There are many tools of persuasion. Think about it: if you want to try and convince someone to follow through on a certain action, you can either appeal to their moral sensibilities (“it is the right thing to do”) or you can provide some form of incentive (“I will give you X if you do Y”). Or, if you are trying to convince someone of your position, you can take the time to collect evidence and compile logical arguments (“if X and Y are true, then we can be fairly certain that Z is true”).
Unfortunately, these methods take time and effort, and there is always the chance that even after all your hard work the person will walk away unconvinced. There is, however, another tool that is more effective and incredibly easy to implement. On its own it requires little effort and thus it is often used by the lazy.
It is the tool of fear.
Fundamentalist Christianity is one institution that is extremely effective in using fear to persuade people to accept various beliefs. It is the fear of Hell that it uses so well. Thinking back to when I was a Christian, I clearly remember two instances when I came across a negative concept of Hell.
The first was when I was in high school. One weekend, our entire church youth group went camping on a farm near Heidelberg in Gauteng. One night, while we all sat around a raging bonfire, our youth leader gave a talk on Hell. He asked us to imagine jumping into the bonfire, and to imagine the torment of our skin peeling off our bodies. We all shivered at the thought. He then added that Hell would be a thousand times worse: we would be encased in small enclosures – alone, cut off from everyone else – and we would burn in agony, for eternity. I remember everyone being numbed at this thought.
The second time was a few years later, at an evangelical rally at a large charismatic church in Johannesburg. A group of us went to the church to see the much talked about play called Heaven’s Gates, Hell’s Flames. The entire play was based on the fear of hell: characters in the story would either be sent to eternal damnation or eternal glory; when a character was sent to hell, the lights would dim, a ruddy glow would envelope the stage, and the sound of screaming would emanate from the speakers. After the play a preacher stood up and for half-an-hour pleaded with us to accept Jesus in order to escape damnation. Many people stood up at the alter call, including one of my friends. I remained seated, feeling angry at the blatent emotional manipulation that was going on.
Why so much gory detail on the terror of hell? Richard Dawkins, in The God Delusion, provides a possible answer:
“ . . . the extreme horribleness of hell, as portrayed by priests and nuns, is inflated to compensate for its implausibility. If hell were plausible, it would only have to be moderately unpleasant in order to deter. Given that it is so unlikely to be true, it has to be advertised as very very scary indeed, to balance its implausibility and retain some deterrence value.” Pg 321
Fear ensures that people remain obedient: it discourages dissent and questioning, it eliminates open dialogue and honest persuasion. A person often resorts to the use of fear when they realise that their position can no longer be defended by logical argument. It is the coward’s method of persuasion; it is a sign of incredible weakness.
It was that night of the play when I decided that I would never again consider any argument that is based primarily on fear. You know, I think I lost my fear of Hell that very night; no longer do words of eternal suffering and damnation hold any power over me.