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Nothing more than feelings

May 10, 2011

In his last lesson, the Sunday school teacher spent quite a bit of time diverted from the assigned topic to talk about the importance of being guided by the Spirit, contrasting this from what “the world” calls evidence. Without faith, people are blind, he said.

It may be presumptuous of me to think that he might have been directing his comments to me. He probably wasn’t. But here’s my response, nonetheless.

Many religious people would consider feelings as a valid reason to believe that something is true, and the emphasis on “feeling the Spirit” is particularly strong in the LDS faith. But is a feeling a good reason to believe something?

The idea of feelings as form of evidence is a misappropriation of the word “evidence” as it is used in secular, scientific, or legal affairs. Feelings are unequivocally not evidence.

The tension between feelings and evidence is an interesting one because, at its best, religious practice is an exercise in eliciting within ourselves the emotional states of serenity, wonder, awe, joy, and love for others. This, of course, can be accomplished without religion. The problem arises when people want to claim these feelings as evidence for the supernatural. The positive feelings associated with religious practice have no bearing on the truthfulness of the supernatural claims of religion.

We all have feelings from time to time. Sometimes they turn out to be right and sometimes they don’t. And people often have opposing feelings, so how are we to decide whose feeling is right? Feelings must be backed up by evidence, otherwise you can’t trust them.

(Kantofizm? But you get the point.)

A friend of ours who used to live in the ward called and I answered the phone. She told me that she had been thinking about running a daycare together with my wife. She told me that she had been praying about this for a few days and that she had a really good feeling about it. Answers to prayers, especially in the form of feelings, are often referred to as evidence for God, and this woman believed that the feelings she was experiencing were from God. My wife and I like this woman, but my wife wasn’t at all interested in running a daycare. When faced with this new knowledge, it was probably easy for this woman to explain the feelings that she previously attributed to the Spirit as feelings generated within her own mind. But why can the same feelings, supposedly from two different sources, one from God and the other from one’s own mind, be so indistinguishable?

As an atheist, I still feel what I used to refer to as the Spirit, and no less regularly. However, I understand now that any feeling that we experience is the result of complex chemical and biological processes in our brains. These feelings are influenced by any of the five senses. When I hear emotion in someone’s voice, or see a warm embrace, or hold one of my children, I experience the feelings that some religious people would call the Spirit.

The difference is that I attribute the emotions that I experience to natural causes that can be explained, not to supernatural forces such as the Spirit for which there is no evidence. To have a natural explanation for where feelings come from does not make wonderful feelings any less wonderful. But the explanation is sure a lot more satisfying.

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  1. Kale permalink

    Did you see the next video on the youtubes? It’s pretty fantastic:

  2. Carrie permalink

    I was in a relationship with a boyfriend five years ago. I thought things were going good and then all of a sudden he calls me and tells me the ‘Spirit’ told him we were not to be together. I made him drive out and see me in person. After talking awhile he admitted he didn’t love me like he thought he did. Spirit my eye! He was just projecting his feelings on an imaginary being.

    I now realize that often the ‘Spirit’ told me to do things I already wanted to do and validated my decisions. Sounds like my brain at work!

    • That’s a good example of not being accountable for one’s own feelings or actions and externalizing blame. If he didn’t love you anymore, good for you for making him own up to it!

  3. You know God is man-made when he hates and loves the same things you do.

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