403–406: Revelations of Joseph Smith and Others: A Naturalistic Hypothesis

In her very important new book, Revelatory Events: Three Case Studies of the Emergence of New Spiritual Paths, historian and religion scholar Ann Taves offers a naturalistic framing for revelation, in this case extending it to the complex issue of founding figures of a religion or spiritual communities and their close followers believing the sources of the revelations were outside of themselves. In the three case studies Taves examines, Joseph Smith, founder of Mormonism, claimed visitations from God and angels, and produced revelations that came in the voice of “the Lord”; Helen Schucman, producer of the Course in Miracles and several supporting works, claimed to be scribe for “the Voice” (believing it to be the voice of Jesus Christ); and Bill Wilson, co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous and his associates, though not claiming the words of the group’s Big Book resulted in direct revelation from a specific personality, felt under the inspiration of some Higher Power. Like Smith and Schucman, however, Wilson shared in some circles about an encounter with a Divine source in which he felt “called” to and in that experience also came to believe he would be empowered to “dry up all the drunks in the world.” Employing her considerable skills as an historian, with a special emphasis on religion in America, and drawing from research and findings from neuroscience and several cognitive science and social science fields, Taves puts forth a plausible hypothesis about the various mechanisms at play within the minds of the founders of these traditions/paths and their early collaborators that might explain their claims of revelations from suprahuman sources without positing the need for separate spiritual and material worlds, while at the same time not claiming that experiences such as these were/are delusions. It is a fascinating book that mines rich and varied fields and source materials, and introduces these to findings that are emerging in studies of psychology, social psychology, brain science, hypnotism, creativity, organizational emergence, and more.

In this four-part episode, neuroscientist and lifelong Mormon Michael Adam Ferguson joins Mormon Matters host Dan Wotherspoon in interviewing and interacting with Ann Taves about her book, its hypotheses, her sense of the promises and limits to the fields of study that she is working in, and her own way of making sense of and honoring revelatory events and the power of religion while she is working and positing explanations within naturalistic frameworks.

Part 1 (Ep. 403) primarily introduces the book and its scope, and particularly the stories of and key moments within the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous and the emergence of A Course in Miracles. It also draws a few early comparisons between Joseph Smith and the founders of those spiritual paths.

Part 2 (Ep. 404) explores Taves’ hypotheses about what is going on within the minds of these founding figures during the times they believe they are in direct communication with suprahuman personalities, as well as during the early periods of their groups’ establishment.

Part 3 (Ep. 405) features very active discussions of diverse questions and topic areas, ranging from why might a Divine source “reveal” quite different things about the nature of Reality, to the difference between practical and theoretical metaphysics, to the qualities that might lead one to be classified as a “spiritual genius,” to group genius, to delusional experiences, and more.

Part 4 (Ep. 406) reflects on the probative value of Taves work and the research she cites, as well as directions she hopes to take these things in order to ascertain the scope of their explanatory powers, and then moves into more “pastoral” areas as the panelists assess the value of religious symbolism, praxis, communities, and other gifts of religion and religious systems even if naturalistic arguments, with its claims of a non-dualistic reality, were to win the day.



Ann Taves, Revelatory Events: Three Case Studies of the Emergence of New Spiritual Paths (Princeton University Press, 2016)

Ann Taves and Steven C. Harper, Joseph Smith’s First Vision: New Methods for the Analysis of Experience-Related Texts, Mormon Studies Review 3, no.1 (2016)

Joseph Smith’s Use of a Seer Stone in Bringing Forth the Book of Mormon,” Mormon Matters podcast 287–288, featuring Ann Taves, D. Michael Quinn, Ron Barney, 10 August 2015

Michael Adam Ferguson and Benjamin Knoll, “A Conversation with Michael Ferguson on the Neuroscience of Spiritual Experience,” Rational Faiths podcast 113, 2 November 2016

Charles Randall Paul, “Does God Always Reveal the Same Thing to Everyone?: On Sustaining Peaceful Conflicts Over Religion,” Sunstone, May 2003

Video of sessions in the “New Perspectives on Joseph Smith and Translation” conference, Utah State University, 17 March 2017, sponsored by the Faith Matters Foundation and the USU Religious Studies Program

Daniel Wright Wotherspoon, Awakening Joseph Smith: Mormon Resources for a Postmodern Worldview, Ph.D. dissertation, Claremont Graduate School (1996)

D&C 20:5–12 (early account—possibly 1829—of the First Vision that is often overlooked)



6 comments for “403–406: Revelations of Joseph Smith and Others: A Naturalistic Hypothesis

  1. Tom D
    July 25, 2017 at 8:06 pm

    It seems obvious to me (and probably to others) that I do not belong in the Mormon community and, while I am still a member of record, I have felt this way for over fifty years. It began, perhaps, at UCLA when I specialized in the neurosciences and was convinced that all behavior can (and will eventually) be explained by brain activity. I was at that time a converted Materialist. Somewhat later I became a student of A Course in Miracles for approx. 9 years and wrote extensively during that time as an Idealist, supporting the position that there is only consciousness and that our experience of a material world is an illusion. Over the last twenty years or so I have read extensively of people’s supernatural experiences, including, among others, near-death experiences, mediumship (trance, direct, and physical), and out-of-body experiences. Based on what I have read I am thus amazed that besides being unable to answer the hard problem of how consciousness (something immaterial) can arise out of brain function (something material), those who hold to a materialist position, as seems to be the case with the panelists, must continue to completely ignore much if not all of the valid evidence in support of the supernatural.

    Even though my everyday experience tells me otherwise, I am still convinced that consciousness is fundamental and our experience of a material reality arises out of, and is dependent upon, our being conscious. Thus while we are each currently having the conscious experience of a material world, for each of us our body (along with our brain) will eventually die and every indication is that our conscious awareness will persist. All the evidence that we have accumulated as to the reality of a material world, and so forcefully argued for, will vanish. Poof. And we will find ourselves experiencing another reality. While some will experience another kind of material reality that they will accept as real, others will recognize that they can consciously create any reality that they desire (i.e. matter does not exist in and of itself but is a creation of consciousness).

    I accept the possibility that Joseph Smith was a medium and that the Book of Mormon was channeled through him. I also accept the possibility that he had contact with spirit beings that were the source of some of his revelations. What I do not accept is the necessity of these supernatural experiences in any way being connected to or associated with God. I say this because it is my position that everything that appears as having been created in this physical world first had its origin in the spirit world. Everything. But, in turn, what we have experienced, and will yet experience, in this physical world is only a minuscule representation of what has already been created, and is being created, in the spirit world, exclusive, as far as we know, of God’s control. Therefore, it is small wonder that there are numerous religions as well as a wide diversity of choices in literature, music, and other creative human endeavors that can be considered inspired (i.e.they can have their source in the spirit world without God necessarily being the source).

    Mormonism has at various times embraced Materialism and Dualism. I wonder, will it ever be open to the possibility of embracing Idealism?

    Tom D

    • Alaine P
      July 28, 2017 at 11:08 pm

      After 20+ years of study and (supernatural) experiences, I have come to the same conclusions and now ask the same questions. Thank you, Tom,for such a thorough and succinct overview. Dan and panelists…great podcast! Alaine

  2. Joy
    July 26, 2017 at 1:03 pm

    Are you saying that Joseph Smith and the others accessed untapped areas of their brains from which these organized stories and documents issued forth and they would not have been able to produce them with normal brain activity? Thus, their creations came from out of themselves, rather than from something outside of themselves. How can you say with any certainty that what they tapped into wasn’t a higher, separate power?

  3. Terri D
    July 28, 2017 at 5:49 pm

    Super interesting episode. Can’t wait to read Ann’s book. I haven’t finished all the episodes yet, but I’m curious to know why Ann chose the 3 people/movements she chose to profile? With all the people, including Jane Roberts, who have professed to receive messages from the divine, what was the criteria used to select these 3?

  4. David
    August 4, 2017 at 8:17 am

    Almost didst thou made me buy this book Dan!! Seriously, great job guys. Something worth pondering and channeling.

    In my youth, I played AD&D, which consisted of roleplaying made up characters in a made up world. Not sure how relatable that could be, but the closest thing to it would free style improv acting.

    Would the creators of roleplaying games be considered creating a religious movement by it’s followers/gamers?

    Perhaps thinking of other potentially analogous situations would sports teams, and companies exhibit group think mindsets?

    Perhaps the ultimate connections is thinking that you have interacted with God somehow at a communal level, by following the voice or the holy ghost… anyways interesting analysis.

  5. August 5, 2017 at 12:54 pm

    I’m not quite through with this (on episode 3 of 4), but this has been a really fascinating series of conversations. I remember hearing Ann at the Joseph Smith Sunstone battle royale a couple of years back, but I definitely think that I’ll have to dive further into Ann’s book.

    A couple of things I would want to note that have come through here:

    1) I think Ann was trying to express this at points, but it didn’t quite get through, but there’s obviously a difference between what Mormons mean when they express a thoroughgoing materialism (it’s matter all the way down, just matter more fine, etc.,) and what secular scientists mean when they express a thoroughgoing materialism. I don’t think secularists expect to find finer particles that will line up with Mormons call “intelligences” behind quarks and leptons and things like that. And, likewise, in terms of dualism vs monism, I actually really don’t think Mormons think of intelligences as having the similar sorts of determinism/laws-of-nature qualities that we would acknowledge things like quarks and electrons and whatnot have. Even if spirit is called matter more fine, there are different qualities to spiritual matter than mundane matter. So I agree with the distinction between what is practical vs what is theoretical.

    2) I think that regarding what Michael said at some point regarding the Turing test (and making the comparison with whether revelation and inspiration comes from outside or from a different place inside), I think one big reservation is that if one cannot say it came from outside, then the big question is whether or not any particular piece of inspiration, revelation is distinguishable from other mundane things. Like, I know that folks who have spiritual experiences are loath to hear it reduced to mere emotion, and I get that…but there definitely is a more reason to doubt one’s own experiences if it’s all internal. (This actually probably gets in with my 1st comment…Theologically, Mormons may be OK with saying everything is matter, but I think on a practical perspective, most Mormons are going to want to make a distinction between some forms of matter from other. Even if one accepts that spiritual revelation may be coming from inside, people will want it to be a place “inside” that’s different than, say, emotion.)

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