One of man’s tendencies is, with a little knowledge, to become full of ourselves and think we know and understand more than we really do. The scientific understanding of man in past centuries has explained worldly phenomena and established scientific fact that later generations, with greater knowledge proved to be completely false. I know that there are many things our current collective scientific abilities and observations have established as fact that with greater knowledge in the future will be proven to be completely false as well.
Thank you for taking the time to read my story and for sharing your experience. The very first thing to say is this response is not intended to disprove Mormonism or any other faith. I’m not attempting to be snarky or disrespectful here. I’m just trying to clarify my own views a bit and ask some very serious questions.
To begin with, I think you’ve misunderstood the nature of scientific knowledge (see highlighted paragraph above used to initiate this response). Scientific knowledge, if properly understood, does not claim to be absolute truth in any religious or doctrinaire sense. Indeed, as I’ve written elsewhere, knowledge generally should not be seen as absolute. However, that’s not to say it’s relativistic either. That would be falling into the either/or trap I found so troubling in my own Mormon upbringing.
In my article Knowledge is Asymptotic, I recount a letter received by Isaac Asimov from a student who makes very similar arguments to yours: that there have been scientific views treated as facts that later turned out to be false, etc. Asimov pointed out that what matters from a scientific perspective isn’t how relatively correct a theory is, but how relatively wrong it turns out to be compared with earlier views. As Asimov stated in his response to the student, those who thought the world was flat were not absolutely wrong given its curvature over any given few miles is very nearly 0. However, those who said it was a sphere were less wrong than those who thought it was flat. Eventually we realized the earth bulges at the equator and flattens a bit at the poles making those who thought it was a perfect sphere relatively more wrong than those who recognized the equatorial bulge, and so on. To use Asimov’s words “if you think that thinking the earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together.”
We need to guard against reaching the conclusion that because the people who thought our planet was flat or a sphere turned out to be wrong there’s necessarily a problem with scientific method. Knowledge isn’t static. Mistakes and getting things relatively less wrong over time are inherent features of the process. They only become bugs if we treat knowledge as absolute/fixed.
I would like to take a similar approach to religious traditions. I do, after all, have a little anthropology training and am not completely devoid of any appreciation for the contributions the various religious traditions have made to human culture. The problem is most religions strongly resist any sort of nuanced view from within their walls. This is particularly the case among the Western monotheistic faiths which insist upon “one true god” and one true definition of what the word god can mean and “one true religion” that truly understands the one true god and what “He” wants us to be doing. In other words, these religions don’t generally see themselves as relatively more or less wrong, but as absolutely right. Alternative points of view or doubts about that are simply not welcome in Sunday school.
That said, I don’t discount the nature or quality of your experiences as they relate to Mormonism. Experience is, I think, one thing that we can safely say is real for all of us. The question I have for anyone providing their experience as evidence for anything from a particular view of our physical world to the truth of their religion is this: how does your inner emotional experience serve as evidence for what you claim?
Water in a pond on a warm summer day isn’t a liquid because we experience it that way. It would still be a liquid even if we vanished from the face of the earth tomorrow. When it comes to personal subjective experiences, we cannot really compare them to see if yours was as deep and meaningful as mine. Even if we could, we may each reach very different conclusions from the same experience. I couldn’t conclude, for example, that my personal fear of swimming (if I had one) meant that you should also be afraid of deep water anymore than you could conclude that your delight in splashing around naturally means I should feel the same way about it. The source of our respective fear and delight has nothing directly to do with the nature of water itself.
So, when it comes to your experiences I have to take your word for it that they are/were incredibly meaningful events that affect you in the particularly profound ways you claim. However, if you want me to take your experiences seriously you must also recognize that my experiences are of equal relevance to me. You can’t possibly ever know that your experiences of profound peace compare favorably/unfavorably to my own because you haven’t had my experiences. Nor can I reach any conclusions about how yours relate to mine. We can only decide whether or not our feelings are enough for us to continue living the respective lives that we’ve chosen. But by themselves they aren’t evidence that others should make the same choices or believe the same things either of us do.
All that said, when it comes to religious experiences I am fine with those who claim their particular religion brings them peace. I do, however, develop a bit of epistemological heartburn when people claim their personal experiences prove something to be true. Truth is a strong word, and not one I think we should toy with. To reasonably make this argument in a religious context people must also conclude that the experiences of Buddhists, Catholics, or atheists/agnostics necessarily fail to be evidence for anything so far as their personal beliefs are concerned. This begs the question why one person’s feelings are evidence their church is true while another’s isn’t. What evidence do we have to support the claim that only the feelings of members of a particular faith are relevant to determinations of truth and falsehood?
So, to bring a long response to a conclusion, whenever I hear someone tell me how their religion makes them feel AND argue that therefore it must be true, I need to remind them that, though they may not realize it, what they’re really saying is that my feelings so far as they pertain to how I feel about the life I’ve chosen are irrelevant. You’re essentially saying that your feelings matter more than mine when in fact you have no real insight into my feelings beyond what I’ve told you about them. Until someone can explain to me why feelings of profound peace are evidence of anything beyond the fact that intense belief can trigger feelings of profound peace (all religions report these feelings, after all), I really can only respond that I’m very happy for you. The problem is, you can’t be happy for me without admitting your religion isn’t true the way you’ve been taught it must be.