Announcing the Spiritual Experience Odyssey Project

Today I want to speak about two very special evenings of my life, as a precursor to a new project on which I am about to embark.

Evening 1, sometime late 2008: The most powerful spiritual experience of my life

I still remember it vividly, I will never forget it.

I was serving my mission in an area named Chorley, in England. I was on exchanges with another missionary. We had scheduled an appointment with a new investigator, I don’t remember his name. We went to pick up a young member to join us for the appointment, he was about to go on his own mission.

As we were driving in the car to the new investigator’s house, in the cold of the Chorley winter and the dark streets around us, I could feel something stirring deep within me. I had an inkling, a deep feeling that I was about to go through a massive positive spiritual experience. There was a kind of “build up” sensation while we were driving to his house.

The Holy Ghost.

We arrived at the investigator’s house. We sat down and started to teach him the Gospel. I don’t remember a word we said but I will never, ever forget the feeling I had. I experienced a massive, positive spiritual rush. Even as I was experiencing it I knew this memory would be indelible; it was the most transcendent spiritual experience I ever had in my life, nothing before or since was as incredible as that.

I remember writing a letter to my mission president that week — and I explained to him:

“The Spirit of the Lord was poured out in abundance on us.”

Evening 2, Saturday night 20 June 2015: The night my heart crashed

I still remember it vividly, I will never forget it.

I had made a choice several months before to re-evaluate my belief system. I knew I’d always had doubts, but I wanted to conquer them once and for all so that my faith could be stronger than ever before.

I had read far and wide already by this stage. I had read all sorts of discussions and debates about the LDS church, God, theism, philosophy, psychology, and so on. But I still believed. Because I had had spiritual witnesses many times in my life that I could not deny. I knew that God had spoken to me, and confirmed the truthfulness of the Gospel to me.

And then I watched a video. It was about 11:00 at night. I will never forget this video, it changed my life. I watched it on my tablet lying in my bed.

The video? 8.0 – My LDS Journey – Follow the Spirit

There is no way to describe how I felt except for saying that my entire world crashed down around me. My heart sank into the deepest recesses of the abyss.

I realised something deeply profound and profoundly simple: Mormons are not the only religious people in the world to have spiritual experiences, and not the only people in the world to interpret those experiences in favour of the truthfulness of our respective belief systems.

Soon after this event I would make a journal recording that said the following words:

“I was hit, so immensely hard. Struck, so hard by that video. I don’t think I’ve been as struck by a video before [in my life]… I couldn’t sleep. I was awake till 2 o’ clock [pondering]”

The Spiritual Witness

I have gone far and wide in the ex-Mormon community. I have chatted with a variety of people who were bothered by a variety of things; some with polygamy and polyandry, some with the blacks not being able to receive the priesthood, some with the Book of Abraham translation, and many others. I think for each of us different things bother us to different degrees. For me, many of the above mentioned things are issues that I agree with. However for me there was nothing quite like the massive significance of the Spiritual Witness.

Why?

Because it is the formal narrative of the church. It is the church’s own explicitly chosen foundation:

Preach my Gospel, chapter 5:

“All objections, whether they be on abortion, plural marriage, seventh-day worship, etc., basically hinge on whether Joseph Smith and his successors were and are prophets of God receiving divine revelation. … The only problem the objector has to resolve for himself is whether the Book of Mormon is true.

>> Book of Mormon introduction page:

“We invite all men everywhere to read the Book of Mormon, to ponder in their hearts the message it contains, and then to ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ if the book is true. Those who pursue this course and ask in faith will gain a testimony of its truth and divinity by the power of the Holy Ghost.

It all comes down to this simple, profound area; the spiritual witness.

Announcing the Spiritual Experience Odyssey Project

About a year ago now I discussed this exact topic on my blog at length. I came to the conclusion that I reject the hypothesis that the spiritual witness is a reliable source of truth.

But just because one discovers one model is broken does not mean one has created a superior model to explain reality. Following the evidence and discovering that spiritual witnesses are not reliable sources of truth does not automatically mean that I now have a decent replacement theory. I have to go back to the drawing board and discover a new model.

And so I am announcing a new project:

The Spiritual Experience Odyssey Project: an effort to explain spiritual / religious experiences in human beings from the secular frameworks of science, biology, psychology, anthropology, etc. These explanations preclude the existence of God as an explanation, and look to see if other good explanations can be found, with greater explanatory power and greater accuracy. 

This is my chosen speciality area. It “calls” out to me. It is the burning question (no pun intended) that I must answer. I must build a superior model and this is an area that people tend to spend less time in overall (in fact, there’s a serious lack of apologetics in this area, most apologetics is focused on historical controversies).

Since writing that article a year ago I have read and researched much into spiritual experiences, and even had a few different kinds myself — (a key requirement of having one is believing that you can have one). and so I have much to write about and much to research.

This project will take time and many blog articles in the series. I am not as obsessed with research as I was in the past and so I will be approaching this in a more gradual way. I invite anyone, (believing LDS, ex-LDS, or anywhere in-between) to contribute to this project if you want to. Believing LDS members: you can challenge me, my assumptions and my conclusions. Ex-LDS, you can help contribute from the many hours of time you personally have spent in research. Discussion and debate all contribute to our discovering better models of reality. You can help by contacting me directly if you are interested in contributing (and thus discussing ideas with me), or just following my blog (subscribe on the right hand side with your email) and commenting on my articles as they come out.

Spiritual experiences are a massive area and I feel a big project worthy of intense study. I feel they are neglected in the ongoing Mormon debate from both sides: (believers just state that you need a witness, non-believers just point out unreliability, but few non-believers seem to be building good models to explain them). As mentioned, almost all formal discourse, debate, controversy etc. mainly dwells in LDS church historical areas.

I have created a new section of my blog entitled “Spiritual Experience Odyssey Project”. All articles related to this subject will be placed there as they come out.

Looking forward to the project and sharing some of the interesting things I’ve learned along the way!

Shawn 17-07-2016

2 Comments

  1. Robert Isaksen

    Hey Shawn!

    I think this is excellent, very much looking forward to hear your thoughts 🙂

    What would be really interesting would be to see you also put your ‘mormon hat’ on and analyse your atheist view according to the same rigour. This would really get into some very fascinating epistemic issues!

    Can the atheist (or materialist, or… what do you prefer being referred to in relation to your worldview??) explain the religious (in this case especially mormon) belief in materialist terms? Can the mormon explain the materialst belief in mormon terms? If the materialist view can explain the mormon view this doesn’t necessarily seem epistemically sufficient to pronounce greater explanatory power to the materialist view. Why? Because the analysis (and entire methodology) was carried out using only the materialist view. What if the mormon view can also explain the materialist view? This would not even have been considered.

    I think there would be a need to view both perspectives from both perspectives before one could say that one is better than the other. For on the materialist viewpoint there are phenomena which count as evidence, but these may be interpreted very differently by the mormon. And on the mormon viewpoint there are phenomena (I am not just referring to spiritual experiences here) which count as evidence, but may be interpreted very differently by the materialist. Even the very process of increasing knowledge may be different in substantial ways!

    I think such a project is very difficult. Truly most people have never done anything like it! It requires intimate knowledge of two worldviews so as to both apply them in relation to the other worldview and so as not to, in any way, make a straw-man out of the critiqued worldview. I think you are capable of doing such a project both because you have knowledge of both perspectives and because you are smart and driven 🙂 (Yes I am intentionally flattering you because I’d love to see such a project done, but I’m also flattering you because I mean it!)

    Hugs,
    Robert

    Reply
    1. shawn (Post author)

      Hey Bob! Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting, I appreciate that. Forgive the long response, and somewhat muddled thoughts 🙂

      Certainly this project will be approached with the LDS theological worldview as a backdrop; primarily because I come from that background and am thus much more intimately familiar with the general ideas. Like with many of my articles, I will approach the topics “along LDS theological lines”, extrapolating explanations that are secular but the starting point for the discussion will likely be found in the tenets of LDS theology. As mentioned, I am trying to piece together a new “puzzle” to compete with the old “puzzle” which I now reject as “not accurate”, I think with good “evidence” (hat tip to your point that what is valid evidence is also subjective depending on current worldview. Ultimately we have to do and believe what fits within our own integrity.)

      I think you very well understand the importance of considering worldviews in the aggregate or at a “zoomed out” level (the mosaic, not just the brush strokes). One of the major challenges of these kinds of ongoing discussions or debates is that the worldviews of the respective people are an entire “world view” — an all-encompassing explanation for how the world works. Hence, in order to tackle such a project, I have to consider the puzzle pieces one at a time, trying to isolate the scope of each discussion to one “piece”, and contrast the secular and LDS view. The problem with this is that if one embraces an entire “puzzle”, and sees a single piece of a competing “puzzle”, that piece “won’t make sense” from the framework of the existing puzzle, but it will likely fit in very nicely into the competing puzzle. This has to be fairly acknowledged and processed in the debates.

      In a sense, I am being a bit unfair by giving preferential treatment to the LDS view. There are certainly hundreds or potentially thousands of religious worldviews that have evolved over time and likely many of them have their own frameworks with which to explain religious experiences. I acknowledge this weakness and simply cannot avoid it. I wish I could do a “religion” vs. “secular” work on spiritual experiences, but both are way too broad, so inevitably this will become “my old religion” vs, “my new secular” worldviews. On that note, you are more than welcome to comment on my articles, calling me out if I ever represent things unfairly, and I will do my best to take your comments on board, which brings me to the next point:

      I will do my best to avoid strawman arguments in an effort to be honest. However, I must specify one caveat. As my dad once said to me “everyone has their own religion” (his way of saying “worldview”) — even within LDS theology there is an entire spectrum of various views on even spiritual experiences, and even the formal narrative changes over time. I often encounter a (somewhat “frustrating”) response from LDS people when entering into discussions, the “behold, you have not understood” response 🙂 — to which I often counter by simply presenting statements from top level leadership that contradict their specific, personal interpretation. In simpler words, I don’t have the time or capability to represent every individual Mormon’s views / interpretations on spiritual experiences in my work, but I will do my best to be honest about the (contemporary) formal narrative as articulated by contemporary leaders (but certainly I might throw in some older stuff too).

      To answer your labels question and apply labels to my (current) self: Agnostic, but don’t believe in a Theist God. (“could” say atheist, and for many intents and purposes “atheist” is a good / useful / practical label for me, but the label has many inherent problems, among them that it’s a “negative label” (bad, I don’t identify as a-fairyist or a-santaclauseist or a-russellsteapotist) and I don’t formally claim “there is no God” (issues of the definition of “God” aside) but my most honest feelings about the God problem are expressed in my poem The Ant God http://shawnsodyssey.net/the-ant-god/), and yes, materialist. But always open minded. I have no fear of being wrong, and even delight in being shown wrong, because by that process I approach greater truth.

      Feel free to comment on the articles as they come out! It’s a big project. I have already started to gather some really good source materials, among them a lecture series entitled The Varieties of Religious Experience https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Varieties_of_Religious_Experience which I am finding quite stimulating and enjoyable (and thought provoking). I think there is far more to religious experiences than just the thought that “they are a broken way to establish truth claims” and certainly don’t dismiss them with frivolity.

      Reply

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