Is Religious Feeling Manufactured?

Is Religious Feeling Manufactured? September 16, 2016




PATRICK Q. MASON, Chair of Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University: For this week’s post, John and I wanted to follow up on some of the issues we weren’t able to fully address last time.  Then we’ll move on to other issues in future posts.

First, both of us were saddened to hear about the untimely passing of Melissa Proctor, whom many of our readers and friends know. Our hearts go out to all her friends and loved ones, and we mourn her loss, as she was a truly bright star.

JOHN DEHLIN, psychologist, post-Mormon, founder of Mormon Stories Podcast: I join you in expressing deep regrets at Melissa’s passing. She was a kind, thoughtful, courageous soul and scholar, and she will be missed dearly.  Sincere condolences to her entire family — especially to her parents, Maurine and Scot Proctor of Meridian Magazine.

Patrick: John, let’s continue with our conversation about epistemology by talking about spiritual experiences and personal revelation.  As you rightly noted in the last post, most believing Mormons base their faith, or their testimonies, on personal spiritual experiences that lead them in one way or another to believe that the basic claims of Mormonism are indeed true — that God lives, that Jesus Christ is the Savior, that Joseph Smith was called as a true prophet, that the Book of Mormon is inspired scripture, that the LDS Church is God’s true church, and so on.

It seems that you’re a little unsure about these personal experiences as a kind of epistemological foundation for people.  To be sure, these are subjective rather than inter-subjective experiences, meaning that they’re not replicable, and are really available only to the person who has them.  But for a person who does have these experiences, they are communications from the Holy Spirit that are quite real, quite powerful, and a strong basis upon which to live one’s life.  They bear real fruit, in terms of goodness and the quality of their lives.  So how do you think about personal revelation and individualized spiritual experience as a basis for knowledge?  

John: This is an important question, Patrick, and I have two responses.

The first is simple: I believe very strongly that everyone should be respected for the ways in which they make meaning of their own experiences.  The matters we are discussing today are deeply sacred on a personal level, and I believe it to be an incredibly disrespectful and unkind act to criticize or devalue the ways in which any individual makes sense and meaning of their world, spiritual or otherwise.  So I will acknowledge at the outset that in many ways we are treading on sacred ground here — and that disaffected Mormons including myself could at times do a better job of respecting the way people interpret their most sacred spiritual experiences.

My second response becomes complicated in light of my initial response, so I will speak primarily to my own experiences.  

Did I have incredibly powerful and inspiring emotional experiences in an LDS context when I was a child, teenager, and young adult? Absolutely.  Was I explicitly instructed from a very early age — by the church — on precisely how to interpret those emotional experiences?  I believe I was.  One LDS seminary scripture mastery passage comes to mind here, Galatians 5:22-23:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance: against such there is no law.

I remember very explicitly being taught in early morning seminary that if I were to feel any of these emotions in a church context, I was to interpret them as the Holy Ghost bearing witness that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was the only true church on the planet.  I was taught to teach my “investigators” as a missionary the same thing.  If we could ever get our investigators to feel an emotion, we would immediately say, “See!  Those are the fruits of the Holy Ghost testifying that this is the true church, and that you should be baptized!”

So I acknowledge that I and others have had incredibly powerful emotional experiences in an LDS (or other religious) context. But looking back, can I honestly say that my interpretation of those experiences (e.g., my LDS testimony) was truly intrinsic to my own consciousness and understanding, as opposed to a response carefully conditioned by years of church education and indoctrination?  I cannot say that.  

I think that a classic strategy of any religion is to create these types of emotional experiences amongst its members and investigators — through music, art, testimonies, sermons, stories, service opportunities, social gatherings, and so on — and then to TELL its members and investigators to interpret those emotions as evidence that their church is the true one.  Since it happened to me, I have to wonder if it has happened to others as well.

This personal experience, combined with the undeniable fact that members of pretty much every religious tradition, Christian or otherwise, seem to claim that their church is the “true” one — based on almost identical emotional experiences — seems to reasonably call into question the reliability of feelings as a way to make any sort of religious truth claim.  And for the record, I still cannot find a believer to explain to me the meaningful difference between “emotion” and the “Holy Ghost.”  I certainly could never tell the two apart when I was a believer. This was made clear to me once when I felt as inspired by the Muppet Movie as I was by any LDS General Conference talk.  It was very confusing for me as a teen, believe it or not.

Does that make sense at all?  

Patrick: Well, we all know the Muppets are true.  : -)

Great points, and I would agree with most of what you said here.  Human experience, including our perception and interpretation of it, is always conditioned by outside factors.  There is no such thing as “pure” or objective experience.  Everything we hear, see, feel, read, or think goes through a million different filters, based both on our own past experiences and our interactions with the outside world, most of which we don’t control or even consciously acknowledge.  So the culture we are in always conditions our responses to the data that comes to us in whatever fashion it does.  I think there’s a hope and belief by many Mormons that God can somehow cut through all that history, experience, and culture, and give us “pure” truth.  Maybe that’s true, but I for one — and remember, I’m a historian — believe that we simply can’t escape history and culture, ever.  So I believe in a God that works in and through history, cultural and social context, and personal experience, however messy that all gets.

In fact, I would say that both the suspicion toward personal spiritual experience and the claim that one person’s experience is just as valid as another’s, and that we can therefore never make any absolute truth claims, are themselves historically conditioned positions — products of the Western Enlightenment.  In other words, epistemological skepticism and scientific rationality are not “natural,” “default,” or “unbiased” positions, but rather reflect a deep cultural conditioning of late secular modernity.  To say something is constructed, however, is not to say it is not true, or not real, or not effective.

Is religious feeling manufactured?  To a large extent, yes — and that’s precisely the point.  One of the roots for the word religion is religare, which means to bind together.  Religion is communal.  And what’s the point of gathering in religious community?  I would say that the purpose is twofold:  to encounter and worship God, and to form a community of care in which we learn to love one another.  So we do all kinds of things in community which enhance our ability to encounter God.  Songs, prayers, sermons, rituals, service — of course all those things are meant to manufacture spiritual experience and divine encounter. In a real way, I believe we can and do actually find God and Jesus in the bread and water of the sacrament, or in a Sunday School lesson, or in raking a widow’s leaves. It’s similar to the way that candles, flowers, low lighting, and chocolate are designed to manufacture romantic experience. Can I love my wife without all that stuff? Of course. But does it all help? Yep. And is the experience my wife and I have real, even with the aid of all those romantic accoutrements? Absolutely.

To your point that the church tells people how to interpret emotion, I would agree that sometimes we’re overly manipulative.  I think it’s quite honest and appropriate to say, “Right now I feel the Spirit, do you?” but it’s probably never appropriate to say, “Right now you’re feeling the Spirit.”  How the heck do I know what you’re feeling?  So I think we can point to lots of scriptures, and examples from our own lives, to educate people into how they might open themselves up to recognize spiritual experiences.  But we always have to acknowledge — and I don’t think Mormons are very good at this — that what counts for divine communication for me may be totally different than what counts for you.  Not to mention that God loves and can talk to all his children, whether or not they’re Mormon.

One of the things that often bothers still-active members of the church is that people who leave the church seem to “deny” or “forget” the spiritual experiences they had and once testified to in private and public.  So is it simply a matter of retroactive reinterpretation — of saying, “At the time, I interpreted that feeling as confirmation from the Holy Ghost that the Book of Mormon is true.  Looking back, I’m not so sure, and in fact now I explain it another way.”  Or is there a way to acknowledge the authenticity of that revelation, as you understood it at the time, and still leave the church?  

John: Patrick, that’s a great question!  I think disaffected/ex-/post-Mormons commonly take a few different approaches to their former LDS “testimonies.”

[An aside to readers: I need a succinct word for people who no longer believe in or follow Mormonism.  I don’t love calling you disaffected Mormons.  It’s so negative and limiting.  I also don’t love having to write disaffected/ex-/post-Mormons every time I describe you.  Any ideas?  Something punchy and positive but all-inclusive?  Help a brother out in the comments!!]

As you stated, I think that many ex-Mormons reflect deeply on the familial and social contexts that produced their “testimonies” (e.g., parents whispering their testimonies for them to repeat at the pulpit from age 3 onward, charismatic seminary and EFY teachers re-telling fantastic, highly emotional, and intellectually suspect faith promoting stories (rumors?), highly produced and emotionally manipulative church videos, not to mention intense peer pressure).  Such reflection leads many to simply conclude that their testimonies were little more than the product of carefully manipulated familial and social contexts.

I know others who choose to distill and reinterpret (de-Mormonize?) their past experiences — concluding for example that while they may have been taught to interpret that incredible feeling they experienced during a ward service project as evidence that the LDS church is true, they now re-interpret to mean that service is a worthwhile endeavor/value, and that meaningful service can happen in or out of Mormonism…and it certainly doesn’t mean that Thomas S. Monson talks to God today.

I know others who retain their beliefs in the fundamentals of Christianity or even Mormonism (e.g. the Denver Snuffer types) — but who simply choose to reject the modern corporate LDS church as being led by God in any authoritative or meaningful way.

Personally, I lean mostly on the first two approaches.  I still consider the deep “spiritual” experiences that I had as a Mormon to be special and even sacred to me.  I just realize now that these deep emotions do nothing to prove the LDS church is true, since people in every church, and in no church, experience them — and I choose to re-interpret these experiences now as being positive emotions that reinforce universal humanistic values such as love, charity, kindness, compassion, family, and community.  Perhaps the most important lesson I’ve learned as a progressive/post-Mormon is that these values exist in spades both inside and outside of organized religion.  To me, they really are human emotions, not religious ones.  Religion has just become very skilled over millennia at orchestrating, manipulating, and interpreting them.

Patrick: It seems to me that we can consider these questions in reverse as well.  You mentioned in the previous post that people often look at complicated issues in church history, doctrine, practice, and policy and say, “All these things PROVE the LDS Church is false and harmful.”  But there are many people who look at those same facts — without disputing that many of them really are facts — and do not leave the church.  This suggests to me (one who is in the camp of knowing all this stuff, yet still believes and practices) that those things didn’t actually prove anything, in an objective sense.  The skeptic, in this sense, cannot be any more certain than is the believer.

In other words, even if I believe that the Book of Abraham is probably not the literal English-language translation of actual historical writings composed on papyrus by the patriarch Abraham (a position made faithfully tenable in the church’s Gospel Topics essay on the topic), I’m not compelled to say that all of Mormonism is a fraud and the church is not true.  I can (and do) interpret the production of this book of inspired scripture quite differently, both in the particulars and in their relationship to the whole, even in a way that confirms for me how God worked through Joseph Smith to reveal stunningly profound truths in and for the modern age.  I don’t even care all that much about what Joseph Smith thought about what he was translating, because what I care about and find ultimate value in are the product and the prophetic process, all of which point to God, Christ, and a pretty breathtaking plan of salvation and our part in it.  (To be clear, I do care about Joseph Smith — a lot — and believe he was a prophet called of God, but I do not place ultimate hope or faith in him.  I look with and through him, not to him.)

John: Book of Abraham!  Yes!!  That’s a topic for a whole other day.  So perhaps I’ll close as I opened — by re-acknowledging how important I think it is for post-Mormons to be respectful of everyone’s sacred beliefs and interpretations.  And so while I may not choose to view the Book of Abraham as you do today, I believe that your personal beliefs deserve deep respect.  So thank you and bless you, Patrick!!  I’ve really enjoyed today’s exchange.  Thanks for engaging with me on such important and difficult topics.  You maintain my deep respect and admiration.  Sincerely so.

Patrick: Many thanks, John.  I’m enjoying these exchanges, and really value your insight and honesty. Plus, I’ll take blessings from wherever I can get them — so right back at you! See you next week.

See also: Toward a Better, Richer Understanding: Introducing Mormonism Inside and Out

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