Nun: "What does it matter?"
Priest: "It matters! 'What does it matter?!?' I want to know!"
--Excerpt from the film "Doubt"
Last week, my youngest brother left for the Brazilian Missionary Training Center to begin his two-year mission for the Mormon Church. I expect that some atheists would say he shouldn't go, or that it will be a waste of time (and money). I say, go and take lots of notes.
One of the best ways to learn how the Mormon Church manipulates people into believing their shtick is to be trained in how they do it and to practice it for two years. Now, whether or not a missionary realizes that they are manipulating people is an open question. But my brother is pretty bright, so I expect to have some engaging conversations with him when he gets back.
Like me, he favors rationality over superstition. Also like me, he tries really hard to find rational, even scientific reasons to believe in Mormonism. Perhaps in the future he will apply his rationality to his belief system and realize that Mormonism is not as rational as it purports to be. In other words, I look forward to him graduating from a part-time skeptic to just a skeptic.
One of the ways in which the Mormon Church attempts empiricism while subtly manipulating people into belief is their "test" of the Book of Mormon, or as missionaries call it, "Moroni's Promise".
Missionaries are trained to create an expectation in the minds of those interested in the Church that they will receive a "burning in the bosom" if they pray to god and ask if the Book of Mormon is true. This is often presented as a test or experiment. The problem, though, is that it is a test which can only be verified and not falsified. So, no matter how scientific the test is presented, the fact that it cannot be falsified makes it non-scientific.
In fact, if a person attempts this test and does not receive a "burning in the bosom" as promised, missionaries will tell them to keep trying, they will not receive an answer until they have a desire to believe, and it will happen in god's timing. In other words, "keep trying indefinitely until you agree with us".
I have seen missionaries set up the expectation to receive an answer from god, and ask the people how they feel about the Church and the Book of Mormon; if the people say they feel good about it, the missionaries will tell them--in no uncertain terms--that this feeling is god telling them that the Mormon Church and the Book of Mormon are true. This is disingenuous and manipulative.
These innocent inquisitive people only believe because the missionaries validated their feelings as a sign from god. But they have no reason to believe it was a sign from god other than the missionaries' say-so. They are merely taking their word for it, yet the missionaries will tell them this was a personal spiritual experience which conclusively proves the validity of the Church. To me, this appears to be nothing more than believing something because it makes you comfortable.
To see through this manipulative farce, one needs only to look at similar spiritual experiences through validated feelings in Evangelical Christian congregations. How else can you explain speaking in (indecipherable) tongues, if not through the Holy Spirit?
With such shoddy conversion tools, is it any wonder that the retention rate for new converts into the Mormon Church is so abysmal?
In semi-related news, the Friendly Atheist wrote an article on the rise of non-religious people in the US and how this will affect the upcoming presidential election.
Here is the Atheist Experience talking about the validity of personal experiences:
And one with an ex-Mormon: