The summer before I left to serve a Mormon mission, I worked in a small video rental store that had almost zero customers. As a result, I had lots of time to read.
One day I decided to read the Book of Mormon. All day. I desperately wanted to have a spiritual confirmation that the book was true (a pursuit that’s customary in Mormonism) before I testified about it as a missionary.
As the day went on, I indeed felt a sense of peace — a peace that continued even though that night brought experiences that would have normally frustrated me. For instance, hundreds of gnats randomly flew in through an open door (requiring me to do extensive clean up) and I couldn’t find the key to close up the shop (requiring me to stay at least 45 minutes longer than usual).
And yet I didn’t feel upset by any of this. I just felt peace.
As strange as it might sound, my simple experience with the Book of Mormon that day was always in the background on my mission when I told people that I knew the book was true. I’d read the book and felt peace. What greater proof did I need?
While my story in the video rental store is unique to me, I now realize that there’s something universal about the experience. For centuries, people all over the world have similarly used feelings of peace — as well as grander experiences of awe — as proof that their beliefs are true.
The Varieties of Religious Experience
The psychologist William James once documented hundreds of these experiences in a series of lectures called The Varieties of Religious Experience. James called these experiences a “conversion,” and he noted that “the persons who have passed through conversion, having once taken a stand for the religious life, tend to feel themselves identified with it.”
That is, spiritual experiences often create and solidify a person’s religious affiliation.
In his lectures, William James recounted many examples from the early 1800s.
One woman attended a religious camp meeting and experienced a moment where she saw “beauty in every material object.” She said, “My emotional nature was stirred to its depths … It was like entering another world, a new state of existence.” The experience sparked her conversion to a particular Christian sect.
Another man from the same era described his conversion experience as seeing a light “like the brightness of the sun.” He said, “All at once the glory of God shone upon and round about me in a manner almost marvelous. … A light perfectly ineffable shone in my soul, that almost prostrated me on the ground.”
Yet another man said that in 1820, when he was 14 years old, he saw Jesus. The man said, “I thought I saw the Saviour, by faith, in human shape, for about one second in the room, with arms extended, appearing to say to me, Come. The next day I rejoiced with trembling … I had an ardent desire that all mankind might feel as I did; I wanted to have them all love God supremely.”
Again, each of these experiences served as proof of religious truth claims — specifically the truth claims of a specific sect of Christianity. Each of these people converted to the religious life, or renewed their commitment, afterward.
All Over the World
For instance, a Muslim man said, “I was making supplication: Allah help me, guide me, guide me to the truth. If you guide me to the truth, I’ll never leave it. And I knew in my heart — Allah was telling me in my heart — that Islam is true. And I knew right then that it was the correct religion.”
Similarly, a Muslim woman said, “I started praying to find the truth. It doesn’t take a long time to find out that Islam is the truth, and that there can’t be any other religion in the world.” And another, speaking of the Qur’an, said, “I could not stop reading it. It was, like, feeding me.” Then she said, in tears, “And that’s when I knew I wanted to become Muslim.”
Another Muslim woman told her story this way: “I said, God, you are the one who listens, who always listens. Please, who do I have to follow to come to you directly — Christianity, or the Muslim faith? … I’m one-hundred percent sure that God has answered my question. What is the right way, the only right way to come to God? Islam.”
A convert to Judaism said that she experienced a “very strong overwhelming feeling” when she started to study about the religion. She wanted to convert when she went to a synagogue for the first time and, in her words, “immediately felt comfortable even though I did not know anyone.”
And another convert to Judaism said that his decision felt “like the simple and irrational process of falling in love.” Another said, “I started to do a lot of reading [about Judaism] and very quickly the pieces started to fall together. I felt like I had found my way home.”
The process described here echoes the process described in the Book of Mormon: “I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you.” As seen here, this is the process that religious people all over the world use to figure out whether their beliefs are true.
The Perils of “I Know”
Unfortunately, sometimes people who conflate beautiful experiences with proof of the truth end up facing disturbing consequences.
For instance, a young fundamentalist Mormon bore her testimony at a church meeting, saying, “I’ve been searching for a witness of this work and of this Church, and just tonight I got my witness. It’s burning within my soul, how important this work is, 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… 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.” This young lady believes in the truth of the FLDS religion because of a burning within her soul, despite the fact that she openly admits her religion is making her miserable.
Even more dire, a Jehovah’s Witness couple had a baby that needed a blood transfusion, and they struggled to know what to do. On the one hand, if they gave their baby a blood transfusion, they’d be excommunicated. On the other hand, their doctor told them that if they didn’t move forward, their baby would die.
The father said, “I remember going over to the bed where she had these cords and wires keeping her alive, and holding this limp child that was our only daughter. I went over to the window and looked out at the clouds in the sky and said, ‘Oh God, Jehovah,’ and I started to weep.”
Then the mother said, “We just had a real distinct impression that we were supposed to obey God’s law and go by what we had always been taught, and that we were to let our daughter die.” Believing the impression was true, they didn’t move forward with the procedure and their child tragically passed away.
And then there are the cults that don’t survive.
Marshall Applewhite started a religious following in the 1970s called Heaven’s Gate — a movement that eventually ended in the suicide of 39 members in 1997. Here is the method he used to invite his followers to know whether what he said were true. “At least ponder this,” he said. “That you go into the privacy of your closet. Don’t ask your neighbors, your friends. You go see if you can connect with the purest, highest source that you might consider God. And say, ‘What about this? Is this for real?’”
One of Applewhite’s followers acted on his advice to pay attention to God’s voice, which convinced her that Applewhite’s followers were of God. She said, “When I first met them I knew that what they had to say was true. It wasn’t something they said. It was something I knew inside me.”
Another follower claimed that “it was an instant recognition for me, and there was never a doubt in my mind. I just wish people out there could understand how much we feel and know this is real. … This is not a fantasy … I didn’t have to believe. I knew.”
Jim Jones, founder of the Peoples Temple, also convinced people to rely on their feelings and his followers had tremendous emotional experiences with him. One follower said, “the Peoples Temple services, they had life, they had soul, they had power. We were alive in those services.”
Another follower said, “I have never been so totally happy or fulfilled in my life. I can’t begin to describe it. You could sit here and talk all day long and no words could describe the peace, the beauty, the sense of accomplishment and responsibility and camaraderie that’s here. It’s overwhelming, it really is. You can’t describe it.”
These people were experiencing beauty, but they left reason at the door — a mistake that created hell on earth.
They couldn’t see that the healings in Peoples Temple were staged. They couldn’t see that Jim Jones planted employees in the audience who pretended to be healed. They couldn’t admit that Jones reveled in abusive sexual practices. They couldn’t bring themselves to concede that their leader was a phony. The feeling of peace and community was too powerful.
It all spiraled downhill in Jonestown on November 18, 1978, after Jim Jones had sent an armed group to slaughter a visiting Congressman and a group of reporters. That was when Jones administered cyanide-laced Kool-Aid to his followers, resulting in the deaths of nearly 1000 people.
More Beauty, Less Interpretation
What lessons can we learn from these stories?
Here are a few.
Lession #1: Religious experiences happen all over the world to people of all beliefs. Not just Christians, and not just Mormons.
Lesson #2: Religious experiences often bring a sense of peace and love that far exceeds the typical experience in day-to-day life.
Lesson #3: That sense of peace and love is often so powerful that people frequently use the experience as proof that their religion is true (whether it be the religion of their childhood or a religion they’re investigating).
Lesson #4: Those who have a religious experience seem to never use it as proof that a religion they’ve never personally encountered is true. For instance, a Christian who has never engaged with Islam rarely if ever decides that their feelings of profound peace means Islam is true — and vice versa.
Lesson #5: Not all interpretations of these experiences can be equally valid. If an evangelical Christian uses their experience as proof that Jesus is God and a Muslim uses their experience as proof that Jesus isn’t God, they can’t both be equally valid. (Unless, that is, we approach religion at the level of metaphor, in which case both perspectives have validity insofar as they enable devotees to experience the divine.)
Lesson #6: Religious experiences can blind people to unethical practices. Even if the results aren’t anywhere near as brutal as Jonestown, religious followers can still hurt others. We see this all the time, whether it be in giving the cold shoulder to those who no longer believe, rejecting LGBT friends and family members, in electing politicians who are void of empathy for the least among us, or worse.
And that is the peril of the Mormon “I know.” It can cause people to adopt unethical attitudes and practices they otherwise wouldn’t.
Lesson #7: We need more experiences of profound beauty and less interpretation of those experiences.
I say this because after reading hundreds of religious experiences of profound peace and awe (some of which I’ve recounted here), I’m more convinced than ever that these experiences carry the power to make us more generous and loving—so long as we don’t interpret them as proof of the truth of a single ideology.
Having said that, it’s critical to keep in mind that if we discover that some of our beliefs aren’t true, it doesn’t diminish the reality of our beautiful experiences. The experiences were real; our interpretation of them was likely just colored by our prior knowledge and desires. We must realize, as Lao Tzu once said, that “the truth is not always beautiful, nor beautiful words the truth.”
Above all, we must continue to seek for beauty—more “religious experiences,” to use the terminology of William James. In a world where we’re often tucked away in beige cubicles all day, where city planning is thoughtless and ugly, where vapid television programs blare on for hours, we need more beauty. We must seek for art, film, architecture, words, and music that can lift our emotional centers. We must nurture stillness.
This post is adapted from When Mormons Doubt.