Can a dream seem so real that it can be mistaken for reality? Can memories incredibly vivid yet wrong? Can perfectly sane, stable people believe things happened that really didn't?
These are very important question in day to day life, but they are particularly important when trying to understand religious experience and belief.
I started taking an anti-depressant, Lexapro, this year and one strange side effect has been incredibly vivid, lucid dreams. Sometimes I'll wake up in the morning from one of the dreams and it seems very real. This isn't my first experience with dreams like this, but the Lexapro seems to make it happen much more frequently.
When I was on my mission in Bolivia, I was reading "Jesus the Christ" by James Talmage during my spare time. One morning as I lay in bed I dreamed that I was in the Garden of Gethsemane and I witnessed Jesus in agony as he suffered and then walked back to awaken his slumbering disciples. For me, it felt incredibly real and part of me hoped that this was the Spirit opening up a vision to me to strengthen my testimony while another part wondered whether it wasn't a dream brought about my my immersion in missionary work and scripture study. After all, I had gone to bed reading about this very part of the New Testament.
Later in my mission I had a similarly vivid dream about my girl friend who was back in Utah at BYU and waiting for my return. The dream led me to believe that she was moving on with her social life and would soon be dumping me. Time proved that the dream was prescient.
Later on in my mission I dreamed of a conversation with my father in which he confided that he had cheated on my mother. I awoke startled and worried. I was so worried that I considered confronting my dad with the information. It seemed crazy and yet it seemed so real. As a missionary trying to feel the Spirit and receive revelation and inspiration from God all the time, I was quite concerned. I've never discussed this with my dad, but part of me is curious. Was it a true vision that revealed his dark secret? I'll never know, because I don't want to know the answer.
As a believing Mormons I strongly entertained the notion that these were visions. As a non-believer I now believe that they are no different than my current Lexapro dreams, constructs of my mind that reflect my inner thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and desires.
My experiences have strong parallels with "alien abductees" who firmly believe that they have been abducted and experimented on by alien visitors. Experts who have interviewed some of the abductees have been convinced because the victims are completely convinced that the experience was real. Carl Sagan in "Demon Haunted World" talks about this phenomenon and concludes that while the experiences seem real, they are really vivid dreams.
Now, I'll take another step. Martin Harris and David Whitmer claimed that they saw the Book of Mormon in vision with their spiritual eyes. Martin Harris is reputed to have said that none of the Book of Mormon witnesses saw the gold plates with their physical eyes, but rather with spiritual eyes. Given their beliefs and their total immersion in the translation of the Book of Mormon is it possible that they had similarly vivid, visionary dreams like I have had? Would their beliefs cause them to believe that those visions are just as real as anything else they have experienced? I can testify that it would be easy to believe that. Those dreams feel as real as anything else I experience; they are as clear to my perception as when I'm fully awake and walking around. Heck, maybe I've been led astray. Maybe those dreams weren't dreams. Maybe they really were visions. Maybe I should have that conversation with my dad...