At the beginning of each month, Latter-day Saint congregations hold what is called a “Fast and Testimony” meeting as part of their regular worship services. It is on this day that Latter-day Saints refrain from eating or drinking for at least two meals, donate the money they would have spent on these meals (generally much more) to the Church’s humanitarian efforts and have an opportunity to share their testimonies with the congregation. Quite often, these testimonies contain phrases such as: “I know that God lives” or “I know that Joseph Smith was a true prophet of God.”
A unique aspect of Mormonism, and one which differentiates it from many other Christian sects, is that Mormonism teaches that a knowledge of the truth claims of Mormonism come from without the actual teachings and sacred writings of the Church. In other words, Mormonism does not use the Bible, Book of Mormon, or teaching of its prophets to argue for its authenticity or authority. Rather, Mormonism teaches that each individual must seek for truth by directly petitioning God. God will then reveal truth to the individual who petitions. Such truth is revealed through some sort of spiritual experience or experiences. These spiritual experiences continue throughout a Mormon’s life as he or she continually asks God for confirmation of truth and thus, these continual experiences become the anchor of a Mormon’s faith; they are often what Mormons turn to in times of struggle, doubt, and fear.
As one who is a non-believer in the vast majority of Mormonism’s truth claims, yet remains a committed Latter-day Saint, I have become increasingly uncomfortable with how freely my community uses the word “know.” In my view, the word “believe” may be a more appropriate word choice as it more accurately reflects the experiences described and sentiments expressed. This is not to say that individual Latter-day Saints do not genuinely believe that they “know” God lives, but what does it really mean to “know” something?
I use the Mormon experience to introduce the broader notion of distinction between belief and knowledge. As human beings we are constrained in what we can know but there are absolutely no constraints on what we can believe or in the things which we can have faith. For example, I know that Seattle exists. I have lived there, walked its streets, seen and touched its buildings, and directly experienced the city. On the other hand, I do not know that Tokyo exists. I have never been to Tokyo, never seen its streets or buildings or experienced the city. Now, I can state with near-certainty that Tokyo does exist simply because of the preponderance of evidence which affirms its existence. I have seen pictures and films of Tokyo. I have met citizens of the city who describe their lives there and the city’s ambience. I buy and use products developed and manufactured in Tokyo. Yet, to know Tokyo exists I must walk its streets and experience the city myself. This case of my knowledge of Seattle and near-certain belief in Tokyo demonstrates a small, but important point: knowledge and belief – even strong, near-certain belief – are distinct. Knowledge requires a level of experience that exceeds that necessary to formulate a strong belief.
Allow me explore a more esoteric example. I am a theist; a believer in divinity. I do not know God lives any more than I know Tokyo exists. Yet, I believe in God. Why? Simply because my experience, what I consider evidence, leads me to this belief. Belief is akin to faith and faith represents a hope for something unseen or for something which our level of experience cannot provide absolute knowledge. In other words, because of my experience (educational, spiritual, etc…) I hope God exists; I have faith in God. Having said that, I must freely admit that the evidence of Tokyo’s existence far surpasses that for the existence of God. In matters of faith and belief there are varying degrees. I never doubt the existence of Tokyo but at times, I do have doubts about the existence and nature of God; degrees of belief are a function how much stock we put into the evidence for any assertion of truth.