Saturday, November 6, 2010

Oh Say, What Is Truth?

"I'd like to bear my testimony that I know this church is true. I know that Joseph Smith was a prophet, that my Heavenly Father loves me, and I am thankful that we have a living prophet, Thomas S. Monson, to guide us through these latter days. I have a testimony of the Book of Mormon, and I know that God hears and answers my prayers. I say these things in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen."

Fast and Testimony meetings are among the more interesting of Mormon practices. On the first Sunday of every month, Mormons fast for the first two meals of the day, and donate the money that they would have spent on food to the church to be used to help the poor. In church on this day, instead of the usual sacrament meeting with prepared talks by pre-assigned speakers, the pulpit is opened up to all the members-- to anyone who wishes to speak. At these meetings, Mormons do what is called "bearing one's testimony."

What is a testimony? I've used the word on this blog a few times already. Mormons talk a lot about testimonies, but looking back, it's difficult for me to put my finger on exactly what the word means. As best I can tell, a testimony is a sense of the truth of the LDS church-- a feeling, really, a "burning in the bosom" that tells you that this is the truth. To bear that testimony is to share it.

Here's the thing. It's often said in the church that one's testimony is found in the bearing of it. As I look back, that disturbs me. In testimony meetings, the vast majority of testimonies given are variations on the same theme, which I used as the opening of this post. Everyone says more or less the same thing, often with personal anecdotes or a focus on a specific principle, such as faith or prayer. The phrase, "a testimony is found in the bearing of it", sounds a lot to me like, "if you tell a lie often enough you start to believe it yourself." The church openly encourages people to get up in front of the congregation and say things that they don't necessarily believe, because if you say it, you will start to believe it.

How does one know if the LDS church is true? If you ask a member, they will tell you to pray about it. They say that God will tell you, by way of the Holy Ghost, that it's true. What does the Holy Ghost feel like? It's said to feel different to everyone. Some people get goose bumps, some feel a burning in the bosom, and others just feel a sense of peace. According to members, you know the church is true if the spirit tells you in your heart.

I always had difficulty with this concept as a member. How do you tell what's supposed to be the Holy Ghost, or the Spirit, from your own feelings? Feelings are great things that serve several functions, but identifying truth isn't one of those functions. I might feel all warm and fuzzy about the car I'm buying, but that doesn't mean that it's a good car. Only a naive fool would buy a car without taking it for a test drive, checking the engine, and generally making sure that they were getting a fair deal on it. Would you buy a car that sounded funny when you drove it, just because you had a good feeling about that car? Of course not! Your feelings can tell you whether or not you like the car, but whether or not the car runs well is independent of your feelings.

The gap between feelings and evidence is a difficult problem in Mormonism. Sometimes what the evidence tells you is different from what the church tells you. How does one reconcile these things? The answer, in Mormonism, is faith.

Faith-- that's enough of a topic to merit a blog post of its very own, but I'll try to address it here. When I have shared my concerns about the LDS church with friends, family, and ecclesiastical leaders, the people I talk to do not have any logical answers for me. They often try, but ultimately we come to a dead end. They-- and I-- cannot reconcile the facts. When we reach this point, we invariably return to the concept of faith. I've spent hours trying to get some of these people to tell me what, exactly, "faith" means. From these conversations, the best definition I've been able to come up with is the ability to set aside your rational concerns and objections and just believe in something regardless.

I don't see any merit in this. To quote Sigmund Freud, "Am I to believe every absurdity? If not, why this one in particular?" There are hundreds of thousands of unfounded propositions that one could make. I could propose that the sky is purple, but all the faith in the world won't turn the sky purple. Mormonism has unfounded claims. Why should I believe them without evidence, while rejecting the unfounded claims of Catholicism or Buddhism or Islam? At this point we come to the Holy Ghost. But the way the Holy Ghost manifests itself is supposed to be through feelings. In my own personal experience, the feelings that I or others have attributed the Holy Ghost have been indistinguishable from my own feelings. I have felt the "Spirit" in church; this is true. But I have felt those exact same feelings in movie theaters, libraries, and practice rooms. The feelings that I have experienced while reading the Book of Mormon have been indistinguishable from the feelings I felt while reading the Lord of the Rings, watching Ever After, or playing Beethoven's Pathetique, Opus 13. Does the fact that I felt those things mean that a hobbit named Frodo really traveled across Middle Earth to throw a ring into a volcano? No, of course not! So why should the fact that I felt those things mean that a guy named Nephi and his posterity really did the things that the Book of Mormon says that they did, in spite of evidence to the contrary? I could go into the anachronisms and other problems in the Book of Mormon, and I probably will in a future blog post, but that isn't my point here. My point is that my feelings about the Book of Mormon-- or anything else in the church-- don't make anything true. Certainly those feelings have value, but they are not indicators of truth. Furthermore, members of other faiths feel just as strongly about their beliefs as Mormons do about their own. Who is to say who is right? The only person who can comprehend a person's feelings is the person who felt them. What right do I have to say that another person's experience regarding their faith is invalid? The only conclusion that I can accept in good conscience is that feelings, while valuable and valid, are not indicators of truth.

Given this, I see the LDS church's approach to epistemology as dishonest and harmful. Encouraging people to say things until they believe them and insisting that feelings are a firm basis for decision-making is not honest. I have never, in all my time as a Mormon, been encouraged to look at actual evidence for and against the church. Historical documents, the archaeological record, and logical processes are not seen as valid methods for finding out if the church is true. The way you're supposed to find out is by praying and getting a "spiritual confirmation" in the form of a feeling.

There is another problem in the Mormon church's approach to finding truth-- one is expected to start with the answer predetermined. To consider the possibility that the church might be wrong is considered a bad thing, a road to apostasy, a thoughtcrime. Honest intellectualism doesn't work this way. A true seeker of truth will welcome doubts and questions. If something is true, then it can withstand whatever questions or evidence I can throw at it. One should never be afraid to ask hard questions. If you feel uncomfortable asking difficult questions of your belief system, then something is terribly wrong. You should never, ever be afraid to think.

Out of all the different problems with the LDS church-- the history, the doctrine, the culture-- its attitude toward truth and the search for truth is the one that disturbs me the most. When I was getting ready to go to college, I mentioned to an adult friend that I was considering studying philosophy. This friend warned me against doing that, as she had known a girl who had studied philosophy at BYU and then apostatized. This bothered me. Philosophy, when you break it down to its Latin roots, literally means the love of truth. I love truth; why should I be afraid of it? There are times when I wish that the LDS church was true and that I could believe it-- but wanting doesn't make it so. As a humble seeker of truth, I am morally obligated to follow wherever the facts, the evidence, and logic may lead me. I may be wrong sometimes. People who look for truth often revise their views. Einstein's Theory of Relativity supplanted much of Newton's work. Does that make Newton's work invalid? Most of what Newton discovered was "true", in a limited sense. But it was incomplete. Similarly, I may be wrong about some things; in fact, I most certainly am wrong about many things. But I am aware of that possibility. I do not get up the first Sunday of every month-- or any other time-- and proclaim that I "know" that mass is attracted to mass. I have no need to keep reminding myself to believe in that. If I stopped believing it without evidence, that wouldn't make me bad (although it would make me gullible and intellectually irresponsible). On the other hand, Mormons-- and members of many other religions-- have to constantly remind themselves to believe, lest they "lose their testimony." The way I see it, truth stands on its own. I don't have to keep reminding myself and bearing my testimony of gravity. That would be silly.

Religious people sometimes speak as if accepting something without evidence is a virtue. I see that as a heinous crime against sanity. Evidence is vital when one is attempting to form a worldview that is anywhere near reality. Without evidence, one would be subject to believing any irrational proposition that might come one's way, regardless of its truth or falsity.

I am reminded of a video clip that I saw in one of my college history classes about Galileo. Galileo Galilei's work supplanted much of what Aristotle had said. One of those things that he supplanted was the idea that heavier objects fall faster than lighter objects. In the video that I saw, Galileo was sitting at dinner with some church and political figures, discussing his theories with them. He told them what he had discovered-- that objects fall at the same rate, regardless of weight. His dinner companions asserted that this was not possible, as Aristotle
had told us that Galileo's assertion could not be true. Galileo proposed that they test the idea, but his dinner companions objected, saying that that was not necessary. Aristotle had already told us what was so, and there was no need to test the matter any further. But Galileo proposed that they test it, just for fun. He picked up a grape and an orange from the table, and he dropped them. Each hit the table at the same time. His dinner companions were astonished, but still refused to accept what was right in front of their eyes.

The Mormon approach to spiritual truth is a lot like that, in my view. Once you've had that spiritual witness, once you've felt good about the church, you don't need to test it anymore. Once the prophet has spoken on something, there's no need to debate the issue further. A real seeker of truth, once they think they have found the truth, will always keep the caveat, "but I could be wrong." A real truth seeker will welcome the opportunity to be proved wrong, because if you are wrong, wouldn't you want to know about it?

So this is why I'm a Mormon heretic. Everything I've written on this blog is subject to review. All the evidence I've seen against Mormonism is subject to reevaluation in the face of new information; I'll gladly reconsider in the face of new evidence. But I cannot in good conscience accept a certain set of feelings about a given proposition as evidence that said proposition is true.


  1. "If you are wrong, wouldn't you want to know about it?" Yes, yes! Faith must be informed and tested, else it is worthless. Keep seeking truth. You might be interested in: