Tent Revival
Tent Revival, from Rawge's Collection of Crosses, Art, and Photographs at

I had a religious upbringing. The religion I was raised in, Mormonism, was an evangelical kind, which means we were interested in converting other people to it.

In my mid-twenties I had an intellectual falling-out with my church and left.

Thanks to Facebook, I’m now in touch with a lot of old friends from my churchgoing years. Last week, I got a package in the mail from one of them. Included among the sweet, thoughtful gifts in the box was … a copy of the Book of Mormon signed and accompanied with handwritten evangelizing notes from her and several of our other friends.

Being the object of this small proselytizing effort was an interesting experience. Much as I love my friends, I felt annoyed, embarrassed, and even a bit insulted. At the same time, I understood the motivations behind it, because back when I too was religious, I used to do the exact same thing. I remember in college sending copies of the Book of Mormon to a couple of my agnostic friends from high school (I believe the author of The Post-Pessimist Association was one of the lucky recipients). I had underlined and highlighted key passages in a number of different colors, and penned earnest, heartfelt notes in them. I did this out of a sincere desire to share with them something that at the time I thought was gold, hoping it would make them as happy as it made me.

Now I have a pretty good idea of what it must have been like on their end: annoying, embarrassing, and slightly insulting. Why insulting? It sends the message that who you are is not okay, and you need to change in order to meet with others’ approval. Also, part of being treated like a grownup is the assumption on your interlocutor’s part that you’ve thought through your worldview options and know your own mind. These proselytizing efforts imply the opposite, that you’ve got it all wrong and need to be schooled.

It’s tricky though, obviously. Sometimes in life we do have it all wrong and do need to be schooled.

And of course, religious folks are not the only ones who go around trying to persuade others to see things their way. Atheists do it. Environmentalists do it. Political partisans of all stripes do it. And the subtext remains the same: You may have thought this through, but not enough. Your views are wrong and you need to change them. The status quo of who you are, as defined by what you think and the choices you make based on your opinions, is unacceptable.

So today’s question for the world at large is, when are these persuasive efforts okay and when do they cross the line? When are they unforgivable, and when are they imperative? When do we embrace humility and decide to just live and let live, and when do we set off on a crusade?

And now, to accompany all our deep thoughts on this subject, A Number of Religion-Themed Songs, With Varying Degrees of Irony and With Apologies to My Non-Secular Friends To Whom I Hope These Are Not Too Offensive

9 thoughts on “Persuasion

  1. One of the reasons I hated being a missionary so much was that it required us being to talk to people about the church regardless of their interest in it. I’d teach anyone who wanted to hear, but I couldn’t see any value and saw a lot of harm in trying to convert people who weren’t really interested. “annoyed, embarrassed, and even a bit insulted” are, I think, entirely appropriate things to feel when someone attempts, without any invitation, to convert you to their way of thinking.

  2. It’s okay to plant a small seed that does not interfere with the established plants. The watering is left to the seed recipient. He decides the seeds fate.

  3. Maria – Thanks, I hadn’t really thought of it that way!

    Greg – I can’t believe you still have it! That’s so great. Mark Twain once called it “cloroform in print,” so if you’re ever suffering from insomnia … although personally I think it would make a good movie what with all those gory battle scenes. Sadly, though, it is no where near as full of illicit sex as the Bible.

    Great story about the Cash cover. I really like that cover, better than the original, definitely. I think I never really understood what that song was about until I heard Cash singing it.

  4. Totally agree with Maria–love that analogy. Those of us with strong convictions (be it political, religious, on organic versus not, vegetarian, or artistic or whatever . . . ) love to toss our ideas out to others. But that’s where our part ends. One of the things I LOVE about this country is the plurality of opinions and the fabulous discussions that arise from the diversity of thought.

  5. It wouldn’t occur to me to send a Book of Mormon to someone who had left the church because I would assume you already had one and if you wanted to read it you would. Also, if you had gotten rid of it and decided that you wanted another, you would know exactly what to do to get another one.

    I can imagine, however, if circumstances seemed right, trying to bear testimony. We bear testimony of the things we believe and know to be true. We share the things we love and care about with the people we love and care about. Check out this great website! I’ve got to give you this new recipe I tried! You will love this movie! The follow-on here is natural: Here is how my faith has changed my life and made me happy. I want you to share in it too.

    When someone rejects a recipe or a movie, sometimes it confuses or surprises me. “You are my foodie friend with a well-developed palate and good taste–how can you not acknowledge that that macaroon was amazing!” Sometimes I want to figure out why a friend doesn’t see things the same way I do. “Well, she has this problem with coconut that’s hard for me to understand . . .”

    Most of the time, however, with a recipe, a restaurant, a movie, if someone doesn’t care for what I love, at the end of the day I can just shrug my shoulders and move on. I like brownies and macaroons–you only like brownies. Fine. Hey, check out this awesome brownie recipe!

    With religion, especially when it concerns a religion we both once shared, it is different (and here I think the case of the person being spoken to on the street by a missionary is much different than the case of friends who have parted ways on a formerly shared belief). There are two quite different factors at work. First, the hurt that accompanies a friend’s rejection of something that one is fully invested in. Second, the desire to share something we love with the people we love.

    First, with many types of religious belief, and certainly the faith of your childhood is an example, there isn’t space for two people to disagree on the big picture and both be right. Heavenly Father loves me or he doesn’t. Jesus is the only name under which I can be saved or he isn’t. Joseph Smith was a prophet of God or a fraud. When you leave the church and let everyone know that it is for intellectual reasons, it is easy for the believers you leave behind to make dark assumptions concerning your conclusions about their faith. There aren’t any positive options, are there? Is the one left behind intellectually uncurious? Not bright enough to figure it out? Guillible? Easily taken in? Someone who knows better, but can’t get by without the opiate? Hypocrites? Whichever option the guesser selects as most likely the one you would apply to him, each hurts.

    Second, if I continue to believe in a Gospel that it is wonderful and life changing and essential for the eternities, then I continue to want you to share in it (regardless of your current affiliation or lack thereof with any church) and this will be true as long as I love and care for you. It is possible that I might not raise the issue of religion for decades, because I do not think it would be helpful to you, or I may bring it up everyday, depending on my personality and my skill in assessing your receptivity. Regardless, if I believe it and I care for you, then I keep wanting you to be a part of it as well.

  6. I agree with Sara and Maria as well. There are a lot of issues on which one can find offense if one is looking for it. But often people are just trying to share what seems to them good (and on the religion issue, as I tried to explain above, it can happen on both sides– both the one who leaves and the one who stays are vulnerable to taking offense). Being easily offended is not the path to happiness and not a good way to be a friend or a family member.

  7. Pmom,

    So great to hear from you on this, and with such a thoughtful reply. The concerns you talk about are part of the reason why I distanced myself from a lot of my churchgoing friends I’d been close to for a long time after leaving the church. It wasn’t just that I felt it would be awkward and I’d be uncomfortable if people made attempts to reconvert me. It was also that people would want to know why I left (couldn’t hack the lifestyle, huh? think we’re all cretins, huh?). And if I said that it was for intellectual reasons (rather than that I wanted to do drugs and become a prostitute, say), there would be a risk that people would draw the kinds of conclusions you talk about and feel challenged and hurt, no matter how little I said on the subject. The last thing I wanted was to hurt anyone or put them on the defensive, so I just tried to avoid the whole situation.

    But for what it’s worth, there is a more positive option than the ones you list. I tend to think of it more like being friends with different people. In any commitment of faith, there’s a strong element of love. We can both have the same level of thoughtfulness and intelligence and can both be aware of all the same evidence for and against, and of all the benefits and drawbacks of the life the religion calls for, and yet make different choices about what we commit ourselves to – just as we both might know the same person and be equally aware the person’s strengths and faults, and yet one of us choose to give the person the benefit of the doubt and be a friend to him and one of choose to have nothing to do with him.

    Yes, it is a much more significant difference of opinion than over food or a movie. But it doesn’t necessarily have to imply dark things about you or your brains!

    As for sharing our deeply held beliefs with others and hoping to persuade them, I think it just has to be understood that there are risks and consequences to this that should be carefully considered before taking action. Do you care more about converting a person or keeping them in your life? How much offense are you willing to risk? Because if you go around treating people in ways you can guess they will see as offensive, you can’t be surprised if they withdraw from you and the friendship is hurt or lost.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: