So, also on the subject of Joseph Smith and No Man Knows My History, I happened to read this interview on the PBS site of one Michael Coe, an anthropologist and expert on the Maya, who thus knows a fair bit about the people who inhabited the same part of Mexico and Central American where Mormon scholars say the events of the ‘Book of Mormon’ took place…

… and honestly, I find it a bit weird. Coe’s a secular scholar who’s also read Brodie, and who also happens to know as a consequence of his field of study how utterly flaky Smith’s bizarre claims about North American prehistory are revealed to be against the actual archaeological evidence, and who concludes, obviously enough, that Smith was full of it. Furthermore, and kinda interestingly, he mirrors quite exactly my supposition on Smith’s thinking, and, more generally, my suspicion about how characters of this ilk may frequently proceed:

I really think that Joseph Smith, like shamans everywhere, started out faking it. I have to believe this — that he didn’t believe this at all, that he was out to impress, but he got caught up in the mythology that he created. This is what happens to shamans: They begin to believe they can do these things. It becomes a revelation: They’re speaking to God. And I don’t think they start out that way; I really do not…


So far, so perfect. Yes, indeed, that’s probably very frequently exactly how it goes, I do just as strongly suspect*…

But then Coe also says, of Smith, things like: ‘I think he was one of the greatest people who ever lived’, and ‘my respect for him is unbounded…’, on the basis, apparently, that, hey, he actually carried this whole crazy thing off well enough that his movement succeeded.

I don’t know howinhell I could ever grok that particular sentiment. I mean, seriously? He was ‘great’? And this garners ‘respect’? Even ‘unbounded respect’? What?

Look. If you ask me, the guy was a cheesy, incredibly unprincipled little con man who happened to have a talent for lying to everyone consistently enough that he essentially got away with it, or well enough with enough people that the religion he thus founded outlived him. Further, a cheesy, incredibly unprincipled little con man who, in fact, rather than ever admit he’d been having people on took his con to absolutely ridiculous and appalling lengths, compelling gullible people to sell their farms and abandon their former lives in support of his movement. Furthermore, yes, his own grip on reality was plastic enough that he probably did eventually manage to convince even himself** of his own spectacularly risible line. That was his achievement.

I mean, I’d like, charitably, to imagine maybe Coe is going on about this ‘admiration’ with a certain eye to strategy, seeing as, sure, he’s also saying the guy was completely full of it at the outset, and maybe he figures that’s how he might blunt some outrage that might otherwise follow, and actually get his interview published, here…

But whether or not that’s the case, putting it plainly: there is no place for ‘respect’ here, except maybe the technical admiration of a forensic scientist who has to acknowledge the murderer is, okay, giving credit where credit is due, here, actually pretty skilled at killing people…

… or, to construct another such simile, to me, this is a bit like saying you respect the cow in which a particularly virulent prion first formed. Great. We now have a whole new nasty and effective infectious agent running through the herds of the world, and you, Bessie, gave it its start. Moo proudly, my dear.

… a major difference being: the cow doesn’t do it on purpose, I suppose. Not that this much help’s Smith’s case, here.

Oh, also, singling this out for your attention, also from that interview, re one Tom Ferguson, a formerly believing Mormon archaeologist who finally got wise after the whole ‘Book of Abraham’ fiasco***, but who lived the rest of his life never admitting as much publicly—essentially because he was caught in the same ‘not so tender trap’ of social ties contingent on the suppression of public apostasy or dissent Dennett and LaScola describe in their study of non-believing Christian clergy (PDF)—we have:

But the terrible, sad thing was that here he is in Mormon culture with his family, as a churchgoer, and all the social events and good things that are part of a whole Mormon way of life he would lose if he turned his back publicly and openly. And he never did. He went to his grave as a unbeliever but still feeling that the Mormon way of life was the best and not giving it up. So it was a total disjunction between these two things that must have really torn him up.

Oh, I bet it did.

And it’s the acts of cons like ole’ Joe who set up that—I suspect actually quite common—general misery.

(So: thanks so much, Joe, you bloody sleaze, you.)

Moving back a little closer to the point of this thing: I also have to make a comment on casting Smith as a ‘shaman’ that I’m rather of two minds:

First, actually, I find this a rather brilliant insight. There’s so much about the man’s life that fits this category of social behaviour exceptionally well, if a little bit oddly, given the 19th century culture he sprung from does have some differences from the tribal milieu we usually associate with such phenomena. And you could do worse than to speculate the figures like him do succeed because in some sense humans or human societies are rather wired to let them.

With or without that ancillary thought, however, I’m pleasantly impressed. These anthropologists, they got them some brains, they do.

Secondly, however, if the realization that such figures have been so ubiquitous in human culture is the reason Coe (or anyone else) expresses ‘respect’ for Smith as having been an awfully successful one (as opposed to generally being appalled at what an utterly unconscionable con he would happily pull in that guise), I don’t so much see how that follows, exactly, either. And there’s a caution I really feel I have to express about that particular insight.

Yes, the social role of the shaman is ancient and ubiquitous. Such figures crop up throughout cultures, in tribal ones uncontroversially, and you could even (as Coe does here) frame more recent figures as fitting in the category as well. But if you take from this (as I’ve seen done) that somehow this implies they were ever or even, in fact, remain a necessity, this is going a bit far.

Yes, I think that conjecture of necessity, where I’ve seen it, is a bit naive. And, frankly, it doth look an awful lot like a rationalization, too, in the contemporary world, especially. Put a bit baldly: that something is so common does not on its own imply any kind of utility—plenty of downright nasty pathogens were once ubiquitous; the fact that so many people once suffered from it does not at all somehow imply polio must somehow be useful. That our societies have absorbed and lived with such figures and the movements they spawn, this fact no more recommends them to us than does the fact that there are any number of bits of viral DNA surviving in our genomes suggest we should be happy to have any given virus around.

Furthermore, about that rationalization angle: yes, I do rather strongly suspect people make those apologiae for religions because they’re ubiquitous, all right, but not because they’ve really any good reasons for thinking this ubiquity implies utility. They offer these defenses because religions are powerful and difficult to unseat and deeply entrenched within and entwined around the institutions of our various societies, and coming out and saying: ‘look, generally, their founders were manipulative little parasites and the cosmologies they imagined as a means towards their various ends were complete bunkum’ is likely to make you enemies who may be in a position to make your life miserable.

Note also that whether shamanism in tribal cultures or the religions of larger cultures ever had any utility in their respective societies is rather a different question from whether they still do now, and both are separate questions from whether there’s really much to admire about any single shaman, let alone this one in particular. Re the former question: I would say that I do suspect state religions, nasty as they frequently were (and nasty as they remain, especially where they retain the power to punish apostasy with mob violence or even the machinery of the state), may just have had a stabilizing effect on monarchies in particular, and that may be one of the reasons you could argue they weren’t all bad… If you also can argue that absent monarchies we’d have had still nastier, less stable absolutisms less friendly to developing and building codified systems of law… And if you focus on those societies in which those eventually did evolve into systems with some respect for human rights and upon which framework was built more egalitarian systems following the enlightenment****…

But note how many ifs are in that conjecture. And note also: even if you can grant that, it still does not follow from this we still actually want them around. That they may have been better than the alternative in their day doesn’t mean we should still be celebrating them as some kind of brilliant idea anymore than we should still be using dynamite for mining and for building roads, with all its inherent hazards, when there now exist far safer alternatives.

And re that latter question, let’s not lose sight of this: fascinating as it may be that Smith can so easily be understood as stepping so smoothly right into this ancient role, he was still a bald-faced liar. The people he drew into his schemes often suffered enormously, guaranteed again and again and again that the god had spoken to Smith, that this disembodied voice only he could hear had, apparently, indicated to him it was his command these followers should sell their farm and/or move to Missouri or some damn thing, and that their prosperity would thereby be guaranteed by the deity, somehow, at the end of the rainbow.

And he did not know this. Whether he’d convinced himself it was true by the point he’d made any single such claim we can only guess at, but he did not know this. He was making it up, same as any con does, whether he knew it by then or not. And the people to whom he gave such guarantees were in no way assured they actually would so profit from it. And as yet another illustration of what misery this can make, if you want another modern figure properly parallel to Smith, take Harold Camping, for instance…

Yeah, Camping. Remember that guy? Predicted the end of the world in 2011? Didn’t happen, and a lot of people were rather embarrassed…

… and, frankly, they were the lucky ones if all they were was embarrassed… Seeing as some of ‘em had, indeed, quit their jobs and spent all their money on the assumption the old bugger would actually be right this time…

And yes, I think the comparison has some validity. As, yes, that was part of Smith’s line, too, and probably part of how he did so compel his followers to suffer as they did for the movement. This notion they were living in the end times, that things were winding up and the god was a-comin’ any minute, that was a big part of his game. And if we accept (again, I think very validly) that Smith was in social/anthropological terms very much a ‘shaman’, we have to realize that the self-styled apocalyptic ‘prophet’ who variously brings his followers’ lives to ruin***** is a notable subcategory of those, and a rather common one, and apparently long has been.

And honestly, how we still have ‘respect’ for such figures, when we can be properly appalled at, say, Bernie Madoff and his Ponzi schemes, I can hardly fathom. Unless, indeed, it’s yet another manifestation of some conjectured wiring that predisposes us to make excuses for anyone who gets excitable around the campfire and starts insisting some god or other is speaking to him from out of the smoke.

I dunno. If that is the case, however, I really have to say: let’s see if we can’t break that habit, already.

*And as a slight aside I’d add there’s probably a similar process at work in at least some of those who otherwise belong to religions, not just the founders: tho’ in them it’s more that what starts as a social thing or a matter of familal duty becomes more and more internalized, the longer they belong to the group. They mouth the words initially as a matter of necessity, but gradually, the need to rationalize their behaviour and thus align their cognition with it—or, shorter, the compulsion that follows from the general discomfort of cognitive dissonance—edges them toward ‘believing’, in some fashion.

**I’d add that there’s an ethical question here for anyone who follows that path: just because you believe it now because you lied to yourself and everyone else long enough that you had to: does this now somehow also make you less a liar?

And me, I think I have to say to that question: no. Not. At. All.

***If you haven’t heard of this bit, it makes for rather amusing reading. One of the more conveniently blatant examples of a self-styled ‘prophet’ getting caught in an out-and-out howler.

****And remember also that state religions weren’t and aren’t always exactly friendly to such reforms.

*****Or even ends them, and see also ‘The Order of the Solar Temple’, ‘mongst others.