Spiritual Witness

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?

One thought on “Spiritual Witness

  1. name unnecessary

    brackets used as grouping. english sucks.

    Emotions are real. they definitely are an actual thing. this is often overlooked when pointing out they are not good sources of evidence for many things – [1: people who trust them as evidence for external things] tend to assume that [because the people who are discrediting emotions as not good evidence say that emotions are “not evidence”], and that [their:1 emotions are obviously evidence for something, since they are real], the complaint must not apply, and their:1 original assumption that emotions are valid evidence is correct, since the thing they are assuming is about emotions in the first place (whether god affects your emotions).

    To properly discredit this, you must go beyond simply pointing out the dependency loop in their logic. You must detail what emotions are evidence for in sufficient detail that you are attacking the link between emotions and god creating the emotions. Simply saying “mere feelings” seems to be an arbitrary claim of “mereness” to someone who has as an axiom the assumption that feelings are not “mere”.

    The hypothesis is *about* emotions. You cannot simply discard emotions to discredit it, as emotions are a real thing. You must instead design a test that will differentiate where the emotions are coming from; you can start by pointing out that there is no reason to assume, or even detail tests that have already been done as part of research, but an actual test the person can execute would be much more final. Thankfully, this is somewhat eased by the claims in the Byte Order Mark (sorry, Book Of Mormon. BOM is confusing sometimes) that “you should plant a seed and test it” – you can then extend that test to properly differentiate. The existing test described there falls to several biases, most notably confirmation bias – there is no attempt to differentiate why, so the only test done is to see if the predicted outcome happens (which it usually does), and completely fails to notice that there is a much simpler model that would predict the same result.

    To achieve this, I’d start by teaching the person being deprogrammed about logic, science, critical thinking, etc independent of religion. Very few people I’ve met actually dispute the general effectiveness of these tools; they only dispute their effectiveness on the “separate magisterium” (or whatever you call it this week). You can then teach them all about how to test things in the real world, and then use the test in the BOM as a connection to allow them to gracefully use science *on the emotions*, once it has already been established that emotions are not good for general evidence.

    Once you’ve established that it’s acceptable to test religion, and that you do not assert the outcome of the test, I’d expect them to be much more open to the possibility that their emotions might be internally generated. I’d say it’s *VERY IMPORTANT* that you not make any claims about the outcome of their experiment, for trust reasons. If they feel you are fixing the result, then they could see this as you simply having tricked them into thinking something else – you have to connect your claims to reality very well, so as to not risk trust violation.

    The one thing I haven’t figured out before I try to implement this is how to transition from teaching about logic, reasoning, and testing, to requesting a retest of “plant a seed”. However, based on my understanding of what the connections are, I expect that treating emotions as real and the changes in them as suspect would be a better, more likely to be successful avenue of attack.

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