Is it ever worth debating a door-to-door missionary? The question itself is debatable. But afforded the opportunity, is it worth taking on the challenge? Or, like most people, is it best to just send them packing and slam/close the door?
As an outspoken atheism advocate who spends much of his time debating, writing and recording criticisms of religious faith, and generally making arguments against the existence of a god or gods, I feel I would be eager to do so. However, despite the high religiosity of the area I live in, it’s uncommon here to have such an encounter. Sure, every once in a while people from church groups come around to hand out flyers and invite you to their church, but they aren’t out to necessarily convert you.. or even to have a conversation at all. So it’s difficult to engage them in debate.
Nevertheless, although I speak from an outside perspective, there are stories from all around the internet about these missionary encounters, particularly with Mormons. Many of them come from Christians, which is either amusing or pathetic to read about depending on your personality. To me there is little which is more nauseating than debate over who’s imaginary friend has the bigger dick, or more aptly in this case, who’s theology about the same one is correct.
But either way, the question remains as to whether or not debating them can actually be effective.
An ex-Mormon Redditor recently posted some insights about some things you may not know about Mormon missionaries that may help:
Mormon missionaries have huge social pressure to serve a mission
The young missionaries are only allowed to go on a mission between the ages of 19 and 24. There is overwhelming pressure their entire lives to serve — for the guys, at least. Girls can serve missions, but are not obligated to. Those who don’t serve a mission are essentially second class citizens in the church. A lot of the missionaries that have knocked on your door were likely even less happy about being there as you were of finding them there. Fear of retribution from family, friends, church leaders leads a lot of them there.
Mormon missionaries aren’t paid. In fact, they have to pay their own way to serve a mission. There is a mission general fund. Each missionary pays the same amount of money a month. For those from the US, this is $400 a month. That essentially pays for just housing, cars, gas, and food. Depending on the area, they receive a fairly meager living allowance to buy food. This allowance is not considered theirs, regardless of the fact that they contributed the money. They are given strict rules of how they can and can’t spend their money – for example, they can’t use it to buy clothes. They are supposed to get more money from home for things like that.
If a missionary can’t fork over the $400 a month, then it is the responsibility of the missionaries home ward to contribute the $400 for each currently serving missionary for that ward. Despite the fact that the corporate church is a multi-billion dollar corporation, they won’t raise a finger to support missionaries from struggling families/wards.
Many missionaries live in appalling and unsafe living conditions.
Most missionaries are decent, interesting people
I know how annoying it must be to have them knocking on your door every few months. And there are certainly some douchebag missionaries. But in reality, a lot of them aren’t happy to be there either. Many just feel they don’t have a choice.
Missionaries are required to be with their “companion” 24/7
Missionaries switch companions/areas approx. every six weeks to six months. They have no say in the area they will go to, or the companion they will have. They are required to be within sight and sound of their companions 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The only exceptions are when going to the bathroom (in which case the companion must be able to see the bathroom door) and when having interviews with the mission president.
The mission president has nearly full control of their lives
There is a mission president for each mission. He interviews you regularly, determines where you will live, who you will live with, and has the sole power to send you home early. (Often used as a threat for disobedient missionaries.)
Missionary Training Center
Each missionary spends about two weeks to two months (longer stays if you are learning a language). During this time, you are on a small campus that you are never allowed to leave. You are stuck into small classrooms where you recite and practice the missionary lessons all day, every day.
Missionaries cannot watch TV (except for certain “approved”, church videos). They can use the internet once a week, to email their familes. Otherwise computers are never approved. They are not supposed to read the newspaper. They are only supposed to read the scriptures, and a small number of “approved” church books. They are not allowed to listen to the radio. They cannot use headphones, or personal music players. Their is a small amount of approved religious music they can listen to.
While they are allowed to email their families once a week, they are only allowed to call them twice a year. Once on Christmas and once on Mother’s day. Those calls are expected to stay under 40 minutes.
Missionaries work grueling hours. They are required to wake up at 6:30 AM every morning. They are then allowed to excercise for about twenty minutes, eat breakfast and shower, and then study for two hours. At that point, they are required to work from 10:00 AM to 9:00 PM. They are “allowed” a one hour lunch and dinner during that time, but are otherwise supposed to be outside and working that entire time. If they leave the apartment after 10:00 or come home before 9:00, they are considered disobedient. They are allowed one “day off” during the week. In actuality, the day off is only from 10:00 AM to 6:00 PM. The rest of the time is a typical schedule. That “day off” is taken up largely by doing shopping and laundry.
As with debating anyone, a change of mind is always possible, but this would be surprising in terms of these missionaries. It has little to do with whether or not their faith is even very strong; it’s that while they’re serving as missionaries they’re ensconced deeply into a social system that powerfully reinforces their religious identity. They are always together with their missionary partner, everything they do all day–every day is focused on the practice and confirmation of their faith. They know their families back home have invested a lot, both financially and socially, in their serving as missionaries, and so on and so on. It would be really inordinately difficult, if only for psychological reasons, for a Mormon missionary to be converted away from Mormonism while on his or her mission. Much more difficult than it would be for him or her to be de-converted at some other time.
Now, as to whether questions might be seeded into their minds during their missionary service, which only grow to fruition later–that’s an entirely different story, of course. After all, how often does one change their position after a single argument in the first place? It most often tends to be a process. Even if one argument stands out as what convinced you, it’s usually in retrospect. However, like any other debate, it’s always worth having on that very potential.
If you wish to debate a Mormon missionary, let the list above serve not as discouragement, but rather as some obstacles to be aware of; some background to take into account when forming your arguments. Logic, evidence, reason, and common sense are still on your side.
Though, if you’re not up to it, there’s always this approach: