There’s this recurring comment I keep hearing from people, mostly people who are primarily concerned with political issues who aren’t very well acquainted with religion. They’re not necessarily atheists, but not really believers either. A good word to describe them is apatheists. They really just don’t care about religion either way and they complain about Mormons knocking on their door and so on. “Why can’t they just keep their beliefs to themselves?” they ask. Here is just one recent example of this, a superficially reasonable response to the Vatican’s comments about Avatar.
To put it briefly, the reason people like Robertson and the Mormons and the Jehovah’s Witnesses can’t keep it to themselves is because they really do believe what they claim to believe. Sure, there are lots of people who are just claiming to have religious faith in order to fit into a large in-group – they have “belief in belief” rather than just the belief itself, as Daniel Dennett puts it.
I’m going to try to draw an analogy here. The trolley problem is this thought experiment in ethics where you try to imagine different scenarios, the basics of which is that you have a crazed philosopher who has tied up people to a train track after a point which the track forks off into different directions. At first, it’s supposed to be something like 1 person tied up at one track and five at the other. You’re supposed to be observing this from on top of a bridge, and there’s a runaway trolley approaching the fork. Next to you is a switch where you can make it so the trolley run over one person rather than the five, therefore saving the lives of five innocent people by sacrificing one. It’s a pretty standard utilitarian response to the initial trolley problem.
Then it gets a little more complicated. There are dozens and probably hundreds of different ways to change around the variables. You can have the same situation, but instead of flipping a switch, maybe you have to actually throw an innocent bystander over the bridge onto the train track in order to stop the train, therefore saving all of the innocent people tied to the track. This most people view as very different, since you would have to actually throw the sacrificial person over a bridge yourself – even though the exchange is the same. Other variations involve pregnant women or the President of the United States, or large numbers of convicted criminals, and so on.
I think the point of these variations is to make the hypothetical situation more realistic. It’s easy to say that you’d act to decrease the amount of potential suffering from the comfort of your armchair, but it’s something else to actually be there watching and making these decisions.
To true believers of religions which involve an afterlife and a judgement by a deity which requires devotion, the threat of the hell-trolley is as real as can be. Given that presupposition, it would be hopelessly immoral to not proselytize knowing what the results of inaction could be. Wouldn’t you force a careless pedestrian out of the way of moving traffic in order to save her life? Of course you would. You wouldn’t say, “Hey, I don’t want to impose my beliefs of the dangers of being hit by a car on that person, that would be rude!” Taking a lassiez-faire, live-and-let-live approach in that situation would be wrong.
And to push this even a little further, we should remember that the punishment of a hell is a lot worse than just being hit by a runaway trolley. It’s not very well described in the Bible outside of Mark 9:43-8 (although early Christian literature describes it pretty vividly), but take a look at what us infidels have in store for us according to the Koran (44:43-6). There you don’t just get burned by the fires, but you also have to eat the fruit of a tree which then burns you from the inside, too.
So to me it’s not so amazing that so many people want to force their beliefs on others. What I find amazing is that so many people who claim belief in religions like Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and other faiths where a lack of adherence is punished after one’s death actually don’t try to push their beliefs on others. I don’t complain about the door-to-door solicitors, I just wonder why it doesn’t happen every day, even every hour. Then again, I might have a different opinion on it altogether if I lived somewhere like Alabama instead of a relatively secular part of the US.