“Making” Mormons

One of the fun things about having a blog on WordPress.com is the statistics you are provided. Today I logged in and saw that one of the top search terms which led people to my blog was “how to make an atheist become mormon”.

This is an interesting phrase. Search algorithms are very well crafted but the more precise you are in your meaning when performing a web search, the more likely you are to get good results. So I’ll take that random stranger at their word when they say they want to “make” an atheist become Mormon.

Mormons and other would-be proselytisers are at a disadvantage, so I will lend them a hand. Really. No tricks. I’ll just explain it. There are two major categories of people who don’t believe in any kind of deities. There are those who were once believers and now are not, and there are those who never believed in any kind of deity. There are also two major problems with attempting to convince someone to discard their beliefs and adopt yours. There are probably lots of more nuanced categories in between my generalisations, but let’s just start from there.

To any would-be missionaries who find this blog using these search terms: you can’t “make” anyone become a Mormon (or a Christian, or a Hindu, or any. But you know this already. Even at church among yourselves you’d be wary of using these terms because it implies force and denial of free will. A forced conversion isn’t genuine and therefore isn’t valid, since membership in a religion is meant to be based on sincere belief. For someone who once had faith but then lost it enough to where they feel comfortable calling themselves an atheist, regaining the sort of absolute faith Mormons tend to idealise is so rare as to approach impossibility. Many people who never had any faith need to be persuaded to add invisible gods and demons where they have never seen any. This is also difficult because, tempting though the promise of eternal life may be, unless a person been raised to fear the punishment of Hell and the disapproval of an ever-watching Big Brother figure, there is little incentive to begin adding these fears to one’s life.

One major problem with proselytising is that forced or not, it is an attempt to remove a person’s current worldview and replace it with something else. This shows deep disrespect, even contempt, for the intellect and ethics of the target for conversion. Just the other day two Jehovah’s Witnesses turned up at my door. They tried to shove a tract into my hand. I smiled at them and said, “I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about my beliefs and worldview, and I feel confident in the decisions I’ve made.” They were genuinely baffled, as if nobody had ever said this to them before. They tried to press their point, so eventually I had to be more clear. I told them that I knew who they were, I knew what they were trying to persuade me to think, and that I disagreed with it so much that even if it were hypothetically true, I wouldn’t go along with it anyway. I was not rude, but they seemed genuinely incapable of how rude they were to try to spoil my Saturday with showing up uninvited to show contempt for my beliefs by trying to supplant them with their own. They scooted off after that, and I doubt they will be back.

The second major problem with proselytising is that of the foregone conclusion. Mormons or Christians or evangelists of any stripe are not performing science experiments when they offer a pattern for conversion. Mormons have a parable that they call “experimenting upon the word,” which prescribes planting a seed of faith, nurturing it, and then watching it blossom into a strong testimony of the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith. It’s laid out in language that strongly resembles the scientific method. Only here’s the problem — you can’t structure a scientific experiment by specifying a required conclusion and then working backwards from there to form a convenient hypothesis. Mormons see it like this:

Study Book of Mormon -> Develop Testimony -> Convert to Mormonism -> Remain Faithful

Except that isn’t how it works for every single human being. Lots and lots and lots of people have studied the Book of Mormon and not followed the sequential steps. Most people who have encountered the Book of Mormon have rejected it. I can base this claim on the LDS Church’s painfully low convert retention rates.

For a faithful Mormon, this failure of the faith formula is baffling. It’s supposed to work the same for everyone, but the reality is that it is not. A faithful person will say that this is because the unconverted are stubborn, ignorant, or thralls of Satan. A non-faithful person will say that they remain unpersuaded of the ideas being pushed at them, or that they actively reject the ideas being pushed at them based on sincere belief of their lack of validity.

Trying to convert people to your way of thinking is sometimes immoral and always problematic. But that’s only if you acknowledge the possibility that your worldview is not the most correct philosophy that has ever existed. People faithful enough to go out and try to disrupt the lives of others in order to alter their ways of thinking are probably not very likely to have enough humility to acknowledge this, but I still encourage them to try. Just say it to yourself: “I might be wrong”. Whether or not it ends up planting a seed of doubt, it will be liberating in in its honesty and will give you enough humility to treat the minds of the people you encounter with respect. It will remove your condescension and turn your attempt to make someone a believer into a genuine exchange of ideas in which you just might learn something yourself.

The Question

Here is a question, to which the answer is either yes or no:

Is it acceptable for the LDS church to rely on faith-promoting lies to draw in new members, retain existing members, and improve its PR?

If your answer is “well, it’s not really lying as such . . .” then your answer is yes. It’s a simple question, and I’m not allowing wiggle room. I do not mean putting one’s best foot forward, or simplifying stories to capture their essential meaning. I mean lying. Lying to puff up the stature of Joseph Smith as a demigod, lying about polygamy because it’s inconvenient to be honest about it, lying about the reasons “apostates” stop coming to church, and so on. Things that are factually untrue but are easy to swallow and comforting to the members. Things that are misrepresented to avoid upsetting the applecart. Another way to frame my question is to ask whether or not you agree with a statement Boyd K. Packer once made on how truth should only be used if it furthers the interests of the Church:

“Church history can be so interesting and so inspiring as to be a very powerful tool indeed for building faith. If not properly written or properly taught, it may be a faith destroyer. There is a temptation for the writer or the teacher of Church history to want to tell everything, whether it is worthy or faith promoting or not. Some things that are true are not very useful.” Boyd K. Packer, “The Mantle is Far, Far Greater Than the Intellect”, 1981, BYU Studies, Vol. 21, No. 3, pp. 259-271 (There are many more such quotes that establish the LDS position on obscuring truth if it isn’t faith-promoting.)

Are faith-promoting lies acceptable? Here’s what I think your answer says about you.

If you say yes, you are someone who believes the ends justify the means. You are not interested in how your actions ripple out to affect the world, and if something is useful to you you don’t really care how it was produced. You might be someone who doesn’t value ethics greatly. You might also be pragmatic rather than idealist, which makes it a lot easier to get things done. You don’t really care if a flesh-and-blood man was as good as the bronze statue of him claims that he was, because as symbols heroes serve a valuable purpose to people who need hope. But you might also be dismissive of people who take issue with leaders exhibiting shady behaviour. You look the other way at dishonesty used to achieve what you believe is good and do not think that by ignoring lies you are condoning them. You do not think you are lying to others by failing to correct them when they ignorantly repeat lies they have been taught. You might be the sort of person who doesn’t think about whether your clothing was made by children in a sweatshop, because the price was right and you look good. You’re more likely to be able to build consensus because of your moral flexibility. You don’t really care if things are done properly as long as they get done, and if this comes back to haunt you, you don’t acknowledge that you created the problem for yourself. You are okay with a little bit of cheating as long as nobody gets hurt and your good guys win. If someone does get hurt, you find a way to dismiss the role that you and your team played in causing damage to that person. You probably pay your tithing without caring about how it’s actually spent; you’ve obeyed God, so your part in it is done. You feel idealism is a luxury that we really can’t afford, and when someone calls you a hypocrite for claiming to believe in a set of principles and then tolerating the violation of those principles, you tell them you are just being realistic and they should stop being so negative and picky. As often as you are wrong in making that statement, you are right.

If you say no, you are someone who believes that evil should never be used as a tool to accomplish good. You might be someone who has been accused of rigid idealism, and the accusation might be fair. You are someone who won’t compromise your ethical standards, even if you have a lot to lose. This can lead to burning bridges but at least you know you haven’t sacrificed your integrity just to fit in. You would rather fail than cheat to win. People have probably accused you of being preachy, and those with no interest in ethical behaviour resent you for pointing out when they are hypocritical. You’ve often been asked why you care so much about everything, and why you can’t just drop a controversial issue and leave it alone. You don’t understand how somebody could. Your commitment to what you believe sometimes causes friction with friends and family, who can’t understand why you won’t cooperate with the crowd. When you point out mistakes, your intent is to prevent long-term failure but you are often accused of being a disloyal know-it-all who is tearing down the team. You probably make an effort to avoid purchasing products that were produced by violating human rights. People who wrap themselves in comfortable lies because it makes their lives easier are bewildering to you. When you contribute money to organisations, you want accountability and reporting in how that group spends its money and what it accomplishes with it. People tell you that you are raging a hopeless battle of idealism against the machine of reality. You know this, but you don’t care. You’d rather be run over by the machine than become one of its cogs. Tearing down others is not your intent, but people often think that is what you mean when you say people should work toward their goals without using dishonest methods. You often feel exhausted by putting up such a difficult fight and sometimes wonder if it’s worth the effort. But you also realise that while hypocrites tend to win battles, idealists tend to win the wars. It takes a long time, and you know that you may not live to see your side win, it’s important to keep fighting the good fight, even though it causes strife in your family and social circle.

Which view is better? Hard to say. Without pragmatism nothing would get done, and we’d just have a bunch of stubborn idealists beating their head against unbuilt walls. However, those who value ethics have integrity and have an important role to play in checking the desire of pragmatists to win at any cost. It’s the harder path to walk, but I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t have my integrity. When it came to the LDS Church, I decided I needed to give it tough love by refusing to support it while it engaged in self-destructive behaviour. That might mean I’m priggish at times, but that’s a vice I can live with better than hypocrisy. I won’t help to build up an organisation that asks you if you are honest before you’re allowed in the temple, but uses lies to get people in the chapel. I will call it to repentance, though, and I’ll encourage others to do the same.