Talking to a Mormon Missionary

The Mormon Church runs a 24-hour live chat with missionaries at Mormon.org.  I found out about this service since screenshots of their chats frequently appear on The Art of Trolling, a blog that curates internet based pranks, some of which are not safe for work.

I figured that the Mormon Church, which puts a heavy emphasis on conversions and is fairly successful in its efforts was worth talking to, so I logged on to ask my most basic question for theists:

Do you think the evidence for your god is universally accessible?

Our conversation lasted a while, and I’ve posted some highlights below, with the full transcript after the jump.  Sometimes, I am reluctant to post about conversations I have had with apologists, since I don’t want them to constrain their comments for fear of being taken out of context in a wider medium, but I decided it would be all right to post this discussion, particularly as the identity of the missionary is not available and the Mormon chat window includes a ‘print’ button, presumably for later sharing.

So here’s how we started off:

Moroni: Hello, my name is Moroni.
Moroni: How may I help you?
Me: I’m an atheist, and I was wondering whether you think the evidence for your god’s existence is universally accessible
Moroni: Yesm we all can pray to Him and know that He is tehre
Moroni: there*
Me: All people can feel God’s presence when they pray? Or only if they already had faith?
Moroni: We need to pray with faith
Moroni: a desire to believe and a sicnere heart can help us receive an answer
Me: If people do not have faith, what should compel them to change their minds
Moroni: The fact that by faith we can obtain all the blessings that God has for us
Me: ^ that statement presupposes the existence of God.
Me: What justifies that belief?

And to be honest, I never felt we moved very far beyond that point:

Me: If I were told acupuncture only worked if I *believed* acupuncture worked, I wouldn’t feel compelled to try to believe acupuncture worked.
Me: I don’t need to try to believe every idea with defenders if the pitch is “if you tried to believe this, you would believe it”
Me: Is there a reason I should take your pitch more seriously than a pitch for Transcendental Meditation, which also claims I must have faith for it to work?
Moroni: I have seen the blessings of developing this faith in my life
Moroni: all I can do is invite you to do it yourself and promise you that the same that has happened in my life will happen in yours
Moroni: and you will feel the love of God and receive of His blessings

 

Moroni seemed to be defending a parallel version of Jennifer Fulweiler’s Finding God in 5 Easy Steps (summed up as trying to behave as though God existed and seeing if belief follows).  However, unlike Jennifer, Moroni never made much of a pitch for why belief in God could appear necessary or even desirable from the perspective of nonbelief.

I found the conversation extremely uncompelling, but it did signal a kind of extreme confidence.  Instead of making an emotional or scholarly pitch, Moroni’s sole goal seemed to be for me to read the Book of Mormon and attempt to pray to his God, at which point, conversion was expected to be inevitable.  I imagine this strategy is different from the door-to-door pitch, but I have no idea.  Has anyone heard a different spiel from a Mormon missionary?

And now, the full transcript:

Moroni: Hello, my name is Moroni.
Moroni: How may I help you?
Me: Hello, sorry for the delay.
Me: I’m an atheist, and I was wondering whether you think the evidence for your god’s existence is universally accessible
Moroni: Yesm we all can pray to Him and know that He is tehre
Moroni: there*
Me: All people can feel God’s presence when they pray? Or only if they already had faith?
Moroni: We need to pray with faith
Moroni: a desire to believe and a sicnere heart can help us receive an answer
Me: If people do not have faith, what should compel them to change their minds
Moroni: The fact that by faith we can obtain all the blessings that God has for us
Me: ^ that statement presupposes the existence of God.
Me: What justifies that belief?
Moroni: Well, a person after hearing about God should aks himself/herself if that stament is true or not
Moroni: don’t you think so?
Moroni: And if the only way to know if it is true is by praying with fait, or a desire to believe, then a person that hears that statement should be compelled to have faith
Me: I don’t have a desire to believe in precepts I think are false.
Moroni: Who told you they are false?
Moroni: What if they were true?
Me: If I were told acupuncture only worked if I *believed* acupuncture worked, I wouldn’t feel compelled to try to believe acupuncture worked.
Me: I don’t need to try to believe every idea with defenders if the pitch is “if you tried to believe this, you would believe it”
Me: Is there a reason I should take your pitch more seriously than a pitch for Transcendental Meditation, which also claims I must have faith for it to work?
Moroni: I have seen the blessings of developing this faith in my life
Moroni: all I can do is invite you to do it yourself and promise you that the same that has happened in my life will happen in yours
Moroni: and you will feel the love of God and receive of His blessings
Me: But similar claims are made by proponents of Transcendental Meditation,
Me: Scientology, etc. By what heuristic should I trust your experience over theirs?
Me: Your claims are mutually exclusive
Me: Why are your claims, using the same justification, more believable?
Moroni: I invite you to read the Bible and the Book of Mormon
Moroni: and then to pray about them, try doing someof the things it teaches, and you will know that what I ams aying is correct
Moroni: if they ask you, the other churches, to do the same, then do it, only in one place you will feel an answer by God as taught in the scriptures, throught the holy Ghost
Moroni: who will speak to you through feelings and thoughts
Me: I’ve heard the exact same pitch from catholics. Who ask me to read the bible and pray in their churches and assure me that the holy ghost has spoken to them and will speak to me there
Me: They sound just as convinced by their experiences as you do.
Moroni: As I said
Moroni: all you can do then is follow both invitations
Me: Do you think people who feel the influence of the holy spirit in non-Mormon religions are decieved? Or are many religions acceptable to your god?
Moroni: Well, there is only one true church, but there are good things in several places, so people may feel something good when the go to one place or another
Moroni: but we need to search for that place that has the fulness
Me: How are you certain that you have found the fullness, given that Catholics and others also claim to experience fullness in their faith? Are there proofs of your faith external to your personal experiences?
Moroni: Your personal experience while praying is what will matter most at the end because that’s the way to obtain a testimony
Me: So there’s no way for your claims to trump those of Catholics or even Scientologists?
Moroni: I am not here to prove anyone wrong
Me: By making assertations about the truth of what god wants, you are implying others are wrong.
Moroni: Well, but I am inviting you to find out for yourself whether or not what i am saying is correct
Moroni: I am not trying to get you to believe by saying why other people are not good
Me: But when I hear a number of people make contradictory claims based on the same type of evidence, it makes me doubt the utility of that evidence
Moroni: Well, then find out for yourself
Moroni: really, there is nothing better you can do than praying and asking yourself
Me: To be honest, this doesn’t sound that different than the claims of my runner friends that if I just put enough time into running, I would find that I enjoyed it.
Me: When I try running, and don’t enjoy it, they tell me I didn’t give it enough of a chance.
Me: At some point, it is reasonable of me to reject the proposition
Me: At what point is it reasonable for me to reject yours?
Moroni: After you have read the Book of Mormon and prayed about it sincerely and having a desire to believe
Me: But what prompts a desire to believe, if not evidence?
Me: I feel like we are going in circles, and I don’t see why your religion has a firmer foundation than homeopathy.
Moroni: Take the challenge
Moroni: pray
Moroni: ask God about these things
Me: And a homeopath would tell me to try their remedies, believe, and wait for a cure. Why should I have more confidence in your claims?
Moroni: As I said, your confidence should be in God
Moroni: and in the answer you will receive from Him as you pray
Me: I don’t feel like we are covering new ground, and I ought to go to bed. Thank you for your time
Moroni: Take care Leah
Moroni:good night!

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as a statistician for a school in Washington D.C. by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • Michael Haycock

    I'd recommend you chat with someone who's been a Mormon missionary and who's probably closer to your intellectual level than poor Mr. Missionary Chat. I've got nowhere near your expertise in the realms of philosophy (or anything), but I do believe that I would be able to answer questions somewhat more aptly than a random 19-year-old who's been at the Missionary Training Center for two weeks. And, if I don't have an answer -or I'm not comprehending the nuances of your argument or queries- I'll ask for further explanation, ponder it and get back to you. Just contact me when you'd like to chat.If after my pondering I do not have a satisfactory response (or before, if you want to leapfrog me to the bigger guns), perhaps the best place to engage Mormons at the level of philosophy at the level you seek is at the LDS Hermeneutics listserv. It's there you'll probably get the best, most articulate answers:http://groups.google.com/group/lds-herm/topicsAnd no, there really hasn't been another proselytizing strategy besides "(read and) pray" since the founding of our Church. Trying to find another one -that is officially condoned- amidst the ranks of missionaries is a futile exercise.I myself would recommend you read the Book of Mormon. If anything, it would certainly help you understand the LDS faith. Overall, I think you would find some of our theological divergences from traditional Christianity intriguing (though – be aware – most of these are not found in the Book of Mormon).

  • DW

    Not sure if this will be seen, but in addition to concurring with Michael, I just want to add one thing as a Mormon who likely has thought more about these things than Moroni here, and who also sympathizes with atheists. I believe there is a space for beginning to "test" Mormonism that does not require out-and-out faith. And I think most Mormons would agree with me. One must approach the study of Mormonism with genuine humility. A skeptical scientific approach somewhat does not pass muster, simply because the goal cannot be simply to prove something wrong (a falsificationist or iconoclastic agenda). Rather, one must genuinely ask themselves whether they can have any space in their heart that Mormonism (or whatever) MIGHT be what it says it is. When one does so, then one might say, well, if Mormonism is what it says it is, then there is a God that I can pray to. I, of course, do not believe that, but can I bring myself to praying to this God and opening my heart to hear an answer? If the answer is no, then one probably cannot get very far (by way of genuine as opposed to merely skeptical investigation of a religion), and the fault likely is in the creativity and/or humility of the person, irrespective of the truthfulness of the religion. (In that sense, I would say that no, Mormonism is not universally acceptable, but really not in a way that is different even from a scientific proof (which requires a certain level of intelligence, faith in previous literature, trust in a certain level of instrumentation, etc.). Both overly skeptical and overly faithful inquiry can be misleading; a middle space must genuinely be found or one fails to truly engage. I could be wrong, but sometimes I wonder whether some potential converts to Mormonism (or probably any other religion) is afraid to do what I've said (e.g., to kneel and pray as if one is praying to an actual being, even if one honestly is not sure whether that being exists). For this kind of person, I'm afraid that nothing more can be said. At this point in time.


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