I always find it remarkable from sacrament how comfortable we are to ascribe diabolic motives and influence to the actions of others. Perhaps this is because there is a cosmic war between the devils and angels being waged in the air around us to which we are oblivious. If we are being deceived and are under the influence of the devil then can we be held responsible for our actions? If we mistake satanic whisperings for heavenly inspiration then can we be punished for it? If we are simply acting out of obedience to what we perceive as spiritual promptings then can we take any moral credit for it? If God rewards us for our actions then can he reward us if we only do good because he prompts us to do it?
First, let’s discuss Satanic influence and our responsibility. Consider the case of Menocchio, a sixteenth century miller and his confrontation with the inquisition for various heresies. In the book, Cheese and Worms, author Ginzburg explored the reading habits of Menacchio to reconstruct the development of the heretical positions Menocchio advocated. From court recordings, Menacchio was not your typical miller, and the inquisitors were curious as to how a miller with his limited access to books was able to develop the sophisticated critiques of theological positions that he had. As Ginzberg said:
“It seemed impossible to the inquisitors that Menocchio, uninfluenced, should have formulated ideas so different from current ones.”
For instance Menocchio said that he felt that “Baptism is an invention, and priests begin to consume souls even before they are born and continue to devour them even after death.” Ginzberg suggests that Menocchio had deeply internalised the books that he had read and put them through a filter of his own ideas and beliefs. By digesting the books and thinking about the scriptures Menocchio concluded that:
“As for the things in the gospel, I believe that parts of them are true and parts were made up by Evangelists out of their heads, as we see in the passages that one tells in one way and on in another way.” (11)
Menocchio also believed in a cultural relativism recognising that had he been born in a different situation he would have believed differently “since out of many different nations, some believe in one way some in another.” This plurality of beliefs made it difficult for him to know which of the religions were true – if everyone is convinced that they are the one true path to God then how do you judge between them objectively? How can you be sure that your way is the right way when everyone thinks that they are right?
To formulate such contradictory views in provincial France was highly unusual, which was why Menocchio attracted the attention of the inquisition, it was simply remarkable how an unlearned miller develop these ideas. What interested me most, however, was the response that Menocchio gave the inquisition regarding how he obtained these ideas. The most common response he gave was:
“I uttered those words because I was tempted… It was the evil spirit that made me believe those things.”
In suggesting that he was the victim of an evil spirit who deceived him, Menocchio was playing an interesting move. How could the Inquisition punish him for things that he had been deceived into holding? Menocchio’s claim was that he was acting in good faith because he was just listening to the spirit; it was only in hindsight that he realised that it was in fact a clever devil that had fooled him with such heretical thoughts.
Except it was not that simple. Menocchio often contradicted himself, for after suggesting devilish temptations had lead him to these heresies he followed it be saying: “My opinions came out of my head.” While he realised that the ideas were the product of his own thinking and reading, he realised that it contradicted mainstream religious thinking, making it the product of a satanic temptation. So how do we personally know when we are under the influence of Satan and when is it our own thinking? If we, in good faith, think an idea is from God can we be punished for being deceived?
The case of Menocchio has many parallels to the story of Korihor, the famous anti-christ from Alma 30. Korihor is an atheist who works hard to tell people that they don’t have very good reasons to believe what they believe (here is a cool cartoon version of it). He tells them that Christ will not come, because why would you believe someone who says he knows the future? Now many have commented on the fact that Korihor is a caricature of a sceptic used as a straw-man to demonstrate the fact that as members of the LDS church ‘we combat false philosophies with revelation and true doctrine, not academic debate.’ Elder Lund, of the Work and the Glory fame, attempted to use Korihor as an example of how latter-day saints counter the false philosophies of the modern age. As Lund says concerning Korihor:
It teaches a great lesson for our day. No matter how clever, how sophisticated the philosophies of an anti-Christ may seem, they are not true. They are riddled with contradictions, errors, and false assumptions. The gospel, on the other hand, is truth—truth that has stood the test of centuries, truth that can withstand rational examination, truth that is pragmatic and practical, truth that can be confirmed through personal experience.
Now I am going to ignore some of the problems with this statement. Such as how does Elder Lund account for the fact that the gospel is riddled with contradictions and even Mormonism is full of contradictions? Or the contradiction in his own argument, namely, that gospel truth can withstand rational examination and the fact that truth is the product of revelation rather than academic debate. As Lund says the strength of the lesson from Alma is that:
Alma does not get into philosophical debate with Korihor. He doesn’t allow himself to be pulled onto the ground that Korihor tries to define as the area of debate.
How can the gospel truth withstand rational examination (Lund’s assertion) if it is never pulled into a rational philosophical debate? For a more in depth response to Lund’s talk see here.
Let’s look at how Lund uses Korihor to label modern philosophical movements and ideas as being part of an anti-christ philosophical system and how can we tell if we are deceived by a devil? Lund suggests that modern philosophers are like Korihor in that they are mouth pieces for Satan to spread his lies and the sophisticated philosophies of men. As a philosophy student I spend a lot of time amongst philosophers, who are often sincere and genuine people seeking to find truth and refine our ideas about the world. Obviously, some of them teach and believe things that go against the teachings of the church, but this is a product of rational thought and reasoning. They do not share the world view taught in LDS churches. This makes me sceptical of the passage in which Korihor admits to being deceived by the devil:
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.
Was Korihor actually deceived by an angel or was this an attempt to avoid responsibility for his actions by distancing his own personal involvement like Menocchio? Korihor’s critique of God and religion is a fairly sophisticated argument for the Book of Mormon. Surely he would have questioned where an angel came from. If you don’t believe in a God then you are not likely to believe in angels. This inconsistency undermines Korihor’s credibility because he really knows that there is a God, but he is just teaching that there is no God for power and influence. However, this whole passage is out of place in the context of the story. Can we really imagine Richard Dawkins meeting Thomas S. Monson and then saying at the end of the interview (after President Monson has failed to engage with any of his points but has simply born his testimony) “You are right there is a God and I have been deceived by the devil into thinking that there is no God”? It’s ludicrous to imagine it.
This leads me to question just how accurate the dialogue is between Alma and Korihor as being an authentic narration of events as they actually happened. If it was an attempt by Korihor to limit his punishment then he was not very successful as he was trampled to death by the so-called Christians despite recanting his views. If he really did see a devil disguised as an angel, then how can we be sure that any angelic ministration is from God and not the devil? Presumably, ancient people in the scriptures didn’t have Joseph Smiths handy handshake test to determine between true and evil spirits.
Whichever way we look at it, the account in Alma is full of inconsistencies. If Korihor believes in God really and is deceived by what he thinks is an angel, then why does he believe the angel when he says that their is no God? Perhaps this is another attack on the sceptics suggesting that they are stupid enough to believe a messenger from God when the messenger says there is no God.
A third option is entirely possible: that Korihor’s deception was later added by writers to explain the genesis of Korihor’s arguments. In Menocchio’s case, the Inquisitors were more prepared to accept that he was tempted by the devil than to accept that he could rationally and reasonably arrive at them through his own cognitive faculties. Were the ecclesiastical leaders in Korihor’s day also inclined to suggest that scepticism is closely entwined with satanic deception? My purpose here is not to highlight the problems of construction of narratives in the Book of Mormon here, and how it bears the imprint of historical revisionism but consider what these examples highlight about attributing devilish temptations to actions.
In Harry Potter there is a spell called the Imperius curse, which allows the wizard who casts the spell to control another person. This was used by the evil wizard Voldemort to get others to do evil acts. This created a problem for the Ministry of Magic – how do you punish people who claim that they did their evil acts under the influence of a powerful evil force? But how do you determine the extent to which they were acting under the influence of another and to what extent are they using it to avoid personal responsibility?
Is my criticism of leaders and certain doctrines the product of my own mental reasoning or am I under the power of unseen demons? Is my liberal attitude a product of being under the power of the devil or a product of my education?
- How do you feel about the attribution to satanic motives to other peoples actions?
- Do you believe that we are in a cosmic battle in which demons and angels battle for our souls?
- How accountable are we for our actions and beliefs if we come under the influence of Satan like Korihor?