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.