Monday 29 October 2012

Why proselytise?

After morning prayers, Henry and Edmund set off from Sandhurst [their home in St Marychurch, Torquay] for the meeting with Sir Anthony [Panizzi] and travelled First Class on the train to London, very expensive at the time, but always preferred by Henry. Was this another indication that he was a bit snobbish, or did it mean that he preferred his own thoughts during journeys, with the added bonus of being able to proselytise among those of elevated status? Henry must have been an uncomfortable travelling companion on occasions, as an elderly gentleman found when entering their carriage at Exeter. There was almost immediately an enquiry from Henry on whether their fellow traveller was a true believer. ‘The answer was curt. The elderly gentleman withdrew to his corner of the carriage, buried himself in a book and took no further notice of them.’ I think I know how he must have felt.

This quote from Walking with Gosse: Natural History, Creation and Religious Conflicts brings me to the question – why proselytise? There are several possible answers.

1. The excitement of religious belief is so endlessly exhilarating that we feel bound to talk about it to everyone we meet;

2. We feel it a duty that is expected of us in holding a particular religious belief. For example, And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature (Mark 16:15 in The King James’ Bible);

3. We gain “bonus points” for the chance of an increased quality of life after death; or

4. Elders have dictated that this is a policy within a particular sect.

Whatever the reason for proselytising, there has to be a recipient and these may be receptive or hostile. Both types of response provide positive feedback to the proselytiser. The receptive listener brings a chance of conversion to our beliefs with its “feelgood factor”, and the hostile response convinces us even more strongly that we are right (although it may also generate temporary doubts). Proselytising is really an extension of advertising, which we know is used not only to sell material things but also politics and many other aspects of life. Religious proselytising seems to come with a much stronger message, however, and I’ve always been puzzled by it, unless it is meant to increase membership of a sect (which has various advantages, financial and otherwise). It is not an altruistic process, is it? Or maybe it is?

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