(note: This arti­cle is an updat­ed ver­sion of my orig­i­nal Ratio­nal Faiths arti­cle)

1 Introduction

1.1 Know the truth of all things

The Church of Jesus Christ of Lat­ter-day Saints teach­es that the Holy Ghost is cen­tral to under­stand­ing truth. Con­sid­er these vers­es of scrip­ture:

  • And by the pow­er of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things. (Moroni 10:5)
  • But the Com­forter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remem­brance, what­so­ev­er I have said unto you. (John 14:26)
  • [The Holy Ghost] will show unto you all things what ye should do. (2Ne 32:5)

Mem­bers are taught to “trust [not] in the arm of flesh” (D&C 1:19) but to “trust in the Lord with all [their] heart; and lean not unto [their] own under­stand­ing.” (Proverbs 3:5).1 Knowl­edge gained by the Holy Ghost is con­sid­ered the foun­da­tion of a tes­ti­mo­ny, which is a “per­son­al wit­ness borne to our souls by the Holy Ghost that cer­tain facts of eter­nal sig­nif­i­cance are true and that we know them to be true.” (Oaks, April 2008 Con­fer­ence) Mem­bers are some­times giv­en the impres­sion that these spir­i­tu­al expe­ri­ences may be trust­ed absolute­ly:

When we know spir­i­tu­al truths by spir­i­tu­al means, we can be just as sure of that knowl­edge as schol­ars and sci­en­tists are of the dif­fer­ent kinds of knowl­edge they have acquired by dif­fer­ent meth­ods. (Oaks, April 2008 Con­fer­ence)

1.2 The Church is cautious with spiritual impressions

Those who have been in the Church for some time, how­ev­er, will find evi­dence sup­port­ing the notion that the body and lead­er­ship of the Church is cau­tious in how it deals with inter­pret­ing the thoughts and feel­ings asso­ci­at­ed with the Holy Ghost. While vir­tu­al­ly any pos­i­tive emo­tion or thought may be tak­en as con­fir­ma­tion of the core truths of the Gospel, when deal­ing with dif­fi­cult deci­sions or areas where there are con­flict­ing doc­trines, scrip­tures, or ideals, expe­ri­enced Lat­ter-day Saints tend to be cau­tious.

For instance, it is well-known that deci­sions of the First Pres­i­den­cy and Quo­rum of the Twelve are only made in una­nim­i­ty (see D&C 107:27,29). Were the feel­ings of the Spir­it trust­ed absolute­ly, then we might expect to see deci­sions made based on the spir­i­tu­al con­fir­ma­tion giv­en even one mem­ber of the quo­rum.2

Mem­bers are taught to be dis­trust­ful of spir­i­tu­al con­fir­ma­tions that fall out­side of their Church stew­ard­ship.3 Not only does this include call­ings, but it also includes con­fir­ma­tions received about life deci­sions such as marriage—most mem­bers know the sto­ry of the returned mis­sion­ary who receives a wit­ness of who he is sup­posed to mar­ry, and these are regard­ed with due skep­ti­cism.

Lat­ter-day Saints are sim­i­lar­ly dis­in­clined to believe the accu­ra­cy of any spir­i­tu­al prompt­ings that pro­mote ideas that are con­trary to the accept­ed doc­trines and prac­tices of the Church.4

Nowhere is the cau­tion relat­ed to inter­pret­ing spir­i­tu­al feel­ings more evi­dent than in the Preach My Gospel Man­u­al. In the sec­tion “How Do I Rec­og­nize and Under­stand the Spir­it?”, a “good­ness” test is out­lined which is meant to enable Church mem­bers to check the verac­i­ty of spir­i­tu­al prompt­ings.5 An exter­nal test seems unnec­es­sary if we could eas­i­ly and always rely on spir­i­tu­al feel­ings to lead us to truth.

Per­haps the clear­est teach­ing on why we should be cau­tious inter­pret­ing spir­i­tu­al prompt­ings (also includ­ed in Preach My Gospel) is from Dallin H. Oaks, who warns:

We should study things out in our minds, using the rea­son­ing pow­ers our Cre­ator has placed with­in us. Then we should pray for guid­ance and act upon it if we receive it. If we do not receive guid­ance, we should act upon our best judg­ment. Per­sons who per­sist in seek­ing rev­e­la­to­ry guid­ance on sub­jects on which the Lord has not cho­sen to direct us may con­coct an answer out of their own fan­ta­sy or bias, or they may even receive an answer through the medi­um of false rev­e­la­tion. [empha­sis added] (source)

Why are skep­ti­cism, exter­nal tests, and con­trols need­ed when using spir­i­tu­al feel­ings to deter­mine truth? What might cause Oaks to con­clude that a per­sis­tent sup­pli­cant may receive what they thought was a spir­i­tu­al impres­sion, only for it to have been self-con­coct­ed or just turn out to be a false rev­e­la­tion?

2 Do spiritual impressions teach truth?

2.1 Not unique to the Church

The process by which mem­bers con­firm their beliefs is not unique to the LDS church, but is used effec­tive­ly by many reli­gious (or qua­si-reli­gious) groups to sub­stan­ti­ate their truth claims. The fol­low­ing three exam­ples from this video demon­strate:

Mar­shall Apple­white, for­mer leader of Heaven’s Gate, said this about test­ing the group’s truth claims:

… At least pon­der this, that you go into the pri­va­cy of your clos­et. Don’t ask your neigh­bors, your friends what they think of this. You go see if you can con­nect with the purest, high­est source, that you might con­sid­er God and say, “What about this? Is it for real?” (~11:19)

A.J. Miller, leader of the Divine Truth move­ment, encour­ages his fol­low­ers to deter­mine truth in this man­ner:

… There is a gen­er­al process that God designed that allows us to dis­cov­er what is truth and what is not…the process would be: ask this God to receive love and then feel about that par­tic­u­lar thing and if that par­tic­u­lar thing turns off the flow I know it’s not true … And if that par­tic­u­lar thing stays flow­ing I then, I know it’s true. (~8:34)

Many splin­ter LDS groups, such as the Apos­tolic Unit­ed Brethren, ask mem­bers to con­firm their belief using Moroni’s promise in the Book of Mor­mon. When mem­bers of such groups bear tes­ti­mo­ny, they sound vir­tu­al­ly iden­ti­cal to the tes­ti­monies borne by Lat­ter-day Saints:

I’ve been search­ing for a wit­ness of this work and of this church, and since tonight I got my wit­ness and it’s burn­ing with­in my soul of how impor­tant this work is and how true it is. I know it is. And it’s hard to believe that just a year ago I was in High School, and now I’m in a plur­al mar­riage and [audi­ble sigh] strug­gling. But I know with­out a shad­ow of a doubt that this is the Lord’s work—that I have final­ly found it. I say this in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.6 (~5:11)

Sim­i­lar expe­ri­ences are report­ed by those who have read the sealed por­tion of the Book of Mor­mon, as received by Christo­pher Nemel­ka:

Ida Smith nev­er­the­less had an intense, life-chang­ing reac­tion when she read the book [the sealed por­tion revealed by Nemel­ka]. She devoured it over six weeks, in the process emp­ty­ing two box­es of tis­sues and sev­er­al red ball­point pens as she wept and under­lined page after page of scrip­ture. (source)

2.2 Confirmation of contradictory positions

Lat­ter-day Saints believe that the Holy Ghost and/or the Light of Christ can lead any­one to truth. Is the Holy Ghost or Light of Christ mere­ly lead­ing those peo­ple to some aspect of the truth, or do these spir­i­tu­al expe­ri­ences con­firm irrec­on­cil­able posi­tions?

2.2.1 Contradictory truth claims

The var­i­ous reli­gious groups men­tioned in the above sec­tion (Heaven’s Gate, Divine Truth, etc.) appear to have been expe­ri­enc­ing con­fir­ma­tion of teach­ings which are very dif­fi­cult to rec­on­cile with stan­dard LDS truth claims. Lat­ter-day Saints would be inclined to reject out-of-hand that: sui­cide is the means to liai­son with an advanced UFO civ­i­liza­tion7, A. J. Miller is the rein­car­nat­ed Jesus of Nazareth8, polygamy should cur­rent­ly be prac­ticed, or that Hyrum Smith was rein­car­nat­ed in the per­son of Christo­pher Nemel­ka9 and he was able to spir­i­tu­al­ly trans­late the sealed por­tion of the Book of Mor­mon.

2.2.2 Witnesses of divergent belief systems

Polls of mem­bers across reli­gious faiths sug­gest that many peo­ple expe­ri­ence strong con­fir­ma­to­ry answers to the ques­tion of whether theirs is the most cor­rect reli­gion (source). Of the respon­dents who believe that God answers prayer, most are ‘very sure’ of their answer. The answers include ver­biage famil­iar to Lat­ter-day Saints:

  • An over­whelm­ing wave of calm­ness and peace” (Catholic)
  • inde­scrib­able: being too intense for descrip­tion.” (JW)
  • audi­ble voice and dream+apparition” (Catholic)
  • …felt as if my heart had stopped and then ‘felt’ as if a voice inside spoke to me, telling me I was loved as a child and to be true to his church — I was near a Catholic Church at that time.”
  • I felt God’s pres­ence & had a knowl­edge of Him” (Catholic)
  • I prayed and asked if the ortho­dox spir­i­tu­al path was to be my path and a voice, a voice I can­not describe, said ‘For this rea­son you were made’.” (Ortho­dox Chris­t­ian)
  • inner voice” (Catholic)
  • it was a firm answer. like see­ing a brick fire­place still stand­ing after the house burns down around it.” (Judaism)
  • ask [sic] to see some­thing and it appeared” (Islam)
  • God puts a feel­ing of peace in my heart that I can’t describe. No mon­ey can buy such hap­pines.” (Islam)
  • I asked if I should do some­thing, then the next day cir­cum­stances pre­vent­ed me from doing any­thing else” (Judaism)
  • Gave me a prayer lan­guage when I asked; used me to heal a friend with seizures” (Chris­t­ian charis­mat­ic)
  • too won­der­ful to put into words” (Catholic)
  • I was inspired to look ran­dom­ly in the Bible and the text answer my ques­tion.” (7th-day Adven­tist)
  • I asked which reli­gion to fol­low and He clear­ly said Sci­en­tol­ogy. I was Bap­tist until He led me into the light.” (Sci­en­tol­ogy)
  • Just a deep sense of cer­tain­ty.” (Quak­er)

Audio/video record­ings of oth­er adher­ents shar­ing their spir­i­tu­al wit­ness­es sug­gests that these indi­vid­u­als are high­ly sin­cere. Here again, a close exam­i­na­tion of the beliefs adopt­ed by these indi­vid­u­als as a result of their wit­ness­es calls into ques­tion the rec­on­cil­abil­i­ty of these belief sys­tems.

2.2.3 God’s will on gay marriage

Anoth­er poll asked peo­ple to pray to ascer­tain God’s will on the sub­ject of gay mar­riage. Of the 68% of the par­tic­i­pants who believed that they were able to assess the will of God, every sin­gle per­son found that God agreed with their pri­or stance on same sex marriage—even though the stances were even­ly divid­ed and dia­met­ri­cal­ly opposed among the col­lec­tion of par­tic­i­pants (source).

2.3 Confirmation of falsehoods

With­in the LDS tra­di­tion, spir­i­tu­al impres­sions have also been asso­ci­at­ed with sto­ries that were lat­er found to be embell­ished or out-right fab­ri­cat­ed. In “Exam­in­ing Church Claims”, Don­ald Cohen explains:

Anoth­er use­ful exam­ple [of spir­i­tu­al impres­sions con­firm­ing false teach­ings] involves the var­i­ous talks, speech­es, and books by Paul H. Dunn, a well known Gen­er­al Author­i­ty, and a mem­ber of The First Quo­rum of the Sev­en­ty, from 1976 to 1989. His talks drew upon var­i­ous events in his life, and thou­sands upon thou­sands of mem­bers tes­ti­fied of how they felt the Spir­it tes­ti­fy­ing to them when hear­ing or read­ing his words, strength­en­ing their tes­ti­monies of the Church. It turned out that many of the facts and events he spoke and wrote about were either com­plete­ly false, or sub­stan­tial­ly embell­ished. He even­tu­al­ly acknowl­edged this pub­licly, and he was giv­en ‘Emer­i­tus’ sta­tus in his Church call­ing as a result.

Sub­stan­tial evi­dence sug­gests that spir­i­tu­al expe­ri­ences and approach­es sim­i­lar to those report­ed by LDS mem­bers sup­port truth claims that are con­tra­dic­to­ry and/or that are not fac­tu­al­ly accu­rate.

If con­tra­dic­to­ry truth claims or fab­ri­cat­ed sto­ries may be con­firmed by spir­i­tu­al feel­ings, then it begs a clos­er exam­i­na­tion of a spir­i­tu­al expe­ri­ence.

3 What’s behind a spiritual experience?

Although many mem­bers avoid think­ing in such terms, the idea that spir­i­tu­al expe­ri­ences are medi­at­ed through biological/physical phe­nom­e­na is right at home in LDS thought. For instance, Joseph Smith him­self taught that there is no such thing as imma­te­r­i­al mat­ter, and the con­nec­tion between the body and spir­it is strong­ly empha­sized in teach­ings such as the Word of Wisdom—where promised bless­ings to a health code include “wis­dom and great trea­sures of knowl­edge.”

The icon­ic spir­i­tu­al expe­ri­ence for a Lat­ter-day Saint is one that involves both the heart and the mind, as described in a rev­e­la­tion to Joseph Smith:

Yea, behold, I will tell you in your mind and in your heart, by the Holy Ghost, which shall come upon you and which shall dwell in your heart. (D&C 8:2)

3.1 The emotion of elevation

The feel­ing most LDS mem­bers refer to as the feel­ing of the Spir­it in the heart (or burn­ing in the bosom) is prob­a­bly the emo­tion of ele­va­tion. Ele­va­tion:

  • occurs as a response to wit­ness­ing moral beau­ty
  • gen­er­ates a desire to help or asso­ciate with oth­ers”
  • gen­er­ates a desire to cul­ti­vate one­self to become a bet­ter per­son
  • is dis­tinct from the feel­ings asso­ci­at­ed with amuse­ment or hap­pi­ness (which tend to pro­mote self-serv­ing behav­iors)
  • caus­es feel­ings of “warmth or tin­gling” in a person’s chest
  • can be pre­dictably gen­er­at­ed in a lab­o­ra­to­ry set­ting
  • is medi­at­ed hor­mon­al­ly10 (at least in part)

For those prac­ticed in feel­ing the Spir­it, the above descrip­tion seems like a per­fect fit. Cer­tain details even have explana­to­ry pow­er. For instance, D&C 8:2 talks of an ini­tial expe­ri­ence of mind and heart, but that the Holy Ghost will then “dwell in your heart”. Such a descrip­tion match­es up with a feel­ing that is hor­mon­al­ly medi­at­ed and lingers beyond the ini­tial trig­ger event.

Fur­ther­more, the idea that wit­ness­ing moral beau­ty gen­er­ates this emo­tion pro­vides an inter­est­ing con­nec­tion between the Moroni 10:3 and the rest of Moroni’s promise. Moroni 10:3 states:

Behold, I would exhort you that when ye shall read these things … that ye would remem­ber how mer­ci­ful the Lord hath been unto the chil­dren of men, from the cre­ation of Adam even down until the time that ye shall receive these things, and pon­der it in your hearts.

Pon­der­ing on the mer­cy of God across the his­to­ry of mankind is like­ly to tap into this emo­tion such that when the ques­tion of the truth­ful­ness of the Book of Mor­mon is broached, the pre­con­di­tion for expe­ri­enc­ing ele­va­tion has already been met. Counter-exam­ples also seem con­sis­tent: those who fix­ate on the venge­ful God of the Book of Mor­mon (e.g., destruc­tion at his com­ing) seem less able to expe­ri­ence the Spir­it when read­ing the book.

Sim­i­lar­ly, patrons to LDS tem­ples often report expe­ri­enc­ing the feel­ings of the Spir­it. Giv­en that tem­ple work con­sists of the per­for­mance of high­ly altru­is­tic acts of ser­vice for the dead with­in places of exquis­ite beau­ty, we would expect the emo­tion of ele­va­tion to be abun­dant­ly expe­ri­enced. And the counter-exam­ple also holds: those trou­bled by var­i­ous aspects of the tem­ple seem not to feel the Spir­it like those who are not both­ered by the same con­cerns.

It is well-known that acts of ser­vice induce the feel­ings of the Spir­it, and this match­es up well with the caus­es and feel­ings relat­ed to ele­va­tion. LDS for-prof­it sub­sidiaries also claim to be able to pre­dictably gen­er­ate this kind of feel­ing for a giv­en prod­uct.11

3.2 Inner speech, inner experience, and/or self-realization

A spir­i­tu­al expe­ri­ence, in LDS thought, is also accom­pa­nied by the flow of “pure intel­li­gence” as taught by Joseph Smith. The exact map­ping onto psy­chol­o­gy and brain phys­i­ol­o­gy is unclear, but it like­ly involves some com­bi­na­tion of these:

  1. Inner speech
  2. Inner Expe­ri­ence (semi-inar­tic­u­lat­ed thought)
  3. Self-real­iza­tion

Whether ful­ly artic­u­lat­ed or not, our men­tal, inter­nal dia­log and sense of con­nec­tion with the rest of the cos­mos like­ly under-girds the men­tal com­po­nent of a spir­i­tu­al expe­ri­ence.

3.2.1 Self-generation

The flow of “pure intel­li­gence” may indeed rep­re­sent com­mu­ni­ca­tion from/with a high­er pow­er. How­ev­er, as Dallin H. Oaks point­ed out before, such thoughts may also be “[con­coct­ed] out of [one’s] own fan­ta­sy or bias”. Dis­tinct phe­nom­e­na point to our abil­i­ty to gen­er­ate pro­found and com­plex ideas—without even being aware that we are the respon­si­ble par­ty.

For instance, incred­i­ble feats of author­ship have been per­formed in auto­mat­ic writ­ing, and the tech­nique itself can be learned. Inspec­tion of fan­tas­tic exam­ples (e.g., Helene Smith) have shown that the con­tent was “derived large­ly from for­got­ten sources (for exam­ple, books read as a child).”

The com­mu­ni­ca­tion facil­i­ta­tors of severe­ly hand­i­capped stu­dents depict­ed in the Front­line doc­u­men­tary “Pris­on­ers of Silence” are like­ly respon­si­ble for gen­er­at­ing vol­umes of con­tent with­out being aware that they were the gen­er­a­tors.

3.2.2 The power of suggestion

The pow­er of sug­ges­tion may also play a role in the mechan­ics behind spir­i­tu­al expe­ri­ence. For instance, in attempt­ing to repli­cate the effects of the Koren hel­met (aka “God hel­met”), a device thought to induce spir­i­tu­al expe­ri­ence through mag­net­ic fields, it was dis­cov­ered that the non-ver­bal sug­ges­tion of spir­i­tu­al expe­ri­ence induced just as many reports of spir­i­tu­al expe­ri­ence from those whose hel­mets were turned off as those with them turned on. (source)

Kumare is a pow­er­ful doc­u­men­tary that shows that act­ing spir­i­tu­al can pro­duce spir­i­tu­al expe­ri­ence in oth­ers. A man adopts a fake Indi­an accent, dress­es like a guru and adopts that per­sona. Even though he is “fak­ing it” to some extent (his teach­ings do evolve some­what until they seem heart­felt), he is very suc­cess­ful in gath­er­ing fol­low­ers who treat him as a spir­i­tu­al guide and lead them through spir­i­tu­al expe­ri­ences. He even­tu­al­ly “comes out” as his nor­mal, Amer­i­can self, but even after com­ing out, some of his fol­low­ers insist that he has psy­chic abilities—even though he flat­ly denies it.

4 Testimony, bias, and propaganda

LDS belief is con­firmed by spir­i­tu­al expe­ri­ences, but mem­bers will often argue that their testimony/knowledge goes deep­er than that—they “just know”. What kinds of mech­a­nisms might under­lie a belief that the hold­er is unable to source, artic­u­late, or explain? Could mem­bers be biased but unaware of this bias?

4.1 Insufficient justification

It has been shown12 that when we try to con­vince some­one else of some­thing that we don’t ful­ly believe, it will alter our orig­i­nal beliefs to cor­re­spond with our words. The Church encour­ages its mem­bers to begin dec­la­ra­tions with the phrase “I know … .” At least in part, then, some of what a mem­ber “knows” may mere­ly be their mind work­ing to align their beliefs with their dec­la­ra­tions.13

4.2 Too wide a net?

Mem­bers are taught that vir­tu­al­ly any pos­i­tive feel­ing is the Spir­it con­firm­ing the truth of the gospel (see “How do I Rec­og­nize and Under­stand the Spir­it” from Preach My Gospel). The New Era teach­es that the “thoughts and feel­ings from the Holy Ghost can come” (source):

  • Imme­di­ate­ly and intense­ly.”
  • Sub­tly and grad­u­al­ly.”
  • So del­i­cate­ly that [a per­son] may not even con­scious­ly rec­og­nize it.”

An unsus­pect­ing indi­vid­ual may find that any num­ber of pos­i­tive emo­tions and/or men­tal states are “con­fir­ma­tion” of the Gospel, even if this range of emo­tions and men­tal states is shared by those from oth­er faiths and even though these emo­tions and states are expe­ri­enced by those with no belief in God at all (exam­ple).

4.2.1 Confirmation bias

We tend to ignore all the times we have a feel­ing or notion and noth­ing came of it, and over-empha­size any time a feel­ing or notion led to some­thing good.14

For instance, if a per­son were pray­ing to a wood­en idol in their room, would they be able to dis­tin­guish answers to prayer from that idol ver­sus answers from God? They pray for some­thing and it hap­pens: “the idol answered my prayer”. They pray for some­thing and it doesn’t hap­pen, “I need to wait for the answer”. They pray for some­thing and it hap­pens counter to their expec­ta­tions: “The idol knows best what I need­ed, or I must have been pray­ing for the wrong thing.”15 We can­not dis­tin­guish between the suc­cess rate of prayers to God and those offered up to an idol, sug­gest­ing that we should be cau­tious in inter­pret­ing answers to prayer as con­fir­ma­tion of our cur­rent belief sys­tem. (adapt­ed from this source)

4.2.1.1 Keep praying

The same kind of con­fir­ma­tion bias may be at play with inves­ti­ga­tors pray­ing to receive a tes­ti­mo­ny of the Book of Mor­mon. An inves­ti­ga­tor who may not have received an answer is told to just “keep pray­ing”16 until they do. An inves­ti­ga­tor that receives con­fir­ma­tion of a deci­sion to not join the church will like­ly be told that they weren’t in tune or that this feel­ing should be doubt­ed. But, if noth­ing but a pos­i­tive con­fir­ma­tion of some­thing is an accept­able out­come, then it should raise ques­tions about the valid­i­ty of infor­ma­tion gained in that man­ner.

4.2.1.2 Doubts vs. Questions

Recent Ensign arti­cles ask mem­bers to deal with doubts about the Church in a prob­lem­at­ic way. For instance, mem­bers are told that ques­tions are okay while doubts are not (where a doubt is a ques­tion that actu­al­ly chal­lenges the truth claims of the Church) (“When doubts and ques­tions arise”, Ensign March 2015). The var­i­ous strate­gies for deal­ing with ques­tions have one thing in com­mon: they pre­vent a mem­ber from ever arriv­ing at the con­clu­sion that the Church may be wrong. Although these are effec­tive strate­gies for main­tain­ing faith, were they applied to mem­bers of oth­er faith tra­di­tions (e.g. to inves­ti­ga­tors of the Church who already belonged to a dif­fer­ent faith tra­di­tion), then it would pro­mote the main­te­nance of any pri­or faith position—regardless of its truth (see “Fix your faith cri­sis with this one weird trick!” for more dis­cus­sion).

4.3 The power of propaganda

Bear­ing tes­ti­mo­ny is an inte­gral part of LDS ser­vices, class­room study, and mis­sion­ary efforts, and a typ­i­cal mem­ber will either lis­ten to or bear tes­ti­mo­ny many hun­dreds or thou­sands of times a year. Preach My Gospel out­lines suc­cess­ful approach­es to bear­ing tes­ti­mo­ny that are used by mem­bers and mis­sion­ar­ies alike.

At least in part, a tes­ti­mo­ny impacts the hear­er because it fol­lows many pat­terns of effec­tive pro­pa­gan­da, includ­ing (see wikipedia:“Propaganda tech­niques”):

  • over­sim­pli­fi­ca­tion (tes­ti­monies are sup­posed to be sim­ple, direct dec­la­ra­tions)
  • rep­e­ti­tion (mis­sion­ar­ies and mem­bers coun­seled to bear tes­ti­mo­ny often)
  • loaded lan­guage (lan­guage with strong emo­tion­al impli­ca­tions is used, e.g. “know” rather than believe)
  • virtue words (e.g. “true”, “joy”)
  • man­ag­ing the news (“con­fine itself to a few points and repeat them over and over”)
  • obfus­ca­tion, inten­tion­al vague­ness, con­fu­sion (what does “know” even mean?)
  • thought-ter­mi­nat­ing cliché (e.g., “doubt your doubts”)
  • trans­fer (e.g., asso­ci­a­tion with family—families can be for­ev­er)
  • unstat­ed assump­tions (how a per­son “knows” each aspect in a tes­ti­mo­ny is typ­i­cal­ly left unsaid)

Because it fol­lows good pro­pa­gan­da tech­nique, tes­ti­mo­ny is pow­er­ful at per­suad­ing oth­ers; how­ev­er, that pow­er comes at some cost to truth itself—details and nuance are nec­es­sary to accu­rate­ly rep­re­sent real­i­ty.17

4.4 Repetition, repetition, repetition

Lat­ter-day Saints are exposed to Church teach­ings on a con­sis­tent, fre­quent basis. Three hours of Sun­day meet­ings (which are most­ly com­posed of lessons and talks), fire­sides and devo­tion­als, dai­ly fam­i­ly and indi­vid­ual scrip­ture study, fam­i­ly home evening, mutu­al activ­i­ties, and school-day seminary/institute instruc­tion mean that an active mem­ber is exposed to LDS teach­ings on a con­tin­u­al basis. Such a pro­gram is use­ful for encour­ag­ing the inter­nal­iza­tion of LDS teach­ings, and rep­e­ti­tion is a use­ful tool when try­ing to learn any­thing new. But, such rep­e­ti­tion can also explain some of the pos­i­tive feel­ings asso­ci­at­ed with Church activ­i­ty and how a mem­ber can “just know.”

In what is known as the “illu­so­ry truth effect”, exper­i­ments have shown that as we are repeat­ed­ly exposed to infor­ma­tion, regard­less of its truth, we are more inclined to believe it.

Sim­i­lar­ly, we expe­ri­ence what psy­chol­o­gists refer to as a “warm glow” as we are exposed to the famil­iar in what is termed the “mere-expo­sure effect”.18

4.5 The effect of new information

LDS truth claims have come under intense scruti­ny with advent of the inter­net age. How are we prone to react when exposed to new infor­ma­tion relat­ed to LDS his­to­ry and truth claims?

We tend to be con­ser­v­a­tive in updat­ing our old beliefs, giv­ing too much pref­er­ence to old­er infor­ma­tion (“con­ser­vatism bias”).

When peo­ple are pro­vid­ed evi­dence against their beliefs, they will often reject the evi­dence and become more firm­ly entrenched in their belief sys­tem in a phe­nom­e­non termed the “back­fire effect.” (see wikipedia:Confirmation_bias and this arti­cle)

5 Circularities: pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps?

When exam­in­ing or explain­ing the work­ings of the spir­it, sev­er­al inter­est­ing cir­cu­lar argu­ments emerge. Cir­cu­lar­i­ty does not nec­es­sar­i­ly indi­cate that either the premise or con­clu­sion is incor­rect,19 but becom­ing aware of the cir­cu­lar­i­ty is help­ful in avoid­ing log­i­cal fal­lac­i­es and hol­low argu­ments. Cir­cu­lar­i­ties may point to a lack of evi­dence in areas where a gen­uine argu­ment was once thought to exist.

5.1 Circularity in pray-feel

Per­haps the ulti­mate fac­tor in decid­ing whether or not we can rely on the feel­ings of the Holy Ghost for truth involves whether or not feel­ings and/or thoughts are used by the Holy Ghost to trans­mit truth. The pray-feel process is sus­pect because this all-crit­i­cal ques­tion can­not be answered using the method itself. Con­sid­er:

If one were to pray and ask God, “Are the good feel­ings I get when I pray about the truth­ful­ness of some­thing from God (or are they self-induced)?” what would a good feel­ing tell me?

5.2 Pray-feel and the Book of Mormon

The Book of Mor­mon teach­es that it is through the Holy Ghost that we can know the truth of all things (Moroni 10:4–5). Cohen explains the prob­lem with this teach­ing:

The most obvi­ous ques­tion [in Moroni 4:5], which often doesn’t get asked, is how do we know that this method of iden­ti­fy­ing truth is even valid and/or reli­able in the first place? In order for this state­ment to be ‘true’, the book itself has to be demon­strat­ed to be ‘true’. And how does one estab­lish the book to be true? — by apply­ing the method pre­scribed in the book. This is a clearcut exam­ple of cir­cu­lar rea­son­ing: “A is true because B is true; B is true because A is true.” (Cohen “Exam­in­ing Church Claims”)

5.3 Is it good?

As men­tioned above, the Preach My Gospel man­u­al presents a test for decid­ing whether a prompt­ing was from gen­uine­ly from the Spir­it (“Does it per­suade one to do good, to rise, to stand tall, to do the right thing, to be kind, to be gen­er­ous? Then it is of the Spir­it of God.”) (source).

There are sev­er­al poten­tial prob­lems with this test, depend­ing on how strict­ly the test is inter­pret­ed:

  • If a seek­er is decid­ing between deci­sions that are all con­sid­ered good, then the test is not help­ful in dis­tin­guish­ing between feel­ings.
  • If a seek­er is try­ing to decide whether some­thing is good or not, then the test may not be help­ful since one is not clear about what is good in the first place.
  • When ideas con­tra­dict someone’s world-view those ideas often make them feel uncom­fort­able. A seek­er may reject truth mis­tak­en­ly because they do not feel good and kind in their state of dis­com­fort.20

5.4 Confirmation by authority

In a case of con­flict­ing spir­i­tu­al impres­sions, the feel­ing of the per­son high­er in author­i­ty is giv­en greater weight. This method effec­tive­ly resolves most con­flicts with­in the exist­ing Church struc­ture. How­ev­er, when the ques­tion at hand is who has the high­er author­i­ty, such as dur­ing the suc­ces­sion cri­sis after Joseph Smith’s death, then this approach is inef­fec­tive.

The appeal to high­er author­i­ty also fails in the case where a per­son is seek­ing to know which of the many LDS fac­tions they should join. For instance, a spir­i­tu­al con­fir­ma­tion to join the FLDS church is sure to be reject­ed as spu­ri­ous by the lead­ers of the LDS Church and the Apos­tolic Unit­ed Brethren (AUB). (artic­u­lat­ed by Den­nis Pot­ter in his blog post and paper)

6 Conclusions

6.1 Summary

The Church itself acknowl­edges that spir­i­tu­al feel­ings may be self-con­coct­ed, and it tends to be cau­tious with any spir­i­tu­al impres­sions on mat­ters falling out­side of its core teach­ings. Mem­bers of reli­gions with con­tra­dic­to­ry truth-claims seem to receive spir­i­tu­al wit­ness­es that are iden­ti­cal to those described by Lat­ter-day Saints. Mem­bers seem to have felt spir­i­tu­al feel­ings con­firm­ing sto­ries that were lat­er deter­mined to have been fab­ri­cat­ed.

A spir­i­tu­al expe­ri­ence appears to be com­posed of the emo­tion of ele­va­tion (feel­ing of peace and expan­sive “warmth” in the chest) and some com­bi­na­tion of the var­i­ous types of inner thought. Sev­er­al phe­nom­e­na strong­ly sug­gest that com­plex and pro­found thoughts may be auto-gen­er­at­ed with­out the sub­ject being aware that they are the ones gen­er­at­ing them. In addi­tion, the pow­er of sug­ges­tion has been sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly doc­u­ment­ed to pro­duce spir­i­tu­al expe­ri­ences in many sub­jects.

A member’s belief often runs deep­er than their spir­i­tu­al expe­ri­ences, and sev­er­al well-doc­u­ment­ed phe­nom­e­na may help to explain this con­fi­dence. When indi­vid­u­als try to con­vince some­one of some­thing they do not ful­ly believe, they tend to inter­nal­ize that belief. Any num­ber of expe­ri­ences may be inter­pret­ed as con­fir­ma­tion of a member’s beliefs, but con­fir­ma­tion bias may be play­ing a sig­nif­i­cant role. A mem­ber bears and hears count­less tes­ti­monies each year, and tes­ti­monies effec­tive­ly use many tools of pro­pa­gan­da to per­suade. The rep­e­ti­tion of church teach­ings makes mem­bers more prone to believe them and they will enjoy the “warm glow” of famil­iar­i­ty. In addi­tion, when con­front­ed with con­trary evi­dence, mem­bers (like all peo­ple) are prone to becom­ing more deeply entrenched in their beliefs and tend to under­es­ti­mate how much their inter­nal mod­el might need to change to reflect new infor­ma­tion.

Sev­er­al LDS modes of deter­min­ing truth are like­ly cir­cu­lar, at least in part. It is impos­si­ble to ver­i­fy through the pray-feel method whether our feel­ings are from God or our­selves. The Book of Mor­mon asks that read­ers ver­i­fy it using the pray-feel method, but the pray-feel method relies on the Book of Mor­mon being true for validation—a cir­cu­lar argu­ment. Final­ly, both the “good­ness” test offered in Preach My Gospel and the LDS appeal to author­i­ty test are inef­fec­tive under mul­ti­ple con­di­tions, call­ing into ques­tion their ulti­mate util­i­ty.

Tak­en togeth­er, this analy­sis sug­gests that using spir­i­tu­al feel­ings and an inter­nal sense of assur­ance to deter­mine truth are both prob­lem­at­ic.

6.2 Reconciliation

Although this exam­i­na­tion sug­gests that we should apply due skep­ti­cism to spir­i­tu­al expe­ri­ences, it does not rule out the pos­si­bil­i­ty that God speaks to us through our mind and heart.

A believ­ing Lat­ter-day Saint may also take heart in the knowl­edge that their tes­ti­mo­ny is but­tressed by a belief in exter­nal events, par­tic­u­lar­ly mir­a­cles (e.g., Christ’s res­ur­rec­tion) and per­son­al vis­i­ta­tions (sev­er­al prophets and apos­tles, not to men­tion Church mem­bers, claim to have spo­ken with God or Christ face to face21)—mem­bers do not rely on the inter­pre­ta­tion of per­son­al spir­i­tu­al expe­ri­ences alone to con­firm their faith (see, for instance, Moroni 7:25).

Skep­ti­cism of spir­i­tu­al expe­ri­ences may be help­ful for many believ­ing Lat­ter-day Saints—healthy skep­ti­cism of spir­i­tu­al expe­ri­ences can help mem­bers avoid scrupu­lous­ly fol­low­ing every intru­sive thought,22 be open to con­tin­u­ing rev­e­la­tion and direc­tion,23 and may help them to prop­er­ly con­tex­tu­al­ize the spir­i­tu­al expe­ri­ences of oth­ers. In addi­tion, these prin­ci­ples may offer a per­son wrapped up in the next “spir­i­tu­al” fad good rea­son to ques­tion the valid­i­ty of under­ly­ing assump­tions and truth-claims.

Regard­less of their ulti­mate source, spir­i­tu­al expe­ri­ences (i.e., medi­at­ed through the emo­tion of ele­va­tion) are impor­tant for encour­ag­ing self-improve­ment and help­ing us to look out­side our­selves and to help oth­ers. The deep inter­nal reflec­tion and con­ver­sa­tion asso­ci­at­ed with a spir­i­tu­al experience—facilitated through prayer and meditation—can be impor­tant for clar­i­fy­ing our think­ing and help­ing us to dis­cov­er and artic­u­late impor­tant truths. Giv­en their use­ful­ness, both the emo­tion of ele­va­tion and the deep, inter­nal dia­log inher­ent to spir­i­tu­al expe­ri­ence ought to be sought after and cul­ti­vat­ed.

Fur­ther, research into deci­sion mak­ing sug­gests that some kinds of deci­sions are best made using our intu­ition. Mal­colm Glad­well, after study­ing the deci­sion mak­ing process, con­clud­ed:

We need to respect the fact that it is pos­si­ble to know with­out know­ing why we know and accept that—sometimes—we’re bet­ter off that way. (from “Blink: The Pow­er of Think­ing With­out Think­ing”)

At the same time, there are com­pelling rea­sons to ques­tion the reli­a­bil­i­ty of spir­i­tu­al expe­ri­ences and the things that we “just know”. The pre­sent­ed evi­dence sug­gests that the feel­ings asso­ci­at­ed with a spir­i­tu­al expe­ri­ence are more suit­ed to point­ing us to what is “good” rather than what is nec­es­sar­i­ly fac­tu­al­ly true.

We must also be care­ful not to miss truth over a pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with feel­ings: that which we already con­sid­er to be “good” is most like­ly to be con­firmed by spir­i­tu­al impression—since it will gen­er­ate feel­ings of secu­ri­ty and not dis­com­fort.24 Hence, we must be care­ful that we do not reject that which is good because it does not con­form to a nar­row pre-con­cep­tion of good­ness.

6.3 Unafraid to challenge our convictions

These con­clu­sions sug­gest that there are no easy answers when it comes to find­ing truth—especially giv­en the bias­es that we each hold. Find­ing truth requires that we scru­ti­nize our assump­tions and ques­tion our deep­est held beliefs. Such pierc­ing inter­nal reflec­tion may be uncom­fort­able, but it will ulti­mate­ly lead us from a place where we mere­ly think we know, to one of greater wisdom—a place of humil­i­ty in the face of uncer­tain­ty and ulti­mate­ly greater con­fi­dence in those things which have with­stood the rig­ors of close scruti­ny.

The reward for such inves­ti­ga­tion is like­ly worth the discomfort—the more accu­rate­ly our inter­nal maps align with real­i­ty, the greater our abil­i­ty to com­pre­hend and either adept­ly con­trol or peace­ful­ly accept the world around us. We should be unafraid to chal­lenge our own con­vic­tions.

7 Additional reading


  1. This is not to sug­gest that Lat­ter-day Saints do not apply their intel­lect to most aspects of their lives: “by study and also by faith” is repeat­ed three times in the Doc­trine & Covenants (88:118, 109:7, and 109:14). Hence, LDS tra­di­tion rarely aban­dons rea­son to faith and most­ly seeks to rec­on­cile the ratio­nal and spir­i­tu­al inso­far as that is pos­si­ble. Many mem­bers are high­ly edu­cat­ed and make sig­nif­i­cant con­tri­bu­tions across the spec­trum of sec­u­lar stud­ies. How­ev­er, when applied to the Church or spir­i­tu­al phe­nom­e­na them­selves, “study” is typ­i­cal­ly used to bolster—rather than to crit­i­cal­ly examine—core truth-claims.
  2. Were spir­i­tu­al prompt­ings ful­ly trust­ed one might imag­ine this kind of con­ver­sa­tion: “The Spir­it con­firmed this to me, hence I know it is cor­rect and we can move for­ward.”

  3. Dallin H. Oaks taught:

    … when one per­son pur­ports to receive rev­e­la­tion for anoth­er per­son out­side his or her own area of responsibility—such as a Church mem­ber who claims to have rev­e­la­tion to guide the entire Church or a per­son who claims to have a rev­e­la­tion to guide anoth­er per­son over whom he or she has no pre­sid­ing author­i­ty accord­ing to the order of the Church—you can be sure that such rev­e­la­tions are not from the Lord. (Gospel Doc­trine Teacher’s Man­u­al Les­son 6: “I Will Tell You in Your Mind and in Your Heart, by the Holy Ghost”)

  4. A First Pres­i­den­cy State­ment from 1912 can­on­ized a pri­ori rejec­tion of spir­i­tu­al com­mu­ni­ca­tion not in har­mo­ny with accept­ed Church doc­trine:

    When … inspi­ra­tion con­veys some­thing out of har­mo­ny with the accept­ed rev­e­la­tions of the Church or con­trary to the deci­sions of its con­sti­tut­ed author­i­ties, Lat­ter-day Saints may know that it is not of God, no mat­ter how plau­si­ble it may appear. (Gospel Doc­trine Teacher’s Man­u­al Les­son 6: “I Will Tell You in Your Mind and in Your Heart, by the Holy Ghost”)

    This idea holds in prac­tice. Brent Larsen record­ed his excom­mu­ni­ca­tion appeal, which entailed a con­ver­sa­tion with a Gen­er­al Author­i­ty. When Larsen insist­ed that he is “sup­posed to fol­low the Holy Ghost”, the Sev­en­ty respond­ed:

    Nobody asked you to sur­ren­der blind obe­di­ence, okay? But with­out a prophet we would be—you want to have the women in here that believe they hold the priest­hood, so they’re gonna say it just like you. They’re gonna talk just like you…So you’re gonna tell me they’re all three right because they’re all gonna tes­ti­fy that that holy ghost that told you to do it that way is the same holy ghost that tell them to do it that way… (source)

  5. The test to deter­mine if a spir­i­tu­al impres­sion is to be trust­ed: “Does it per­suade one to do good, to rise, to stand tall, to do the right thing, to be kind, to be gen­er­ous? Then it is of the Spir­it of God.” (Preach My Gospel)
  6. This was the tes­ti­mo­ny of a young plur­al wife, record­ed in 1996, at a sacra­ment meet­ing of the The True and Liv­ing Church of Jesus Christ and Saints of the Last Days.

  7. Apple­white led his entire UFO cult to com­mit mass sui­cide to lead them to what they con­sid­ered the next plane of exis­tence.

  8. A. J. Miller is gen­uine­ly con­vinced that he is the res­ur­rect­ed Jesus of Nazareth.

  9. Christo­pher Nemel­ka claims to be the rein­car­nat­ed Hyrum Smith.

  10. The emo­tion of ele­va­tion increas­es oxy­tocin lev­els in nurs­ing moth­ers (source). We expect one or more hor­mones to be involved in ele­va­tion giv­en the dizzy­ing array of hor­mones that are known to influ­ence our emo­tion­al and men­tal state. For instance, here is a list of the hor­mones known to be involved in how we deal with con­flict (source): Adren­a­lin trig­gers the fight or flight response; Testos­terone stim­u­lates aggres­sion; Oxy­tocin instills trust, increas­es loy­al­ty, and pro­motes the “tend and befriend” response; Estro­gen trig­gers the release of oxy­tocin; Endor­phins rein­force col­lab­o­ra­tive expe­ri­ences with plea­sure; Dopamine gen­er­ates a reward response and for­ti­fies addic­tion; Sero­tonin reg­u­lates moods; Phenylethy­la­line induces excite­ment and antic­i­pa­tion; Vaso­pressin encour­ages bond­ing in males in a vari­ety of species.
    The way in which these hor­mones play out among ani­mals to influ­ence “fight or flight” or “aggres­sion vs. coöper­a­tion” may be rel­e­vant to spir­i­tu­al expe­ri­ences (source):

    These aggres­sive behav­ioral pat­terns and the mod­u­la­tion of an animal’s ten­den­cy to fight or flee are con­trolled by a hier­ar­chi­cal sys­tem of neur­al struc­tures. Many of these are found in the lim­bic sys­tem; a part of the fore­brain that is involved in emo­tion­al­ly based behav­ior and moti­va­tion. These neur­al struc­tures inter­act with bio­chem­i­cals that are pro­duced inside and out­side the ner­vous sys­tem.

    For exam­ple, it has been shown that sero­tonin injec­tions cause lob­sters and oth­er ani­mals to take a dom­i­nant or aggres­sive pos­ture, while octopamine injec­tions induce sub­mis­sive pos­tures, which favor coöper­a­tion. When sero­tonin lev­els are increased in sub­or­di­nate ani­mals, their will­ing­ness to fight also increas­es, and declines as they are reduced.

  11. Is “the Spir­it” a mar­ketable prod­uct? Here’s how Bon­neville Com­mu­ni­ca­tions, a for-prof­it sub­sidiary of the LDS Church, described their prod­uct, ‘Heart­Sell’:

    At Bon­neville Com­mu­ni­ca­tions, our abil­i­ty to touch the hearts and minds of audi­ences makes us an essen­tial resource for orga­ni­za­tions with vital messages…Our unique strength is the abil­i­ty to touch the hearts and minds of our audi­ences, evok­ing first feel­ing, then thought and, final­ly, action. We call this unique­ly pow­er­ful brand of cre­ative ‘Heart­Sell’ — strate­gic emo­tion­al adver­tis­ing that stim­u­lates response. (source [from ear­ly 2015])

    Long after peo­ple for­get what they hear, they remem­ber how they feel. So Bon­neville cre­ates those unfor­get­table feel­ings for those who request our sup­port. Bonneville’s work has been inter­na­tion­al­ly rec­og­nized for its abil­i­ty to inspire and moti­vate. (source [from 2007])

    Of course, Bon­neville isn’t the only com­pa­ny involved in mar­ket­ing that under­stands the impor­tance of gen­er­at­ing pow­er­ful emo­tion­al respons­es to sell a prod­uct. How­ev­er, since these kinds of emo­tions can be pre­dictably gen­er­at­ed for a giv­en prod­uct, it again sug­gests cau­tion in inter­pret­ing such an expe­ri­ence as a divine con­fir­ma­tion of “truth”.

  12. From the 1959 study on insuf­fi­cient jus­ti­fi­ca­tion: “If a per­son is induced to do or say some­thing which is con­trary to his pri­vate opin­ion, there will be a ten­den­cy for him to change his opin­ion so as to bring it into cor­re­spon­dence with what he has done or said.” (video which details the exper­i­ment and more on insuf­fi­cient jus­ti­fi­ca­tion)

  13. The teach­ing that we should speak with greater cer­tain­ty than we feel in order to gain greater cer­tain­ty is illus­trat­ed:

    Oh, if I could teach you this one prin­ci­ple. A tes­ti­mo­ny is to be found in the bear­ing of it! … Can you not see that it will be sup­plied as you share it? (Boyd K. Pack­er, Ensign Jan 1983)

    Anoth­er way to seek a tes­ti­mo­ny seems aston­ish­ing when com­pared with the meth­ods of obtain­ing oth­er knowl­edge. We gain or strength­en a tes­ti­mo­ny by bear­ing it. Some­one even sug­gest­ed that some tes­ti­monies are bet­ter gained on the feet bear­ing them than on the knees pray­ing for them. (Dallin H. Oaks, (April 2008 Con­fer­ence)

    This kind of approach is use­ful for inter­nal­iz­ing desired attrib­ut­es (e.g., pos­i­tive think­ing) but the valid­i­ty of fac­tu­al “truths” obtained in such a man­ner remains in ques­tion.

  14. It is easy to see bias­es in those with oth­er beliefs but dif­fi­cult to see our own bias­es (see the video “Sacred Bias” for sev­er­al exam­ples and dis­cus­sion). See “Real­i­ty Schmeal­i­ty” for addi­tion­al rel­e­vant bias­es.

  15. A good exam­ple of this kind of ratio­nal­iza­tion is from Wrong Roads a Mor­mon Mes­sage by Jef­frey R. Hol­land where he and his son pray and both feel that they should take a par­tic­u­lar road. The road turns out to be a dead-end! Holland’s son ques­tions him about this, but Elder Hol­land is able to eas­i­ly ratio­nal­ize the answer: going the wrong way helped them to more quick­ly find the right road and have more con­fi­dence it was the right way out. The prob­lem with this kind of think­ing is that it does not allow for an answer to ever be wrong, so the verac­i­ty of all answers inter­pret­ed in this light becomes sus­pect.

  16. Exam­ples of the coun­sel to “keep pray­ing” until you receive a tes­ti­mo­ny abound. See, for exam­ple, Elder Staheli’s Octo­ber 2004 address “Secur­ing Our Tes­ti­monies”.

  17. For instance, one could bear tes­ti­mo­ny that the Book of Abra­ham is “true”, but for such a tes­ti­mo­ny to be accu­rate it would require numer­ous caveats and a detailed expla­na­tion à la “Trans­la­tion and His­toric­i­ty of the Book of Abra­ham” at lds​.org.

  18. The “warm glow of famil­iar­i­ty” is thought to be a heuris­tic cue to safe­ty. Inter­est­ing­ly, the pos­i­tive feel­ings derived from expo­sure to the famil­iar are felt more strong­ly when our mood is neg­a­tive.(source).

  19. For exam­ple, the sci­en­tif­ic method can­not be proven “true” by the sci­en­tif­ic method (even if there are oth­er rea­sons to believe in its valid­i­ty).

  20. Con­sid­er a young adult raised in the FLDS com­mu­ni­ty and con­tin­u­ous­ly taught that polygamy (“celes­tial mar­riage”) was good and holy (for exam­ple, lis­ten to War­ren Jeffs and his Uncle teach 5th to 10th grade girls). Imag­ine that they pray and feel a spir­i­tu­al prompt­ing that polygamy is wrong—using Hinckley’s test to deter­mine if this was real­ly the Holy Ghost, they would be inclined to dis­miss such a prompt­ing because they know that polygamy is “good”, hence the prompt­ing must have been self-con­coct­ed or false and they should dis­miss it. Or, con­sid­er how a per­son would feel when pray­ing about “mag­ic” toys if they were raised to believe mag­ic toys were evil?

  21. The objec­tive real­i­ty of vis­i­ta­tions by heav­en­ly mes­sen­gers should be inter­pret­ed in light of cur­rent research about the influ­ence of DMT (N,N-Dimethyltryptamine) on human sub­jects. DMT is a sub­stance which is pro­duced endoge­nous­ly and, in high enough dos­es, can gen­er­ate the impres­sion a per­son has encoun­tered angel­ic enti­ties (source).

  22. For exam­ple, this for­mer mem­ber dis­cuss­es how they respond­ed to “prompt­ings” (com­ment from source):

    For the longest time I thought my intru­sive thoughts were the Holy Ghost, so I would do weird stuff like get out of bed a cou­ple of times a night to make sure there were no bur­glars in our dri­ve­way and take dif­fer­ent ways home. I want­ed to be like the peo­ple in tes­ti­mo­ny meet­ing who avoid­ed some kind of unknown tragedy because they fol­lowed bizarre spir­i­tu­al prompt­ings.

  23. If spir­i­tu­al expe­ri­ences (espe­cial­ly rev­e­la­tion) are medi­at­ed through imper­fect men, feel­ings, and thought pat­terns, then addi­tion­al rev­e­la­tion may be use­ful in help­ing to clar­i­fy and cor­rect past rev­e­la­tion.
  24. At the “Swedish Res­cue”, Church lead­ers Mar­lin Jensen (MJ) and Richard Tur­ley (RT) dis­cuss how one’s pre­con­cep­tions (i.e., cul­ture) strong­ly influ­ence whether or not a per­son expe­ri­ences the feel­ings of the Holy Ghost:

    Ques­tion: Why do we have such a bad feel­ing when we come to the tem­ple? If the Holy Ghost was there this would give a tes­ti­mo­ny, you feel good about it, you like to go there again, you feel uplift­ed. But this is just you feel sad, you won­der, what I’ve been deceived, you real­ly have night­mares, at least for a week.

    RT: Again, short answer, the way peo­ple react to the tem­ple expe­ri­ence depends on their cul­ture. There are some peo­ple in some cul­tures who go to the tem­ple and they react very pos­i­tive­ly and there are oth­ers who do not.

    Ques­tion: Yeah, but if it’s the spir­it, it should tes­ti­fy to you if you’re African or Indi­an, what­ev­er.

    Ques­tion: We hope the Holy Ghost could change his mind for an Amer­i­can or Swedish I mean, that’s not the way I feel.

    MJ: I remem­ber sit­ting with our first daugh­ter, actu­al­ly, who went on a mis­sion to Ger­many, after her first tem­ple endow­ment which I attend­ed with her.

    Ques­tion: When was that?

    MJ: Pre-90. And I was her stake pres­i­dent, so I did my best to pre­pare her. Since then the church, as you know, has pro­duced “Endowed From on High” which is the sev­enth les­son course for tem­ple prepa­ra­tion, which I’m sure you must have in Swe­den. But the tem­ple, because we have a very prac­ti­cal and util­i­tar­i­an reli­gion, we don’t have the rich litur­gy that the Catholics have or the Protes­tants. So the tem­ple for most peo­ple ini­tial­ly is a very dif­fer­ent expe­ri­ence, Hans, as it was for you.

    Ques­tion: But the Holy Ghost, I mean—

    MJ: Well, I know. I think my lit­tle daugh­ter was quite wor­thy, but she was so dis­turbed, I’ll say. So sur­prised by the nature of what hap­pened there that I’m not sure the holy ghost had a chance to real­ly help her that day. I remem­ber sit­ting with her in the celes­tial room while she cried and said, dad what’s this all about? And I wish I had done a bet­ter job. She has per­sist­ed and I said to her if you’ll keep com­ing and keep learn­ing and keep pray­ing about it, you’ll […] and loves what she feels there. But it’s tak­en some time. It isn’t a tap we can always turn on.

    Ques­tion: I think what you’re say­ing now is your answer to every­thing. If we keep doing it, we will feel good about it.

    Ques­tion: My first kill as a deer hunter was ter­ri­ble, but I learned to love it. You know, I know it’s an extreme, but the spir­it should tes­ti­fy, I think, about the truth, when­ev­er it is the truth. Do you know what I mean? I mean, I shouldn’t need to go there 20 times to feel good. You know what I mean?

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