Many people base their religious beliefs on some sort of “spiritual witness”—an epiphany of some kind, a “burning in the bosom,” a feeling of peace, a strong positive feeling that comes over them. The “testimonies” that religious believers give can be quite moving, evoking a deep emotional response in even the most cynical of persons.
Now I ask my Mormon friends and family, are these feelings, these emotional responses, a reliable basis for discerning the truth? I would argue that they are not. Internal emotions and feelings may be useful data for understanding your own self, but they are not evidence about the external world. Least of all do they provide a reliable guide to questions of cosmology… and a belief in an omnipotent Creator is no less than a belief about the ultimate nature and origin of the cosmos itself.
Why would you expect mere feelings to reliably guide you to the truth about any aspect of the external world? Because other people told you that they could? What makes you think these people are correct? Because of warm feelings you have towards these people? Can you see the circular logic?
Let’s take a look at some “testimonies” I have pulled off of the web:
It is difficult to describe to someone who has never felt it how the Gospel can change and improve one’s life. But learning the Gospel changed me totally. I now have no doubt about our purpose in this world and that I am following the right path, I have a certainty I never knew before, and a peace that goes with it.
“No doubt.” “I have a certainty.” If a person were to use these words in any other context, lacking a scrap of evidence for their belief, we would call them delusional.
I still remember sitting alone, reading the Book of Mormon, looking for errors, and questioning. The more I read, the more I became convinced that this book could only have one source, God. I was reading about God’s mercy and His willingness to forgive any sin… and I began to weep. I cried from the depth of my soul. I cried for my past ignorance and in joy of finally finding the truth.
So… assuming that a God exists, how does this woman know what a book that comes from God reads like, in comparison to texts written by mere human beings? Is she such an expert in divine versus secular textual classification that she can discern without a doubt which is which? Oh, but the Spirit bore testimony to her, you say. And how can she, with any reliability, distinguish this hypothetical testimony of the Spirit from an emotional response caused by a desire to find absolution for past wrongs she may have committed?
“What am I doing here?” Dear God. I am here because I believe in you, because I believe in the compelling and majestic words of the Book of Mormon, and because I believe in the Prophethood of your servant Joseph Smith. I know in my heart my decision is the right one. Please give me the courage to carry on with this new self and new life, that I may serve you well with a strong faith.
“I believe.” Based on what evidence? Warm fuzzy feelings? “I know in my heart.” Which is just a way of saying, “I want this to be true but I don’t actually know.”
I read the whole thing through in one sitting. I don’t think I even changed position…
As I read a thought began to form and then started going through my head over and over and over: “Oh my God! This is from God!” It was like being slammed in the head with a brick or a hard plank of wood. I was stunned. It was real… It was direct revelation— it really was the Word of God. Literally. Oh my God! This really IS from God!
A lot of thoughts form in my head. Some of them stay there for quite a long while. That, however, is not enough for me to conclude that the thought is correct.
Now, I know what my Mormon friends and family are thinking: I am hard-hearted and stiff-necked; I have shut myself off from the still, small voice of the Spirit. But I ask you to do some serious soul-searching of your own, and ask yourself: are these people really, truly justified in their belief, a belief that is unsupported by hard evidence but arises, by their own admission, from nothing more than a positive emotional response? Be honest with yourself. Don’t give the answer that you feel obligated to give. Don’t shy away from the answer that you fear to acknowledge, the answer that you fear would make you an unrighteous person.
Suppose now that these are the testimonies, not of LDS converts, but of converts to another religion altogether. Would you still agree that their belief is justified, based on the “spiritual witness” they have received? Perhaps I just substituted a few words here and there to make them look like LDS testimonies, say, changing “Islam” to “the Gospel,” “the Qur’an” to “the Book of Mormon,” and “Muhammed” to “Joseph Smith”. Does your answer change? Should it?