In a recent priesthood lesson our teacher played an excerpt from the Brandon Flowers/Richard Dawkins interview on Swedish television. Then he asked us if we were in Brandon Flowers place, how would we have responded to Richard Dawkin’s smug assertion that “the Book of Mormon is an obvious fake, a 19th century book written in 16th century language.” Most members of the class thought that Brandon should have born his testimony. One impassioned member of the class stood up in front of the teacher and proclaimed: “Mr. Dawkins, you are mocking something that is sacred to me, to my family, and everything I hold dear in life. Say what you will about the Book of Mormon, it has changed my life and I know it is true.” The force of his testimony was strong, and I left the class wondering how Dawkins would have responded to such an impassioned defense. And could I have done any better? (To be fair to Brandon, he was given no time to prepare for Dawkins’ malicious onslaught, and only a few seconds to respond before he was whisked away to perform on the show. That he acted with as much dignity as he did is a testament to his good character and faith.)
A Testimony as Empirical Experience
What is a testimony? Outside of LDS parlance, a testimony is a statement of personal empirical experience. Witnesses in court are called to testify about what they personally have seen and heard. They do not pronounce guilt or innocence. It is up to the judge and jury to decide what to infer from the witness’s testimony. Early LDS testimonies were focused on testifying about personal, empirical experiences with the divine. Joseph Smith said, “I had seen a vision. I knew it, and I knew that God knew it, and I could not deny it.” The Three Witnesses to the Book of Mormon testified that they had seen “an angel of God came down from heaven” to present the plates to them.
Richard Dawkins can appreciate the scientific principle of empiricism (experiential witnessing). While he might have a biological explanation for our spiritual experiences, at least he could appreciate the fact that they are based on real feelings.
A Testimony as Inference
Sometimes witnesses take their personal, empirical experiences and infer truth claims from them. For example, the Three Witnesses say “we have seen,” THEREFORE, “we know of a surety that the work is true.” But LDS testimonies sometimes skip the empirical experience and jump strait to pronouncing the truth claim: “I’d like to bear my testimony that I know the church is true.” But is it a testimony if one hasn’t actually testified that they have seen, felt, or experienced something? It’s like a witness to a murder saying, “I know the defendant is guilty,” without saying “I saw him with a bloody knife in his hand.” A good witness doesn’t need to say “I know the defendant is guilty” because it is up to the court to make that inference, not the witness. A witness is not there to tell the jury what is right and what is wrong. They are there to help the jury understanding the truth of a situation for themselves.
Of course truth claims ARE important, whether or not they are technically “testimony.” Pronouncing a truth claim gives listeners a tangible dogma upon which to exercise faith, and in testimony meetings, they are certainly appropriate. But when speaking with outsiders, saying “I know the church is true” can sound more like a sermon than a witness. It is like saying “I’m right and you are wrong.” Julie M. Smith noted the offensive nature of some LDS testimonies in her recent Times and Seasons post “The Only True and Living Opinion” where members sometimes resort to sharing testimonies which end up sounding like “a sanctimonious attack on the beliefs of others.” I’m not saying that one should never say “I know.” “I know” is an expression of strong belief, a rejection of doubt which builds confidence in our spiritual experiences. I’m only saying we should avoid using “I know” to challenge people of differing opinions. “I know” concerns ONLY our own spiritual understandings, and can’t be definitively used to judge the understandings of others. 
Saying “I know the Book of Mormon is true” is playing Richard Dawkins’ game. Dawkins is saying the same thing: “I know the Origin of Species is true.” How does he know it is true? Because he has studied evolution, and its truthfulness has become self-evident to him. He believes that anyone else who honestly studies evolution will also come to know it is true. This is exactly what many Mormons think of the Book of Mormon, that if anyone studies the Book of Mormon honestly, its truthfulness will become self-evident. Or they believe if anyone prays about it, God will tell them it’s true, as if receiving revelation were some kind of foolproof scientific formula: read+ponder+pray=revelation.
It is better to avoid trying to beat Richard Dawkins at his own game. Religion unlike science is not about knowledge of facts or testing formulas. True religion is about experiences, the experience of a divine call, the experience of spiritual feelings, and the faith that these things point to something beyond the measurable material world. We don’t blame others for not having heard the call. Jesus said, “You have not chosen me, I have chosen you.” We can only count ourselves lucky for having received a spiritual call ourselves. Our duty is to testify of our experiences in a hope that others will hear the spiritual call themselves, not to try to prove to them that we are right.
Respectful LDS Testimony: Focus on Experience, not Inference
- “The Book of Mormon has changed my life.”
- “I have felt the power of God in the pages of the Book of Mormon”
- “I prayed to know if the Book of Mormon was true and felt a peaceful warmth come over me.”
These statements tell a story and awaken empathy in the listener. They are also honest statements and listeners can sense that honesty. Does feeling a warm glow while reading the Book of Mormon really entitle us to say “I know the Book of Mormon is historically and factually true”? It would sound strained and dishonest to outsiders, even if the inferences reflect honest spiritual experiences. But when we focus on spiritual experience, others can sense our honesty, and if they are open to the Spirit, they may hear a spiritual call themselves.
“If I had not experienced it, I would not have believed it.”
Thinking about how I might have responded to Richard Dawkins, I would start by agreeing with him: “Yes, I agree that the Book of Mormon sounds like a 19th century book written in 16th century language. I agree that the story of angels and golden plates sounds quite absurd to educated people in the 21st century.” Then I would quote Joseph Smith: “I don’t blame any man for not believing my history. If I had not experienced it myself, I would not have believed it.”
Then I might add: “You see Mr. Dawkins, I don’t accept the Book of Mormon because I believe it corresponds perfectly to the historical, scientific record. I believe it because, like Joseph Smith, I’ve had an experience. The Book of Mormon has changed my life for the better. I have felt divine power and wisdom in its pages. Say what you will about it, that it is a delusion, that it is all dancing chemicals in my brain, nevertheless for me the Book of Mormon is beautiful, it speaks peace to my soul, and has helped me become a better person.”
“One never possesses a metaphysical belief but is possessed by it.”
If I had enough foresight in my testimony to Dawkins, I might end with a quote by Carl Jung on the subject of belief: “One never possesses a metaphysical belief but is possessed by it.” Belief is a call, an unexplainable force which guides us forward with what can only be described as some kind of internal “light” or “peace.” Then I would listen patiently as Dawkins sets me strait.
- How would you bear your testimony to Richard Dawkins, or would you?
- Do you agree that there is not enough testifying of personal empirical spiritual experience in modern testimony bearing?
- Can we infer dogmatic truth claims from spiritual experiences?
 Complaints about the church’s culture of “I know” are frequent here on the bloggernacle, where “I believe” is often preferred. “I know” is sometimes belittled as a lazy confidence in our religious culture and prejudices. “I believe” seems more noble and honest, inviting faith and stepping into the darkness of uncertainty. I used to belong to the “I believe” camp, but I’m moving back into “I know.” This is not because my testimony is any stronger than it was before. Rather, I choose to say “I know” because I subscribe to a more gnostic view of the gospel. Mormonism and gnosticism are compatible in my view because they are both about receiving spiritual knowledge. Gnostic knowledge is not a knowledge of material facts. In the gnosticism, knowledge=spiritual experience. It is an inner knowledge of God and self that cannot be explained or shared in words. In gnosticism, “belief” is less ideal because belief implies doubt. Belief is something you do in the face of doubt, and doubt is not a productive emotion for dealing with the one’s inner spiritual life. Doubt is VERY important when dealing with the material world of facts and objects, but not when dealing with the spiritual realm, where perfect trust is key. The spiritual life requires that we cast off doubt and embrace spiritual knowledge.