The LDS Spiritual Experience

I believe that the archetypal LDS spiritual experience involves a mixture of these 4 things:

  1. A feeling of elevation: this is a hormonally-mediated feeling that produces a “swelling” feeling in the chest and is generated when witnessing or performing altruistic acts or participating in acts of transcendent beauty.1
  2. The warm glow of familiarity (aka “glow of warmth”): We resonate with things we are already familiar with. There is also a tendency to believe information to be correct after repeated exposure known as the illusory truth effect (e.g., retentive socialization and indoctrination within the LDS Church). This may be why a Mormon doesn’t feel exactly the same “Spirit” when they attend a Catholic service and why the Catholic also doesn’t feel exactly the same “spirit” attending an LDS service.
  3. Some kind of inner speech or inner experience: this is the mind part of “I will tell you in your mind and in your heart” (D&C 8:2).
  4. Congruence with accepted LDS doctrine or current policy. Although the relationship is probably complex, it’s reasonable to postulate that oxytocin release is related to tend and befriend tendencies. Hence, rumination on ideas which are accepted by one’s group are more likely to initiate strong oxytocin type responses. Formally speaking, any inspiration which is received that does not affirm LDS doctrine and current policy is not considered The Spirit™ by Latter-day Saints. This was canonized in a 1913 First Presidency Statement:

    When … inspiration conveys something out of harmony with the accepted revelations of the Church or contrary to the decisions of its constituted authorities, Latter-day Saints may know that it is not of God, no matter how plausible it may appear. (Gospel Doc­trine Teacher’s Man­u­al Les­son 6: “I Will Tell You in Your Mind and in Your Heart, by the Holy Ghost”)

Dismissal

Some of the above criteria may be used by Latter-day Saints to dismiss the spiritual experiences of others. While #1 may be shared by people of all religions (and maybe #3 to some extent), it won’t really matter to a Latter-day Saint because they can dismiss other experiences based on #2, #3, or #4. Here are some examples:

  • “You may have felt good while watching that movie, but that’s just a good feeling because The Spirit™ must also convey intelligence to your mind” (fails test #3 - must convey something to the mind)
  • “Of course Catholics feel a portion of the spirit, but every time I attend a Catholic service I don’t feel the same spirit there, so they clearly don’t have all the truth” (fails test #2 - familiarity)
  • “You say that “the Spirit” told you the brethren are in error (or you should be re-baptized, or Joseph Smith was wrong about polygamy, or you should leave the Church, etc) but that cannot be The Spirit™ since The Spirit™ will never contradict accepted LDS doctrine or currently accepted policy” (fails test #4).

Note: heightened scrutiny is reserved for feelings which contradict LDS truth-claims—virtually any positive feeling is considered The Spirit™ if it is in support of LDS truth-claims.

  1. A direct connection between variants in oxytocin receptor genes (OXTR rs53576, rs6449182 and rs3796863) and receptivity to spiritual feelings has been demonstrated by Cappellen et al in 2016 (summary).