Mormon Testimonies and the Scientific Method

In a caricature of the LDS testimony, Mormons are said to believe in their religion because of a stray warm feeling that they mistake for knowledge from God. Some gullible persons prays, has a nice feeling, and bingo, we’ve got a convert. That’s not how I see it.

Testimonies may start off small, fragile, and based upon a small number of experiences, but for a mature Latter-day Saint, testimony is typically the sum of many experiences and indeed, experiments, in which the principles and teachings of the Gospel are put to the test. There is a combination of the intellectual and the spiritual, the practical and the mystic, the day-to-day and the occasional rare but real miracle. There are often doubts and concerns that have been plumbed and addressed or put on hold. And along the way, there have been many voices taken into consideration: the voice of witnesses, the voice of skeptics and critics, the voice of reason, and the voice of the Spirit. It’s a complex process that deals with the most complex issues humans confront: What is real? What is beyond this mortal realm? What is my purpose here? Who am I and am I supposed to live? And finally, who or what, if anything, is God?

To the surprise of some of our critics, the teachings of the Church do not focus on blind faith and random emotions, but on experience, even experimentation, as well as studying, seeking, pondering, and also, of course, praying. The approach to gaining a testimony is not taught as a one-time event but a lifelong journey. And since we’ve been discussing science recently on this blog, I’ll point out that the Book of Mormon teaches a testimony-building journey that has some parallels to the scientific method. It even describes that journey as one of putting the Gospel to the test and conducting experiments with the word of God. Here is the relevant passage from Alma 32:

[26] Now, as I said concerning faith — that it was not a perfect knowledge — even so it is with my words. Ye cannot know of their surety at first, unto perfection, any more than faith is a perfect knowledge.

[27] But behold, if ye will awake and arouse your faculties, even to an experiment upon my words, and exercise a particle of faith, yea, even if ye can no more than desire to believe, let this desire work in you, even until ye believe in a manner that ye can give place for a portion of my words.

[28] Now, we will compare the word unto a seed. Now, if ye give place, that a seed may be planted in your heart, behold, if it be a true seed, or a good seed, if ye do not cast it out by your unbelief, that ye will resist the Spirit of the Lord, behold, it will begin to swell within your breasts; and when you feel these swelling motions, ye will begin to say within yourselves — It must needs be that this is a good seed, or that the word is good, for it beginneth to enlarge my soul; yea, it beginneth to enlighten my understanding, yea, it beginneth to be delicious to me.

[29] Now behold, would not this increase your faith? I say unto you, Yea; nevertheless it hath not grown up to a perfect knowledge.

[30] But behold, as the seed swelleth, and sprouteth, and beginneth to grow, then you must needs say that the seed is good; for behold it swelleth, and sprouteth, and beginneth to grow. And now behold, will not this strengthen your faith? Yea, it will strengthen your faith: for ye will say I know that this is a good seed; for behold it sprouteth and beginneth to grow.

[31] And now, behold, are ye sure that this is a good seed? I say unto you, Yea; for every seed bringeth forth unto its own likeness.

[32] Therefore, if a seed groweth it is good, but if it groweth not, behold it is not good, therefore it is cast away.

[33] And now, behold, because ye have tried the experiment, and planted the seed, and it swelleth and sprouteth, and beginneth to grow, ye must needs know that the seed is good.

[34] And now, behold, is your knowledge perfect? Yea, your knowledge is perfect in that thing, and your faith is dormant; and this because ye know, for ye know that the word hath swelled your souls, and ye also know that it hath sprouted up, that your understanding doth begin to be enlightened, and your mind doth begin to expand.

[35] O then, is not this real? I say unto you, Yea, because it is light; and whatsoever is light, is good, because it is discernible, therefore ye must know that it is good; and now behold, after ye have tasted this light is your knowledge perfect?

[36] Behold I say unto you, Nay; neither must ye lay aside your faith, for ye have only exercised your faith to plant the seed that ye might try the experiment to know if the seed was good.

[37] And behold, as the tree beginneth to grow, ye will say: Let us nourish it with great care, that it may get root, that it may grow up, and bring forth fruit unto us. And now behold, if ye nourish it with much care it will get root, and grow up, and bring forth fruit.

[38] But if ye neglect the tree, and take no thought for its nourishment, behold it will not get any root; and when the heat of the sun cometh and scorcheth it, because it hath no root it withers away, and ye pluck it up and cast it out.

[39] Now, this is not because the seed was not good, neither is it because the fruit thereof would not be desirable; but it is because your ground is barren, and ye will not nourish the tree, therefore ye cannot have the fruit thereof.

[40] And thus, if ye will not nourish the word, looking forward with an eye of faith to the fruit thereof, ye can never pluck of the fruit of the tree of life.

[41] But if ye will nourish the word, yea, nourish the tree as it beginneth to grow, by your faith with great diligence, and with patience, looking forward to the fruit thereof, it shall take root; and behold it shall be a tree springing up unto everlasting life.

[42] And because of your diligence and your faith and your patience with the word in nourishing it, that it may take root in you, behold, by and by ye shall pluck the fruit thereof, which is most precious, which is sweet above all that is sweet, and which is white above all that is white, yea, and pure above all that is pure; and ye shall feast upon this fruit even until ye are filled, that ye hunger not, neither shall ye thirst.

[43] Then, my brethren, ye shall reap the rewards of your faith, and your diligence, and patience, and long-suffering, waiting for the tree to bring forth fruit unto you.

Those investigating the claims of the Gospel are encouraged to put it to the test by living it and seeing what the fruits are. Yes, faith must be exercised first, even a little particle of faith, but the results of this spiritual exercise will include knowledge and metal enlightenment, not just fuzzy feelings, and from those fruits one can see that at least some part of the Gospel makes sense and can be trusted. But that’s just a beginning. It’s an ongoing process that requires faith and diligence, for testimony is delicate and can be lost. That’s also the point of the Lord’s parable of the sower and the seed. The plant that sprouts up can be choked by materialism, sin, and neglect.

The path toward gaining a testimony of the divinity of the Book of Mormon is also not described as waiting for a random feeling, but a journey of careful study, pondering, and then turning to God to ask if it is true. Mind and spirit are involved, not random emotion. Discerning the voice of the Spirit, of course, is the difficult part where there is not a simple tangible outcome like getting a reading on a thermometer. So no, it’s not a clear-cut scientific process. It’s a journey of changing fallen man into a redeemed saint, and that’s a much bigger and more important thing than even the wonders of science can achieve. In a way, it’s very simple though takes serious effort, but in terms of scientific standards, it’s hopelessly fuzzy and subjective. So no, it’s not as straightforward as, say, rocket science. It’s too big and too important for that. has some interesting statements from LDS scientists and other scholars that might be helpful on this topic. See, for example, the testimonies written by Carol Anne Clayson, Steven F. Faux, and Laura Clarke Bridgewater. Others you recommend?

Author: Jeff Lindsay

20 thoughts on “Mormon Testimonies and the Scientific Method

  1. I'm assuming by seed he means the word and the word alone. Else what about doubt that grows and swells and bears fruit of its own?

    Anyways, how does this relate to Moroni's promise? That doesn't work for everyone (probably not for most outside of Mormonism), which seems off putting. You almost have to wait until it works.


  2. Jeff, consider the many possible reasons that one's testimony might grow, reasons that have nothing to do with Mormonism's truth, starting with the fact that it brings one the approval of peers, integrates one into a supportive community, etc. (A truly scientific experiment would attempt to control for such external determinants.)

    Consider also the fact that millions (hundreds of millions? billions?) of non-Mormons have experienced precisely the same kind of growing certainty that Smith describes. Does that mean that their religious tenets must be true, even when they conflict with yours?

    Consider also the fact that my own atheism, starting as a mere seed of adolescent skepticism, has grown in me and made me a better person and brought joy to my life in much the same way as your faith has grown in you. Don't you agree that this must mean I'm right? And that you, too, would know that I'm right if only you'd give a little initial credit to my atheism, maybe just a little agnosticism at first, and then tenderly and continually nurture that seed as you feel it growing in you, liberating you, making you smarter and more tolerant, and in all sorts of other ways bringing to your life the same joy it has brought to mine?

    If you doubt me, I hope at least that your doubt will help you understand why I doubt you.

    — Eveningsun

  3. Thanks for this explanation Jeff. What you wrote is, to put it poetically, sweet to my soul. One of the difficult things about learning how to recognize the feelings and promptings of the spirit is first learning how to differentiate from all other things. When we learn how to distinguish the sweet, peaceful feelings that the spirit brings when it begins to enlarge our souls then the process of learning and progressing toward becoming a saint becomes much easier. It still takes considerable effort, but the help of the spirit is a resource that we can always have access to.

  4. Very well said, Jeff.
    It is encouraging that there are people in the world who are looking for answers and they eventually will find/do find the restored gospel of Christ.

  5. The scientific method works in my life to help me identify which choices are better for my life. I have evidence and experience that a relationship with God and a belief in the Gospel as presented by Mormonism gives me a sense of purpose, a greater ability for hope, a better toolset for relating with my fellow human beings, and a defense against decisions which affect my health, happiness, and family. I have evidence that my time as a non-believer led me to opposite results.

    Does it tell me whether the claims are true? No, but it tells me that the claims are good. What's great about this is that it doesn't deny the ability of others to find goodness and truth in their own lives that differ from mine. I hope we can all honestly assess which worldviews are most beneficial for us and others, and let differing views stand where they are. I believe our position as Mormons would be much easier to defend if we could stand by the Gospel as being GOOD, and shy away from having to defend the truth of it.

    Sadly, for some people, truth is an obsessive and unrewarding endeavor that gets in the way of their happiness and health, ability to hope and to heal.

  6. There's one thing here that makes me smile: While religion seems to have this need to square itself with science, science has no corresponding desire to show how much it is like religion. (What could science possibly gain by that?) Just shows you which is the more secure institution, and where the real authority is.

    — Eveningsun

  7. Connor, I really like your pragmatic and pluralist approach:

    Does it tell me whether the claims are true? No, but it tells me that the claims are good. What's great about this is that it doesn't deny the ability of others to find goodness and truth in their own lives that differ from mine. I hope we can all honestly assess which worldviews are most beneficial for us and others, and let differing views stand where they are.

    That's a long way from the notion that "any way but my way is the devil's highway," which is still all too common.

    — Eveningsun

  8. I enjoyed your comments very much. I would quibble with only one word: believe. I never hear Mormons say they "believe" something in testimony meeting. What they say is they "know." Even those little three-year olds who get dragged up to the podium. If we could all drop the certainty and talk about what we believe as part of our faith journey, I would find testimonies much more valuable.

  9. Anonymous, consider what Harold Bloom writes about "our unofficial but pervasive national faith" in his book The American Religion: "It does not believe or trust, it knows, though it wants always to know yet more."

    FWIW, The American Religion demonstrates pretty convincingly that the Mormons, Southern Baptists, and other quintessentially American faiths are really more Gnostic than traditionally Christian.

    — Eveningsun

  10. Eveningsun, what does the authority of science tell us about morality? About the value of love or the duties that a husband and wife should have toward each other and their children? Sure, I've heard people use science to justify their obviously bad behavior: "My only purpose is to propagate my genes." So speaks the authority of science alone, at least in the minds of too many people. I much prefer the real authority behind "thou shalt not kill" and "thou shalt not commit adultery." Science has a vital role in our lives, but it does little to help in some of the most important areas for human happiness. Germany illustrated well where science alone can take us, given too much power and no restraint. The ugly history of eugenics in this country and Europe needs to be reviewed. Science without humanity. Ugly.

  11. Consider also the fact that millions (hundreds of millions? billions?) of non-Mormons have experienced precisely the same kind of growing certainty that Smith describes. Does that mean that their religious tenets must be true, even when they conflict with yours? You mean the kind of certainty that comes by putting their holy book to the test as in Mormon 10 and gaining profound testimonies through revelation of its divinity through study, pondering, and then prayer? I thought it was this Mormon certainty that made us so objectionable and different from other Christian religions, where our concept of personal revelation is often denigrated.

    I really haven't heard a Hindu, Buddhist, or people of numerous other faiths talk about what I could recognize as a direct analogy to the LDS testimony. I get higher certainty and faith from some Christians and Muslims, and both have a holy book that they feel stands on its own and can be supported with logic and evidence. But adding the element of prayer to gain personal revelation? I don't think that is commonly taught or accepted. I don't think the experiences are precisely analogous.

  12. Germany illustrated well where science alone can take us, given too much power and no restraint.

    Jeff, in what sense was Nazi Germany run by scientists? Anyway, Germany was a deeply Christian nation, and the roots of German antisemitism were Christian through and through. Read Martin Luther's book, On the Jews and Their Lies. Or better yet, read James Carroll's brilliant Constantine's Sword.

    Anyway, why are you going on about the limitations of science? I agree with you about the limitations of science. What we disagree on is the quality of knowledge produce by scientific as opposed to spiritual methods. All you really seem to be interested in doing is foregrounding the bad things that people have done in the name of science. Well, I could go around all day reminding the world of the bad things done in the name of religion — Mountain Meadows! Mountain Meadows! Mountain Meadows! — but what would that prove?

    — Eveningsun

  13. The quality of any pursuit to obtain knowledge is related to the effort and preparation put into. The failures of both science and religion and the diversity of human results in either field does not undermine the reality of the knowledge that can be obtained. In the field of religion, science cannot answer one of the most critical questions: Does God exist? There is high-quality knowledge available on these topics through witnesses, through records, and through the quest to seek and know God. It can involve experimentation and exploration. It can also be shut down with silly assertions that such a quest is impossible, ridiculous, and vastly inferior to peer-reviewed processes in science. The point is that we should be open to the possibility of there being more information and sources of knowledge than meets the mortal scientific eye.

    A big part of the problem people have with all this is that turning to God and obtaining answers to prayer is not an easily reproduced process. it involves God's will and timing as well as our own preparation and willingness to seek and listen. Answers come in different ways at different times. Yes, complicated and hard to predict, but that doesn't discount its reality. The critical thing is to be willing to seek God as well as knowledge in other forms.

  14. Nazi Germany wasn't run by scientists but was certainly running on science. It had become a fully scientific nation, so it seemed, with the logic and power of science and industry fueling its quest for progress and power. Read the article I cited. Of course, it was all a perversion of science, but reminds us that science without morality and humanity is not just incomplete but deadly, even catastrophic. If science without morality can lead to the greatest disasters the planet has known, can we trust science alone to give us moral insight?

  15. Can we trust science alone to give us moral insight?

    Of course not. No one on this thread has ever said we can, either. (Straw man!) Everyone here agrees that we must turn elsewhere for moral insight. But religion is not the only place we can turn, which is a good thing, since history shows that religion's methodology, having given us the Inquisition, Mountain Meadows, and Al Qaeda, is not particularly reliable. Science is superb within its limited sphere; religion makes much grander claims for itself and within that larger sphere never seems to make any progress at all. Whatever moral progress religion has made has been driven by its embarrassment at the evident superiority of the modern secular philosophies with which religion now competes. Case in point: the LDS Church's abandonment of its immoral ban on blacks in the priesthood.

    — Eveningsun

  16. Without the principle of falsifiability one does not have a legitimate experiment. Discussions with Mormon internet apologists are pointless as their inevitable conclusion is those who claim they arrived at contrary results are lying or confused. This being the case, asserting that the Mormon method is a scientific method or possesses anything similar to a valid experiment is just silly.

  17. Eveningsun – All your comments are excellent, in particular your astute observation “religion seems to have this need to square itself with science, science has no corresponding desire to show how much it is like religion.”

    With regards to morality verses science, the analogy typically given is this. Scientists can testify before congress without end regarding conception, cellular divisions, embryonic growth, etc. However, a scientist cannot tell congress when life begins. This is morality is defined by some entity’s fiat.

    Who or what’s fiat should the masses respect (Italian cars excluded) is what the discussion of power and authority are all about. Modern, westernized masses have a deeply learned respect for rationality. Ergo an appeal to rationality gives favor to the attempting authority. This presents quite a conundrum for religion, which is by definition irrational. Mere acknowledgement of this fact can emotional incite the religiously devout, because immediately implicit in the fact is a loss in power and authority over Westernized masses.

    Amongst these contradictions is a rejection of relativism. In addition to your example of racial denial of priesthood, take polygamy. Mormon apologists have now essentially conceded relative to some societies, locations, and time periods polygamy or monogamy may be mystically mandated. Contradictorily, these same apologists speak disparaging of moral relativism for the same reason they attempt to demonstrate that their faith is not irrational. That is, relativism implies a loss of power and authority over others. Another oddity, is the insistence that “the spirit” can be used to determine that the Mormon male gerontocracy are those currently endowed to determine the relative morality posture of all humanity. If “the spirit” possessed such a power, could not it also be used to determine what the morality posture is without the need of the Mormons? Of course it could, but that would lessen the power and authority of the Mormon leadership, now wouldn’t it.

    The contradictions are never ending, which is less indicative of an ideology in some intellectual pursuit, but rather an interest in a false legitimacy for power and authority.

  18. Eveningsun – Please do NOT construe the above to suggest that I believe a set of people who were raised to believe man is fundamentally evil and eschatologically doomed and CHOSE to study non-linear soft natural sciences as opposed to the more concrete engineering disciplines (like Mormanity did), should somehow be designated as the modern priest craft endowed with the power and authority to conveniently decide for society that anthropomorphic warming is morally reprehensible and justifies their own predetermined desire for radical population control and economic realignment.

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