CESNUR - Centro Studi sulle Nuove Religioni diretto da Massimo Introvigne


Believing and Leading to Believe.
Rhetorics of Proselytism and Experience of Religious Change of the Self. The Cases of Scientology and Mormon Church

by Nicola Pannofino
A paper presented at the CESNUR 2010 conference in Torino.© Nicola Pannofino, 2010. Please do not quote or reproduce without the consent of the author

Religious proselytism is one of the most important activities performed by religious groups in order to recruit and convert new members. Focus on proselytism needs an interdisciplinary approach connected to linguistic, organizational and religious dimensions of this activity.

Broadly speaking, proselytism can be viewed as a form of socio-organizational practice and, in the meantime, a kind of rhetorical and argumentative communication.

Recruitment is a sequential process composed of three phases: in the phase of contact, at the beginning, religious groups and new potential member establish their first encounter; this encounter can be self-initiated by group, or by individual, or both. Once contact is carried out, in the next phase of bridging, groups must bring inside the organizational boundaries new member. At the end, in the last phase of assimilation, neophyte performs the alignment and socialization to the group culture.

Authors and advocates

In a more or less systematic way, organizations engage members in proselytistic actions. These members are the central figure in the relationship between religious group and social context, because of their function as intermediary. This member must show ideological and identity features of his organization, and introduce newcomers inside the group, during the phases of contact and bridging.

Intermediary aims to establish a dialogical and face-to-face situated interaction with potential new member. In particular, intermediary has three main tasks:

(1) present the organization to the addressee, selecting relevant and exemplar features

(2) present himself or herself as typical representative of the organization, a subject with a specific habitus who has embodied a set of practices in his moral self, in term of stable dispositions toward the organizational ethos

(3) present himself or herself as qualified member, being able to offer an expert knowledge about organization and its culture.

So, I argue, enlisting a newcomer is an activity depending upon the discursive representation of the spiritual and practical qualification of organizational membership.

Due to the relevance of role of the intermediary, organizations spend resources to intermediary’s training (obviously, the greater is the systematic way of proselitysm, the greater resourses organization will spend in training). Intermediary can be defined on the basis of his discursive and organizational positioning: s/he takes place on the boundary between inside and outside of organizational space, therefore s/he interacts, in the meantime, with his co-religionist and outsiders: as such the intermediary is an advocate, that’s to say a supporter of a religious doctrine the author of which is the spiritual leader or the founder of that tradition. Then intermediary acts as spokesman, an “animator” in goffmanian terminology, of an ideological discourse of which he doesn’t claim the authorship, but whose point of view he shares and communicates publicly. Intermediary shows his or her commitment and assimilation to the culture of group, attempting to popularize the organizational perspective he accepted after the conversion.

By means of this articulation of the discursive positions of author and advocates, intermediary can reproduce and actualize, in the course of several situated interactions with newcomers, the ideological and social structure of reference group. By discursive assimilation, each member, subordinate himself to the spiritual authority representing the source of legitimate point of view, and include the individual “I” into collective “we”, in such a way that the discursive construction of organizational identity reproduce the moral stratification of the organization.

Reasons for recruiting

In weberian terms, proselytism could be viewed both a form of means-end rational action and a form of rational action based on value. In the first case, proselytism is a strategic action planned in order to recruit new members and to accomplish organizational needs; in the second case, proselytism goes beyond the instrumental function and becomes a spiritual practice in itself in which member can perform his or her personal mission. Thus, proselytistic commitment is embodied in religious actors as result of self-transformation begun with conversion experience. So, commitment goes along with the desire to witness personal faith and to take an active role in the organizational structure.

Rhetoric of proselytism

As I have argued before, proselytistic discourse is a kind of rhetorical and persuasive communication. Not only an organization transmit a religious message but also must give reasons in support of the plausibility of its religious perspective.

At the basis of rhetorical discourse of proselytism there are two opposite but complementary goals religious organizations need to achieve: referring to the neoinstitutional theory, I argue that organization try to communicate, on the one side, the isomorphism, that is to say accordance and similarity, with social and cultural context in order to maximize and acquire legitimacy, on the other side, they try to underline unicity or, at least, differentiation and distinction from the other religious organization operating in the same field.

Proselytistic practices need to justify rhetorically the peculiarity of a specific religious perspective and proposal in these issues conflicting with shared values and conventional symbols. Religious groups communicate a sacred and saving knowledge unknown to the most: mastering and believing this knowledge is epistemic condition to demarcate the organizational boundaries: on the outside between believers and non-believers, and on the inside among the various degrees of spiritual stratification of the members.

Organizational action needs a rhetorical justification when religious groups take place in public sphere and seek to communicate an innovative ideology different from common sense knowledge. In this case, main task of a religious group is to identify a potential and pertinent audience to which address its discourse. In so doing, organizations provide a frame of relevance, that is a discourse that presents a set of issues as problematic but meaningful for the audience, offering at the same time a perspective in which those issues are solvables.

Proselytistic strategies rely on the worldview of the group and on the relationships the groups establish with the socio-cultural context. This attitude can be classified into two type, each of which is correlated to a rhetorical structure:

  1. if organizations stress the isomorphism, identity and similarity with the surrounding context, then we have a rhetoric of assimilation: or rather, affirmation of values, norms, and conventional meanings institutionalized in the society, with reference to which there is a presumptive agreement with audience; from a rhetorical and argumentative point of view, conventional meanings appear as endoxa, that is commonsense and taken-for-granted presumptions that counts as implicit premises of rhetorical reasoning; therefore, this rhetoric is functional to maximize and acquire legitimacy.
  2. by contrast, if organizations stress its peculiarity, we have a rhetoric of differentiation, or at least a rhetoric of refusal, based on a proposal of new values, norms, and meanings alternative or competitive to the conventional ones.

Articulations between ideology of a particular group and commonsense knowledge of the wider society are involved as constitutive component of discursive logic in the proselytistic action. These two rethorical vocabularies express the construction of logical relationships of identity and difference by means of which religious organizations locate themselves in ideological continuity or opposition compared to the institutional and traditional symbols of a cultural milieu.

Very important is the relationship of difference, functional to communicate the uniqueness and distinction of a group among the others. Difference, defined on the basis of Aristotelian logic, can be expressed by four modalities, named contrariety, contradiction, relative opposition and possession-deprivation. The more organizations underline their discontinuity with social context, the more it tend to appeal to logical relationships of strong opposition, like contradiction. Instead, the more organizations underline their continuity, the more it tend to appeal to relationships of weak opposition, by using the other three logical forms of difference. In this way, symbolic boundaries are marked out by organizations through discursive construction of two main axiological oppositions: (1) boundaries between “we” and “them”, that is insiders and outsiders; (2) boundaries between previous and current self of the member, that is the identity of the subject before and after the turning point of personal conversion. Construction of boundaries fits with the operations of social categorization by means of which religious groups draw an outline of the ideal anthropological model, that is to say the features of the perfect member, the normative standard about attitude, action, thinking, and so on, a member has to or should follow. In the meantime, thus, ideal model expresses the difference of the member’s values and behaviours with regard to the outsiders, and promote self-transformation experience of the member according to the shared and typical modalities of the group.

In the cases of Scientology and Mormonism, the need for legitimation is expressed, first of all, in rhetorics of assimilation that aim at legal recognition of their religious statute: in Italian context this right is allowed by the Constitution on the basis of article 8, which guarantees the equality of all religious confessions and the right to free association.

With regard to the Mormons, for instance, every faithful must be a church member as well as an active and loyal citizen of the State. Rhetoric of assimilation to the institutional order is a condition that allows LDS Church to operate as a religious organization, not being in question cannot define as such. By contrast, in the case of Church of Scientology, just the religious definition is not taken-for-granted: Scientology, indeed, seek to legitimize both its religious and scientific features: in the first case, claiming the spiritual nature of the doctrine proposed, in the second one, maintaining the empirical validity of the technology of Dianetics.

Even if religious organizations pursue the assimilation to the conventional values and symbols, in the meantime they seek to communicate their peculiarity through rhetoric of differentiation, by selecting a specific subset of those conventional values and symbols in line with the proposed frame of relevance. The two Churches have in common a set of implicit commonsense precepts in continuity with the conventional values of the wider society, like happiness, personal accomplishment and well-being of the member, and so on, which represent the rhetorical premises for the proselystistic argumentation. Despite of similarity, each organization uses these values in a very different way.

Typical Mormons’ opposition to the other religious organizations concerns the believe to be the “true church”: the strong oppositive categorization between believers and non-believers is built upon the dichotomy true-false, which is a keyword to understand the rhetoric of differentiation in the LDS Church.

In the Scientology rhetoric, differentiation is based on a “more and less” like relative opposition: technology of Dianetics is viewed as best result of a cumulative tradition of philosophical, spiritual and scientific knowledge and discoveries. There is, here, a continuity and a gradual progression in regard with the past.

Respective theodicy are opposite too. In Scientology perspective, evil has a psychological and intra-mundane meaning: a therapeutic and technical journey allows the member to gain a state of well-being, by eliminating the mental aberrations, the engrams, towards the condition of clear. Even if Scientology presents itself as religion, spiritual dimension becomes relevant in a second time for further advancements through the so-called Bridge to Total Freedom: at first, Scientology offers a journey of self-transformation based on a set of ethical precepts and technical procedures like auditing to improve personal skills. On the contrary, in Mormon Church evil has an ontological and extra-mundane meaning: the good is warranted thanks to the God’s plan of salvation the member gains if he/she accepts the doctrine.

Two different logics seem to reside behind the discursive surface of rhetorical communication, each of which connected to the paradigmatic biographical model of the founders. In the case of the Church of Scientology, a logic of discovery follows from the experience of Ron Hubbard who has conducted research to develop a method and theory to explain how mind works. As result of a discovery, thesis proposed by Ron Hubbard and Scientology need justification by means of some kind of empirical validation.

In rhetoric of Mormon Church, a logic of revelation follows from the mystic experience of the prophet Joseph Smith: in this case, the disposition to believe in a transcendental source of authority is involved, in the case in point, the divine inspiration of the Book of Mormon, which need justification by means of subjective perception of the Holy Spirit in everyday life. Here, starting point is the epistemic attitude of the member as believer towards the revealed doctrine. Change of pragmatic attitude and behaviour is, unlike Scientology, consequence rather than precondition of epistemic transformation. So, mormon faithful is, first of all, a subject who believe in a transcendental spiritual order; on the contrary, personal transformation of scientologist begins with a change of his pragmatic attitude: as consequence of this change in his modus operandi scientologist obtains a point of view connected to a new epistemic attitude and new spiritual beliefs; therefore, scientologist is foremost an apprentice whose salvation is entrusted to personal capabilities for survival.

So, whereas the plausibility of Mormon rhetoric resides in the existential presumption in a certain spiritual order operating in the world, rhetoric of Scientology appeal to factual effects of Dianetics technology and teaching. Persuasive discourse of the two groups are expression of this general framework. That’s why rhetoric of Mormon Church uses a normative and deontic vocabulary mainly focused upon prescriptive value of nomos, the divine law, to which correspond forms of reasoning based on arguments from authority. Church of Scientology, instead, uses a pragmatic vocabulary whose constitutive categories are praxeological terms like efficacy and functionality related to the argument from consequence, argumentum ad populum, and practical syllogism.

To summarize, on the basis of the two case studies examined here, I conclude that rhetorical communication allows organizations to demarcate symbolic boundaries in order to assimilate and differentiate with regard to the conventional meanings of society. On the other hand, proselytism seek to offer plausible reasons to the newcomers to pass through these boundaries and share an innovative spiritual perspective. At stake there are the negotiation of the organizational identity and self-transformation of the social actor: to what extent religious groups, at organizational level, perform recruitment depends upon the rhetorical capability to promote self-transformation experience of the individual self.