To “convert” someone, as most people use the word, means to get that person to change in some profound way, usually beginning with and centering on the person’s beliefs. Conversions, in this sense, are happening on a regular basis, some good and some not. This is the second part follow-up to my previous post on the subject of how not all conversions are equal. I argued that there are two main reasons for this. First, it makes all the difference what exactly is being embraced by the new “convert.” The actual substance of the message and worldview that will shape the convert’s thoughts and actions may be something true and good. But it may be a terrible deception that brings destruction to that person and others. If you want to read more about this, see the previous post.

The second reason not all conversions are equal has to do with the process by which a convert is won. If the first reason involves the message, the second involves the method. There’s more than one way to get someone to see things from your side.  Consider the tools you might employ to get people to profess what you want them to:  you could frighten, threaten or terrify them; you could brow-beat or manipulate them; you could lure them, bribe them, make them great promises; you could use subtle mind-games or clever tricks known to the best advertisers; if you have the power to do so, you might institute a program of heavy propaganda; you might make use of the potent pressure of peers or forces of pop culture; you could play to their emotions, toy with their feelings, confuse or bewilder them; if you want more assurance of success, maybe you could turn to the most direct empirical methods available – mind control, brain manipulation, the use of drugs.  The fact is that if the result is all that matters to you, and if any means will justify the end you seek, then any number of these methods might get the job done.

I’m sure you’re aware that everything listed in the previous paragraph has in fact been used to get people to think and do what other people wanted them to think and do. And the reason is simple.  It’s easier to use these kinds of tactics than it is to convince people by the legitimate method of making a good case. Advertisers and politicians know this all too well. Today’s world is image-driven, we’re told. Making a good impression is all that matters for a brand or politician. In fact, politicians running for office today are marketed as brands themselves. The goal is a good impression, creating a positive vibe that reverberates across social media and gets people to like the candidate, even if it’s only because his voice sounds authentic or he has caring eyes or some other shallow reason.

Our culture has shown that it can be swayed in record numbers and in a surprisingly short amount of time on major moral issues without thinking all that critically about them. Not long ago I heard an interview with a sociologist on NPR about the change in public opinion on gay marriage.  In an accent that was hard to nail down, he described a research project he had spear-headed among people under 30 that made it pretty clear to the researchers that the majority of those in that age category who have become supporters of that particular cause over the last five years have done so for personal and emotional reasons. People cited personal relationships with gay friends or family members, as well as the influence of likeable gay public figures or fictional gay characters depicted in movies and TV shows. Few of those surveyed, the researchers found, had come to their position because of arguments on behalf of gay marriage. The sociologists was quick to add that this is characteristic of the American public today, in fact. If you want to change people’s minds, the old fashioned approach of giving them a well thought-out list of reasons is probably not the best way to do it.  You’d have much more success with a simple repetition of your message and perspective in the lyrics of the music on their iPods, in the voices of the characters on their favorite shows, and in the social circles populated by their peers.

While it grieves and frustrates me to admit it, I can’t argue against that. More outlandish examples of groups of people being persuaded to believe something bear out this same principle. There’s all the more reason, in fact, to use means other than direct argument if the thing you’re trying to get people to believe seems intuitively problematic and would not fare well under scrutiny. Ask yourself: could the Nazi party have persuaded so many German citizens to go so far down the pathway of the “final solution” using plain arguments in a fair and open forum? Would North Koreans really fall all over themselves worshipping the “Great Leader” if they hadn’t been subjected to a lifetime of isolation, state mind control and fear? Would prosperity televangelists be hailed as ‘anointed’ teachers and have such large followings if they weren’t playing upon the greed and desperation of people looking for a quick miracle fix or a ticket to sudden wealth?

Note that the more striking cases have in common something of the religious element.  There is truth to the well-worn proverbial wisdom about what a powerful tool for manipulation religion can be. If you keep up with world affairs to any extent, you’ve heard about Christians being imprisoned in places like Iran due to accusations that they dared to persuade/convert someone. Pastors like Youcef Nadarkhani and Saeed Abedini (look them up) have been sent to hellish prisons where they receive torture and the repeated pressure to renounce their beliefs and convert to Islam in order to save their skin.  How’s that for a missionary strategy? I’ve often wondered just how truly devoted to Islam the people of [take your choice – Iran, Pakistan, Yemen, Indonesia, etc.] would be if those societies allowed genuine religious freedom.  In other words, if the playing field were leveled in those places such that for a few generations people enjoyed the liberty to discuss, debate, disagree, and attempt to convert by legitimate means, what overall religious landscape would take shape as a result?

Regardless of what Islam (or any other worldview, religious or secular) does, Christians simply cannot allow themselves to revert to illegitimate tactics of persuasion.  All of these prohibited strategies– and I am referring again to anything other than the free profession of a person who has genuinely come to believe – are categorically outside the parameters of missions and evangelism for Christians. There is simply no ground for using any of the alternative methods of persuasion, regardless of how enticing they are due to being easier and getting better ‘results’ (which I put in quotes because I will argue that the ‘results’ are actually not better even if numbers are high).

So why can’t Christians allow themselves to use the slick methods that so many others use to get people to agree with them?  Here are few reasons that should suffice: those methods are unbiblical, they don’t produce the result(s) we really want, they water down the message, they build growing resentment, they bring about a group of people who never really believed and are likely to feel hatred toward those who manipulated them, they bring ill repute to the Church because many people see through the cheap tricks we might employ to gain converts.

Cheating in anything is an alluring prospect because people want to win. When I see a religious group gaining a lot of converts, I always try to inspect how they’re doing it, and I usually find questionable reasons for their success. For example, when I began living in Utah years ago I heard a great deal about how large the Church of Latter-day Saints was and they maintained an impressive growth rate.  But I came to see that they have no problem with conversions achieved by lesser means.  For starters they apply a ton of social pressure upon the children they raise (and they raise a LOT of them).  Scores of people raised in Mormon families but, by any reasonable standard unbelieving, remain loosely affiliated nevertheless just to avoid the terrible consequences of openly denying or departing from it.  As for getting converts who weren’t raised LDS, there are plenty of opportunistic situations for that as well.  I can’t begin to tell you how many people I met and knew of who converted in order to date or marry a certain person, or to open certain social or economic doors and opportunities. But again, winning people over by social pressure or ‘missionary dating’ is as illegitimate as using brute fear (as in much of the Islamic world) or manipulative promises of health and wealth (Robert Tilton-style).

None of this is for New Testament believers. History teaches us what disastrous consequences can follow if a Christian society allows conversions by illicit means. One of the darkest examples is the Spanish Inquisition, called for and overseen by a zealous king and queen and targeting supposed Christians who were secretly practicing other religions. But the whole context for the decades of injustice and brutality that were to follow was created by previous widespread ‘conversions’ that should not have happened. The “other religions” were mostly Judaism and Islam, from which the questionable mass conversions had come. Tensions in multi-cultural medieval Spain had led to riots in which Jews or Muslims in Spain were pitted against the Roman Catholic population. When Spain became unified under Ferdinand and Isabella, a strong Roman Catholic government began to assert more influence. During some of the riots in certain places, large numbers of Jews converted to avoid trouble. Other Jews converted for social and economic opportunity, the ceiling of possibility being much higher for Catholics at the time.

Those events over those years brought about a large number of people who had outwardly converted to the Christian faith but who had never truly come to believe.  These people lived double lives, and eventually the royal couple agreed that it was a problem that had to be addressed. That is why they petitioned to establish their own Inquisition tribunals. And so began a long and sad chain of events that would see trials, imprisonments, confiscations of property, ruining of reputations, impetus of some to flee and become refugees, and of course burnings at the stake. It was all made possible by ill-conceived conversions secured in completely faulty ways.

Americans have the blessed benefit of having never really felt the more brutal kinds of influences to convert to a new view or way of life. The government established by the American founders remains, thankfully, in compliance with the famous initial amendment to her constitution.  There has been no formal establishment of a religion by the state nor prohibition of religious free exercise for citizens. Christians are among those who want to keep it that way.  But aside from government influence, there is always the temptation to win people over by other defective means. Our culture is moving in a direction that prizes emotionalism over critical thinking, and so it is tempting to abandon the latter and to “fight fire with fire,” as it were, by ditching outdated notions of in-depth teaching, of delving into ancient texts and theological mysteries.  After all that stuff doesn’t do anything for people anymore and it won’t win the big crowds. Thus do we see religious figures employing the game plans of marketers, advertisers and politicians. Churches might as well go all out and combine the best of advertising, politics and entertainment, all of which seem to be so effective in getting lots of people today to think and act in specified and targeted ways. Churches should hire media consultants, campaign strategists  and entertainment moguls to market their spiritual ‘wares’ to the religious ‘consumers’ so that they’ll have better ‘box office’ numbers. Anybody feel like puking yet?

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Clint Roberts has taught Philosophy, Religion, Ethics, Critical Thinking, Apologetics, and a few less interesting subjects over the last decade or so. He likes the Credo House because he once launched a similar non-profit establishment in a different state. His Masters is from a fine theological institution and his doctorate focused on famed arguments by Clive Staples Lewis. He and Wanda lived in Texas a little while, then Idaho very briefly, then Salt Lake City for several years prior to coming to the prairie lands of Oklahoma. They had four kids along the way, and later adopted two more humans, a few goats and chickens, and a pony.


Clint Roberts
Clint Roberts

Clint Roberts has taught Philosophy, Religion, Ethics, Critical Thinking, Apologetics, and a few less interesting subjects over the last decade or so. He likes the Credo House because he once launched a similar non-profit establishment in a different state. His Masters is from a fine theological institution and his doctorate focused on famed arguments by Clive Staples Lewis. He and Wanda lived in Texas a little while, then Idaho very briefly, then Salt Lake City for several years prior to coming to the prairie lands of Oklahoma. They had four kids along the way, and later adopted two more humans, a few goats and chickens, and a pony.

    16 replies to "Part II: The Other Reason All Conversions are Not Equal"

    • Staircaseghost

      …the majority of those in that age category who have become supporters of that particular cause over the last five years have done so for personal and emotional reasons. People cited personal relationships with gay friends or family members, as well as the influence of likeable gay public figures or fictional gay characters depicted in movies and TV shows. Few of those surveyed, the researchers found, had come to their position because of arguments on behalf of gay marriage.

      You heard it here first, folks. People deciding to be less cruel to others because of basic human compassion is an illegitimate tactic of persuasion. And also comparable to North Korea and the Holocaust.

      So, based on this post, can I assume you strongly disapprove of conversions to Christianity when they happen for emotive instead of logical reasons, like William Lane Craig, who relates:

      “Finally, one night I just came to the end of my rope and cried out to God. I cried out all the anger and bitterness that had built up inside me, and at the same time I felt this tremendous infusion of joy, like a balloon being blown up and blown up until it was ready to burst! I remember I rushed outdoors—it was a clear, mid-western, summer night, and you could see the Milky Way stretched from horizon to horizon. As I looked up at the stars, I thought, ‘God! I’ve come to know God!'”

    • anonymous

      “Christians simply cannot allow themselves to revert to illegitimate tactics of persuasion.”

      as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there without watering the earth and making it bear and sprout, and furnishing seed to the sower and bread to the eater; so will My word be which goes forth from My mouth; It will not return to Me empty, without accomplishing what I desire, and without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it. Isa 55:10 -11

      sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence1 Pet 3:15

      and consider this, that what we are in word …..we are also in deed 2 Cor 10:11b

      Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth. 1 John 3:18

    • Staircaseghost

      “What’s basic to us is entirely irrelevant.”

      I understand that you’re affirming this because your doctrine pretty much says you have to affirm it. I totally get that. But I’m also pretty sure you don’t actually live your life this way, because of the psychopathic nature of what such a claim would entail if taken literally.

      If the Clint genuinely wants to understand how humans can be made to enthusiastically and voluntarily follow the dictates of a totalitarian state, he need look no further than people claiming that their own conscience should be submerged into total submission to an outside force. The dirty secret of totalitarianism is that people don’t really need to be tricked, or forced, into them. It’s that most of us have a dictator-shaped hole in our hearts.

      “Clint is also not saying that emotional conversions are illegitimate. He’s saying that using emotion to allegedly secure one is.”

      Try scanning MLK’s I Have a Dream speech, or Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, for deductive arguments or double-blind controlled experiments. What do you think all those thousands of people over the course of three years prior to the crucifixion were “converted” to, exactly? The Minimal Facts?

    • Clint Roberts

      A few clarifications and replies for ‘Staircaseghost’:

      “Deciding to be less cruel to others” would be a good decision, generally speaking, but I’m not sure how it is a “tactic of persuasion”. It is a moral decision regarding how you will act. Whether it persuades anyone to think or do anything in particular seems questionable. But I think I know what you meant anyway, and it begs the question, because the idea that a person who does not support the moral legitimacy of a particular sexual arrangement is “cruel” is, to put it mildly, debatable.

      As for comparisons to N. Korea & the Holocaust, if you read what I wrote you know better than to resort to low-grade misrepresentations. The comparison is between ALL ways of getting people to believe things, ranging from the more outrageous to the more benign. I think I indicated that there are degrees, and in fact that seems implied by the title itself – they are not equal. Torturing people in order to get them to confess your truth is quite obviously not on the same moral footing with using clever advertising. The only thing they have in common is that neither one represents the truest form of convincing people, which is to provide a good case for why they should believe it.

      As Greg pointed out, I did not castigate emotion as real and important when it comes to what we believe. W. L. Craig is not the first intellectual type of believer to point to personal, emotional events in his life like this. The Oxford Don himself, C. S. Lewis, quite famously said that a deep sense of existential longing was always very significant and powerful as something that ended up drawing him toward God. But if Lewis then or Craig now were wanting a friend or colleague to think seriously about God, Christ, the Bible, etc., it’s clear they would not simply try to get the person to have an emotional experience of some kind. They would give many reasons.

    • Clint Roberts

      Also staircaseghost, in your reply to Greg you talked about those who subvert their consciences in total submission to an outside force. This happens more regularly than we would like to admit, but the “outside force” can be social or cultural. This is why people whose consciences make them want to say that a particular thing is “wrong” (maybe extra-marital sex or an Islamic custom regarding women, etc.) will stay silent and try to subvert this moral intuition because of the pressure of the politically correct climate in which they find themselves. Christians believe that part of the flawed nature of people is to subvert our consciences intentionally for the sake of our own self-justification. But if you are concerned about God as an “outside force,” then the Christian view is that each person’s conscience is itself a clue to the reality of this outside force. As to people being all too willing to be dominated by fascists, maybe you’re right, but I wonder what that proves related to this subject.

      You mention Jesus’ teaching or MLK, Jr.’s preaching as examples of persuasion that you think is devoid of argument. You are simply mistaken. The fact a sermon or passage doesn’t take a certain form (like symbolic logic) or include specific kinds of data (controlled experiments) says nothing about whether it is in fact making a case for something. Philosopher Dallas Willard has offered his perspective on Jesus as a philosopher making coherent appeals to people (see the link below). He was persuasive to some and certainly not to others, but the persuasion was not based on cheap mind games or parlor tricks. He essentially told people how it is, and provided solid reasons they ought to believe it is so.

      http://www.dwillard.org/articles/artview.asp?artID=39

    • Clint Roberts

      I thought I should add, since you mentioned MLK, Jr., that a quick read of his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail” in April 1963 reveals that he first builds a case for natural law in a tradition stretching back to Socrates & Aquinas (both of whom he cites), and then he offers a clear and convincing distinction between just and unjust laws, the latter of which he argued he was not morally bound to obey.

    • Truth Unites... and Divides

      Clint Roberts: “Our culture is moving in a direction that prizes emotionalism over critical thinking,”

      I agree.

      “…and so it is tempting to abandon the latter and to “fight fire with fire,”

      Possibly a false antithesis. An argument could be sound and valid in its logical conclusion and presentation, and yet also be emotionally uplifting at the same time.

      But to your general point, I have seen to my deep dismay whereby a Beautiful, Heart-Warming, Agenda-Affirming Lie triumphs over the Truth.

      Oftentimes, people prefer the lie, the delusion, the half-truth, the fantasy over the real and actual. Too many times, people don’t want the Truth/truth.

      Pilate: “What is truth?”

      Post-modern liberalism is a seductively beautiful siren song to the weak-minded who exalt emotionalism and feelings.

      What comforts me? Trusting God and His Sovereignty, His Wisdom, and His Love. If He says Narrow Gate and Remnant, who am I to be in despair otherwise. If I “lose” because I don’t compromise either “message” or “method,” then so be it.

      It’s not me. It’s not my efforts. It’s God. And my being faithful to God and wholly dependent on God while being completely available as his ordinary vessel.

    • Truth Unites... and Divides

      Old Testament Stories, New Testament Stories, Pilgrim’s Progress, Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, Chronicles of Narnia, etc…, plus films like “Facing the Giants” and “Courageous” and “Chariots of Fire” are beautiful stories that stir the emotion.

      There are a growing number of pulpits that utilize narrative to enhance the emotional connectivity of the Gospel to people’s hearts.

      And has anyone ever swooned or watched people swoon during the music prior to the delivery of the sermon? Worship music oftentimes stirs the emotions. Merely an observation.

    • Staircaseghost

      @ #5 “Deciding to be less cruel to others” would be a good decision, generally speaking, but I’m not sure how it is a “tactic of persuasion”.

      I am referring to the way people elect to change their behavior when they come face to face with the consequences of their cruelty. Nothing could be less illegitimate.

      @#6 But if you are concerned about God as an “outside force,” then the Christian view is that each person’s conscience is itself a clue to the reality of this outside force.

      Did you suppose I was here questioning the “reality” of the North Korean government? I thought I was rather obviously questioning the morality of the totalitarian mindset. Something Christians by definition cannot do consistently. They call themselves slaves and sheep.

      Note also that your example is a complete inversion of Greg’s stance, where he is advising people to abandon their “fickle, gooey” conscience, not persevere in the face of outside pressure!

    • Staircaseghost

      God IS a totalitarian. He can do it n we can’t.

      My favorite, most honest Christian poster on this site. I know I can count on you the next time some apologist tries to score cheap points with the “Hitlerstalinmao! Hitlerstalinmao! Whatabout Hitlerstalinmao!” meme.

      In the Christian worldview, the 20th century totalitarians had the right idea, morally speaking, they just picked the wrong Guy.

      Still waiting for someone to tell me whether a person who converts (converts to any position, one you agree with or disagree with) for the reasons William Lane Craig did is the good kind of conversion or the illegitimate kind of conversion. I know what my answer is. Do you?

    • Clint Roberts

      This is a tragically abysmal failure to recognize the most obvious distinctions. To say that the exercise of total authority and power on the part of God is on moral par with the obscene fascist legacy of the 20th Cent.’s worst regimes is utterly confused.

      Is it inherently evil merely to possess by nature a position of power? Is it, for that matter, inherently evil to possess a position of some power/authority that is (rather than by nature) bestowed by others? Are all kings the same? Some are benevolent rulers and others abusive. Not all police or judges are the same, for that matter, but surely it is not an indictment just to BE a judge or policeman is it? They are given a measure of authority over you, and so they can properly exercise it accordingly. A policeman can fine, arrest, or even shoot you in certain circumstances, while you cannot do the same. A judge can have a power over your future (imprisonment, etc.), but who is he to ‘judge’ you? Answer: he’s the JUDGE.

      So God, by very definition and by nature, is profoundly superior to all human beings. Having made them, and possessing all authority over them, he could dispose of them according to his whim and pleasure. BUT that position of power does not morally indict him. It merely describes him. For a person in a position of power/authority to merit your high and mighty condemnation as an evil tyrant, he must earn it by being corrupt and abusing his position of power, as men are so prone to do.

    • Clint Roberts

      As for the other remark, I’m not sure about the “cheap points” someone might try to score with Hitler/Stalin/Mao, but what we can see as a philosophical and moral lesson from men such as these is that all the first-world, scientifically advanced, post-industrial prowess of the West did nothing to solve the fundamental problem of human evil, and when men arose to positions of such great power having a philosophy/worldview including such core notions as that they answered to no God, recognized no higher set of moral demands upon them, and that people are merely biological machines in the empty struggle for survival, then – not surprisingly – they had little qualms about using the advanced technology at their disposal to systematically murder millions of people holding back the progress of history and/or the purity of the master race.

    • Staircaseghost

      ”They are given a measure of authority over you, and so they can properly exercise it accordingly. A policeman can fine, arrest, or even shoot you in certain circumstances, while you cannot do the same. A judge can have a power over your future (imprisonment, etc.), but who is he to ‘judge’ you? Answer: he’s the JUDGE.”

      You are not arguing against my claim, you are affirming it.

      You think the fundamental moral structure of the cosmos is one of inalterable and unchallengable dictatorship. So the problem with human totalitarians is, as I said, just that they picked the wrong guy.

      Whereas, where I grew up (here in America), we believe that the authority of government derives from the consent of the governed. We don’t believe in the divine right of kings, and certainly not hereditary ones (another clear Biblical principle, along with blood-and-soil racialism, which we Americans are well rid of).

      One is converted to Christianity when supernaturally born again from death in sin to newness of divine life in the risen Christ Himself.

      What I’m seeing in both of your replies is confirmation of what I suspected but couldn’t prove upon reading the original blog entry.

      Of course, not all conversions are equally valid, rationally speaking, and one shouldn’t be too quick to hold up any given convert to one’s religious, political etc. views as paragons of intellectual honesty. But now you all are beginning to simply gerrymander what counts as a “legitimate” conversion so that it is content-based instead of reasoning-based. Conversions are “legitimate” when they believe what you believe, and illegitimate when they don’t.

    • Clint Roberts

      You are still confused. To invest any human being with too much power (godlike, if you will) is to “pick the wrong guy.” Our natures being what they are, anyone is the “wrong guy” to make your absolute sovereign, hence the overly used quip about how absolute power corrupts absolutely.

      But this is just what the founders understood, and why they chose the way of “the consent of the governed” along with numerous checks & balances to help curb the natural (sinful) tendency of human beings to abuse what power is given them.

      But God does not share this nature. He has absolute power by definition and as a matter of unalterable fact. And it does not have the corrupting effect upon him. You can only accuse him of having power, not abusing it. But merely having power is not a morally culpable action of any sort.

      The core of your problem, it sounds like, is that you simply don’t want any being to exist who has that kind of power. You are holding believers morally responsible for describing reality, because you just really don’t like the idea of reality being that way. It would be like me holding you morally responsible for describing gravity, since it entails the possibility of my falling from a high place and being killed or injured. I don’t like that idea, thus I don’t like the description of reality that includes it. Thus you’re bad.

    • Kevin Simonson

      Clint Roberts posted:

      =But God does not share this nature. He has absolute power by definition and as
      =a matter of unalterable fact. And it does not have the corrupting effect upon
      =him. You can only accuse him of having power, not abusing it. But merely having
      =power is not a morally culpable action of any sort.

      Clint, how do you know that he that you call God doesn’t “share this nature”? How do you know that he doesn’t just say that he does? For that matter, how do you know that he has absolute power, and once again doesn’t just say that he does?

      You’re absolutely right that “merely having power is not a morally culpable action of any sort,” but having power, or maybe just appearing to have power, is not a demonstration that the power holder is a good person either. You’ve got to have some persuasive reason to believe that he that you call God is actually a good being, before you can have any rational degree of faith that he is the good being that he says he is.

    • Kevin Simonson

      Truth Unites… and Divides posted:

      =Old Testament Stories, New Testament Stories, Pilgrim’s Progress, Lord of the
      =Rings, The Hobbit, Chronicles of Narnia, etc…, plus films like “Facing the
      =Giants” and “Courageous” and “Chariots of Fire” are beautiful stories that stir
      =the emotion.
      =
      =There are a growing number of pulpits that utilize narrative to enhance the
      =emotional connectivity of the Gospel to people’s hearts.
      =
      =And has anyone ever swooned or watched people swoon during the music prior to
      =the delivery of the sermon? Worship music oftentimes stirs the emotions. Merely
      =an observation.

      So great authors, Hollywood professionals, and unethical pastors all know how to communicate with us by swaying our emotions, but God cannot?

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