Faith & Doubt

guestMormon 46 Comments

Today’s guest post is by Glenn.  When I was at BYU, I got interested in the study of folklore – the way that traditional culture informs our understanding of the world. I worked in the BYU folklore archives cataloguing missionary stories – encounters with the three nephites, miraculous experiences (some easier to believe than others), initiation stories of greenie missionaries, cautionary tales — just a whole bunch of really interesting stuff. I was hooked. So I went to Indiana University to earn a Masters Degree and PhD in Folkloristics. I focused my studies on folk religion, with an emphasis on traditional mormon culture – legends, customs, beliefs, green jello…

I really enjoyed studying about ritual – the ways that we use ceremony to create value and meaning – we just experienced one with our sacrament.

And I enjoyed learning about “memorates” – personal experience stories that people tell about their own encounters with the supernatural. In the church, we often call these faith-promoting stories, and that’s the way that folklorists look at them too – that these stories function to justify and validate the beliefs of the people who tell them. They create certainty in the face of uncertainty, and whether the stories themselves are true or not, this is a very valuable thing.

It was an interesting time, and I went through many shifts and changes as I looked more closely at what I believed, why I believed it, and how it fit with the beliefs of other people all over the world. It was a pretty humbling experience, to say the least. And as a result, I have developed this constant, nagging, unshakeable, internal tug-of-war between the skeptic and the believer. It is very much like the lyrics to a song:

When I was young, it seemed that life was so wonderful,
a miracle, oh it was beautiful, magical.
And all the birds in the trees, well they’d be singing so happily,
joyfully, playfully watching me.
But then they sent me away to teach me how to be sensible,
logical, responsible, practical.
And they showed me a world where I could be so dependable,
clinical, intellectual, cynical.

There are times when all the world’s asleep,
the questions run too deep
for such a simple man.
Won’t you please, please tell me what we’ve learned
I know it sounds absurd
but please tell me who I am.

That about sums up my graduate experience. It was kind of like worlds colliding. I had become skeptical, cynical, but I still had to exist in a believing world. What was I to do?

One thing I did was turn to the scriptures and to the counsel from general authorities and modern day prophets:
Mormon 9:27 – “Doubt not, but be believing.”  Thanks, but too late.
Bruce R. McConkie – “Doubt is an inclination to disbelieve the truths of salvation… it is a state of uncertainty… faith and belief are of God; doubt and skepticism are of the devil.”  Really? Yikes!
President Monson – “Remember that faith and doubt cannot exist in the same mind at the same time, for one will dispel the other. Should doubt knock at your doorway, just say to those skeptical, disturbing, rebellious thoughts: ‘I propose to stay with my faith, with the faith of my people. I know that happiness and contentment are there, and I forbid you, agnostic, doubting thoughts, to destroy the house of my faith. I acknowledge that I do not understand the processes of creation, but I accept the fact of it. I grant that I cannot explain the miracles of the Bible, and I do not attempt to do so, but I accept God’s word. I wasn’t with Joseph, but I believe him. My faith did not come to me through science, and I will not permit so-called science to destroy it’.”

With these quotes, I think it is pretty clear where I ought to be when it comes to doubt and faith. But if I’m being honest, I fall far short of these ideals. I just can’t accept the premise that faith and doubt cannot co-exist in the same mind. They have to. Because they both exist in mine. And I don’t know any other way to be.

I do want to endorse President Monson’s counsel, however, that if you can dismiss doubt when it knocks on your door, from my experience, you will be much more comfortable and far less troubled — so by all means, if you can do it, do it.

But if you’re like me – if you can’t just dismiss your doubts – there must still be a way to keep those doubts from destroying the house of faith. Right? Please? Because I can’t not doubt, but I still want to hold on to my faith. So what am I to do?

Well, the simple answer is that I have had to redefine my faith to make room for my doubts and to find a value in these doubts – so I want to share with you how I have done this.


I want to walk you through my top ten personal beliefs about faith and doubt. Disclaimer – these are just my own imperfect opinions based on my own limited experience. I could be wrong. But this is how I have found personal peace and balance in my life amidst this constant tug-of-war between the skeptic and the believer. So I share these with you because they have helped me, but I also reserve the right to change my mind at any time – it’s happened before, it can happen again.

If I really wanted to be borderline irreverent I might say that these are the philosophies of Glenn, mingled with scripture – but I don’t, so I won’t.

So here are my top ten:

1. Faith – at its most basic level – is desire.

I think this is consistent with the scriptures. Especially Alma 32. This is where Alma is preaching to the poor among the Zoramites.

You may remember that the Zoramites were condemned for their incredible pride – they would stand up on their rameumptom and show forth false humility – praising themselves for being the elect chosen of God, and condemning everyone else around them for following foolish and corrupt traditions. They cast out the poor and were very exclusive in their membership.

So Alma went among the cast out poor and taught them an allegory about faith – that it starts with desire – and that desire can be nurtured and tested and grown into a firm conviction. He compares it to a seed that is planted in fertile soil and cultivated until it grows and bears fruit and you can taste the fruit to know that the seed was, in fact, a good seed.

So faith starts with desire, but it isn’t JUST desire – you have to act upon that desire.

One of my basic desires is to be fair to people and respectful of their beliefs. And this desire has had a great influence over the mental gymnastic that you are about to see, because I also desire to hold on to my faith in spite of all of my doubts.

2. There is really no such thing as “doubt”

I guess you could say that I doubt doubt.

“Doubt” is just a word. It’s a word that we use to describe someone else’s belief that is contrary to our belief. For example, I could say, “I believe it is going to rain today.” And you could say, “No, I doubt it.” That’s really the same thing as saying, “No, I don’t believe that it will rain today.”

My point here is that “doubt” isn’t really anything but another way of saying “I don’t believe.”

3. There is really no such thing as “don’t believe”

I’m playing a game of semantics again. When you say that you “don’t believe” that it will rain, what you really mean is that you “do believe” that it will not rain. It is still an active belief.

I believe it will rain – you believe it will not rain. Your belief vs. my belief. And we may both have valid reasons for believing what we are choosing to believe.

I believe it will rain because I trust the forecast – it’s been right more than it has been wrong, and I don’t mind carrying an umbrella.

You believe it won’t rain because, despite the forecast, you just looked outside and no Japanese person in sight is carrying an umbrella, and the Japanese are never wrong about this sort of thing. Plus, you don’t want to be the only one carrying an umbrella, cuz then you’d look stupid.

So the point here is to define belief as an active thing, despite whatever words we use – whether we call it doubt or say we “don’t believe” it is all really just belief.

4. Faith and Doubt are not opposites – they are equivalents

If both faith and doubt are active beliefs, then they are really the same thing, aren’t they? They are both beliefs, just pointed in different directions.

Someone may say that faith has action but doubt has no action, but I would challenge that.

Yes, the faithful person takes an umbrella even if they are uncertain whether it will rain or not, and that is a faithful act.

But even the doubter takes action by choosing to NOT carry an umbrella and still walking outside anyway. Both are beliefs and both inspire action. Maybe this is the secret key to unlock the mystery of believing “all things” that we have been admonished to do. And then again, maybe not.

5. Faith and Doubt can co-exist

President Monson said that doubt and faith cannot exist in the same mind at the same time – and maybe I am using this quote out of context – but don’t we all doubt some things while simultaneously having faith in others?

For example, I doubt the traditional meaning behind the James 2:20 scripture mastery scripture “faith without works is dead.” I was originally taught that this was James’ response to the atonement of Christ. That we are not saved by grace alone, but must also show forth works for our eternal salvation, for faith without works is dead.

But when I went back and read all of James chapter 2, I saw that James’ message wasn’t about the atonement. It was about our own exercise of faith. It is saying that you have to put your money where your mouth is. If someone comes to you seeking food, and you say “bless you, and hunger no more” but you don’t actually give them any food, then you aren’t actually going to save them.

So I doubt the way that I was originally taught this scripture, but I still have faith that the message is a good message and that it comes from a good source. And that is a balancing act between doubt and faith.

6. Faith without doubt is dead

That is the GOT – the Glenn Ostlund Translation of James 2:20. Faith is a hope and a desire, but it is not a perfect knowledge. So there must be uncertainty, some degree of questioning or doubt, otherwise faith would be knowledge. Uncertainty in and of itself is not a bad thing in my world. And when uncertainty or doubt spurs us to positive action, it can actually be a very good thing.

7. Uncertainty is a scary thing

Without a doubt, doubt will make you more unsure about what you used to be very sure about, and this can be a scary thing. But one lesson that I learned as a kid is that anytime the scriptures say “have faith” you could interchange the phrase for “fear not” and the meaning would stay the same. So even with all of the different conflicting messages all around us in the world every day – even with all of the valid and reasonable reasons to have doubt, if we nurture our faith, we do not need to fear doubt. Doubt does not have to destroy our faith – it can bolster and lift it and lead us to new light and knowledge.

8. Our church has been built upon doubt – or at least upon the positive interaction between doubt and faith.

The First Vision would not have happened unless Joseph had experienced some questions and doubts about what he was hearing in the different revival meetings. But he also had faith that the Lord would answer his prayer. A pretty successful one-two punch, if you ask me.

And throughout the history of the church, doctrines and policies have been added or removed or amended because people have debated and doubted and questioned and reached out in faith, and received further light and knowledge. So there is a lesson to be learned here, that doubt and faith can interact together towards a good end.

9. Repentance without doubt is dead

We are constantly encouraged to evaluate and examine how we are living our lives. We are encouraged to repent when we need to repent, and I think that doubt plays a role here.

I have always found illumination in the Japanese word for repentance – kuiaratameru. If I understand it right, it literally means to remorse and to change. What causes this remorse? What leads us to a realization that we are in error? We must at some point doubt our very selves – we must doubt that our actions have been good actions. So perhaps this is another area where doubt can have a positive influence in our lives.

10. Humility is the key

Whether as individuals or as a church, regardless of what we currently believe or how strong our convictions, further light and knowledge can always reveal new truths, and our beliefs can always change.

Shouldn’t that awareness then lead to greater humility on our parts? Isn’t humility the way we learn to show Christ-like empathy and compassion and forgiveness for others, even when we disagree with them or when they disagree with us?

Isn’t that the humilty that caused the good Samaritan to stop and help the man on the side of the road, even though he probably doubted the other guys’ beliefs?

Isn’t that the compassion and empathy that caused Christ to say “forgive them father, for they know not what they do?” even as they were in the very act of doubting him to a painful and undeserved death?

Back to Alma 32 – Alma rejoiced when he saw that the poor among the Zoramites had been cast out. Why? Because they had been compelled to be humble, and that softened their hearts. No one wants to be compelled to be humble, but I think we should all have soft hearts — believers and skeptics alike. We should be open-minded, tolerant of different ideas, willing to admit our own imperfect understanding.

Doubt – for me – has compelled and pounded and softened my heart. It has lead me to a humilty in my beliefs, or at least an ability and a desire to step off of my own rameumpton and drop any pretense that I am any more elect than anyone else around me. Doubt has helped me repent of this pride.

In conclusion, I have atheist friends who are some of the most charitable, kind, Christ-like people that I know. When I ask them about God, they often say that it makes no sense to them that a loving God would put us in a no-win situation, and would punish us for living in a sinful world that God himself created.

There are many responses to this, but I want to give just one. If the story of the atonement is true – if Jesus Christ took upon himself the sins of the world and died for our sakes – then isn’t that the responsible thing for a God to do? Doesn’t that mean that he has personally erased the effects of sin and death that have come to us as a result of our following his plan and entering into this mortal probation full of death and sin? To me it is like he is saying, “don’t worry, I’ve got you covered. Have faith. Fear not. Now just go and love each other as I have loved you. “

I find great beauty and hope in this approach. And I have a firm desire for this to be true. I also have a strong faith in the principles of charity that we read about in Moroni:  “Wherefore, if a man have faith he must have hope; for without faith there cannot be any hope. And he cannot have faith and hope, save he shall be meek, and lowly of heart. Otherwise, his faith and hope is vain; and he must needs have charity; for if he have not charity he is nothing; for charity suffereth long, and is kind, and envieth not, and is not puffed up, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil, and rejoiceth not in iniquity but rejoiceth in the truth, beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. Charity is the pure love of Christ, and it endureth forever; and whoso is found possessed of it at the last day, it shall be well with him.”

This is my hope and my faith, in spite of my doubts.

How do you feel about doubt and its relationship to faith?

Comments 46

  1. Ah, this is like the word faith, which has multiple meanings. Doubt has them as well. You may say “the stock market will go up” and I may say “I doubt that” which may mean:

    (a) I think the stock market will go down
    (b) I don’t know which way the stock market will go, but I don’t think it will necessarily go up
    (c) I don’t think that your context is sufficient for the statement.

    Those are very different types of doubt. They co-exist much differently with faith. I like the way your essay highlights how that all works together to inform and create your faith.

  2. Glen wrote:

    “And I enjoyed learning about “memorates” – personal experience stories that people tell about their own encounters with the supernatural. In the church, we often call these faith-promoting stories, and that’s the way that folklorists look at them too – that these stories function to justify and validate the beliefs of the people who tell them. They create certainty in the face of uncertainty, and whether the stories themselves are true or not, this is a very valuable thing.”

    Truth dies in this thought. Relating experiences that are known to be untrue is a flat out a lie.

  3. I guess I have to make a comment similar to Stephen’s re 1.

    To me, saying “I doubt” or “I don’t believe” is VERY different than saying “I believe (the opposite).” Where the modifier (“not” or “no”) goes is critically important for meaning and context. We would not confuse “I almost failed every class” with “I failed almost every class.” So, I don’t think it is right to confuse “I don’t believe it will rain” with “I believe it will not rain.”

  4. A worthwhile post. Let me add a few thoughts:

    1. As discussed before, faith is much more than mere belief or hope, so to say that faith and doubt are two sides of the same coin is perhaps to ignore the larger meaning of faith.

    2. Philosophy is primarily a discussion of word definition. People often want to “get beyond the semantics”, not realizing that the discussion is all about semantics. Words are variable tokens of meaning, so until we get our tokens straight, no meaningful communication can take place.

    3. In that same vein, God appears to use our linguistic tokens as he sees fit rather than as we have commonly agreed to use them. Thus, he describes divine punishment as “eternal”, but doesn’t mean that it lasts forever. He describes exaltation as dwelling in the “celestial kingdom”, but that doesn’t necessarily signify a location you can point to in a constellation. Lamoni asks Ammon if “heaven” is above the earth, and Ammon doesn’t bother to correct his naive cosmological understanding and the use of a relative term like “above” that may have no literal meaning; rather, he just says “yes”.

    4. Alma 32 does not describe faith as like unto a seed. The word of God, that is, the gospel of Jesus Christ (and perhaps Jesus Christ himself), are likened to a seed. Faith is what you exercise when you plant and cultivate the seed, and is the power that allows the seed to grow.

  5. I think we all have doubt a lot of time in our life. The principle of doubt and faith cannot exist in the same mind as always bothered me. I have both thought the day. But I think the faith will always win out if we keep doing the things that are right. I have had members tell me that if we have doubt our testimony is somehow weak. I do not hold to this principle. Many faithful people have had to deal with doubt Mother Teresa and Gandi come to mind. I believe how we act when those feelings come to us is what makes the differance.

  6. A few things right off the bat:

    1. This was a talk I gave in sacrament meeting last Sunday. I wrote it over the course of about a week or so, based on a lot of ideas I have had floating around for a while. The “top ten” idea was a suggestion from a friend, and it is really quite arbitrary. And the rain vs. not rain” analogy was to simplify some concepts and make them more comfortable to discuss in a sacrament meeting, then exploring, say, whether Joseph a fallen prophet or not. So basically, I am saying that I am under no illusion that this is the end-all and be-all of faith and doubt. It is simply a curiosity I started exploring in response to my assignment to give a talk in church and my desire to be interesting and thought provoking and as honest to how I feel as I could comfortably say over the pulpit. Nothing more.

    2. I am currently in Beijing, China, touring with my wife and kids, and yesterday I ate deep fried scorpions. They were live and wiggling around on a kabob. Then the guy deep fried them and I ate them. They were crunchy. And kind of salty. But they did not taste like chicken. I just wanted you all to know that.

    Stephen — Thanks. I agree. Some very different kinds of relationships between doubt and faith and the words we use (like “think” or “believe” etc). Certainly not a one-size-fits all approach.

    Jared — Can you explain what you mean by truth dying? Something tells me we are not going to agree on this, but I’m curious to hear what you have to say. I could learn from it. My belief is that every story ever told is a fiction, simply because the very act of turning an experience into a narrative selects certain details and omits others, so you never have a complete picture. So we are always telling fictions — not exactly flat out lies all the time — especially since we don’t always know what we have omitted or not. Maybe some are curvy in lies.

    Andrew — I agree that changing modifiers can change meaning, but do you really think that “I doubt it will rain” and “I believe it will not rain” mean different things? Can you unpack those two statements in another way? Cuz I sure as heck fire don’t want to stay confused.

    Vort — To your #4, good point. It is not technically “faith” being compared to a seed. It is the words of Alma being compared to a seed. You got me.

    Elwood — Agreed. How much more admirable is it for a person to act in faith despite immense doubts. Mother Teresa is a great example.

  7. Glenn–

    The real objective of communication is silence. In other words, once communication is completed then there remains nothing to say. It isn’t always about agreement or disagreement.

    Based on your #6 to me, it appears as though the underlaying assumption for Folkloristics is that “memorates” are always contraved by the authors. I think that scriptural and other inspired memorates can be trusted to be true because the Spirit of the Lord is involved. Thus, the hearer can duplicate in their own lives the memorates they embrace and make part of their own experience.

  8. Some thoughts.

    I can’t really help but feel like this is all just word gymnastics (which I admit are important as Vort has alluded to). Not to toot my own horn, but this is exactly the point I’m trying to dispel in my series about faith and stochastic theory. The problem here is that we’re not advancing the discussion over how people actually act or feel, just arguing over what to call it. The point I’m trying to make in my own post is that it doesn’t matter what we call it, people act according to what they think most probable. When they don’t, they make a “leap” of irrational action/thought which may lead to probing the tails of the confidence distribution. This may lead to good things (indeed it may plant the proverbial seed of faith) but it is NOT what people do on an everyday basis. Rather, Mormons pay tithing because they believe the evidence supports their confidence in the fact that God blesses them. To “doubt” is nothing more than to have a DIFFERENT confidence distribution than the next guy/gal. That is, when someone DOESN’T pay their tithing it really means that they have very low confidence that God actually blesses them for it. You can call this doubt, but I don’t like the stigma attached to it. Rather, I prefer to think of such people as simply having a different confidence distribution with other means and standard deviations.

    However, I do think your #10 is the key for all of us. Humility, to me, is NOT being obedient to our leaders. Rather, humility is an internal acceptance of the truth as we see it and are trying to find it. True humility may lead some out of the church, and may keep others in the church. Regardless, it is the key to real faith in my opinion.

    Additionally, Glenn, I do think this post (especially as a Sacrament meeting talk) is great for LDS members who speak and understand the normal Mormon vernacular. So kudos to you on that part. I just think, in reality, it is a semantics game that doesn’t really model human actions, beliefs, and knowledge.

  9. How much more admirable is it for a person to act in faith despite immense doubts.

    I think this is also problematic. Suppose a new member of an alien abduction cult is being asked to perform some wacko self-mutilation ritual as a manifestation of his/her faith. Is this really admirable? I have to conclude that it is the action itself that is as important (or more so) than merely “acting in faith despite immense doubts.” But I think it is rather obvious that the acts themselves are completely arbitrary being only characterized by what society deems as “good.”

    In other words, I have little to no respect for Abraham nearly sacrificing his son on an altar because allegedly God told him to. I have to place him in the “crazy” box rather than the “faithful” box.

  10. #9 jmb275: In other words, I have little to no respect for Abraham nearly sacrificing his son on an altar because allegedly God told him to. I have to place him in the “crazy” box rather than the “faithful” box.

    And yet the example of Abraham offering Isaac as a sacrifice is used time and again in scripture as an example of righteous faith. If you consciously and deliberately misinterpret symbols, even when you’re told “look, here’s what the symbol means”, then how can you expect to understand any deeper meaning?

  11. #9 jmb275–

    What would you consider a “faithful” display of faith?

    I can understand why someone would put Abraham in the “crazy” box for being willing to sacrifice his son.

    I can also understand why someone would be willing to sacrifice their son, that is, if they’re a prophet; someone who had prior experience dealing with God on a level where they grew in faith to the point they knew it was God communicating with them–nothing doubting.

  12. re 6:


    When I say something like, “I doubt it will rain” or “I don’t believe it will rain,” then that means I am unconvinced or unpersuaded by the proposition “it will rain.” This doesn’t necessarily mean, however, that I have positive reason to be convinced or persuaded by the proposition “it will not rain.” There are many who may use a particular chain of inductive reasoning in order to make the connection…something like, “absence of evidence is evidence of absence,” but this reasoning is not always present, and it’s not even all that valid.

    I guess to point out the difference, I would use a classic analogy of the black swan.

    Let’s say we lived in Europe prior to the 1630s. If someone asked us about the existence of black swans, we could take a few positions.

    1) “I believe black swans exist.”

    (The problem? Why should we believe in black swans? Prior to the late 1630s, we hypothetical Europeans would have seen no evidence that black swans exist.)

    2) “I do not believe black swans exist.”

    (We might take this position simply because we haven’t seen evidence of black swans.

    3) “I believe black swans do not exist.”

    (In order to take this position, we’d have to assume that not seeing evidence of black swans is evidence that they do not exist [other arguments are possible, sure, but this is the one I want to address.])

    So…let’s look at what happens to the three positions after 1637 or so…the first explorers have come back from Australia, and they point out that, lo and behold, there are black swans. We were just looking in the wrong place.

    Position 1 seems to be “correct,” but what can we say about the reasoning prior to the discovery of swans? It doesn’t seem right to say that people should take a position like position 1, but then again…you can make your own conclusions.

    Position 2 changes from nonbelief to belief, but we wouldn’t credit someone who holds position 2 as having been “wrong.” Prior to 1637, there wasn’t convincing evidence to believe in black swans, so the people of position 2 did not. With convincing evidence, they believed.

    Position 3 changes from belief in nonexistence to belief in existence. This change marks a clear wrongness for the prior position. They were convinced in something (that absence of evidence was evidence of absence) that was logically flawed and untrue.

    To summarize, the difference between “I doubt/do not believe” and “I believe (the opposite claim)” is that the former comes from lack of being personally persuaded or convinced by a claim. The latter comes from being personally persuaded or convinced by an opposing claim. The latter is not implied by the former, and in places when people try to imply the latter in the former, they often rely on faulty inductive reasoning.

  13. “I am currently in Beijing, China, touring with my wife and kids, and yesterday I ate deep fried scorpions. They were live and wiggling around on a kabob. Then the guy deep fried them and I ate them. They were crunchy. And kind of salty. But they did not taste like chicken. I just wanted you all to know that.” Awesome!

  14. Wow, you guys are almost as crazy as I am.

    Jared — I feel like we are mortal enemies already and I hardly even know you. The real object of communication is silence? That’s really what you think? Yikes. I tend to think it is more about community or communion, but maybe that’s just because those are silly comm- words. So I guess my non-silence here is a form of excommunication? And you don’t know what you are saying re: memorates, so I’ll just let that one go. I get what you are trying to say. The Spirit = Truth. Okay.

    JMB275 – you’re right, it is totally word gymnastics (I call it mental gymnastics in the talk). Regarding the admirability of self-mutilation in the alien abduction cult — I’m quite certain that Sarnack the Grand Cosmic Overlord will see it as an admirable act. Unless you are telling me that you don’t believe in Sarnack. It’s always a matter of perspective and belief, isn’t it?

    Andrew — that Black Swan stuff was really good. I can see the distinction between #2 and #3, but I don’t believe in nonbelief 🙂 In the rain analogy, do you think that still fits? Doesn’t it boil down to degrees of conviction in one’s beliefs? I still think that the point I was making — that faith and doubt are both beliefs, just pointed in different directions, is still pretty valid — even in your black swan examples, the belief is stronger in #3 than it is in #2, but all three of them are still beliefs: I believe there are black swans; I believe there are probably no black swans; I believe there are definitely no black swans. That’s how I see it at least.

    Hawkgrrrl — If we’re not facebook friends already, we should be. Then, when I get back from Beijing (they block facebook in China) I will upload the video and you can see it all for yourself, and then your faith will be made complete, nothing doubting. Although I totally think it is admirable for thinking it was awesome even without knowing that I really did it.

  15. re 15:

    Glenn, don’t worry about Jared. He’s like that.

    Back to what you said, I think the analogy works for rain too. The difference, of course, is that we generally don’t include Australia in “I doubt it will rain,” so for our local area, we are comfortable in making the leap absence of evidence of rain = evidence of absence of rain.

    I continue to disagree with your analysis that there is still belief in the black swan analogy. For example, to make position 2 into “I believe there are probably no black swans,” someone would have to have an assumption about probability. But how might they do that without making an unreliable and hasty assumption? The kind of person that position 2 represents wouldn’t make such a hasty assumption. Again, position 2 might say, “I don’t believe black swans are probable,” (and note, this is not to say that he believes black swans are improbable) but not “I believe there are probably no black swans.”

    Not to mention, you are introducing different claims here. The two claims here are “There are (actually) black swans” and “There are (actually) no black swans.” The claim you sneak in is, “There are (probably) no black swans.”

    But couldn’t you think of people who could mix up all sorts of these different claims? “Black swans probably don’t exist, but I believe they (actually) do.”

  16. Glenn–

    Hey, lighten up–mortal enemies–what ya talkin about?

    Regarding the idea that the objective of communication is silence is taught, or at least was taught, in most textbooks on communication.

    The bottom line of my comment is very basic, and you apparently understood my point: The Spirit = Truth. So we’ve communicate on that point, silence on that point should prevail.

    Mortal enemies, what ya talkin about, brother.

    May you be poor in misfortune,

    Rich in blessings,

    Quick to make friends,

    But rich or poor, quick or slow,

    May you know nothing but happiness

    From this day forward.

  17. Andrew — that’s cool. We’ll probably just go back and forth on this thing. I just don’t know how to see #2 as an absence of belief. Isn’t your last statement “Black swans probably don’t exist, but I believe they (actually) do” equivalent to “I believe that black swans probably exist?” I may just be way off here. And my head is starting to hurt from thinking about it too much. So no worries.

    Jared — I was mostly kidding about the mortal enemies thing. I forget sometimes that when I write people can’t see the smile and twinkle in my eye as I am writing. I looked at your blog and read through your experience. Cool stuff.

  18. re 18:

    quite simply, no. Otherwise, you have a nasty contradiction. “I believe black swans probably don’t exist, but I believe that black swans probably exist.”? Not to mention it fails to account for things that people actually say that points out the difference between probability and actuality.

  19. Glenn,

    Do I have to go English teacher on you? 😀 The individual who says, “Black swans probably don’t exist” already puts the (I believe) in there. So, you can’t equate “black swans probably don’t exist” with “black swans probably exist.” The exception, I suppose, is one implies or infers “I know” instead of “I believe” from such a statement.)

  20. Glenn–


    On a more serious note–regarding my blog. I had mixed feelings about relating my experience–it’s very sacred. After forty + years of keeping my experience close, I decided to share what I learned.

    The doctrine of Christ, as taught in the Book of Mormon, is the greatest reality in my life. I backed into it. I experienced it, then came to understand it as I drank in the teachings of the Book of Mormon.

    Mormons have an incredible gift. We are heirs of the restoration of the gospel through a prophet of God. Absolutely incredible, an absolutely true!

  21. In spite of the doctrinal/philosophical/linguistic debate going on – 20 extra points for using a great Supertramp song!

  22. Glenn,
    Did I understand you gave the original post as a sacrament talk? How was that recieved?

    To me the most public problem for people who doubt is Testimony meetings where most people KNOW. I can live with my belief, doubtsday to day. In a recent Temple Recommend Interview with the Stake Pres. He asked questions after and I expressed that I did have doubts, so could not know, but I did believe, and lived as a believer. He pointed out that that was faith and that is what is required.

    I often wonder if many of the young people who don’t transit to adult membership, drop out because the have doubts, but only see certainty as the acceptable model. Perhaps if we had more people saying they believed, rather than knew, they may be able to see a place for themselves.

  23. Geoff,

    Yes, it was a sacrament talk, and you are not the first to ask how it was received. Whenever I hear “How was it received” I want to respond with “Very well. Only these people do not believe what is being taught…” or something like that — Scott already borrowed my line, philosophies of Glenn, mingled with scripture. But yeah, it was received well. I had nice responses from the Bishop, who emailed and said it touched on many things he has thought about in the past; and from the 2nd counselor, who had similar things to say. Several people came up to speak about it afterwards. A few of the elderly missionary guys in the ward asked for copies of the talk. I haven’t heard anything negative about it.

    A few years ago in a different ward my wife bore her testimony and pretty much slammed everyone who claimed that “they know.” She said, “you can say that all you want, but I won’t believe you — you don’t really know — nobody knows — we just have to accept this all on faith.” I was proud of her, but that one did NOT go over as well. A guy got up right after her and reassured the ward that yes, he did know, and he was followed by several others who gave assurances that they know, too. The bishop called me in a little later and asked what I was doing to my wife’s faith, and told me that I need to be careful and keep my thoughts and questions to myself, because most people couldn’t handle them, and that being an “intellectual” in the church is a very lonely place to be. And I can testify that pretending to be one is just as lonely, too. 🙂

    So you may be right, Geoff — if more people were comfortable with a lack of certainty, it would be an easier place for people who have doubts. But I expect there will still be people who think that people who say “I hope the church is true” are being wishy-washy at best and borderline disrespectful at worst.

  24. #26 Glenn and Geoff–

    Mormon Matters has hosted many discussions on certainty. The issue is really simple, some members hope the church is true while others know it is true. As one who knows it is true because of sacred experience I express my testimony with certainty. I have no problem with a member saying they hope it is true.

    It is just as disingenuous to say you believe when you know–as it to say you know when you believe.

    I think we’re in a sorry-state when our focus is on what word we’re going to use to bear our testimony. Why not be forthright.

    Question: what kind of experience does a person need to have in order to appropriately express their testimony with certainty–saying,I know?

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  26. #27 Jared

    Question: what kind of experience does a person need to have in order to appropriately express their testimony with certainty–saying,I know?

    When my children were little, I tried to teach them to say what they had experienced and what they believed, giving the reasons why. I tried to avoid teaching them to say “I know” when they really meant “I believe”. The results were interesting; they bore their testimony by saying, in effect, “I know such-and-such is true, because my parents told me so.” This kind of knowledge may not work as well in their adult lives, but it sufficed for them at that point.

    As in all philosophy, this comes down to a matter of word definition: What does it mean to know something? This is not sophistry or word games, it is a real question with profound implications. Those who would limit the meaning of “to know” to reproducible sensory experiences are perhaps missing something from their use of the lexicon.

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  28. “To know” is essentially “to be convinced.” One can know things that aren’t so.

    Re: “knowing” and testimonies, I’ve noticed that when many people say they “know” a principle of the gospel is true, what they mean is that they know they have had a certain spiritual experience in connection with it. How the verity of the experience translates into the verity of the principle is something that’s not often fully explained.

    It’s taken as a given that if you have a certain kind of spiritual experience in connection with something, that means that the something is literally true. That may be true, but I like to hear someone who knows things on this basis, explain why it is true.

  29. #29 Thomas:

    Therefore, if I say I “know” the Church is true because I prayed about it and got a confirming feeling in my heart and mind, that’s perfectly valid, even though it might not fully meet someone else’e personal criteria set for knowledge. I might also say I “know” a certain gospel principle to be true because I implemented it in my own life and found it worked, or that I “know” God listens to prayers because I prayed and had a confirmation that God listened to me.

    The logician might then point out that just because implementing a principle in my life at a point and that principle seemed to work does not prove that the principle really will work in all such cases, and that just because God listened to my prayer once doesn’t mean he will listen to everyone’s prayer, or even to my prayer another time. Does that mean my testimony is false, that I don’t really “know” these things? I think it does not. Rather, it means that the listener is not justified in assigning his predetermined criteria for knowledge onto my testimony.

    My children “knew” that what they were testifying of was true because their parents had taught it to them. This is perfectly acceptable for a child; how many things does a child actually “know” by personal, first-hand experience? There are different stages or levels of knowledge, but being at a less mature level of knowledge doesn’t mean the knowledge is false, or that the speaker “doesn’t really know”.

  30. #29 Thomas (sorry, forgot to comment on this the first time): One can know things that aren’t so.

    Does this therefore mean that we should never say we “know” anything, since we might always be wrong, no matter how sure we are? Or does it mean that we should understand that “know” conveys a level of confidence and definiteness to the limit that our imperfect mortal experiences are able to give us? I believe the latter to be the case.

  31. re 31: Vort, Thomas seems to be saying the opposite.

    Since knowledge is about US and not about the external world, of course we can say we “know” things. Our being wrong doesn’t prevent us from having certainty in that wrongness.

  32. #32 Andrew S: I gathered the same from his words. I happen to agree with this idea, but some on this and other threads have opined that, in effect, we should never say we “know” anything in our religious testimonies, ‘cuz what if we turn out to be wrong? Interestingly, I don’t think they would apply that reasoning to any other area of life, e.g. saying “I know this is how we solve this integral” or “I know that belladonna is poisonous.”

  33. Vort:

    1. It is true that people will choose different criteria for what constitutes a sufficient basis for “knowledge.”

    2. “These two facts do exist, that there are two criteria, one being more objectively reliable than the other; there shall be another more reliable than they.” Diversity of epistemologies does not mean that all epistemologies are created equal, any more than diversity of religions means that all religions are equally true.

    I have been searching all my life for a principle of religious knowledge that, in a different context, would not commit me to the proposition that Islam is exclusively true, as to the equivalent proposition for Mormonism. If there is something about the “confirming” experiences you have had, that leaves no reason to question that they confirm what you believe they confirm, then be thankful for them. I do not think I have had any such unambiguous experience. For me to base knowledge on revelation — a superior means of knowledge than my senses and reason, because God is presumably not susceptible to the same errors in the exercise of those faculties as I am — there must be some grounds for me to believe that a revelation is, in fact, a revelation.

    To the extent I have had spiritual experiences in connection with uniquely Mormon things (as opposed to universal Christian or godly principles generally), I see three possibilities for their origin: (1) They are the products of the proverbial “frenzied mind” (see Alma 30:16), merely biochemical in their origin; (2) they are confirmation of the truth of Mormonism and the untruth of every irreconcilable belief; or (3) they are confirmation that Mormonism is sufficiently good for God to approve of me seeking him within its bounds.

    With respect to #2, I have one more data point: Mystics in other religious traditions report similar experiences in the context of their own traditions, including experiences encountered in connection with aspects of those traditions that are irreconcilable with the truth of important Mormon doctrines. Their experiences sound just as powerful, or more so, than mine, or those reported by other Mormons. Blake Ostler tells me I should trust my own experiences over theirs. Maybe that is so — if it must come down to a choice. Ultimately, I know my own mind better than I know the mind of another. So if it comes down to denying either my own experience, or entertaining the possibility that the other guy is lying, I would choose the latter.

    However, the third option — treating both mystical experiences as confirming something that is not necessarily exclusive to the differing traditions; some core “tao” of shared truth — then I’m not forced into that all-or-nothing election. The only thing that would force me to say I’m right and the other guy’s wrong, would be a presumption that God would not allow a confirmed spiritual experience to occur if the truth it confirmed were accompanied by error. What would be the basis for that assumption?

    Again, it doesn’t follow from the possibility that different religions could share a core of absolute truth, that each religion contains an equal proportion of truth to error. I think Mormonism is superior to Calvinism, Catholicism, and Islam, to give three examples of traditions I come anywhere close to knowing well enough to make a comparison. But that judgment would have to be made on criteria other than simply the reality of a spiritual experience having been encountered.

  34. Vort and Thomas–

    Among today’s LDS we talk about testimony based on “feelings”. As has been pointed out in the above comments people can be sincere and say they know the church is true when their basis for such claims is evident only by their words. Having a good feeling about something can be an inauthentic or authentic manifestation of the Spirit.

    Consider Elder Wirthlin’s thoughts on this subject:

    Unfortunately, some in the Church may believe sincerely that their testimony is a raging bonfire when it really is little more than the faint flickering of a candle. Their faithfulness has more to do with habit than holiness, and their pursuit of personal righteousness almost always takes a back seat to their pursuit of personal interests and pleasure. With such a feeble light of testimony for protection, these travelers on life’s highways are easy prey for the wolves of the adversary.
    Joseph B. Wirthlin, “Spiritual Bonfires of Testimony,” Ensign, Nov. 1992, 34

    Interestingly, the Book of Mormon doesn’t emphasize feelings as the foundation for acquiring a testimony. The Book of Mormon teaches that knowing comes by experiencing a manifestation. It refers to tangible experiences so apparent it is called the “mighty change”. It also refers to the presence of “fire and the Holy Ghost”. In other places the experience is overwhelming and the receiptants fall to the ground. Some of these experiences are accompanied by angels, and even the presence of God’s voice. Still others report having meant Christ, seeing and talking with Him face to face (2nd Comforter).

    Lastly, contrast our testimony meetings with those reported in Elder Busche’s book Yearning for the Living God, p. 234:

    “She told me about the poor circumstances they were all living in and about how difficult it was for the members to get to their Sunday meetings and the many sacrifices that they joyfully made. She said the most inspiring times for the members in her branch was testimony meeting that was held on Sunday of fasting. They all looked forward to hearing their fellow members report about the Lord’s working in their lives. They, of course would not part until everyone had given a testimony because they were all anxious to share the many miracles happening around them. They could not say enough about the love and most gracious care of the Lord. Then she said, ‘Once in awhile, we have holy angels visit and comfort and strengthen us.’ She added with a smile, ‘Can you imagine? I have found people in Salt Lake City who have never seen an angel.’ She laughed as if that were the strangest thing she had ever heard.

  35. I exist, in part, because a young Polish servant girl in 1890s Berlin visited an LDS chapel, and a portrait of Wilford Woodruff came to life and the picture of President Woodruff told her to get herself to Utah. (Where she later expressed some annoyance with the missionaries for painting an excessively primrose picture of Utah, whose citizens’ ability to hold their liquor in public, she stated, compared unfavorably with Germans’.)

    Did it happen? I don’t know. That kind of manifestation certainly isn’t widely spoken of today. It does seem to happen more among the poor than among the well-fed.

  36. “Unfortunately, some in the Church may believe sincerely that their testimony is a raging bonfire when it really is little more than the faint flickering of a candle. Their faithfulness has more to do with habit than holiness, and their pursuit of personal righteousness almost always takes a back seat to their pursuit of personal interests and pleasure. With such a feeble light of testimony for protection, these travelers on life’s highways are easy prey for the wolves of the adversary.
    Joseph B. Wirthlin, “Spiritual Bonfires of Testimony,” Ensign, Nov. 1992, 34”

    What do you get out of this quote, Jared?

  37. #37 Holden Caulfield–

    This quote from Elder Wirthlin has a greater impact, IMHO, because this isn’t the kind of thing he normally said.

    I think in this day church members are not experiencing the higher manifestation of the Spirit. The Book of Mormon teaches that there are cycle of righteousness. John W. Welch, Charting the Book of Mormon-Chart 144, identified six elements of this cycle in his study of the Nephites:

    1. Righteous
    2. Blessing and Prosperity
    3. Pride
    4. Wickedness
    5. Destruction and Suffering
    6. Humility and Repentance

    I think that we might be a solid 4. This translates into having less of the Spiritual Gifts.

  38. Jared:

    How do you feel about members who try as best they can but never develop a “raging bonfire” testimony?

    Ever talked to anyone who you felt gave it their all, but came up with a “faint flickering of a candle” testimony? If so, how did you feel about their situation?

    I’m not leading anywhere here, I’m just wondering what you feel inside about these questions.

  39. Holden Caulfield–

    I’ve had to change my thoughts on this question since I came to the ‘nacle. I believe there is scriptural evidence to support the point you’re making. I think it is the exception and not the rule.

  40. Jared–I really wasn’t making a point. I was wondering about your feelings. I know that is not the standard MO on the internet (and certainly not mine) but that really is all I was doing. Thanks.

  41. There are times when you feel you have had a spiritul confirmation of something that can’t be proven-the church is true for example.

    I doubt because I had an experience where I was in financial straights and thought selling a car would be a solution. I prayed in the temple about this and felt convinced that if I paid the next 3 months tithing in advance the car would sell. I went ahead and paid the tithing even though that made my situation worse–the car did not sell, I still have it.

    This is not the only example but the most clear.

    So I see it as a decision making process. If the Church isn’t true I haven’t lost all that much, Tithing, and Sundays plus some other time. If it is true I have been faithfull and continue to work toward Christlike behaviour. As I have been an active member for 50 years I will keep going for another 30 or so.

    But I rarely bear testimony because I can’t say I KNOW.

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