Question: How can Latter-day Saints reconcile having other people receive spiritual experiences that motivate them to believe in and become part of other religions?

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Question: How can Latter-day Saints reconcile having other people receive spiritual experiences that motivate them to believe in and become part of other religions?

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Introduction to Criticism

As a part of their epistemology, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believe that commitment and/or belief may be established by spiritual experience. This experience is known as having an experience with the Holy Ghost or "Holy Spirit."[1]

Primarily Secularist critics of the Church and other Christian critics of the Church have charged that this mode of receiving knowledge is challenged by the existence of competing religious claims or spiritual experiences had by those adherents of other faiths. If they are to receive spiritual experiences motivating them to believe in the validity of their sacred texts, religious structures, and so forth, what makes the Latter-day Saint claim to knowledge unique? What is the basis for claiming that one "knows" that the Book of Mormon is from God and/or that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is God’s “only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth” today (Doctrine and Covenants 1:30)?

For example, consider this video, often shared by former members of the Church, with people describing their spiritual experiences that have motivated them to become part of other religions.


So we have all of these people claiming spiritual experiences that suggest to them the truthfulness of what they're believing. How can Latter-day Saints therefore claim to be special with their religious knowledge?

This article seeks to respond to this criticism in depth. we’re going to need to respond well since this is a question that, according to some research, may be one of the major reasons that people withdraw membership from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.[2] It is the belief of the author that Latter-day Saints have a full theology that addresses this criticism and it may reveal some special insights regarding epistemology. We’re going to need to outline all of that theology in depth to respond adequately to this argument. Some may argue that we’re guilty of not following Occam’s Razor for how many assumptions we introduce into this response; but it should be kept in mind that Ockham’s Razor is not a logical law but an application of preference in deciding between two equally valid explanations for the same phenomena.

This video explains this in more detail:


So, yes, we are going to introduce a lot of material to explain our point of view on this argument; but introducing Occam's Razor will do nothing to hurt our argument. We hope that you'll choose our side.

With that, let’s get to our rebuttal of the criticism.

The Tautology

The immediate conclusion that the critics want us to draw from the reality of others having spiritual experiences is that spiritual experiences are simply a function of neurochemical reactions in the brain and that humans are simply religious animals. Before anything else, we should address this assumption.

We can begin to address this by constructing a tautology. A tautology is a statement that is always true. So “It is either raining outside or it is not raining outside” is a statement that, no matter the circumstances, is always true. Here’s our tautology to address the “neurochemical reaction” assumption:

Spiritual experiences motivating people to become part of other religious faiths are either the function of brain chemistry or a bevy of material spiritual beings that are fighting for control over human hearts.

That is a statement that is always true. One of these spiritual experiences can be the right one to have and the others wrong. There could be material spiritual beings that interact with material humans to try and get them to not become part of the true religion. That is what Latter-day Saint theology teaches. Let’s lay out what all those spiritual beings look like and what they are trying to get people to do and not do.

The Latter-day Saint Conceptions of God, the Devil, the Holy Ghost, False Spirits, Good Angels, Bad Angels, and Light

Latter-day Saint theology teaches that there is a spectrum of light, understood to be synonymous with "truth" by faithful adherents,[3] that one can receive in this life that comes from God. This light is known in Latter-day Saint vernacular as “The Light of Christ.” All people are given the Light of Christ as their spirits connect with their bodies--presumably sometime after conception and before birth.[4] When one receives more of God’s truth, one thus receives more Light.[5] When one rejects Light, is persuaded towards rejecting the truth and Light that one has already received, or one deliberately chooses to remain without the Light that God has revealed, one stays away or moves away from Light.[6] This is seen as sinful.

The Holy Ghost and many righteous angels are seen as those beings that move God’s children further and further into the Light.[7] The Holy Ghost works through the Light of Christ.[8] The Light of Christ is understood to give a spiritual energy and life to all things.[9] Since it gives this life to all things, it follows that the Holy Ghost, working through this Light, can work on our spirit and/or our body in order to produce sensations in the heart and bring revelation to the mind.[10] The Holy Ghost works in unity with God's purposes.

Satan, false angels, and many false spirits are seen as those beings that move God’s children further and further into the darkness.[11]

Latter-day Saints claim to have the fullness of Light that one can receive in this life, thus being on the (say) far right of the spectrum.[12] The darkest part of the spectrum is perhaps the intentional disobedience of all of God’s commandments and worshiping Satan.

As one receives more Light, one is more receptive to receiving additional Light and is seen as being able to recognize the Holy Ghost and the truth that God has revealed through prophets easier. As one moves away from the Light, they are less and less able to perceive Light. If a person has gained Light but subsequently lost it through sin or being persuaded by a false spirit to accept darkness, it is seen as difficult to regain it. It can become progressively more difficult to regain the Light depending on how much Light one receives and how much they give up when moving into the darkness.[13] The amount of Light one has and the ability to perceive it can ultimately be diminished entirely.[14] As Elder David A. Bednar, an apostle in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, has taught:

As we yield to that influence, to do good and become good, then the Light of Christ increases within us. As we disobey, Light is decreased and can ultimately be diminished within us.[15]

Thus these spirits are acting on both our body and our spirit, connected together intimately (called the “soul” in Latter-day Saint theology), to persuade us to accept, reject, or stay indifferent to Light and truth. When these spirits act on us, they produce physically felt sensations accompanied most often by revelation to the mind. Latter-day Saints believe that all human beings have the ability to perceive that which is of God from that which is of the devil through the same power given by the Light of Christ.[16] It is generally believed that what God has revealed to prophets is good and will inspire one to love God and serve him.[17]

The Modus Ponens

Our next step in refuting the notion that spiritual experiences are just a product of brain chemistry is to construct a modus ponens argument.

A modus ponens argument is an argument with two premises and a conclusion. One of the premises is an if/then statement like “If it is raining, then the streets are wet.” The second premise is an affirmation of the if portion of the if/then statement. The conclusion is the affirmation of the then portion of the if/then statement. Thus a modus ponens argument would go

  1. If it is raining, then the streets are wet
  2. It is raining
  3. Then the streets are wet.

So let’s construct our modus ponens argument:

P1) If it is likely that spiritual experiences are the result of material spirits working on material humans, then it is likely that spiritual experiences are not the result of merely neurochemical reactions.
P2) It is likely that spiritual experiences are the result of material spirits working on material humans
C) Therefore, it is likely that spiritual experiences are not the result of mere neurochemical reactions.

The author says “likely” since

  1. We can’t see the Holy Ghost nor false spirits since, again, they're made out of incredibly refined matter and can only be seen with refined spiritual sight according to Latter-day Saint scripture (Doctrine and Covenants 131:7-8). Thus we can't know empirically that they are working on us. Thus
  2. Spiritual experiences are a form of experiential knowledge. You can't share experiential knowledge with anyone. How do you describe the taste of salt? The color green? The feelings you had when you lost your first loved one to death? You can't share these things with others. They can only be known by you.

Thus the argument that follows that helps establish that spiritual experiences come from outside of us can only be evaluated by those that actually seek spiritual experiences and obtain them. It will only be helpful for those that experiment with prayer to ask God for these experiences.

With all that established, let’s isolate our second premise in the modus ponens and see if we can give good evidence that it is true.

It is likely that spiritual experiences are the result of material spirits working on material humans

There are two lines of argument that we can elucidate that give evidence that spiritual experiences are not merely a function of brain chemistry.

  1. When you feel something touch you that is foreign to you, you can recognize that that thing is foreign to you. Place your hand on your chest. Don’t look at your chest while you place your hand on there. You know that there is something on your chest that isn’t your chest. It’s something additional to it. You don’t see it, but you feel its influence and know that it is foreign to your chest. In a similar way, the Holy Ghost and other material spiritual beings can affect us. It is unlikely that our brain could just randomly produce this type of sensation. This is what the author will call The Feeling of Foreign Influence Argument.
  2. In The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, members often claim to receive knowledge that they wouldn’t otherwise have. For instance, the author was once part of a priesthood blessing in which he felt angels tell him their names. The author felt that he should tell the person receiving the blessing these people’s names after the blessing was over. After the blessing concluded, he told the person the names of the angels. The person informed him that those were the names of two of their deceased ancestors. The author did not know these names before but was given them by revelation in the blessing. There was no other way the author could have known these names. Experiences like these are reported all the time in the Church. This is what the author will call the Knowledge You Wouldn’t Otherwise Have Argument.

FAIR has also produced a long article on all of the other claimed neurological counter explanations for spiritual experience. Be sure to check that out if interested.

Having thus substantiated the second premise in the modus ponens, we can therefore rationally conclude that spiritual experiences are likely the function of material spiritual beings that are fighting for control over human hearts.

Latter-day Saint Theology of Spiritual Beings in Practice

So now we’ve established that there are good reasons to believe that spirits exist and that they are acting on us to bring us either further into Light or away from it. But now the question arises of how we should react to all of these different spiritual experiences. How should we interpret them to make sense of them within Latter-day Saint theology?

First, we should establish that Latter-day Saints believe that God’s truth has been given to all nations through various religions. The Prophet Alma in the Book of Mormon taught that “the Lord doth grant unto ball nations, of their own nation and tongue, to teach his word, yea, in wisdom, all that he dseeth fit that they should have; therefore we see that the Lord doth counsel in wisdom, according to that which is just and true” (Alma 29:8). This makes it so that Latter-day Saints believe that truth can be found in many religions and that people can be converted to it.

Second, for Latter-day Saints (and, indeed, even our critics), there is a difference between the actual experience we have and how we should react to that experience.

Moroni in the Book of Mormon wrote

14 Wherefore, take heed, my beloved brethren, that ye do not judge that which is evil to be of God, or that which is good and of God to be of the devil.
15 For behold, my brethren, it is given unto you to judge, that ye may know good from evil; and the way to judge is as plain, that ye may know with a perfect knowledge, as the daylight is from the dark night.

Our critics react to all spiritual experience by saying that it’s all just a function of neurochemical reactions in the brain. How do Latter-day Saints react to different spiritual experiences?

Latter-day Saint scripture offers four different types of experiences that are seen as positive:

  1. A Softening of Heart to the idea of God, Christ, the Gospel, or Religion in General.
  2. A Conversion to God
  3. A Conversion to Christ
  4. Conversion to the Restored Gospel

And there are five experiences that Latter-day Saint scripture views as negative:

  1. Intentionally Lying About the Reality of an Experience
  2. Experiences Caused by the Devil
  3. Experiences Caused by False Spirits
  4. Being persuaded by False Christs
  5. Being Persuaded by False Prophets

We can then summarize these experiences into five discrete interpretive formulas.

  1. The experience softens your heart to the idea of God, Christ, or the Restoration = Holy Spirit
  2. The experience converts you to a God, a version of Christ, or a sect of the Restoration = Holy Spirit
  3. The experience leaves you stagnant in progress towards converting to the true God, the true Christ, or the true Restoration = Holy Spirit
  4. The experience converts you away from the true God, true Christ, and or true Restoration after you had previously had an experience that converted you to them = false Spirits
  5. The experience suggests to you that you shouldn’t establish commitment to the true God, true Christ, and or true Restoration when you intend on receiving an experience that does motivate you to establish that commitment = false Spirit

These five formulas cover the whole range of experiences an individual may potentially have. They are faithful to Latter-day Saint scripture. These formulas do not have to be the definitive account. If another feels that these formulas can be added to or slightly modified, then they are welcome to devise their own formulas.

Now, another question arises: How is it that people are supposed to recognize that there is more light to be had and seek out different spiritual experiences? How are they supposed to abandon what they believed prior spiritual experiences seem to have told them?

The Savior gave us this counsel for avoiding false prophets in the Bible

15 Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.
16 Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?
17 Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit.
18 A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit.
19 Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.
20 Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them.

Thus it is by the fruits of these different religious systems that we are supposed to judge whether or not they are wholly adequate in explaining what moral goodness and the purpose of life are. We can also judge how well they hold up to intellectual scrutiny.

Now, we could potentially end our response here; but it may be helpful to now discuss briefly how this will all work out in the afterlife for Latter-day Saints.

How God Judges People in the Next Life

Understanding how Latter-day Saint scripture talks about the afterlife will be important. We want to know how people will be judged by God in the next life if they do not accept the truth by that time.

After a person dies and before the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, Latter-day Saints believe that a spirit will separate from our mortal body and be transported to something called the Spirit World. The Spirit World is merely a place where the spirits of the dead await the Second Coming of Jesus Christ to the earth. The Spirit World is divided into two realms: Spirit Paradise and Spirit Prison. Spirit Paradise, according to the Book of Mormon Prophet Alma


[outline some of the things that Latter-day Saints can do to support our interpretations of spiritual experiences as the ways that we, as humans, should interpret them. What evidence gives us the right, as Latter-day Saints, to use the interpretive formulas for spiritual experiences we’ve outlined above? Below we outline the answer to that question.]

Supporting our Interpretive Formulas

These interpretive formulas have been derived from Latter-day Saint scripture. Latter-day Saint scripture claims to have been given by revelation and inspiration from God. In order to have been given by revelation and inspiration from God, we would need to assume (at the very least) the following:

  1. That the prophets who received the revelation that gave the formulas actually existed
  2. That the prophets who received the revelation that gave the formulas, including Joseph Smith, were authorized by possession of the priesthood to receive that revelation and relate it to others.

These assumptions go hand in hand. There had to be historical people, with priesthood authority, to give authorized revelation from God from which we can derive our interpretive formulas.

Giving Evidence for Latter-day Saint Possession of the Priesthood

We should proceed systematically when giving evidence for our possession of priesthood authority. We will have to start with non-Abrahamic religions, then Abrahamic religions, and then end with the correct Latter-day Saint sect. The evidence we will use will logically come from the claims made in the Bible, the revelations of Joseph Smith, and other historical sources. Non-Abrahamic religions don’t claim anything close to the priesthood. The closest parallel would be the Brahmanispati in the Hindu religion. However, as Roger Keller has observed. The Jewish faith does not claim the priesthood as their ultimate source of truth. They claim the Old Testament and the covenant that God made with ancient Israel. Protestant faiths do not claim any priesthood. They claim a priesthood of all believers as allegedly taught in 1 Peter. The Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions do claim a priesthood. However, solid evidence for the Great Apostasy can be marshalled to suggest that God withdrew priesthood authority from these faiths. Other Latter-day Saint offshoots do not hold priesthood authority since they have not followed the leadership succession guidelines as outlined by Joseph Smith. Latter-day Saint scholar and apologist Robert S. Boylan has given a wide swath of evidence to support the Latter-day Saint understanding of the priesthood from the Bible.[18]

Giving Evidence for the Historicity of Latter-day Saint Scripture

Latter-day Saint scholars and apologists have been making a well-reasoned, well-documented case for the historical authenticity of Latter-day Saint scripture for many years now. Readers are encouraged to familiarize themselves with this evidence. Scholars are encouraged to continue to research the Book of Mormon, Book of Moses, Book of Abraham, and Joseph Smith Translation in order to substantiate this claim. Further reading included in the citation.[19] Readers are encouraged to get familiar with this scholarship. Scholars are encouraged to continue to provide this scholarship to help give further evidence to establish this vital premise in our solution to this issue.

Other Vital Scholarship to Seek Out in Supporting The Truthfulness of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

There are other

Soteriological Inclusivism

We’re almost done but not quite. We need to detail how this all works out in the eternities. Joseph Smith received a couple of revelations that detail quite specifically how people are judged in the eternities. The first and most important of these is canonized as the 76th section of the Doctrine and Covenants.

Why should we have to deal with such a heavily revelatory epistemology in the first place?

To close out this article, it may be enlightening to discuss the question of why we have to deal with an epistemology that favors revelatory spiritual experiences in the first place.

Latter-day Saint theology teaches that all men and women had a personal pre-existence as spirits before coming to this earth. Latter-day Saint scripture teaches that in premortal realms, a counsel was convened between God and his spirit children (us) where he taught us his plan to send us here to earth to gain a body, learn the difference between good and evil, and do what is good (Abraham 3:22-23). In the Book of Moses where this counsel is portrayed in the most detail, God strongly emphasizes the importance of human agency.[20] This agency gave humans the ability to enter into relationship with God freely.

As Blake T. Ostler has explained:

To have a genuine relationship, it was necessary for persons to leave God's presence and enter into a situation [mortal life] where His existence, glory, and power were not obvious to make room for both moral and religious faith--a situation where persons could freely enter into a genuine relationship without being coerced to do so by the obviousness of His overwhelming power and glory. Thus, God has set us at a cognitive distance from Him out of respect for our freedom. Because such distance is necessary to permit faith, God's existence must be ambiguous. The world must be capable of appearing as if there were no God precisely to make room for us to come to a genuine relationship with him.[21]

Thus, we need freedom in order to enter into genuine relationships with God. And that freedom would be coerced if we had an empirical proof of his existence. That can make mortal life a bit scary. Indeed, we live in a world that is dark and dreary as represented in Lehi’s dream (1 Nephi 4:7, 8).

God has a means by which we can judge good from evil, and that is the word of God as revealed to the prophets and recorded in scripture (1 Nephi 11:25; 15:24; Moroni 7:20-25; Doctrine and Covenants 42:56-60).

Notes

  1. Moroni 10:3-5.
  2. Jana Riess, The Next Mormons: How Millenials are Changing the LDS Church (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019), 224–225. Reactions to Riess’ work have been mixed. For a positive review, see Armand L. Mauss, “The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church by Jana Riess,” Journal of Mormon History 45, no. 3 (July 2019): 133–42. For a slightly more critical review, see Stephen Cranney, “The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church,” BYU Studies 58, no. 2 (2019): 177–83.
  3. Doctrine and Covenants 84:45
  4. Moroni 7:16. Here the term used is “Spirit of Christ." It is understood that this is synonymous with “Light of Christ.” See Alan L. Wilkins, “The Light of Christ,” Book of Mormon Reference Companion, 521. See also Doctrine and Covenants 84:46
  5. Doctrine and Covenants 50:24
  6. See “Darkness, Spiritual in the Scripture Index on churchofjesuschrist.org
  7. 2 Nephi 32: 2-3; Doctrine and Covenants 84:47
  8. Moroni 7:16; Doctrine and Covenants 84:45-46
  9. Doctrine and Covenants 88: 11-13
  10. Doctrine and Covenants 8:2
  11. Moroni 7:17; Doctrine and Covenants 50:2-3
  12. Doctrine and Covenants 123:11-17
  13. Alma 24:30; Alma 47:36
  14. 1 Nephi 17:45; Jacob 6:8
  15. David A. Bednar, “Patterns of Light: The Light of Christ,” <https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/inspiration/latter-day-saints-channel/watch/series/mormon-messages/patterns-of-light-the-light-of-christ-1?lang=eng> (5 October 2019).
  16. Moroni 7:14
  17. Moroni 7:20-25; Joseph Smith – Matthew 1:37
  18. Robert S. Boylan, After the Order of the Son of God: The Biblical and Historical Evidence for Latter-day Saint Theology of the Priesthood (Charlotte, SC: CreateSpace, 2018).
  19. See Brant A. Gardner, Traditions of the Fathers: The Book of Mormon as History, (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2015); Brant A. Gardner, Second Witness: Analytical and Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon, 6 vols. (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2007); John L. Sorenson, Mormon’s Codex, (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: BYU Religious Studies Center and Deseret Book Company, 2013); John Welch et al., Knowing Why: 137 Evidences that the Book of Mormon is True (American Fork, UT: Covenant Communications, 2017); Noel B. Reynolds (ed.), Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited: The Evidence for Ancient Origins, (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1997). For an overview of evidence for the Book of Abraham, see here. For evidence for the Book of Moses see Jeffrey M. Bradshaw, In God's Image and Likeness, (Salt Lake City, UT: Eborn Books, 2009); Jeffrey M. Bradshaw and David Larson, In God's Image and Likeness 2: Enoch, Noah, and the Tower of Babel, (Provo, UT: Interpreter Foundation, 2014).
  20. Moses 4:1-3.
  21. Blake T. Ostler, Fire on the Horizon: A Meditation on the Endowment and Love of Atonement, (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2013), 17.