Social and spiritual one-upmanship

Something I’ve observed in abundance in the area of the ongoing debate of truth is what one author described as “one of the oldest tricks in the book” and I will coin it as “spiritual one-upmanship”. This is in regards to a social positioning tool that is extremely common in this area of debate, but at the end of the day is actually meaningless, and of itself is nothing more than a positioning tool.

There’s no better place to start describing this concept than right from the heart of my own religion: Mormanism.

Preach my Gospel example

in chapter 10 of Preach My Gospel, under the section “invite members to help you teach” it says:

“Whenever possible invite members, preferably recent converts, to help you teach. The ideal situation is to include Church members who formerly belonged to the same church as the investigators”

It suggests that an ideal scenario when teaching an investigator is to bring a member along who used to belong to the same church as the investigator currently does. This example pretty much sums up the social positioning tool, but it can be generalised even further as either:

Generalising the tool:


Oh yes, I used to be a (insert something here) too



Oh yes, I used to think (insert something here) too



Oh yes, I also used to (insert something here) too

Pretty much all uses of this “old trick in the book” conform to the above structure. It’s basically about trying to draw a connection with where the person currently is in their progression, and extrapolating that the “true path” (the way they should now go) is towards where the “positioner” currently is. (“I used to be there too, and now I’ve progressed to be here”)

This positioning tactic relies heavily on the premise that life progresses linearly. (That we go from A to B to C to D to E and so forth) and that all people seeking truth follow on the same trajectory as each other. (I went from B to C, and then D, and so everyone else does or should too). Both of these premises are false. The spiritual paths that people take are far more nuanced and complex than that.

It is true that for many “progressions” in life that many people follow similar, more linear patterns:

  • We were all born. Life progressed from there.
  • We all progress in age in a very linear and predictable fashion.
  • Most of us get educated in a very linear fashion; we go to primary school, middle and high schools
  • If we undergo tertiary education it progresses in semesters and years

But at a certain point this linear fashion of thinking breaks down entirely. What if I became a doctor and then studied law, but you studied law and then became a doctor? Then all of a sudden this very linear way of thinking ceases to accurately model our progression as human beings. There is no universal method of progression, life is highly non-linear in many aspects, including (and perhaps especially) in the area of spiritual progression.

The Sydney Airport Analogy

In a hypothetical scenario, imagine that you were born, grew up, and lived your entire life constrained within the arrivals terminal of the Sydney airport.

From your viewpoint, based on the available information, you may be led to believe that people from all over the world are coming into Sydney at a rapid pace. You’d see various races, various colours and various languages, all incoming. You’d hear of things like visas, residency applications, baggage arrivals and where in Australia people are going to live.

This is analogous to us in the church. Though we are aware of the existence of other airports (other religions or points of view), or the theoretical existence of the departures terminal of our own airport, we simply have limited information about them and don’t really understand the movements and trends of people on a macro scale.

In this analogy, the Sydney airport is analogous to the “arrival” of people into our religious belief system (Mormonism for me). We see all sorts of people joining (being baptised) and we are happy and in wonder of the diversity of people coming in.

Yet what we don’t give much thought to is the departure terminal (people going less active, losing faith) or where those people are departing to (other churches or no church at all).

Just to give two random related numbers, some figures suggest between 60%-70% of Mormons are less-active, and that Islam is the fastest growing religion by number of conversions per year. Again these are two drops in the ocean of data, but they do demonstrate to us information that we are not normally thinking of (stuck over there in the Sydney airport arrivals terminal)

People change religions all the time

Returning to the discussion on one-upmanship by the “I used to (xyz that you are currently) too” tactic, I hope the statistics, Sydney Airport analogy and discussions around life progression being non-linear help to establish that such social tricks are totally irrelevant and should likely just be ignored altogether.

The “I also used to xyz” manoeuvre is analogous to:

  1. Moving from New York to Sydney
  2. Loving Sydney more than New York
  3. Turning around to your New York friends and telling them they should move to Sydney

All while it’s entirely likely that at the same time there are other people currently moving from Sydney to New York, doing exactly the same thing in reverse. It’s even possible that more people are moving from Sydney to New York — and neither one direction nor the other absolutely proves that one is better than the other.

People change religions all the time. I have spent several weeks researching (and months before thinking about) the movements and trends of religious people from one way of thinking to another. The most apt analogy I can come up with to describe what my research has observed is the travel analogy from airport to airport. There is a constant flow of various people between various faiths that in and of itself proves or demonstrates nothing about which one is “true”. (Excepting perhaps that we may deduce from that very movement the fickle nature of human beings “the grass is greener on the other side” comes to mind.)

Youtube is an incredible modern phenomenon. Because of Youtube we are able to view first-hand accounts of people’s religious convictions or conversions without having to go to a mosque or church to do so (in other words, non-intrusive research). I am sincerely grateful for this fact and it has allowed me to conduct a large amount of research without needing to, like Joseph Smith, “attend their several meetings as often as occasion would permit.” and with the occasional “skipping” videos to get to the point, allowing quicker research.

If you want to engage with a thought exercise to “prove” to yourself what I’m saying about the movements and trends, just go to Youtube, and search for something like:

You’d be astounded by the number of videos relaying people’s conversion stories that are out there. You could literally spend days watching hundreds of videos. I have only started to scratch the surface and my conclusion is this very article; people convert FROM almost anything TO almost anything, just like they travel FROM almost anywhere TO almost anywhere.

It’s logical to assume that those are just a small subset of the total number of people who have followed any particular trendline (as only a smaller percentage of the total conversions would land up on Youtube as a “testimony” video). Also notice how many of them explicitly use the world “testimony” to describe the content of the video. These are more than just stories, they are often stories coupled with spiritual experiences coupled with people bearing witness.

More on the reliability of a spiritual witness as a source of truth in a later article 🙂


I’d suggest being careful around saying “I used to (something) too” myself now. The evidence suggests the human heart is extremely fickle on the macro scale.

For every example of something you “used to” do / think / be, I could likely and quickly find a counter example of someone who’s “reversed” backwards on exactly the path that you have. It simply means nothing.

And certainly for me (and Mr Dawkin’s who I quoted in the beginning) I view “I used to also xyz” as one of the oldest social positioning tricks in the book. It is quite meaningless, or even counter-productive in setting up an argument (especially with me now).


  1. Dan

    Great analogies. Agree that “I used to x but now y and prefer it, so you should also move from x to y” is a poor argument.

    In the case of the instruction in Preach My Gospel though I’m not sure if that’s what the intent is (to one up). It could very well be, and even if it’s not, I’m sure that that argument has been used before in missionary work. But anyway I think there are at least three other things it *could* be meant to achieve instead of one-upping with normative implications ie telling someone “because I did this you should too”:

    1. To help someone first learning about the gospel see that it’s possible to alter/incorporate new truths into their belief system. For people with strong social and cultural ties to a particular belief system I imagine this could be especially helpful. So the argument made by the presence/input of the former members of the investigator’s belief system might be “you can” rather than “you should”.

    2. To provide the investigator with someone who can relate to their beliefs. Someone who used to subscribe to a particular belief system may be more able to explain principles in a way someone in that belief system can understand. They might also be more able to understand concerns the investigator has, even unspoken concerns.

    3. To help the new member of the church. If points 1 and 2 are true, then a third benefit and thus possible intent of bringing the suggested category of person might be to help that new member of the church have an opportunity to feel they are contributing to the cause they’ve just committed themselves to. If they are uniquely qualified to contribute (points 1 and 2), then it seems like it would be a good opportunity for them to get involved.

    But yeah, also agree that “I used to xyz” isn’t a good argument for changing from xyz to abc. Whatever abc is has to stand on its own apart from anyone’s former xyz, uvw, or rst for that matter 🙂

    1. shawn (Post author)

      Hey Dan, thanks for stopping by and commenting! 🙂

      “one up” is perhaps too strong a term for what I’m referring to in this article, nevertheless there is no doubt that the objective in bringing a new member who formerly belonged to the investigator’s faith is a type of social positioning tool designed to assist and “smoothen” the investigation process. (even if it could be articulated in a more gentle way than I have :))

      For instance, if we were truly fair and unbiased, then (giving an example)…

      Bob is a catholic investigator. I am a missionary.
      PMG tells me to bring Fred, who is a new Mormon who was Catholic. I bring him with.
      But I should also bring Sarah, who used to be Mormon and is now Catholic 😛 to be balanced and fair.

      Naturally if I bring Sarah the likelihood that Bob gets converted is dramatically lowered 🙂

      1. Dan

        Haha that makes sense 🙂 It probably is biased. I don’t know if it’s necessarily unfair though. Do you think this is how missionaries should do it?

        1. shawn (Post author)

          I’m not sure they should be missionaries. But if they wanted to be fair I suppose they should give an investigator all sides of the story. Though that would lead to more confusion 🙂

  2. Dan

    Haha that makes sense 😛 It probably is biased. I don’t know if it’s necessarily unfair though. Do you think this is how missionaries should do it?


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