I’ve been thinking a lot about argument, discussion, debate and discourse lately. For obvious reasons. When I argue these days, it’s to stand up for a point I think is important or advocate for a value I believe in. But I no longer really try to convince other people that they’re wrong and I’m right. In many cases I’ve simply lost faith that it has much of an effect, but at a deeper level this is yet another callback to my Mormon upbringing and worldview.
Mormonism is a missionary faith – as is pretty well known. Most everyone has seen or had an interaction with the official missionaries out and about, or is familiar with them as a concept through pop culture. Missionary service is an expectation of young men, and increasingly encouraged for young women (which didn’t use to be the case compared to encouraging them to prioritize marriage). Not only that, there is a perpetual mission effort within the culture and structure of congregations, supported by messages and guidance encouraging all adherents to proselytize. “Every member a missionary,” as the slogan goes.
This attitude towards conversion comes from a place of genuine love and caring. The underlying premise is that if you have found Truth, you have an obligation to lead others to that truth. If knowledge of this truth is necessary to salvation, you do not have a right to keep it to yourself and deny others the opportunity. If you love something, if you believe it: you share it. Complacency about other people’s understanding is not allowed.
My observation is that this attitude remains intact even if one leaves the faith. I’ve written before how my Mormon-ness doesn’t “wash off,” even if I no longer believe in it. The cultural conditioning and in-built heritage remains. I don’t think I’m alone in this. I’ve noticed that a lot of people who leave the church seem to go through a period where they seem to try to replicate missionary work in reverse – having become convinced of the “truth” (in this case, the falseness of the faith), they want to “open other people’s eyes” to it. Whether knowingly or otherwise, I witness a lot of people try to use the same tools of conversion for deconversion. And for the same reasons! If you care about someone, you want the best for them. Ergo, if you think a belief system is bad, you are unable to be complacent about it and feel a responsibility for their welfare.
Here’s the thing: I don’t think it works.
No one “deconverted” me from my faith. It was the result of over a decade of intense internal debate and inquiry. Topic after topic was picked up, examine, interrogated, debated, researched, and – yes – prayed over. Gradually ideas, realizations, perceptions, and information combined and coalesced into something I could no longer deny: I did not believe the same things that the organization taught. I thought it was wrong, I didn’t trust or believe several of its key truth claims, I could not participate in the community and remain true to the things I did believe, and there was no successful path for a cultural participation in the heritage of the faith without also a full throated and genuine adherence to its beliefs structures.
And every time I have tried to explain this process to a believer – a misguided attempt to do “missionary work” for my experience and perspective – I have failed to do it justice. I have failed to explain it in a way that makes sense to them, or they have failed to listen. We are operating from two fundamentally different perspectives of Capital T Truth.
I was having a vigorous (but respectful) political discussion with a loved one the other day that centered on the protests against police brutality in the States. We do not agree politically, but are able to argue and debate fairly successfully. I love this person, and they love me and while our differences have caused friction, they have not caused rift. In this I am so much more lucky than many people I know and I’m grateful beyond words for it.
The most significant aspect of this conversation for me happened towards the end of the discussion. After debating philosophical differences between sides of the political spectrum, trading thoughts on what the manifestations of those differences are, and talking Big Picture concepts, I referred to my own (admittedly anecdotal) experience of working for a police department myself for five years and what I witnessed there. (For those who don’t know, this police department was affiliated with my alma mater and a religious institution.)
This person’s reaction was along the lines of, “That experience really ruined a lot of things for you.” The implication being, that my political and religious views were fundamentally changed during this period of my life – and not for the better.
My immediate reaction was a flash of white hot anger. It felt really belittling to be told, in effect, “Your reaction to your own personal experience and observations are wrong,” by a person who was not there, was not privy to my thought process, and in spite of these gaps, does not see some of the choices I’ve made as valid or correct.
But after a beat, calm reasserted itself because the truth is, this person is right. Working for a police department for five years did change my view of policing. Which is a perfectly rational progression of events. Most people with opinion on policing have never worked for PD! And working at an institution controlled and managed by a religious organization also informed my view of that organization. Which again, feels like a pretty sensible way to form a point of view. I know a lot of people with views on religion who have never stepped foot in a place of worship. Now, we can debate the rightness or wrongness of my opinions, but at least they are informed by years worth of first hand investigation and inquiry!
This person is at some level unhappy at how I went through certain experiences and I didn’t come away from them with the conclusions (politically or theologically) that I am “supposed to.”
And I was unhappy that my practical and personal experience seem to be so easily dismissed when I feel both have given me specific insights that should carry some weight.
We are operating from totally different perspectives on Capital T Truth. (Seems relevant to the protest situation of people of color and their experiences…and any other number of divides.)
We’re at an impasse of beliefs. I don’t think we’re ever going to get over it. That’s okay.
The best we can do is practice empathy and kindness, and stop trying to change the other person, or hoping they’ll “come around” to a more palatable (to us) way of thinking. I’m not going to convert this person to my way of thinking, they are not going to convert me back to their faith. We have to learn to find other ways forward.
I’m delighted to say that where once a conversation like this may have ended in tears, this one ended in jokes, story swaps, and expressions of love. We’ve had to practice kindness and respect for one another in new ways. We have to learn how to make our case and then move on, not get stuck in arguments as if life were a perpetual YouTube comment section or subreddit – what a ghastly thought!
I’m no longer trying to change minds. I don’t think I can. One has to convert, or deconvert oneself. Missionaries of all stripes may serve as catalysts to change, but all true change comes from within.
I’m not a missionary of any kind anymore, and I’m not really attempting to be. I’m simply doing what I think is right, and standing up for what I believe. I’m doing it with my voice, my vote, my money, my time, my attention, and my platforms. Perhaps it will serve as a catalyst for someone else’s introspection process, but if not, it doesn’t matter. I’ve done the internal work, and I am still doing it, and that is ultimately the only thing I am or can be responsible for. In a weird way, this is also a legacy of my Mormonism because of a bunch of other slogans and messages I picked up. Anyone who grew up in the faith will recognize perhaps the most famous,”Choose the right,” supplemented by a popular hymn called “Do What is Right.”
Black lives matter.
Systemic disadvantage exists, as does systemic privilege.
LGBT+ lives matter.
Trans women are women.
Trans men are men.
Nonbinary people are real.
Patriarchy is wrong.
Separate but equal is inherently unequal, no matter how to try and swing it.
Racism, sexism and homophobia are not “mean-ness,’ they are a collective system of traditions and institutions (many of them intentional, many of them not) that cause disproportionate harm and allocate disproportionate privilege.
Kind words and actions are welcome in overcoming overt hostilities, but do not make one any less racist, sexist, or phobic if your actions and beliefs continue uphold systems and structures that continue this disproportionate harm.
And everyone needs to do the work and learn the difference between being “nice” and “good.”
Do what is right, let the consequence follow.