Because I wrestled with contradictory information on what I should feel as a Mormon, I had one of the slowest exits out of the church that I know of. I felt feelings (described to me as the spirit) often when doing or seeing good things happen, yet never when specifically praying about the Book of Mormon or church. After years of trying to gain that elusive testimony experience, and while going through the temple on the way home from my mission, I had an experience that made me honestly fear that this church wasn’t God’s one true church (to help keep this letter as short as possible, you can read the details here).
Over the next 15 years I turned over every rock in an effort to find something that could prove the church at least intellectually correct. Along the way I became a wiki editor for FAIR Mormon to help provide apologetic answers to tough questions. I found that if I did enough mental gymnastics (see how horses in the Book of Mormon are explained away as a small pig-like animal), I could help provide plausible counter-explanations against evidence that showed the church to be false. Because there is no definitive proof for the church’s truth claims, in the end I discovered that most apologetic discussions of point and counter point come down to one final trump card, “Despite those logical arguments against the church, I know it is true because I feel the spirit confirm that it is!” So, this letter is an attempt to move beyond unverifiable arguments of horses and tapirs to dealing with the final trump card of spiritual feelings as a confirmation of truth claims.
Basically, no matter how many logical arguments convincingly show the Book of Mormon to be a nineteenth century document (See question C here) people will say the church has to be true because of some experience(s) they previously had. This method of truth finding actually has a technical name – Emotional Reasoning. It is this trump card, which is often used to override the intuitive feelings of a Mormon’s heart on things like the church’s policy toward children of gay parents, that I want to challenge today. I would like to show how using this trump card is illogical and not a legitimate indicator of truth. I’ve also not found an apologetic argument to counter the reasons against using emotional reasoning as an indicator of universal truth.
I’d like to request that Mormon apologists either show how I have a flaw in my logic or explain why they feel it is OK to use this trump card despite its flaws.
On the surface, the church’s oft-given explanation makes sense; God will make you feel positive emotions when you participate in various church activities such as singing hymns, participating in rituals like baptism, coming together as a community, meditating on books of scripture, or even praying, as a confirmation that He is there and what you have been taught is true. As it turns out, doing those things actually does cause one to feel positive feelings. I’m not disputing that at all. The problem arises when you evaluate the initial assumptions critically. If that premise (God gives you these feelings to indicate the truthfulness of something) and its conclusion (therefore the church is true) are correct, then other people should not feel those same feelings for doing the same activities in reference to a different church or book of scripture. If others do feel the same feelings for different religions or religious books, then using Emotional Reasoning as an indicator of universal truth is a logical fallacy and can not be used as a trump card to prove Mormonism is God’s One True Church.
This video is long, but here is a small collection of real life cases from 16 different religions bearing testimony of feelings coming from God to prove that their religion is God’s one true church or that is where God wants them to be. Many of them say that they felt things that were “different” from their regular emotions and things they’d experienced previously. Therefore, they knew they were from God and not just regular, positive emotions. I’ll get to that perceived difference later.
A survey was conducted, asking people who believed in a god who answers prayers if they’d prayed and asked God which religion was the most correct. 82% said they had received an answer. Of those, 73% were “Very Sure” they received an answer. They came from 22 different religions. Therefore, there are a significant amount of people from different religions that use the same evidence (strong, spiritual feelings) to prove that God wants them in their religion and that their religion is the correct path to God. Knowing that many people use the same evidence to come to very different conclusions, it seems subjective and therefore illogical to use spiritual feelings as a confirmation of truth from God. How can you determine that your feelings are correct (or the “most correct”) while others’ are wrong?
As a side note, using your emotions to help determine what feels right for you and where you should go is something completely different than what I’m talking about here. If it makes you happy to read the Book of Mormon then do it, but don’t assume that it therefore must be true. You can’t use emotional reasoning to prove truth, like you would using the scientific method (getting reproducible, non-conflicting results). Emotional personal insight may be a better term for how to use your emotions.
Up to this point I’ve discussed the the small spiritual experiences. These experiences are the “burning in the bosom” feelings you get when doing or seeing something altruistic which has a technical name and is called the Elevation Effect. I’d like to move to the life changing spiritual experiences that are much larger. This also is further evidence against using these feelings as proof of communication from God and can be found in the DMT (N,N-Dimethyltryptamine) studies done by Dr. Rick Strassman. DMT is a neurotransmitter formed in all our brains. He gave 400 doses of it to 60 volunteers and their experiences EXACTLY mimic the descriptions I’ve heard my entire life about the Mormon spiritual experience upon which the trump card relies. These are powerful feelings described by the DMT volunteers as:
The participants that came from a religious background said that the DMT feelings were either identical to or more real than the spiritual feelings they had felt previously. This begs the question, “Are spiritual experiences just the results of DMT being released in our brains?”
That brings us to the point of my open letter. If you can’t tell the difference between chemically-induced feelings and spiritual feelings, how can you use them as an indicator of truth? If I gave you an injection of DMT after reading Harry Potter, and you felt powerful spiritual feelings, would that mean the book is God’s one true book? In other words, are these chemically-induced feelings just powerful biological emotions or are they actual spiritual experiences? If it’s the former, then this is further evidence that we can’t use emotional reasoning to prove religious truth claims since we can manufacture those same feelings. If it’s the latter, then we have to conclude that God doesn’t care which religion you join, he/she/it just wants you to have chemically-induced experiences that motivate you to come closer to him/her/it and the path you choose doesn’t necessarily matter. Like hundreds of various religious beliefs in the past, this seems to become one more earthquake closing the chasm between science and religion in the God of the Gaps divide.
Now that you are aware of this evidence, if you weren’t already, it must be accounted for when making claims about spiritual experiences. You must explain 1) Why your conclusions using emotional reasoning are correct and those of other faiths are not, and 2) How you can say those feelings are from God when we can artificially induce the exact same feelings by administering DMT to people. Not doing so is dishonest at worst, and unethical at best.
If you have another conclusion or see problems with mine, I’d be more than happy to hear your logical argument. I am always open to new evidence, even if it means coming to a potentially new conclusion based on more sound reasoning. Please avoid fallacious defenses like Ad Hominem attack or Poisoning the Well by trying to make me look bad instead of showing how my argument is incorrect. Don’t Move the Goal Posts either, just argue why my conclusion (that people feel the same emotions for different and/or completely contrasting religious beliefs, emotions which can be induced by chemicals, so cannot be used as indicators of truth) is incorrect or faulty.
For everyone else, if reading this open letter and also learning of the many verifiable problems with basic church statements doesn’t make you want to reconsider your assumptions and conclusions, what would it take to make you critically evaluate them? For example, what would you tell a Jehovah’s Witness that uses your exact same arguments to prove that “they know” their church is true? This information is admittedly uncomfortable, but it is incumbent upon anyone that seeks truth over immediate personal comfort to push through those difficult, initial feelings and see where the evidence points to. Similar to leaving the house after high school, it may have been scary and uncomfortable, but the knowledge and growth has enabled you to live a much better life than comfortably staying home forever would have.
Hebrews 11:1 says, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Therefore, faith is hope for things you CAN’T currently know and knowledge is the understanding of things you CAN currently know. If you believe the truth will set you free (John 8:32) and the truth has nothing to fear from investigation, then don’t fear getting more information or processing it, even if it goes against your current beliefs.
Emotional reasoning has been proven to make people think they know things that are not correct. Therefore, it should not be used as evidence of ultimate truth claims. Let’s move forward with logic and critical thinking toward knowing what we can know, while having faith that the things we hope for can one day be known, and remaining open to being wrong. Let’s not continue to have faith in things that have been proven wrong (or ignore evidence indicating that something may be wrong) because it makes us feel better. Having faith that your church is true, despite many evidences to the contrary, solely because of the trump card of emotional feelings is not an honest way to seek for truth. If evidence shows us that the something isn’t true, we shouldn’t override that with emotional reasoning to continue in a false hope that it is. We need to use tests that give reproducible results, even in matters of faith, or else our conclusions will expose us as choosing comfort over truth.