In talking with various people who have left the LDS faith I’ve heard a common remark that has caught my attention. Nobody has given it as the reason, or even a reason, for leaving the Church, but many of them have brought it up.
“I hate it when someone stands up and says ‘I know that Joseph Smith was a prophet…’ They don’t know anything! They’re just saying it because that’s what they think they’re supposed to say.”
“Then this one day I was listening to a lesson and the teacher says ‘I know the Book of Mormon is true’ and I’m thinking ‘Ok, I’ve been studying this book critically for years and I don’t know if it’s true. All you’ve been doing is reading it, if that, and not even thinking about what you’re reading, and frankly you’re not that bright, so how in the world can you claim to know it’s true?'”
“I can’t stand to see these little kids go up and bear their testimonies. They don’t know anything, they’re just repeating what they’ve been brainwashed to say.”
These are some of the types of comments I’ve heard and read. First, let’s talk about possible reasons why someone might feel this way. I think it’s useful here to consider the psychological phenomenon of “projection”.
Psychological projection or projection bias is a psychological defense mechanism where a person subconsciously denies his or her own attributes, thoughts, and emotions, which are then ascribed to the outside world, usually to other people. Thus, projection involves imagining or projecting the belief that others originate those feelings.
Projection reduces anxiety by allowing the expression of the unwanted unconscious impulses or desires without letting the conscious mind recognize them.
An example of this behavior might be blaming another for self failure. The mind may avoid the discomfort of consciously admitting personal faults by keeping those feelings unconscious, and by redirecting libidinal satisfaction by attaching, or “projecting,” those same faults onto another person or object.
— From the entry on psychological projection found on Wikipedia, the source of all that is good, true, and correct.
Is it that those who find the bearing of testimonies of others as annoying are merely uncomfortable that they do not possess a testimony? They then therefore project their own lack of testimony onto those others, which allows them to feel a sense of superiority because, after all, at least they have the dignity to not bear testimony of something they don’t really know. This can easily progress from assuming that some people don’t have a testimony, to assuming that nobody has a testimony. Finding an intelligent person with doubts or a lack of testimony can greatly add to one’s feeling of justification in such opinions.
One might say “But I know these people don’t know the Book of Mormon is true, or that Joseph Smith was a prophet, or that the Mormon Church is true. Some of them are little kids, for heaven’s sake, they can’t possibly know these things are true because they don’t even understand what these things are!”
It seems to me this is the weakness in their logic. What if a small child can know these things are true? What if a person of extremely limited intellectual capacity can know these things are true? These are uncomfortable questions for some, because then the thought is “If these little kids and dumb people know something I don’t, and I’m smart, then what’s my problem?” But uncomfortable or not, what’s the answer? How can a “dumb” person know something is true while a “smart” person remains in the dark?
The answer is that a testimony is not dependent on intellectual ability, at least not once very basic level is attained. How much intellectual capacity does one need to have to have a basic concept of what a church is? To understand that Joseph Smith was a guy who said some things? To understand that the Book of Mormon is a book that says things in it?” A 3-year old can understand these things, and likewise some of the most intellectually limited among us. All that is needed to obtain a testimony is for one to ask God if these things are true. A fool can receive an answer and understand it as such. Thus the gospel is available to all, not just black and white, bond and free, but stupid and smart. How much sense would it make for God to make His truth accessibly only to those who can read, or have studied algebra, or taken a college-level psychology course? If God’s purpose is to save as many of His children as possible, then his gospel must be comprehensible to the most minimal level of intelligence.
Of course this type of testimony would be a minimal testimony. That testimony can grow, develop, and flourish as intellectual ability is gained. But the testimony would not necessarily grow stronger, only more profound. Once one knows the Book of Mormon is true, additional study doesn’t make it any truer, nor does it allow the bearer of the testimony to have any more certainty regarding its truthfulness. After all, they’ve already received an answer from God that it is true–what greater answer could one find?
Now, it is not just those without testimonies who might find the testimonies of others to be annoying. There are those who say “Well yeah, I have a testimony, but that dolt over there sure doesn’t.” We might see a “stupid” person having a testimony as a threat to our sense of superiority. But once we understand that obtaining a testimony isn’t a matter of intellectual ability, then the idea of a “stupid” person having a testimony isn’t a threat to us anymore.
But if one understands this and still feels threatened, perhaps it is because of the first reason–they lack a testimony themselves. The solution then is not to understand how a dumb person can have one, but it is to take the steps to receive a testimony for one’s self.