This entry is part 13 of 13 in Leav­ing the Church — Eric Nel­son.

1. Back­ground: Despite my doubts and con­cerns about var­i­ous aspects of LDS doc­trine and his­to­ry, I remained in the Church for sev­er­al years due to the spir­i­tu­al and uplift­ing expe­ri­ences I enjoyed as a mem­ber. But those spir­i­tu­al feel­ings and emo­tions have also been a mat­ter of study and inspection.

Dur­ing my so-called “faith cri­sis,” I stud­ied numer­ous LDS sources in hopes of find­ing answers to a vari­ety of trou­bling ques­tions about the Church. How­ev­er, I became increas­ing­ly frus­trat­ed when most Church mem­bers refused to acknowl­edge, let alone dis­cuss, some of the uncom­fort­able infor­ma­tion I was dis­cov­er­ing. Rather, vir­tu­al­ly every time I reached out for guid­ance or sup­port, my Church lead­ers said vir­tu­al­ly the same thing: the facts, evi­dence, and log­i­cal argu­ments under­min­ing the Church are unim­por­tant because the spir­it con­firms that the Church is true.

For a while, I accept­ed, if not embraced, my Church lead­ers’ guid­ance. Specif­i­cal­ly, I believed the Spir­it teach­es all truth (based on John 14:26 and John 15:26). I believed I could use the Spir­it to deci­pher truth by doing the fol­low­ing: First, I would do a spe­cif­ic act (John 7:17) or pon­der a spe­cif­ic issue (D&C 9:8–9). In doing so, I would then seek con­fir­ma­tion that the act or issue or ques­tion was true. I would receive this con­fir­ma­tion through cer­tain feel­ings and sen­sa­tions (D&C 9:8–9, Gala­tians 5:22–23) or, more often, through my mind and heart (D&C 8:2–3). Some­times these feel­ings would be strong and imme­di­ate. But more often, these feel­ings and con­fir­ma­tions would arrive line upon line, pre­cept upon pre­cept over a long peri­od of time (2 Nephi 28:30).

At times, this process worked and I believed I could deci­pher truth with my feel­ings. I felt pos­i­tive emo­tions when I par­tic­i­pat­ed in var­i­ous church activ­i­ties such as singing hymns, pray­ing, attend­ing bap­tisms, and per­form­ing ser­vice. In turn, I believed these feel­ings served as con­fir­ma­tion from God that the Church was true.

Over time, how­ev­er, I began to dis­trust the fore­go­ing process when I deter­mined that my premise (feel­ings are answers and instruc­tions from God) and the result­ing con­clu­sion (there­fore the Church is true) was based on unsound and faulty assump­tions. Rather, the evi­dence demon­strates that feel­ings, emo­tions, and the “spir­it” are unre­li­able in deci­pher­ing truth.

2. Sim­i­lar Expe­ri­ences in Oth­er Reli­gions: The Church teach­es that we can obtain knowl­edge and truth through the pow­er of the Holy Ghost, which is typ­i­cal­ly asso­ci­at­ed with cer­tain feel­ings and sen­sa­tions. How­ev­er, the feel­ings typ­i­cal­ly asso­ci­at­ed with the Holy Ghost are felt by peo­ple of all dif­fer­ent back­grounds in dai­ly life. Many reli­gious and non-reli­gious indi­vid­u­als feel “spir­i­tu­al” feel­ings (or get goose­bumps, a lump in their throat, or teary-eyed, etc.) while watch­ing fic­tion­al movies, lis­ten­ing to music, read­ing nov­els, or enjoy­ing a hike. Like­wise, most athe­ists would acknowl­edge feel­ing “tin­gling, warm sen­sa­tions” in many activities.

But if God sends cer­tain feel­ings and emo­tions to help indi­vid­u­als deci­pher truth, Mor­mons should be the only peo­ple who feel the Holy Ghost in deter­min­ing whether their Church is true. How­ev­er, this is sim­ply not the case. Peo­ple from all reli­gions report hav­ing the same feel­ings that wit­ness to them that their par­tic­u­lar reli­gion, beliefs, or church is true. In fact, mem­bers of oth­er faiths often fol­low vir­tu­al­ly the same method of find­ing truth as mem­bers of the LDS church. Even so, these non-mem­bers gain tes­ti­monies of their own church based, in large part, on the same spir­i­tu­al feel­ings LDS mem­bers feel about their church. Obvi­ous­ly, not all reli­gions can be right. And it seems more than a bit far-fetched to believe that only mem­bers of the LDS Church, who con­sti­tute a minis­cule por­tion of the world’s pop­u­la­tion, are able to accu­rate­ly use their feel­ings to deci­pher truth, spir­i­tu­al or otherwise.

For exam­ple, this video con­tains the tes­ti­monies of indi­vid­u­als from 16 dif­fer­ent reli­gions all of whom believe God has told them through the spir­it that they belong to God’s one true church. Many of these indi­vid­u­als tes­ti­fy that they know God is speak­ing to them when they feel emo­tions that are stronger or dif­fer­ent than the typ­i­cal emo­tions they feel on a day-to-day basis. There­fore, they know these feel­ings and insights are from God as opposed to reg­u­lar feel­ings or emo­tions. How­ev­er, how can all these indi­vid­u­als expe­ri­ence the same feel­ings and emo­tions about their respec­tive church­es that Mor­mons feel about the LDS Church?

More­over, con­sid­er the state­ments and expe­ri­ences of the three fol­low­ing reli­gious leaders:

  • Mar­shall Apple­white, for­mer leader of Heav­en’s Gate, told his fol­low­ers that they could know whether his teach­ings were true by doing the following:

… 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?”

  • A.J. Miller, leader of the Divine Truth move­ment, tells his fol­low­ers to deci­pher truth in the fol­low­ing 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.

  • Paul H. Dunn exem­pli­fies the unre­li­able nature of deci­pher­ing truth through “spir­i­tu­al” feel­ings and prompt­ings. Elder Dunn was a Gen­er­al Author­i­ty of the Church for many years and told incred­i­ble faith-pro­mot­ing war and base­ball sto­ries. Some of his sto­ries told of how God pro­tect­ed him in bat­tle as ene­my fire ripped away his cloth­ing, gear, and hel­met with­out ever touch­ing his skin. Mem­bers of the Church shared how they real­ly felt the Spir­it as they lis­tened to Elder Dunn’s tes­ti­mo­ny and sto­ries. Elder Dunn, how­ev­er, lied about all his war and base­ball sto­ries and was forced to apol­o­gize to Church mem­bers. He became the first Gen­er­al Author­i­ty to gain “emer­i­tus” sta­tus and was removed from pub­lic Church life.

Mar­shall Apple­white, A.J. Miller, and Elder Dunn all exem­pli­fy a larg­er point, name­ly, that many indi­vid­u­als can (and often do) feel warm, uplift­ing, and spir­i­tu­al feel­ings even when hear­ing false­hoods, lies, and fab­ri­cat­ed sto­ries. But clear­ly, those spir­i­tu­al feel­ings could not have been tes­ti­fy­ing that the teach­ings and sto­ries of the fore­go­ing lead­ers were true.

Like­wise, many church mem­bers feel pos­i­tive, spir­i­tu­al feel­ings when read­ing the Book of Mor­mon or learn­ing about var­i­ous aspects of the gospel. These feel­ings, how­ev­er, do not prove that the Book of Mor­mon or oth­er aspects of LDS doc­trine are true.

3. Spir­i­tu­al Feel­ings are Inher­ent­ly Unre­li­ableA recent sur­vey asked peo­ple who believe in a God who answers prayers if they had prayed and asked God which reli­gion is the most cor­rect. Notably, 82 per­cent of the respon­dents stat­ed they had received an answer from God (and 73 per­cent indi­cat­ed they were “very sure” that God gave them an answer). Those respon­dents who claimed to have received an answer from God iden­ti­fied 22 dif­fer­ent reli­gions as God’s true church. As not­ed by Car­son Calder­wood, there are a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of peo­ple that use the same evi­dence as Mor­mons (strong, spir­i­tu­al feel­ings) to prove that their church is God’s only true church. The fact that peo­ple of many dif­fer­ent faiths use the same evi­dence in form­ing vast­ly dif­fer­ent con­clu­sions sug­gests that rely­ing pri­mar­i­ly on feel­ings and emo­tions is a sub­jec­tive and unre­li­able method of deci­pher­ing truth. After all, how can mem­bers of one faith deter­mine that their feel­ings are cor­rect (or the “most cor­rect”) while mem­bers of oth­ers faiths are wrong?

Recent research into DMT (N,N‑Dimethyltryptamine) pro­vides addi­tion­al evi­dence as to the unre­li­a­bil­i­ty of reli­gious emo­tions in deci­pher­ing truth. DMT is pow­er­ful psy­che­del­ic drug and is often referred to as the “spir­it mol­e­cule” because its effects include many fea­tures of reli­gious expe­ri­ence, such as visions, voic­es, dis­em­bod­ied con­scious­ness, pow­er­ful emo­tions, nov­el insights, and feel­ings of over­whelm­ing sig­nif­i­cance. Dr. Rick Strass­man admin­is­tered 400 dos­es of DMT to 60 vol­un­teers and their expe­ri­ences mir­ror those of Mor­mons dur­ing reli­gious expe­ri­ences. For exam­ples, those who were admin­is­tered DMT report­ed feel­ing the following:

  • A feel­ing of unde­ni­able cer­tain­ty that the expe­ri­ence was “more real than real”;
  • A sense of won­der or awe and, at times, a sep­a­ra­tion of spir­it from the body;
  • Mirac­u­lous, long-term, pos­i­tive changes in a person’s life because of the experience;
  • Pro­found spir­i­tu­al insights dur­ing the experience;
  • Extra­or­di­nary joy and a sense of time­less­ness, a feel­ing of eternity;
  • Increased pos­i­tive emo­tions, pow­er­ful­ly moved to tears;
  • Impres­sions of bright white lights and encoun­ters with angel­ic entities;
  • Visions of a tree of life (none of the vol­un­teers were Mormon)

The par­tic­i­pants that came from a reli­gious back­ground report­ed that the DMT feel­ings were either iden­ti­cal to or more real than the spir­i­tu­al feel­ings they had felt pre­vi­ous­ly. Based on these find­ings, Calder­wood raised an impor­tant ques­tion: If indi­vid­u­als can’t tell the dif­fer­ence between chem­i­cal­ly-induced feel­ings and spir­i­tu­al feel­ings, how can they use these same feel­ings as an indi­ca­tor of truth? For exam­ple, Calder­wood asked: “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?” Calder­wood then pos­es two addi­tion­al ques­tions to those who use spir­i­tu­al feel­ings and emo­tions in deci­pher­ing truth: (1) Why are your con­clu­sions using emo­tion­al rea­son­ing cor­rect and those of oth­er faiths incor­rect; and (2) How can you say those spir­i­tu­al feel­ings and emo­tions are from God when those same feel­ings and emo­tions can be arti­fi­cial­ly induced through DMT or in a sci­en­tif­ic lab?

4. Feel­ings Change With “New” Infor­ma­tion: Pri­or to dis­cov­er­ing many of the issues out­lined above, I often felt pos­i­tive, uplift­ing, and inspi­ra­tional feel­ings about the Church. But as I exposed myself to new (albeit cred­i­ble) sources of infor­ma­tion about the Church, it become appar­ent that there are cer­tain aspects of the Church that can, with vary­ing degrees of cer­tain­ty, be proven false. I began to real­ize that I built my belief sys­tem on a num­ber of inspi­ra­tional sto­ries that, in many instances, were not based on fact. As these issues added up, I found it increas­ing­ly dif­fi­cult to put my faith in those aspects of the Church that must be tak­en on faith alone.

For exam­ple, Joseph Smith made a large­ly empir­i­cal, testable claim that he could trans­late ancient doc­u­ments. Yet, in ana­lyz­ing the facts sur­round­ing the Book of Abra­ham and the Kinder­hook Plates, it became clear that the papyri and plates at issue were not what Joseph Smith claimed them to be. After dis­cov­er­ing this infor­ma­tion, I no longer felt spir­i­tu­al feel­ings when read­ing the Book of Abra­ham and began to have seri­ous ques­tions about the legit­i­ma­cy of the Book of Mor­mon (par­tic­u­lar­ly in light of the fact that Joseph did not use the plates dur­ing the trans­la­tion process and instead relied upon a seer stone placed in a hat).

How­ev­er, these unset­tling feel­ings sur­round­ing my tes­ti­mo­ny were not com­plete­ly new, as I occa­sion­al­ly felt them before expe­ri­enc­ing my recent reli­gious cri­sis of faith. Specif­i­cal­ly, I have nev­er felt com­fort­able with the doc­trine of polygamy and I doubt most mem­bers have had spir­i­tu­al wit­ness­es as to its truth­ful­ness. How­ev­er, after read­ing about how the doc­trine was revealed and insti­tut­ed, I now feel absolute­ly sick about the prac­tice. Fur­ther­more, I have always felt uneasy dur­ing por­tions of the tem­ple cer­e­mo­ny. I have felt baf­fled about the priest­hood and tem­ple ban relat­ing to those of African lin­eage. And I emo­tion­al­ly and log­i­cal­ly oppose the Church’s teach­ings as they relate to sex­u­al ori­en­ta­tion and homosexuality.

Sim­ply stat­ed, feel­ings and emo­tions change based upon cir­cum­stances and con­text. The same feel­ings I pre­vi­ous­ly felt telling me the Church was true now tell me that the Church is not what it pur­ports to be.

5. Truth Ver­sus Util­i­ty: Many indi­vid­u­als gauge the Church’s truth­ful­ness on its “fruits” or its pos­i­tive impact upon the lives of its mem­bers. In that sense, the Church is true for many of its mem­bers. From my own expe­ri­ences, the Church has had an enor­mous­ly pos­i­tive impact on my life.

Ana­lyz­ing the Church pri­mar­i­ly from its fruits rather than its his­to­ry or doc­trine is quite com­pelling. Doing so allows mem­bers to avoid dif­fi­cult ques­tions relat­ing to the his­toric­i­ty of the Book of Mor­mon, the Book of Abra­ham, the cred­i­bil­i­ty of Joseph Smith, or the ori­gins and impe­tus of polygamy. More impor­tant­ly, this approach allows mem­bers to re-work cer­tain aspects of Mor­monism so as to retain the val­ue and guid­ance it pro­vides to their lives.

Based on some of the trou­bling things we know about Church his­to­ry, I think a great deal about the ori­gins of the Church are more per­sua­sive when not tak­en lit­er­al­ly. A lit­er­al read­ing of the scrip­tures alien­ates much of our soci­ety. Many Church teach­ings orig­i­nat­ed in a dif­fer­ent age with dif­fer­ent views on social jus­tice — an age in which slav­ery was legit­i­mate, an age when dis­crim­i­na­tion based on gen­der, race, eth­nic­i­ty, and sex­u­al ori­en­ta­tion was the norm. Too often because of this his­to­ry, the Church’s teach­ings are used to jus­ti­fy intol­er­ance today. In throw­ing off the shack­les of a lit­er­al­is­tic belief sys­tem, Church mem­bers are free to inter­pret var­i­ous teach­ings and sto­ries as a tes­ta­ment to the reli­gious expe­ri­ences of peo­ple from a dif­fer­ent age.

Notwith­stand­ing the fore­go­ing dis­cus­sion, there is an impor­tant dis­tinc­tion between truth and val­ue. Just because some­thing is valu­able does not mean it is true. For exam­ple, I find val­ue in the lessons we can learn from Jon­ah and the whale. But I do not believe Jon­ah actu­al­ly lived in the bel­ly of a whale for three days. I find val­ue in the teach­ings found in the Book of Mor­mon, but I do not believe in the book’s historicity.

More impor­tant­ly, the Church does no embrace those whose tes­ti­mo­ny is based on val­ue rather than on truth. If you want to hold a tem­ple rec­om­mend, for exam­ple, you need to believe in the “restora­tion of the gospel in these the lat­ter days.” You need to believe that the Pres­i­dent of the Church is the “Prophet, Seer, and Rev­e­la­tor and as the only per­son on the earth who pos­sess­es and is autho­rized to exer­cise all priest­hood keys.”

In fact, one of the things I strug­gle with about the Church is that it leaves so lit­tle room for any­thing oth­er than whole­sale accep­tance of its truth claims. You can doubt, but you can’t vocal­ize your doubts (at least too loud­ly). You can dis­agree with doc­trine, but you can’t dis­obey it. In large part, I am hes­i­tant to embrace a less lit­er­al­is­tic phi­los­o­phy when the Church itself unequiv­o­cal­ly rejects it. I agree that Mor­monism at its core is large­ly a beau­ti­ful mes­sage. I also agree that we should judge the mes­sage on its mer­its rather than on its mes­sen­gers. But on a prac­ti­cal lev­el, Joseph Smith too often blocks my view of Mormonism’s beau­ty. I strug­gle adher­ing to even the truth­ful words of some­one who I deem to be dishonest.

If mem­bers with uncon­ven­tion­al belief sys­tems were more main­stream with­in the Church, per­haps I would still be attend­ing. But the Church offers vir­tu­al­ly no the­o­log­i­cal sup­port for the idea that it has, in cer­tain instances, been wrong and that cer­tain aspects of its doc­trine need clar­i­fi­ca­tion and rec­on­cil­i­a­tion. In refus­ing to do so, the Church sus­tains a cul­ture that, at least in my expe­ri­ence, sti­fles both intel­lec­tu­al­ism and uncon­ven­tion­al beliefs. This, in turn, often results in unfa­vor­able treat­ment of those who ques­tion and chal­lenge Church his­to­ry, doc­trine, and culture.

Series Nav­i­ga­tion: Leav­ing the Church — Eric Nel­son« Leav­ing the Church, Part 12 — Mis­cel­la­neous Concerns



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