Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Curious Case of Korihor

Korihor is a character who turns up in the Book of Mormon in Alma 30.

Korihor is an atheist.  He works hard to try to tell people that they don't have very good reasons to believe what they believe, and maybe they'd better take a good look at their leaders and their beliefs.  He tells them that Christ will not come, because why would you believe someone who says he knows the future?

Korihor ends up having a showdown with Alma.  Korihor welcomes to opportunity for dialogue, and explains why he is trying to get people to doubt the gospel.  Eventually, Korihor keeps saying that he won't believe in god without proof, so Alma gives him proof... he strikes him dumb by god's power!

Here is where the nefarious aspect of Korihor's story comes out.  Alma accuses Korihor of lying about Alma and other church leaders' taking advantage of the people, while in actuality they don't get a dime for their service.  The account seems to support this accusation.  Alma also says "can you prove that there isn't a god?" and Korihor is duped.  Finally, the truth comes out: Korihor had been approached by Satan (in the deceptive guise of an angel) and set on his blasphemous task.  He is the literal, willing servant of Satan, who manages to preach so subtly that even he starts believing his own lies.

Korihor is a very cleverly-made caricature of a skeptic.  Initially, his arguments seems reasonable enough, and he seems to be concerned for the welfare of his fellow citizens.  However, the righteous servants of god soon reveal that he is a fake who is literally in the employ of Satan himself.
The beauty of the Korihor story is that it gives LDS theology a delightful straw-man with which to equate all atheists, skeptics, and critics.  Sure, these people might seem like they are honestly out to make a point, but they are all really just working for Satan for their own selfish purposes.

Now, I can't honestly speak for all atheists, critics, and skeptics.  But I consider myself a skeptic, atheist, and critic of religion, and I haven't seen any angels.  I know some accuse the leaders of the church of taking the money of the church and enjoying their positions of power, but I honestly think that they probably work pretty hard for what they believe is right and correct, and don't get all that wealthy doing it.  I don't find a whole lot of similarity between Korihor and myself.  I'm content to leave those who are not interested in skeptical inquiry alone.  I haven't talked to Satan lately.
But I do happen to agree with Korihor on a few points.  I don't feel that there is sufficient evidence generally available to justify the insistence on the existence of some intelligent, paternal god.  I fear that religious leaders intentionally obfuscate the issues with their rhetoric, though I think that in many cases their intentions are good enough.

The point of Korihor is to show the LDS church that all those who criticize their unquestioning belief must be evil satanists with ulterior motives.  I must be just like Korihor, right?  The thing that makes Korihor really effective is his humanity, his believability as he is introduced in the text.  Subtly and slowly, it is revealed what a real liar he is.  If he had been presented immediately as a satanic man with clear ambitions of power and influence, he would be hard to compare to a lot of skeptics out there, but as he starts off as a more believable character, it is easier to equate actual skeptics with him and then assume that they are hiding similarly-nasty secrets.

All-in-all, the story of Korihor is a master stroke in creating preconceived prejudice against those of a more skeptical nature.


  1. I was a skeptic before I was an exmormon thanks to my Psych 101 (technically 110) class in college. I wonder if teaching skepticism about non-religious ideas would help the cause of skepticism. I think it would. I try to do that with my family because they aren't emotionally attached to some of these ideas... like various random coincidences or whatever.

    Also, I think the apostles actually do get paid quite a bit from book sales at least. They are pretty much guaranteed a paying audience and a distribution channel. All they need to do is assemble some talks in fancy book form and BOOM there's a good chunk of change. Look at what Hinckley did... he even had one of those stupid little quote books. Those guys make bank.

  2. My favorite part about the story of Korihor is that for an account that is supposed to represent actual historical events, it contains lovely anachronisms that destroy the credibility of the text.

    First, there's the bit in verse 44 about the motion of the earth (pre-modern societies consider the earth to be immovable). Then, there's the idea, also in verse 44, that the earth is itself a planet (implied by the closely juxtaposed mention of the earth's motion and the motion of the planets). And, of course, let's not forget the use of writing in verses 51 and 52 to aid a handicapped person communicate (writing is a task performed by specialists in the few pre-modern cultures that have writing; only professional scribes would be literate; you wouldn't just whip out a piece of paper [there was no paper] and scribble a note).

    De-lightful! Not only is Korihor an obvious straw man, the story contains obvious anachronisms that place it in the 19th century!

  3. MOHO - great points! I hadn't even thought to approach it that way in my blog. I honestly love this part of the book, and I think it makes a lot of sense of how Mormons treat non-believers.

  4. Given, the placement of people in the book of mormon is in debate but..consider the following as it relates to MoHo's comment.

    Mayans (2600 BC – 1500 AD)
    The Mayans were a long-lived civilization, which inhabited regions in Central America and southern Mexico. With the study of the stars being heavily linked with their religion, Mayans placed a large emphasis on astronomy. The result of their observations and calculations are compiled in the Dresdan Codex: the Mayan's greatest astronomical accomplishment. This document details the observations of and predictions for solar eclipses, moon phases, positioning of planets including conjunctions, and equinoxes and solstices.

    The Dresdan Codex was 78 pages long, taking up 3.5 metres of paper, and covered observations and predictions over a staggering 3 million year cycle.
    While not all of the predictions are accurate, it is still an impressive accomplishment. This is all the more impressive when you consider that this was done without geometry and trigonometry, and with the belief that the sky was supported by four jaguars, each holding up each corner of the sky.


    Sorry Galileo but you were second. Of course it didn't help that the Spanish decided to burn most of the Mayan books.