It was one of the most common messages I heard after going public with my doubts about various aspects of my faith. I was told over and over that “spiritual experiences” and “seeking personal revelation from God” were the ultimate sources of truth on which I had to rely. I fully understood where they were coming from because in the recent past I’d been sharing the same message myself. Still, it was really interesting to hear this message from the other side. It was frustrating at times because it seemed to put up walls in many conversations. This approach and this message allowed many to dismiss anything I said before hearing it, and this message was sometimes given specifically as the reason that they had no need to hear what had changed my perspectives before calling me deceived. Again, I knew exactly where they were coming from, but in the midst of my journey I also knew that my believing friends simply could not understand why it was that this message and this approach to confirming truth had become complicated for me, and couldn’t help me during the crisis of faith I was experiencing. I’d like to try to explain why it is that telling people in a faith crisis to just go back to relying on the spirit may not have the intended effect. And for the many who wanted to understand how someone like me accounts for the “spiritual experiences” that many of us had together, I hope this might serve as an introduction. I certainly don’t expect this post will prove anything to anyone. I just hope it will help people understand why these things become so complicated for many.
#1) On my journey I encountered evidence that I felt undeniably contradicted very foundational things that I had a powerful “spiritual witness” of. As any rational person would in such a situation, I naturally began questioning whether my previous paradigm for confirming truth was a legitimate and reliable one.
#2) I realized that I was having the same experiences (sometimes very powerful) on a regular basis even on my current path away from orthodoxy, and even in conjunction with experiences specifically related to leaving the church. Again, an experience like this should naturally lead any rational person to wonder if these experiences, whatever their origin, were ever really intended to “confirm truth claims” in the sense that I had believed. Having the same feelings on an alternate path naturally began to suggest to me that there might be some other explanation for these things.
#3) I looked at the world around me, and found that people with all sorts of contradicting beliefs felt they had a “spiritual witness” every bit as sure and powerful as mine. This observable reality around me suggested that this was not a reliable method of confirming truth. How could it be if this means of confirming truth was giving people all over the world contradictory answers? This again suggested to me that something else must be going on, and caused me to begin looking for other possible explanations for these experiences. To understand further PLEASE take a few moments to explore this video HERE before proceeding.
#4) I considered that people often feel things that fit the descriptions of “the spirit” from things that are (or turn out to be) fictional or grossly inaccurate. Like when everybody was so touched at a missionary story that Elder Holland shared even though it was later retracted due to inaccuracy (see HERE). Or when I was moved so powerfully when I saw Dobby die on Harry Potter. I started thinking, could the Book of Mormon (or other religious narratives) make me feel similar things even if the stories are fictional? If so, should such feelings really be interpreted as confirming the reality or historicity of these books or narratives?
#5) I observed that similar very powerful feelings could often be evoked in humans in a myriad of other situations, and when I looked for answers as to what else might be going on I realized that at least one of three key elements was almost always present when these experiences occurred. I also realized that there are completely logical evolutionary explanations for why humans would develop powerful biological responses to these three elements (because they aid in sociality and survival). I will discuss these three key elements below:
ELEMENT #1: I WAS WITNESSING SOMEONE (OR SOMETHING) SUFFERING OR OTHERWISE IN NEED
When I watched the movie “Lion” I had intensely powerful feelings as I saw a small child alone and fending for himself. In many cases people actively tap into or manipulate this part of our nature to get us to do something. Sometimes it is used for good—like the Sarah McLachlan animal shelter commercials. In other cases it may be used to manipulate, such as a patient convincing a doctor he’s in severe pain to get synthetic opioids to sell or abuse, or a megachurch pastor lining his pockets. We see countless examples of animals having similar instinctual responses (HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE). Now, shouldn’t we fully expect that similar feelings will be evoked in many religious scenarios? For example, if I’ve been taught that deceased people in “spirit prison” are separated from their families and can’t have the joy of reuniting with their families until I’ve been baptized on their behalf, then might I naturally experience powerful emotional feelings in conjunction with doing temple work on their behalf? Or if an LDS youth goes on a pioneer “Trek” and experiences powerful feelings as they’re forced to watch the women do part of it by themselves (or generally to imagine the pain of the pioneers). Might this be inspiring and enriching? Sure! But should it truly have any connection whatsoever with the verification of LDS truth claims? I propose that it shouldn’t. What about when LDS videos or scripture evoke these powerful feelings by showing hardships of the early saints, or the suffering of Jesus, or other scriptural protagonists who suffered for their faith? How often do we witness suffering, and conflate instinctual and biological feelings that follow with verification of institutional truth claims?
ELEMENT #2: I WAS WITNESSING AN ACT OF KINDNESS, OR COMPASSION, OR ALTRUISM:
Jonathan Haidt, a psychologist from the University of Virginia described the emotion of “elevation” as “a warm or glowing feeling in the chest, tears welling up, perhaps even chills, and a clenching of the throat, a desire to connect with the person you’ve been watching, a new inclination to participate in charitable activities. If you feel these things, chances are you have just witnessed something uplifting and may be experiencing the unofficial emotion of “elevation.” Go on youtube and search “kindness” and see how long it takes before you’re experiencing powerful emotions (HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE). How often are the instinctual feelings that are evoked by witnessing or participating in such things being conflated with the verification of specific LDS truth claims? If I read about or watch a video of Jesus having compassion on someone in need, might I naturally have such feelings? If I’m convinced that Jesus suffered intensely for my “sins,” might I naturally have these powerful feelings when I think about him? What if I hear stories of compassion in a conference talk, a testimony, or a Book of Mormon story? Might these things once again be enriching and inspiring? Sure! But should they logically have any connection with the verification of specific LDS truth claims? I propose that they should not. Not unless the truth claim we’re confirming is that helping others makes us happy and makes the world better.
ELEMENT #3. I WAS HAVING CONTACT WITH SOMETHING I WAS RAISED TO OR CONVINCED TO DEEPLY VALUE, OR WHICH I CONNECTED WITH POWERFUL MEMORIES, MEANING, OR NOSTALGIA
Take for example the incredible awe and euphoria that Rudy Reuttiger or his father felt seeing Notre Dame Stadium for the first time after years of waiting, and so much effort and sacrifice (see HERE or HERE). If Rudy or his father can have such an incredibly powerful experience entering Notre Dame stadium, then shouldn’t we fully expect a Mormon kid—for whom the temple has been built up as something magical and associated with all sorts of meaning and even the eternal nature of his family—to experience powerful emotions in such a building? Wouldn’t they naturally feel a sense of euphoria and awe just as Rudy did? Consider the euphoria someone might feel meeting a celebrity they admire. Might a Mormon who meets an apostle feel the same type of awe and euphoria as a child meeting Tim Tebow? Or consider the powerful feelings often felt as we hear the national anthem and think of our American values and the sacrifices made to make them possible (and consider that those in Nazi Germany probably felt the same powerful feelings as they belted out their own anthem). Shouldn’t a Mormon belting out “The Spirit of God” at a Temple Dedication, or a teenager singing “We’ll Bring The World His Truth” at EFY be expected to feel the same powerful feelings experienced by someone hearing the national anthem? We have powerful responses to things we were raised or convinced to deeply value, or which we connect with powerful memories, meaning, or nostalgia. How often are such feelings wrongly interpreted as verification of institutional truth claims?
There are evolutionary reasons that we would develop all of these feelings and responses. The first two would quite clearly aid in our survival as a species, but all three would promote sociality or tribalism, which not only aided our survival as a species (consider wolves, dolphins, or orcas), but may also be what drove the growth of our brains. Just a basic introduction to neuroscience can not only be fascinating, but life changing. It can be very helpful to understand the biological and evolutionary drivers behind our desires and actions. Systems that our brains have developed to powerfully reward certain behaviors (dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, etc) that aid (or at one time aided) the survival of our species.
Although this post hits some basics there are many other major factors to explore that I won’t try to get into here. Things like DMT (a powerful drug that is actually created in our brains but can also be taken artificially). Things like the effects of fasting, or sleep deprivation, or various medical issues on the brain. Various foods or other things that could potentially cause hallucinations. The power of the human subconscious and its ability to “bubble up” sudden strokes of inspiration. The power of various cognitive biases. The ability we have to be in altered states of consciousness for various reasons. The vast world of neuroscience and psychology and all they have uncovered about these issues and the wild things the human mind is capable of. The fact that many of the experiences people report often accompany situations where people are in in extreme circumstances, such as hospital beds where they’re either being given drugs artificially or where extreme demands on the body may cause it to release various powerful substances like oxytocin or DMT in abnormally high amounts. Given that people experience “the spirit” in a myriad of ways and have differing experiences it’s obviously hard to speak to every circumstance in a brief blog post, but I feel this is a good starting point for discussion. Again, I don’t expect these things to prove anything to believers who value spiritual experiences as the ultimate method of truth seeking. I just hope that it might help them to understand why others may struggle to feel the same. Even LDS apostles have at times discussed how difficult it can be to distinguish emotion/biology from “spiritual experiences.”
Please understand that generally speaking I don’t believe these experiences that people have are necessarily “fake” or “imagined.” It’s just that I believe they come from a different source, and that I don’t attribute to these experiences the same things that believers attribute (verification of institutional truth claims). I am also not saying that these kinds of experiences can’t have value or be worth exploring. Whole books have been written about the value of exploring “spirituality” even from a completely secular and scientific perspective.
If you’re interested in diving deeper into these issues I highly recommend the following sources: