It seems as though those unfamiliar with Mormonism just cannot get over the feeling that only brainwashed fools would become Mormons. They point to the ‘strange’ belief system, the hierarchical, centralized authority, and all of the sacrifices which are necessary to become Mormons. I’ve pointed out previously that Mormons (to make things simple, let’s focus on the LDS today) partly bring this on themselves by refusing to talk about and poorly explaining many elements of Mormon theology. The LDS church sells itself as Christianity Plus, Christianity plus the Book of Mormon, to outsiders, when the reality is that there is quite a bit more to it. When outsiders find out about the little extras the LDS church isn’t explicit about, from temple ceremonies to the nature of deity, outsiders make their judgements not only on the fact that the beliefs and rituals of Mormonism are strange (unusual) but that the LDSchurch appears to these outsiders to be hiding things. This is never a good combination of elements. Let’s, for a moment, assume that the LDS church simply doesn’t know how to explain itself well, and that’s why it doesn’t get explicit with outsiders. This, by the way, is what I believe to be the case. The LDS church is run by businessmen, not trained theologians, and they are afraid that if they get too deeply into the theology that they’ll be misunderstood, which is understandable. They probably would be. But, back to the topic at hand, how does a rational, normal person become a Mormon? No matter how odd the belief system and rituals seem to you, try for a moment to really understand how this could happen without jumping to the conclusion that because it doesn’t make sense to you at this moment, therefore the only option is brainwashing.
First of all, what is conversion? It is the process by which a person moves from one overarching worldview to another. Simple enough. But how does this process occur? How does someone go from being an atheist say, to a born again Christian? Let’s look at things from an atheist worldview: the scientific method reigns supreme, the only reality is empirical reality, physical phenomena which can be observed. The supernatural, by definition of being above the natural, does not fit this category and is therefore unreal and belief in it irrational. For an atheist, for whom the only reality is that which is empirically demonstrable, to become a born again Christian is a momentous change of world views. For a born again Christian, the ultimate reality that matters is the category of the saved vs the unsaved persons because the eternal, real drama is the ultimate destination of every person to heaven or to hell. Those who enter heaven are those who have accepted their status as sinner vis a vis an eternal, perfect God and that they cannot dwell in the presence of a perfect holy God as a sinner and are therefore destined for Hell. Out of this sad realization is the joyful one that God incarnate, Christ, has made a way for the sinner to go to heaven simply by trusting in him and accepting him as one’s personal savior. For the atheist reality is the physical universe and the striving to understand how the mechanical universe operates, for the born again Christian reality is all about ultimate affiliation- are you committed to Christ or not? all else is scruples.
Only when you think about how utterly different these worldviews are will you be sufficiently amazed at a true conversion from one to another. You might come to the conclusion that any paradigm shift of this magnitude must involve brainwashing, especially if you happen to be an atheist who thinks anyone who believes in a supernatural existence is irrational. But any number of ways of thinking and social circumstances can create a passageway in the mind of an individual to consider other possibilities. Simply meditating on the ultimate meaning of life, the meaning of death and the meaning of existence itself can prime an atheist to consider the possibility that there is some kind of existence beyond the natural. An atheist might be in a socially unstable position as an adolescence who has just left home, someone in a perfect place to completely reinvent his or herself, for it is a known fact that having extensive social networks in place is the most likely way a person will remain faithful to their worldview, whether atheist, Christian, pagan, or whatever, so disruption of the social network often precedes a radical worldview shift.
Once the possibility is opened in the mind of an atheist, the next step is interaction with born again words. Ultimately, conversion is about appropriating a way of thinking- a way of speaking- which reflects a new reality. Atheism has a particular language with certain key phrases which pinpoints a person as an atheist, likewise do born again Christians. Through extensive interaction with born again Christians who attempt through evangelizing to get prospective converts to appropriate their language, to begin to think about themselves as sinners in need of a savior, to begin to ‘hear the Holy Spirit’, an atheist may, unwittingly, begin to think of the world in these terms. This process is no more brainwashing than you can describe any process of education as brainwashing. A similar process happens in any classroom when an instructor attempts to open up a new dimension of reality to his or her students through teaching them a new language, whether that language happens to be that of math, science, history or Spanish. It’s how we humans share our findings with each other, and in this case, the born again Christians are trying to share their findings with the listening atheist. Conversion is completed when the atheist is not only a listener of born again rhetoric, but has become a speaker of the same rhetoric (and, to be fair, the same thing can and does happen in reverse as well).
It is this same process which brings a non Mormon to Mormonism. Missionaries teach prospective converts the peculiar language of Mormonism, inviting the listener to think of the world in terms of Mormon-ese. If the listener accepts the challenge of listening, he or she will find themselves challenged to think of the world in Mormon terms, and may find themselves speaking about it in Mormon terms. When the language has been appropriated and made their own, conversion is complete. The baptism, by that point, is icing on the cake. Actions naturally follow once the new understanding of the cosmos is appropriated. Conversion to Mormonism happens in the ordinary way, the same way conversion happens from atheism to born again Christianity (or vice versa).
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a relativist. I don’t think all choices are equal (see my “Why Does Anything Exist?” post for example). Some worldview languages better reflect the way reality really is than others. I’m not entirely sure what Real Reality looks like, but I do not think Mormonism is an accurate reflection, which is why I ultimately experienced mental tension and de-conversion. Though I kept trying to describe my experiences of the world in Mormon terms, I increasingly found Mormonese to be a clumsy language to describe the world, the more I thought about things. I ultimately realized that I no longer thought about the world in Momonese except on a superficial level and therefore was, for all real purposes, no longer a Mormon. No one had to do a brainwashing intervention for this to happen, I simply attempted to experience my expanding world as a Mormon and experienced failure in the attempt.
I invite all readers of the blog to set aside insulting, and unecessary, accusations that Mormons are brainwashed and therefore, unlike the rest of us, unable to think clearly. That is an unnecessary and counterproductive assumption. If you really want to convert Mormons, take the time to understand Mormonese and communicate with Mormons effectively. Show them why their Mormon ways of approaching the universe, using Mormonese, do not sufficiently account for their experiences of the world. Create a rift in their langauge of the world, and their experience of the world, and then show them a way of thinking which better fits the reality of the universe. By simply getting frustrated that Mormons don’t immediately see how your way of thinking about the unvierse is superior and so claiming that Mormons must be brainwashed, the only thing that you are proving is your own laziness and inability to communicate effectively.