Are all religious leaders con men?

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.”


  1. Brock says

    I know others have said it, but thanks again for your “Scopes to Dover” series on IDC. It definitely kept me reading, and I’m sure I’ll be linking others to it for a long time.

    Did you notice the Inside Higher Ed link in yesterday’s Case Daily? The American Association of University Professors weighs in with their opinion on the “academic freedom” issue.
    Two interesting quotes therein from the AAUP:

    “If a private, church-related institution says that to be a member of this faculty, you must believe in the inerrancy of the biblical account of the origins of life, we would scratch our heads on whether it’s going to be very productive in terms of science education, but we wouldn’t say that they have violated academic freedom.”

    “An institution of higher learning should welcome those who offer to bring it new ideas; but there is not evading the substantive question whether the new ideas a candidate offers to bring it really are that — as opposed, perhaps, to mere passing fads or fancies.”

    So it’s interesting that they try to sound neutral on the issue, while fully expecting that the utter scientific void of IDC should and will bear itself out in hiring practices and grants. Any thoughts on that?

    My biggest concern would be that if enough political/religious vitriol was spewn about within enough universities or toward the NIH/NSF, the could overthrow some of the demands of scientific rigor in choosing faculty and funding. Is that just paranoia? Is it wise to just wait and see how the politics bear out, or should such a thing be preempted?

    // Brian Brauchler
    // VP, Campus Freethought Alliance

  2. says


    Thanks for the interesting link, which I had missed.

    It is interesting how these issues keep replaying themselves over and over. In reading the college president and the churches’s statement, I was reminded of William Jennings Bryan’s words in his NYT essay that I wrote about in my Scopes-to-Darwin series.

    My feeling about this particular case is that a private denominational college should be free to hire on the basis of a faith statement if they wish, but this college was really foolish in the way they treated this professor after he was hired. (I am not quite sure about the academic freedom question. I’ll have to look into it.) The only hope for religion is with people who try (futilely, in my opinion) to find accomodation between science and religious beliefs.

    If religious instutions try to force people to make a choice between religion and science, religion will ultimately lose. It always has and always will.

  3. Cindy says

    I think you may be underestimating the power of exaggeration. While very few people are con artists, just about everyone exaggerates, particularly people who believe in supernatural phenomenon. And of course, exaggeration has a retroactive effect on memory.

    Take Jesus. Unlike the earth stopping Old testament miracles, his are pretty unimpressive. Maybe if you were there, his healings looked like a typical faith healer. i.e. Not nearly impressive enough that you’d think a con was going on. Just simple confirmation bias, adrenaline based self-reports, and a few people on the tail of some bell curve if he heals lots of people. These of course look a lot more impressive to a believer through a little exaggeration, and he gets a reputation for being a healer through word of mouth. And then the stories get passed down with more little exaggerations for a hundred years until prototypical stories get written down based on these loose accounts. And some of the biggest miracles are conspicuously missing from the early copies, so the exaggeration must have continued a bit longer until canonization.

    Joseph Smith was almost certainly a con man since he had some previous cons on his record. But just for the sake of argument, could it just be that exaggeration plus a tiny bit of craziness could also explain his actions? (Not clinical craziness, just an energetic imaginative charismatic person who tends to have a short memory.) Say he did some criminal cons in his youth, but considered himself reformed after he had found religion and didn’t see how that was related. Maybe he did a lot of praying and daydreaming about religious themes, and when he talked to other people about them, they thought these ideas/visions were profound in some way since he was a good storyteller. This escalated until he got into the Maroni stories. Up until he stuck his face in a hat, everything he said could be attributed to interpretting weird dreams as divine revelation. At that point, maybe he really believed he was some kind of a prophet that could discovery history/reality through stream of consciousness thinking. (Just like alien abductees, past life fanatics, and astral projection believers.) But to get other people to believe him, he exaggerates with a little white lie about the gold tablets. He has to tell a few other white lies to cover it up, but by and large doesn’t really think about it after that. Past that, it’s back to stream of consciousness “prophesizing” which unsurprisingly has him thinking about women a lot…

    Since you can form a group of people with shared supernatural beliefs with either a con, or genuine but mistaken beliefs, I’m sure there are examples of both in religions and other magical philosophies. I’m sure we’ll never know about Jesus, but maybe somewhere Joseph Smith wrote something down that would shed some light on his intentions. It’s entirely possible that the most respected and loved religious figures were con men, but I just tend to think that may not be the simplest explanation.

  4. says

    Cindy brings up some good points about religious leaders. Since we’ve been talking about Joseph Smith and I know a few things about his history I think it’s worth continuing on these lines.

    As a brief disclaimer, while I have read a good deal into Smith’s life, the following is a combination of memory and speculation. I haven’t recently fact checked this.

    If you cherry-pick certain parts of his life, it’s very easy to believe that Smith was completely cynical. There’s ample evidence that before he got started on religion he was a small time parlor magician and huckster. Then there’s the golden plates (I understand that the blanket story is a little more credible than the hat. I think the hat trick was something he did leading up to the golden plates but not after “discovering” them) and the polygamy (which I believe came many many years later).

    But if you look at his life spent building up the LDS church in the mean time, it’s hard to discount the “good” stuff he did. Particularly in the Book of Mormon which is chalk-full of moral philosophy. When I earlier said he was insane, I really meant in a moral sense. I doubt he was schizophrenic or anything along those lines. In fact, something as common as narcissistic personality disorder often includes a very high skill in rewriting history in your own mind.

    It’s not hard to imagine that when a particularly long “con” started to get twisted up into moral philosophy and religion that Smith would start to include things he actually believed in. And when really good upstanding people including his own family got drawn into the lie, I believe Smith would have started to wonder if there really was something to everything he’d done.

    While no amount of border-line personality disorder would allow Smith to convince himself that he really did see an angel named Moroni and that he once had Golden Plates (in case you’re wondering what happened to them, Smith claimed that God took them to heaven), it wouldn’t be hard for him to convince that he felt “something”, that maybe God really did talk to him, but not in a conventional sense. I think this is what Cindy was talking about.

    And if you’re doing all sorts of great stuff like leading people towards a utopian society, and learning Hebrew and ordaining your friends as priests of God, and reinstating the apostles just like olden times, then isn’t that all for a good cause? ‘It’s better to not think about the everything that happened in the past,’ he might reassure himself, ‘What’s done is done, and God is on my side.’

    It is easy to forget, especially for us scientists, that not everyone routinely puts a lot of stock in ironing out inconsistencies in what they think. It’s particularly typical of certain personality disorders to live with glaring inconsistencies in world-construction.

  5. says

    I think both Jared and Cindy are right that without some measure of self-delusion, such people could not keep up the con for a long time. There has to have developed some form of rationalization as well.

    The passage of time is an important factor too. As Bob points out, Hubbard is widely seen as a con man. maybe because he lived so recently. But despite that, he has strong devotees, showing that people want to believe.

    Also take the process of sainthood in the Catholic church that requires miracles. Currently, Mother Theresa and Pope John Paul II are being considered for it and they are looking at evidence of miracles. In this day and age, people are willing to believe in such things.

    I think that there can be no doubt that people who use religion consistently self-servingly are out and out frauds. I am thinking of Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and the other high-rolling mega-church preachers who seem to be concerned with building personal fortunes and dynasties.

    As for Cindy’s suggestion that Smith may have left behind some incriminating documents, it may be true but if they are found by the Mormon church, they will be suppressed. For example, if the Vatican found some evidence that Jesus never existed, I think they would destroy it. These institutions now exist to perpetuate themselves.

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