Monday, September 6, 2010

Was Korihor an Atheist?

Alma chapter 30 appears, at least on the surface, to be the most explicit treatment of atheism in all LDS scripture. And the character of Korihor seems at least superficially to fit the definition of an atheist in his explicit denial of the existence of God. But the more relevant question in our context is, Does the story of Korihor in Alma 30 amount to a condemnation of modern rationalist materialist / secular humanist philosophy? And the answer, I think, is a resounding No. Korihor was not an atheist in that sense at all. Furthermore, I think it is difficult to find anywhere in scripture coherent support for the kinds of antagonistic attitudes we find among most modern-day, conservative Christians toward modern-day atheists.

Korihor is described in Alma 30 as professing:
1) That Christ would not come in the future, and that to hope for his coming was foolish.
2) That no one can know of things to come, or of things that one cannot see.
3) That belief in Christ is the result of a delusion (a "frenzied mind").
4) That belief in Christ is exploited by religious leaders to deny people their freedom, and to live a life of ease while they sap their followers of their income.
5) That there is no God, and that one should only believe in God if one has tangible signs of God's existence.
So far, most of these statements certainly sound like some of the things we might hear coming from folks like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. However, the text continues, explaining that in addition to these beliefs, Korihor professed that:
6) "Every man prospered according to his genius, and that every man conquered according to his strength; and whatsoever a man did was no crime." (v. 17)

What's worse though, is that at the end of the story Korihor confesses:
1) That he was lying all along, and that he actually always knew there was a God, and (the next one's the zinger),
2) That he taught what he taught because he was commanded by an angel to do so.

The classic Biblical proof text against atheism is, "The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God" (Psalm 14: 1 and 53: 1). Korihor may have been a fool, but he was not that kind of a fool. The text states explicitly that Korihor knew in his heart that there was a God, but had entered into a perverse pact with the devil to dissuade people from faith and lead them to commit all sorts of crimes in spite of this knowledge.

The scriptural concern with the denial of God -- both in the story of Korihor and in Psalms and elsewhere -- is focused on the relationship between belief and behavior. The preeminent concern in scripture in relation to the denial of God has to do with whether such a denial is used to rationalize bad behavior, behavior that usually manifests in the form of pursuit of selfish interests without concern for the effect that such pursuit has on others. In other words, in the form of pride and disregard for the poor and vulnerable. The scriptures condemn rationales which suggest that there will be no final reckoning, no final judgment, therefore we may do as we please no matter whom we harm. In other words, the scriptures condemn egotistical nihilism, not necessarily atheism per se.

Thus, for instance, in Alma 30, the author is quick to stress:
Now there was no law against a man’s belief; for it was strictly contrary to the commands of God that there should be a law which should bring men on to unequal grounds. For thus saith the scripture: Choose ye this day, whom ye will serve. Now if a man desired to serve God, it was his privilege; or rather, if he believed in God it was his privilege to serve him; but if he did not believe in him there was no law to punish him. But if he murdered he was punished unto death; and if he robbed he was also punished; and if he stole he was also punished; and if he committed adultery he was also punished; yea, for all this wickedness they were punished. For there was a law that men should be judged according to their crimes. Nevertheless, there was no law against a man’s belief; therefore, a man was punished only for the crimes which he had done; therefore all men were on equal grounds. (vs. 7-11)

It is worth stressing that this text supposedly condemning atheism stresses that it is "strictly contrary to the commands of God" to discriminate under the law between those who believe and those who do not believe in God. Furthermore, it treats lack of belief in God in rather value-neutral terms. "If a man desired to serve God, it was his privilege; or rather, if he believed in God it was his privilege to serve him." There's no statement here as to whether the failure to believe was culpable; only that if one did believe, one might be privileged to act in accordance with that belief, and that if one did not believe, one should not be punished.

While Korihor set out with an agenda to destroy both faith and social order, the agenda of rationalist materialism is to understand the nature of the world we live in through observation of physical phenomena. For modern rationalist materialists there is no explicit agenda of denying God or the social order, but rather simply to understand the physical world. As a philosophy, rationalist materialism is concerned with the existence of God only to the extent that God is observable within the material world. To the extent that God is not observable within the material realm, rationalist materialism is indifferent to God; neither invested in denying nor in proving God's existence.

Where concern about belief in God becomes a factor to rationalist materialists is when claims about God are used to promote or justify repression of dissent, social inequality or violence. Modern rationalist materialists and secular humanists are extremely concerned about creating and preserving a just social order in which, as Alma 30: 7 puts it, none are on "unequal grounds" as a result of their belief or lack thereof. They are extremely concerned about religious violence and bigotry.

Secular humanists and rationalist materialists typically condemn belief in a God who who has at various times commanded slavery, genocide, crusades against unbelievers, and the oppression of women; who is indifferent to poverty and human suffering; who is believed in blindly and unquestioningly; and who commands the use of physical compulsion and violence against those who refuse to believe in such a God. From a scriptural perspective, that God is "the God of this world," Satan wearing a god-like mask, resorting to pious postures while extracting worldly obedience through force. So from a scriptural perspective, the denunciation of such a God would actually be less the work of a Korihor, and more the work of modern day prophets.

Do I see in my atheist friends a desire to undermine faith? A desire to dissuade believers from acting in a socially responsible, law-abiding manner? Not only do I not see this, but I see this kind of concern about how to relate to believers in a way that is respectful, along with a willingness to wrestle with the implications of one's one lack of belief in light of others' belief.

I am a believer. In fact I would say that in light of my own experience with God, it would be easier for me to disbelieve that I exist in some objective sense than it would be for me to deny God. I have experienced God literally as the ground of my existence. But I think that atheism -- at least as it is expressed in the form of rationalist materialist or secular humanist philosophies -- should not worry believers. To condemn that kind of atheism, as far as I am concerned, is a big, fat red herring, designed to make us lose perspective, to forget what true belief really should be all about.


Holly said...

there's another problem with the Korihor story: he knew all along that he was lying, for "the devil appeared unto him in the form of an angel, and said unto me: Go and relciam this people, for they have all gone astray after an unknown god. And he said unto me, There is no god, yeah, and he taught me that which I should say."

that was one of my early seeds of doubt, back when I was about 12. I remember thinking, "this is a stupid story. If an angel, which is a servant of god, appeared to me, and told me there was no god, I would pretty figure the angel was trying to trick me. Why believe a supernatural being that tells you there's no such thing as another supernatural being? And if you don't believe them, if you know they're lying, why do what they're telling you? It should have been obvious that this would go badly."

it's so clearly a fiction, a bad short story Joseph Smith couldn't make authentic because he didn't have a clear sense of what atheism really involves. He can't imagine someone coming to doubt god on his/her own; he can only imagine that people would base their theological beliefs (or lack thereof) based on what someone else has TOLD them.

Andrew S said...

Yeah, I'm inclined to believe with Holly that this passage was the author's (just to leave the authorship up for grabs, haha) poor characterization of what an atheist is or what the "cause" of atheism is. Now, because we can point out the flaws in the description, we can say, "Korihor wasn't really an atheist; he was more of a religious liar," but I think that the INTENTION was to explain away atheism and provide a venue for a righteous BoM character to "prove" God.

Considering that we have people all across faith traditions who STILL believe that atheists are really just lying, or they are justifying nihilistic hedonism, or whatever, it isn't so far-fetched to say that whoever wrote this passage had a similar idea of atheism.

Of course, considering the kinds of things religious morality prohibits or the kinds of things religious morality prescribes, I think nonbelievers would often chafe at these things (consider: traditional gender roles, opposition to gay marriage, older ideas on race, etc.,) so I can see why someone would assume that atheists or other nonbelievers are trying to rationalize and encourage bad behavior.

We won't stop until feminists, gays, and intellectuals have completed their tri-force plan to take over the world.

Daniel said...

You hit on one of two major misconceptions religious people often have of atheists--which is that Atheists secretly "know" there is a God but choose to deny it.

The other misconception that bothers me is when people think atheists are angry with God or are trying to rebel against God. How can someone be mad at someone they don't believe exists?

Thank you for trying to correct some misconceptions here--I may not be an atheist, but I sympathize with them and am often lumped together with them. I wish we could all respect each other and talk to others on their terms.

J G-W said...

Holly and Andrew - I guess I differ with you as to whether Korihor is believable as a character. I don't find it unbelievable that some demagogue or would-be demagogue could exploit a form of nihilism for the purposes of political power. Nor do I find it difficult to imagine someone egotistical enough to accept a self-serving angelic message at face value.

But is Korihor believable as an atheist? Is his sad tale useful as a morality tale about the nature of unbelief? I don't think so. I think to cast him in this role does in fact make him unbelievable... Which is why I can certainly understand Holly's reaction to this story...

I find it instructive that early Christians were condemned by the Roman Empire as "atheists." Everybody is an unbeliever in relation to something else. And it seems to me the world today is dominated by religious perspectives that we should consider it a failure of compassion and a whole lot of other virtues not to at least question, much less disbelieve...

Quiet Song said...

I have encountered what could be described as pseudo-aetheists. It's a philosophy that suits their needs at the moment. That type of behavior has little to do with any type of moral or philosophical grounding, it is based on sheer opportunism. With that they may indeed have more in common with Korihor than the aetheists you speak of.

J G-W said...

QS - I've seen examples of that as well -- individuals who behave in an abusive, egotistical manner and justify their behavior with atheistic rhetoric. But then, I'm also aware of individuals who behave in an abusive, egotistical manner and justify their behavior with religious rhetoric..!

Earlier this weekend, I was reflecting on the parable of the wheat and the tares. I think the more scriptural understanding of the role of belief is to look at how people behave. That tells us far more about the nature of their belief than what they profess.

J G-W said...

Daniel - I agree, that attitude (that atheists secretly know there is a God but are deliberately denying it) is obnoxious and harmful. To use it as a rationale to treat atheists with intolerance is even worse...

To assert it is also, I think, a denial of a basic Christian principle -- that we cannot judge and that no one knows the heart but God.

MoHoHawaii said...

I think the more scriptural understanding of the role of belief is to look at how people behave. That tells us far more about the nature of their belief than what they profess.

As you've heard me say before (and these are words to live by):

Lack of faith, without works, is dead.

:- )

Big hugs.

J G-W said...

MHH: :)

Quiet Song said...

Agreed as to the pseudo-religionists.

Dedicated Servers said...

that` a an interesting post and useful!!!

alan said...

(Sorry for the spamming of your blog with deleted comments...not sure what happened there.)

Secular humanists and rationalist materialists typically condemn belief in a God who has at various times commanded slavery, genocide, crusades against unbelievers, and the oppression of women[...]From a scriptural perspective, that God is "the God of this world," Satan wearing a god-like mask, resorting to pious postures[...]The denunciation of such a God would actually be less the work of a Korihor, and more the work of modern day prophets.

And gay people? Would you go so far as to say Satan is what tempts Christians to treat gay people badly? And what do we mean by "badly?" Abusive? Or would we include the spirit/body divide? What exactly is the boundary between Satan's work and "just a little misunderstanding"? I think what we see in the eras listed above are a multitude of positions; reducing it to a war between God and Satan seems reductionist.

In my novel, when the protagonist's mother suggests that gay people exist to tempt everyone else to act righteously, the protagonist responds: "I don't exist as a test for everyone else." Then, the mother says: "That's not the only reason gay people exist. They have their own tests" (referring to not acting on their attractions). At this point the protagonist goes off on this mother and says: "Mom, you're the one being tested because you have a gay son. If God isn't testing you, then let me assure you that I am!" In other words, it isn't God that ended slavery, and it isn't necessarily a belief in God that ended slavery, or even God working through people, IMO. It's about personal and public interactions that frankly, aren't complete in any sense. If we think, for example, about labor situations in the world of global capital, "slavery" isn't far from the mind.

J G-W said...

Alan - I don't see the trials of this world in terms of a war between God and Satan. If it were, the war would be over and God would have won already.

A better analogy is one that C.S. Lewis used of living in occupied territory, waiting for the allies to come liberate us.

Nor do I see the primary problem one of human beings succumbing to Satanic temptations. The fundamental problem is related to darkness/misinformation. And the way out is enlightenment, which is more a problem of the heart than of the mind.

Gay folks are no different from straight folks in the sense that we too are born into a world full of darkness, and must struggle with darkness both in ourselves and others. We have to learn to see people in a different light, as "children of light," so to speak, just like everyone else. The fundamental problem we face is no different from the fundamental problem everyone faces.

When we justify cruelty or mistreatment of another human being because we believe that it is expected/condoned by God, we're in the service of dark forces... When we begin to see through the facades that encourage us to belittle and dehumanize each other, we begin to liberate ourselves from the forces of darkness.

alan said...

My philosophy of ethics course is coming back to me. What you're saying sounds like St Augustine. The problem of evil is resolved by understanding evil as that which is away from God, rather than the two forces (good and evil) being symmetrical. Thing is, though, I see ideas like "natural man" to be laden with this idea of being away from God, so that an idea of goodness often comes before the experience of it.

Take gay marriage for example. Gays will say, "It's just love! What's wrong with love?!" This is heard by, say, Mormon prophets, but dismissed because of a belief that the love is somehow not good enough because it is "away from God." The love is therefore corrupt in some fashion. I can't help but think that part of the "facade" of which you speak is in the theological framing. I guess this why you say "heart" instead of "mind." The heart is open to other people's experiences whereas the mind is stuck in the realm of ideas. (I still think this sets up a troublesome binary, but it'll do for now...)

J G-W said...

Yes, theological frames are part of the problem. Especially when we absolutize frames that can, at best, be only contingent analogies.

Enlightenment comes in authentic encounters with God/the other.

J G-W said...

That's why I think that atheists frequently perform a valuable service, by tearing down false frames, and pointing out the absurdities in human god constructs...

alan said...

Enlightenment comes in authentic encounters with God/the other.

If only people were more willing to encounter human others. Like this whole Qu'ran burning seems like as soon as this conservative white pastor actually met a Muslim, he started wavering. Then he says: "I see this as a sign from God." He sounds like an idiot and badly represents theists everywhere. I have no respect for the guy and am pretty fed up with the Islamophobia in this country, which is also rampant in the gay community. Perhaps a conversation can be had between gay Mormons and gay Muslims.

J G-W said...

Amen to that. Count me in on any such discussions.

I consider myself fortunate to live in the first congressional district ever to elect a Muslim representative to the US Congress. The fact of his Islam was never even really an issue in his election (or reelection). I think any potential opponent would know better than to try to make it an issue in this district. (Yay, Minneapolis!)

One of the most eloquent voices in support of gay rights locally here is a Muslim activist named Farheen Hakeem.

And Göran and I have participated in a number of events sponsored by the "Taking Heart" initiative, in which local Muslim community centers and Christian churches worked together to co-sponsor picnics and other social events where Muslims and Christians could meet and get to know one another and learn about each other.

(We live just down the street from a huge, very active Muslim community center.)

So when we heard about this American pastor acting the fool and burning Korans, or about people going gaga about building a mosque near the WTC site, we just scratch our heads. It doesn't sound like the America we live in...

Adi said...

M u i e la iehovisti, mormoni si atei!