In his comment to my earlier posting on Romney and Mormonism, Jared says “[Mormon founder Joseph] Smith wasn’t just a con man (which is basically how he started). He came to really believe the things he made up, and was probably insane.”
This is an interesting point worth exploring. The founders of religions tend to make extraordinary claims such as god talking directly to them, having the power to work miracles, and so on. If we dismiss this as impossible, the remaining options are: Did they genuinely believe the things they said (i.e., they were delusional at best and psychotic at worst)? Or were they outright charlatans, cynically using tricks and smooth talk and their personal charisma to fool the suckers?
Christopher Hitchens in one of the best passages his book God is Not Great (2007, p. 165) discusses this point:
Professor Daniel Dennett and his supporters have attracted a great deal of criticism for their “natural science” explanation of religion. Never mind the supernatural, argues Dennett, we may discard that while accepting that there have always been those for whom “belief in belief” is a good thing in itself. Phenomena can be explained in biological terms. In primitive times, is it not possible that those who believed in the shaman’s cure had a better morale as a result, and thus a slight but significantly higher chance of actually being cured? “Miracles” and similar nonsense to one side, not even modern medicine rejects this thought. And it seems possible, moving to the psychological arena, that people can be better off believing in something than in nothing, however untrue that something may be.
Some of this will always be disputed among anthropologists and other scientists, but what interests me and always has is this: Do the preachers and prophets also believe, or do they too just “believe in belief”? Do they ever think to themselves, this is too easy? And do they then rationalize the trick by saying that either (a) if these wretches weren’t listening to me they’d be in even worse shape; or (b) that if it doesn’t do them any good then it still can’t be doing them much harm? Sir James Frazer, in his famous study of religion and magic The Golden Bough, suggests that the novice witch doctor is better off if he does not share the illusions of the ignorant congregation. For one thing, if he does take the magic literally he is much more likely to make a career-ending mistake. Better by far to be a cynic, and to rehearse the conjury, and to tell himself that everybody is better off in the end. [Mormon founder Joseph] Smith obviously seems like a mere cynic, in that he was never happier than when using his “revelation” to claim supreme authority, or to justify the idea that the flock should make over their property to him, or to sleep with every available woman. There are gurus and cult leaders of that kind born every day. Smith must certainly have thought it was too easy to get innocent wretches like Martin Harris to believe everything he told them, especially when they were thirsty for just a glimpse of that mouthwatering golden trove. But was there a moment when he also believed that he did have a destiny, and was ready to die to prove it? In other words, was he a huckster all the time, or was there a pulse inside him somewhere? The study of religion suggests to me that, while it cannot possibly get along without great fraud and also minor fraud, this remains a fascinating and somewhat open question.
Hitchens also makes the point that at the time of Smith, there “were dozens of part-educated, unscrupulous, ambitious, fanatical men like Smith in the Palmyra, New York, area at that epoch, but only one of them achieved “takeoff”", partly because “Smith had great natural charm and fluency: what Max Weber called the “charismatic” part of leadership.”
I suspect that Smith’s story is fairly typical of that type of person and applies to the story of Jesus, Muhammad, and the Old Testament Jewish prophets. All of them also lived in times that were more credulous of the claims of people possessing magical powers. Remember that the arts of magic and mind-reading have been around for a long time, available to con men to use to impress people eager to believe in the existence of mystical unseen powers that could be harnessed by a chosen few. The founders of the older religions are likely cut from the same cloth as Joseph Smith except that those stories have had a much longer time to get cleaned up by their followers once they realized that the rewards promised to them (like the second coming of Jesus) were not going to occur in their own lifetimes but in some indefinite future. They had to dig in for the long haul and get their followers used to the fact that supernatural events were no longer to be expected as everyday occurrences.
There is the possibility though that at some point these “prophets” may have begun to wonder to themselves, “Can it really be this easy to fool all these people? Surely they must realize that I am a fraud?” From there, their thoughts could easily shift to “Maybe these people were meant to be fooled. Maybe god does exist and is shutting their eyes to the fact that I am using trickery in order to use me to achieve some larger purpose.” Thus, after deluding others, they become (at least partially) self-delusional, believing their own nonsense, thus making themselves even more effective as “prophets” while retaining enough of a sense of reality to avoid making a “career-ending mistake.” Like good magicians, they would restrict their displays of “supernatural” power and “revelations” to carefully controlled situations where they could set things up in advance, sometimes with the aid of accomplices, so that the gullible would be impressed, all the while persuading themselves that they were doing it all for the greater good or for god, not just for themselves.
That is the most charitable gloss that I can put on the founders of religions. The only alternative is that they were totally cynical frauds.
POST SCRIPT: Bart Simpson, prophet
“The little stupid differences [between religions] are nothing next to the big stupid similarities.”