to practice morality without the dogma of a mystical theology, but with reason and human experience. Lund references the Humanist Manifesto II as a document that supports Korihor’s philosophy and is thus sourced from Satan himself.
We believe . . . that traditional dogmatic or authoritarian religions that place revelation, God, ritual, or creed above human needs and experience do a disservice to the human species. Traditional religions often offer solace to humans, but, as often, they inhibit humans from helping themselves or experiencing their full potentialities. . . . Too often traditional faiths encourage dependence rather than independence.
We can discover no divine purpose or providence for the human species. No deity will save us; we must save ourselves. Promises of immortal salvation or fear of eternal damnation are both illusory and harmful. They distract humans from present concerns, from self-actualization, and from rectifying social injustices.
Science affirms that the human species is an emergence from natural evolutionary forces. As far as we know, the total personality is a function of the biological organism transacting in a social and cultural context.
We affirm that moral values derive their source from human experience. Ethics is autonomous and situational, needing no theological or ideological sanction. Ethics stem from human need and interest
Here is the link to the updated Humanist Manifesto III from 2003
Lund teaches us the outcome of those that follow humanistic principles: “Mormon noted that the end result of Korihor’s philosophy was a breakdown of morality amongst the people. The end result of situation ethics leads to much the same result.” Thus the following message is etched in the hearts of believers, without god and his divinely inspired books and inspired prophets, society, as a whole, would erode under the weight of situational ethics directed by human experience alone.
In hilarious fashion Lund attempts to comment on Alma’s “absolutely brilliant” question, “how do you know there is not a god?” He makes the case that Korihor cannot say he believes there is no god for the same reasons that Alma cannot say he knows there is a god. In order to know there is no god “a person would have to perceive every cubic inch of the entire universe simultaneously. Korihor is acting as much on faith as those who believe there is a god.” This is wholly misrepresenting Korihor’s case. Korihor says he does not know there isn’t, but he does not believe there is a god. Saying you know god exists is not the opposite side of I do not believe god exists. It’s the difference between believing something and knowing it. I do not believe in Thor, Zeus, Apollo, fairies, or unicorns, but I do not know they do not exist.
In the end, Lund says “Korihor tried to teach people that there is happiness and joy to be found outside of God and the gospel. The Book of Mormon clearly shows that this is not true.” Hmm, I wonder where people get the idea that there is no happiness outside the church? I wonder if this influences their judgement of people, even those closest to them, that leave the church?
Joseph Smith, and subsequently all Mormon leaders have relied on loyalty to a revelatory God, one who reveals eternal truths through prophets, even eternal moral truths. They rely on the devotion and blind obedience of followers that believe in a higher authority to make decisions for them. Like Joseph, the collective leadership of the church past and present need/needed followers to “not lift their heads, but be brought down according to [their] words” and remain in ignorance. They also need followers to be scared of, and to pass judgement upon others that teach opposing world views like Korihor. As for me, I will side with Korihor, and declare him, as my friend did, a pretty reasonable dude. I am Korihor.