Representatives of Atheist groups this morning called upon the President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) to retract statements he made over the weekend against non-believers, and to call off his "new battle" against Atheism.
In a joint press release to the national media, Ellen Johnson, the President of American Atheists, and Orin Tyson of American Atheist Veterans, charged the Mormon leader with "slandering the 10-15% of Americans who profess no religious belief."
The controversy began on Sunday when LDS President Gordon B. Hinckley addressed the 78th National Convention of the American Legion which was meeting in Salt Lake City, Utah. In a speech to Legionaires at the Mormon Tabernacle, Hinckley praised those "who have been defenders of our liberty at great costs," a reference to the nation's veterans, and then warned that "their sacrifices may be in vain unless the nation turns itself again to God."
Hinckley admonished the Legionaires that "As you once knew so well, there are no atheists in foxholes." According to news reports, including a story in the Salt Lake Tribune, he then warned that "those battles are over and another battle goes on."
"The new battle is one against atheism," noted the Tribune. Orin "Spike" Tyson, Director of the American Atheist office in Austin, Texas and national commander of American Atheist Veterans, expressed concern over Hinckley's statement, and added: "I hate to tell him, but he was never in MY foxhole, or in any of the other tens of thousands of Atheist foxholes in Vietnam." Mr. Tyson is a decorated vet and an Atheist, with military honors that include Purple Hearts, Bronze Stars, Presidential Unit Citation and the Cross of Gallantry. In a separate letter to the Salt Lake City Tribune, Tyson added that the remarks by President Hinckley "...have insulted me and thousands of Atheist veterans."
The Utah Director of American Atheists, Chris Allen, also criticized the remarks of the LDS elder, and charged that "Hinckley has picked up where Pat Buchanan left off four years ago at the Republican convention."
"Both were using religion to divide our society," said Allen. "Both are vilifying Americans who's only crime is not believing in their idea of a god."
Transcript of Press Release from AMERICAN ATHEISTS and AMERICAN ATHEIST VETERANS... September 2, 1996
Two Atheist organizations criticized the bigoted and hate-filed comments made by the President of the Mormon Church (LDS) in a talk delivered September 1 before the National Convention of the American Legion, which included criticism of non-belief and the old canard that "As you know, there are not Atheists in foxholes."
LDS head Gordon B. Hinckley praised those "who have been defenders of our liberty at great cost," but he admonished his audience that "another battle goes on." The Salt Lake Tribune, in covering the addresses, noted: "The new battle is one against atheism."
Hinckley's remarks drew an immediate response from Ellen Johnson, President of American Atheists, a national group representing Atheists and state-church separationists. "Mr. Hinckley is slandering the 10-15% of Americans who profess no religious beliefs." She added that the remarks did not surprise her, "...in light of the Mormon record concerning women, blacks, gays and other social groups who don't pass the LDS religious-litmus test for social approval and equality."
Regarding Hinckley's "no Atheists in foxholes" remarks, Johnson added: "One thing is for certain, there aren't any clergy there because they insist on exempting themselves and staying out of foxholes." Orin S. Tyson, National Commander of American Atheist Veterans declared: "I hate to tell him, but he was never in MY foxhole, or in any of the other tens of thousands of Atheist foxholes in Vietnam." The veteran noted that he is an Atheist, and has military honors including Purple Hearts, Bronze Stars, Presidential Unit Citations and the Cross of Galantry. In a letter to Salt Lake City newspapers, Mr. Tyson said that the remarks by the LDS President "have insulted me and thousands of Atheist veterans."
Both Atheist representatives also criticized Hinckley's statement that "Many of society's ills can be blamed on a failure to acknowledge god." Ms. Johnson noted that Hinckley obviously hasn't been paying attention to the epidemic of sexual crimes committed both here and around the world, by the clergy who are professionally religious.
Mr. Tyson agreed and added: "If Hinckley were right then why is so much of the world embroiled in religious strife?"
Both Johnson and Tyson declared that they are sick and tired of being the currently fashionable "niggers" of the nineties, by every other religious bigot in America.
(The following press release was issued this morning by Chris Allen, Utah Director for American Atheists and the Society of Separationists.)
In his attack on secularism and in his image of a war with atheism, Hinckley has picked up where Pat Buchanan left off four years ago at the Republican convention. Both are using religion to divide our society. Both are vilifying Americans whose only crime is not believing in their idea of a god.
It's an old ploy of religious demogogues -- blame a scapegoat and you can kill two birds with one stone. Just blame the people who disagree with you for the ills of the world and you can denigrate them at the same time as you inspire your followers to give you more support. This is particularly upsetting for those of us who really are atheists. We get enough discrimination against us from the Utah theocracy as it is.
Hinckley views every effort to achieve separation of state and church as an atheist attack. As he sees it, a government that is neutral with respect to religion is atheistic and actually hostile to religion. He certainly gets his way in Utah -- no danger of religious neturality springing up here.
As an example of government hostility to religion, Hinckley points to a new law in New Jersey removing "so help me God" from courtroom oaths. I invite him to look into the U.S. Constitution for guidance as to our founding fathers' intent. Article II section 1 specifies the exact oath of office to be given to the President, and it does not contain "so help me God." In fact, aside from a reference to "the year of our Lord" in the date, the Constitution makes no reference to a god at all. If there's a war being waged here, it's a war by Hinckley and his kind against historical truth.
I charge that religion itself, and Christianity in particular, is responsible for the ills of this world. James Madison noted as much in 1784 in his famous "Memorial and Remonstrance" (Section 7):
"During almost fifteen centuries, has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What have been its fruits? ... superstition, bigotry and persecution."
Bigotry is a core value of Christianity. You can see it in the First Commandment. It is the opposite of the First Amendment. The First Commandment demands intolerance to the worship of other gods, and the First Amendment demands that government be tolerant of religious diversity. The fruits of the First Commandment are visible today in Belfast, Beirut and Bosnia.
Our Right To Question Is A "Secondary Target" In Hinckley's Attack... Opinion by Conrad F. Goeringer
While many Americans know about groups such as the Christian Coalition, or the political activities of the Roman Catholic Church, few are familiar with the doctrines and practices of the Church of Latter-day Saints, or Mormons. Based upon the fabricated tales of Joseph Smith (1805-1844), the Saints or LDS have prospered to become one of the world's fastest growing religions, and already exercise considerable economic and political power in the western U.S. Indeed, the Mormon presence in Utah has resulted in an on-going series of First Amendment violations -- everything from government aid to Mormon schools and seminaries, to scams involving church businesses.
The religion is a variant of Christianity, in that it accepts the divine status of Jesus Christ. But where Christian sects rely to varying degrees on the authority of the New and Old Testament along with conveniently-time "revelations" from above, LDS doctrine fuses those texts with the Book of Mormon, a fantasy-tale concoted by Smith as a young man. In his essay, "The Mormon Book of Abraham," linguistic scholar Frank Zindler wrote:
"When young, Smith claimed he had a magic 'seer stone,' a stone with which he could see inside hills and beneath the surface of the ground to inspect for buried treasures and enchantments. The seer stone became transformed into the biblical "urim and thummin" with which he later claimed he could 'translate' any language -- including 'reformed Egyptian', the imaginary language in which his Jewish Indians supposedly had written their history. A locked box held what Smith claimed to be the gold plates bearing this reformed Egyptian Chaldee Jewish American Indian history."
Smith dictated his "sacred revelations" to a man named Martin Harris, a "secretary" to was either a delusion fool or a con-artist. Smith sat in a small room divided into two sections by means of a blanket hung from a rope. Notes Zindler: "Smith would pretend to be translating aloud from the plates and would dictate The Book of Mormon to his secretary...Harris sat on the other side of the blanket, afraid to peek at the plates for fear he would be striken with the plague, and the scab, and hemorrhoids, and the botch of Egypt. After many days of such inventive labor, 116 pages of manuscript had been written -- all of it supposedly translated by divine guidance by means of the magical seer stone."
The tale of the "revealed manuscript" and "gold plates" becomes even more incredible and convoluted, but Smith had put to paper a combination of foklore, yarns, tall-tales, quasi Masonic doctrine, and scraps of embellished ancient history, including metaphors and themes from other religious rantings including the Christian Bible. In 1830 the book was published at Palmyra, New York, and in a few short years Smith had a following of credulous believers -- his own home-brewed religious cult.
Mormon hostility to Atheism, secularism and doubt of any kind is rooted in a number of theological texts, including the story of a Smith-invented character from his pseudo-history named Korihor.
Korihor is a non-believer and intellectual skeptic who poses questions such as "How do you know what is true?" Some of his doubts resemble the epistemological questions in other writings, including those of Lucretius Carus (?96-55 bce) who authored "De Rerum Natura" (The Nature of Things); indeed, Korihor remarks that "ye cannot know of things which ye do not see."
In LDS doctrine, Korihor is not only epistemologically incorrect in accepting reason and rejecting faith and divine revelation -- he is, more importantly, a tool of the devil. In this respect, the Mormon view of Atheism and skepticism resembles the position of many Christian writers, who see non-belief as simply a "trick" or "deception" by satan. What for Atheists is a matter of philosophical disagreement becomes, for many religionists, a kind of epistemological "conspiracy theory." Believers are assured that any doubts concerning religious doctrine, including the existence of supernatural entities ("god", "angels", "devils", "hell") should not be considered on their own merits, but as artifacts of diabolical manipulation. It is the doubt which is the illusion, not that which is doubted.
A July 1992 article in an official LDS publication called "Ensign" by Gerald Lund titled "Countering Korihor's Philosophy" warns Mormon faithful against the temptations of intellectual skepticism. Korihor "rejects prophecy because prophecy deals with the future, and you cannot 'see', or experience, the future with the physical senses." Lund then assets that "There are a number of corollaries, or inferences, that flow out of Korihor's fundamental philosophy..."
Among these "corollaries" is the belief that epistemological doubts concerning religious teaching serve as a tool for Satan to "destroy the children of God."
"Why would Satan care about such things as our view of metaphysics and epistemology?", asks Lund.
"If we accept the assumption (sic) that there is no super-natural reality, then it logically follows that there is no God. If that is the case, then man is the supreme being. It also follows that if there are no eternal realities, then there are no eternal consequences for man's actions..."
While Atheists and non-believer ethicists may disagree with how Lund extrapolates his conclusions, it is easy to miss his central thesis and interpretation of Korihor -- namely, than manifestations of doubt (and certainly Atheism) are not legitimate intellectual predispositions, but merely reflections of "deception" and "trickery" by god's supernatural counterpart and bad-guy rival, satan. While Lund does not specifically mention Atheism, the "Ensign" piece does refer to the "Humanist Manifesto II" and its declaration that: "We believe that traditional dogmatic or authoritarian religions that place revelation, God, ritual, or creed above human needs and experience do a disservice to the human species..." Lund goes on to cite another "Humanist" paragraph: "Science affirms that the human species is an emergence from natural evolutionary forces. As far as we know, the total personality is a function of the biological organism transacting in a social and cultural context."
Lund also echoes Church admonitions about even debating with non-believers: in the story of Korihor, for instance, the skeptic is physically seized and dragged before officials who then call upon the prophet Alma. Writes Lund:
"The first thing to note 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. There is a great lesson in that. We combat false philosophies with revelation and true doctrine, not academic debate."
Even more chilling is the contention that Korihor -- the symbolic icon of skepticism and inquiry -- is both a tool of the devil, and something worse.
"In effect, Alma says to Korihor: 'You know that we don't profit from our service in the Church, but you say we glut ourselves on the labor of the people. Therefore I say you deliberately twist the truth.' It all comes down to one irrefutable conclusion: Korihor is a liar."
Smith's incredible tale about Korhior has shaped LDS perceptions about
doubt, Atheism, and even the validity of secular institutions. It is
also a tale which has striking parallels with stories in the Old
Testament concerning those who "doubt" prophetic figures such as Moses,
or even Jehovah himself. In Smith's account, the "Zoramites" -- the
object of missionary endeavor by the believer Alma and his sons -- end up
killing Korihor, and bask in their new found faith and religiosity. Lund
notes that prior to their proselytization by Alma:
"They 'had fallen into great errors.'
"They had rejected the traditions that they felt were 'handed down...by the childishness of their fathers.'
"They refused to 'believe in things to come, which they knew nothing about.'
"They did not want to be 'led away after the foolish traditions of our brethren,' which they believed did 'bind them down to a belief in Christ'."
The "demonization" of non-belief, skepticism and Atheism in Mormon doctrine seems to reflect a tendency found in other religious systems as well. Historians and writers have noted the disturbing penchant of Christianity to "demonize" groups such as Jews, gays and women. Even modern-day Muslims must confront the notion that non-Islamists are "infidels." And within certain Christian sects like the Reform Church, there is an on-going debate on the status of "non-believers" and the problematic question of whether or not they may be "saved." Groups such as the Southern Baptist Convention seem to be shunning the ecumenical call for diversity and tolerance, and embarking on an aggressive proelytization of Jews and others whose souls are considered to be in need of immediate salvation.
For Atheists -- indeed, even a wider constituency of doubters, skeptics and possibly "honest" religious seekers -- the issue involves far more than "trickery" and "deception" by satan. The right to question (and, ultimately, accept or reject) religious belief or any other supernatural claims involves a fundamental perception of how society does and should operate. It is an ominous sign when religious authorities seek to reduce honest disagreement and differences of lifestyle and opinions to a level of simplistic and dogmatic metaphors based upon the tales of Joseph Smith -- or any other "source." It is also disturbing when critics -- both outside of the church and, potentially, within it as well -- are dismissed as mere victims of trickery, or, worse, "liars" in the tradition of Korihor.
Secularism and the right to doubt and "secondary targets" in the recent attacks launched by President Hinckley in his address before the American Legion. It is a chilling prospect when he attacks not only millions of Americans who profess no religious belief, but their very right to do so and their intellectual integrity.