Can We Distinguish Between a Religion and a Con Game?

The human propensity to believe the improbable keeps church doors open. It is also the reason that confidence tricksters live well. Perhaps prophets are merely con men who specialize in the spiritual. There are two ways to test out this idea. First, are mainstream religions founded by con men? Second, if one were to set up a fake religion, would it get exposed?

Mormonism is an intriguing case history because it has a very shady past but has come to be accepted as a mainstream religion. As a comparatively new world religion it is susceptible to historical documentation in ways that were impossible for, say, Christianity. We do not know whether Jesus ever existed as depicted in the gospels and historians like to expose problems in the New Testament account of his life. Joseph Smith actually existed and had a real criminal record.

Mormon founder Joseph Smith as a con man

Smith's criminality is sketched by the late atheist writer Christopher Hitchens:

In March, 1826, a court in Bainbridge, New York, convicted a twenty-one-year-old man of being a "disorderly person and an impostor." That ought to have been all we ever heard of Joseph Smith, who at trial admitted to defrauding citizens by organizing mad gold-digging expeditions and also to claiming to possess dark or "necromantic" powers.

Hitchens provides a scathing account of how the Book of Mormon was produced noting that "The actual story of the imposture is almost embarrassing to read and almost embarrassingly easy to uncover." His account draws on the work of professional historian Fawn Brodie and her book No Man Knows My History (1945/1973).

Hitchens concludes: "Quite recent scholarship has exposed every single other Mormon 'document' as at best a scrawny compromise and at worst a pitiful fake... "

If Smith's texts were embarrassing fakes, the motivation underlying his prophecy is just as spurious. According to Hitchens:

Like Muhammad, Smith could produce divine revelations at short notice and often simply to suit himself (especially, and like Muhammad, when he wanted a new girl and wished to take her as another wife). As a result he overreached himself and came to a violent end. ... Still, this story raises some very absorbing questions, concerning what happens when a plain racket turns into a serious religion before our eyes.

Smith's legacy was cleaned up via subsequent "divine revelations" that rejected first polygamy and then racism at convenient historical turning points. So the historical development from fakery to respectable religion is a matter of record and there is no reason to believe that the genesis of any major religion was substantially different.

Starting a fake religion

Religious people may be incredulous of this conclusion, so it is interesting to see what happens when someone sets out to found a fake religion. Would this work, or would members promptly see through the deception and leave?

American Indian film director Vikram Gandhi was engaged in a documentary about yogis and their followers. He concluded that these holy men were frauds, and confidence tricksters, scores of whom plied their trade throughout India.

Such claims are easy to make but harder to prove. Vikram Gandhi wondered whether he could pass himself off as a guru here in the U.S. He cultivated a fake Indian accent, grew out his hair and beard and reinvented himself as Sri Kumare, a mystic hailing from a fictitious Indian village.

In the film, Sri Kumare founds his cult in Arizona where he unloads his bogus mysticism upon the unsuspecting public and soon draws a group of devoted followers. Instead of seeing through him, they seek his counsel on their life problems and become frighteningly dependent upon his new-age advice.

Whereas the film focuses mainly on the gullibility of followers, there is an equally disturbing transition in Kumare who warms to his leadership position. To his dismay, he realizes that he made more impact on other people's lives as a fake guru than he ever did as himself. He dreads the moment when he must unveil the deception and softens the blow by telling the dupes that each can be their own guru.


So the conclusion is quite clear. Major religions are founded by confidence tricksters. Members of fake religions, such as the Kumare members, cannot tell the difference between the fake and established religions.

The underlying psychology may be fairly simple. Common confidence tricksters work their magic by telling victims what they want to hear. The same is true of successful prophets who offer pie in the sky bye and bye. This bolsters confidence in the future, provides peace of mind, and acts as a salve for the miseries and disappointments of everyday life.