How Agnosticism Could Have Prevented 9/11 and a Mormon Attack 144 Years Earlier

This week marks the anniversary of an act of political and theistic extremism that took the lives of scores of innocent victims caught in the familiar drama that often ensues when groups of people choose to hold fast to their ideas about religious identity and adopt murder as the remedy for their political ills when they are under the jackboot of oppression.

The Mountain Meadows Massacre — in which 120 men, women and children were gunned down in cold blood during the early days of America’s expansion into the West — was burned into the American consciousness on September 11, 1857, 144 years before another act of terrorism would sear the fabric that envelopes the American idea that we are free from harm.

In the late 1800s, Mormon settlers had left the geographical United States and taken up refuge in the mountains surrounding the Salt Lake Valley. Other emigrants were headed West as well, and in 1857, a group of travelers, known as the Baker-Fancher party, comprised mostly of Arkansas families, made its way through southern Utah en route to California.

Word spread among Mormon settlers that the Arkansas emigrants were traveling through the Utah Territory with ill-intent and the rumors about the group, coupled with continued federal hostility toward Mormons in and outside of the United States, created an air of hysteria among members of the new religion, which led to the shooting deaths of most of the Baker-Fancher members at a pasture known as Mountain Meadows. Mormon families adopted and raised the youngest members of the party.

More than 100 years later, al-Qaeda jihadists destroyed New York’s World Trade Center and downed a civilian aircraft in rural Pennsylvania and slammed another into the Pentagon, killing 2,996 people from more than 90 countries in the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil.

The events in Utah and New York — though separated by more than a century — are rooted in the same cause: religious extremism.

Mormons, at the outset of their religion, faced brutal persecution that chased them from the United States and led to the murder of the religion’s founder; and Muslims overseas account for just one of any number of groups vexed by U.S. foreign policy and intervention. Extremism begets extremism and the recipients of extreme injustice will often use political means, e.g., acts of terrorism, to exact revenge on their persecutors — whether real or imagined — which can at times manifest as violence.

The antidote, of course, to religious extremism is agnosticism — the moderating view that the truth about any theistic philosophy is unknown. The extreme anti-Mormon sentiment of old could have been tempered by this view and today’s animus toward all things Islam can also be dealt a measure of reason by adopting the idea that the practice of faith (also known as belief), in any particular religion, doesn’t equate to the principle of knowledge (also known as certainty).

To be agnostic about anything is to operate without knowledge about a particular subject, something that is separate and apart from belief. The moderating force of agnosticism can be seen in the political dealings of American elected officials.

President George H.W. Bush, an Episcopalian, carried out his conservative philosophy in a manner far different than the conservative approach of his son, President George W. Bush, a born-again evangelical Christian. The Episcopal Church, once mocked as the Republican Party a prayer, is a less rigid religious and political operation than the equally Republican-dominated evangelical movement, which has pushed GOP politics more and more to the right in recent decades.

The difference is in the right-mindedness of the two camps. It is difficult to lobby strongly for a particular position when you are not unalterably convinced in the failure of another’s opinion — this is true in religion and it is true in politics. Putting an end to acts of religious and political extremism requires an agnostic approach to human governance, one that privileges certainty (better known as knowledge), or the lack thereof, over belief (more familiar to us as faith).

Only then can we put an end to all future 9/11s.