It's often said that hell was invented to keep people in line. The threat of eternal torment keeps people on the straight and narrow: a stick to go with the carrot of eternal life. I've no doubt that there's some truth in this: I know people who are genuinely terrified of going to hell and I have every reason to suspect that it modifies their behaviour. But I've always found it a bit weird. If I believed in a perfect afterlife - I mean really believed - I wouldn't need threats. I'd do everything I could to get there. I can say this with confidence because for me to believe in heaven, I'd need to have incontrovertible evidence. I'd know that heaven existed and how to get there. It surprises me that so many people who claim to believe in heaven 100% seem to emphasise the idea of hell so much when they talk to people.
All that aside, I think there's another reason hell was invented. It's makes a good excuse to convert people to believe what you believe. It's needed. Humans tend to have a strong desire to have others think the same way they do, but they also seem to have a resistance to forcing others to do so. It doesn't always seem that way, but look at the prevalence of religious 'accomodationism' at the moment. Accomodationists are non-religious people who get upset when atheists mock religion or even when they publically proclaim their atheism. They seem to feel that we shouldn't rock the boat and people's beliefs are their own business. Ironically, of course, accomodationists often tell atheists what they ought to believe, but my point is that they seem to be motivated by a reluctance to tell people what to think. When there's a reason to modify people's behaviour, however, we have no such qualms. We tell our children not to do dangerous things, for example. We teach scientists how to think about evidence and use logic and so on.
So perhaps this is what the idea of hell is for. A belief in heaven would seem to be sufficient to ensure spreading of the word. If you believed in heaven, why wouldn't you want to tell people about it so they can go too? But is it enough to make someone actively try to convert people? For most people, I suspect not. Trying to convert someone must be quite an uncomfortable experience for both parties and people tend to resist situations like that. Certainly, it makes you wonder why Jehova's Witnesses seem so keen to convert everyone, when they believe that there are only 144,000 places in heaven. You'd think they'd want to keep it quiet. But add the threat of hell in and it makes it easier to overcome that uncomfortable feeling. It makes it feel like you're doing it for their benefit, rather than yours. It's an appeal to the empathy that the non psychopathic among us share.
Well, it's just a hypothesis and a lengthy digression. It was prompted by an unpleasant experience I had today. I drove past the school in our village today and there was a sign up advertising The Alpha Course. I suspect that for my wife, the journey took a turn for the worse from that point. My blood, tears and piss were all boiling.
Let me tell you about the alpha course. You might have seen their posters. They read "Does God exist?" and there are three tick boxes marked "Yes", "No" and "Probably". Not "Maybe", or "Possibly" or "Probably not": it's a pretty loaded question. Comically, atheists have been 'vandalising' these posters by ticking the 'No' box and rather less comically, someone was arrested for doing this.
Anyway, the alpha course masquerades as an open-minded, skeptical organisation, which seeks merely to discuss the existence of god. In reality, it is a sinister organisation which uses psychological techniques to convert people to a quite narrow version of christianity. Needless to say, it is quite a fundamentalist view which is quite concerned about 'curing' homosexuality and making sure people can't have abortions and everything else you'd expect. It has been widely criticised by the religious and irreligious alike for its narrow views, it's non-inclusive stance and its out and out batshit creepiness. There's a review of it here, which makes for interesting reading.
The alpha course is more than spreading the god delusion, which would be bad enough. It's creepy brainwashing and the idea that a school would endorse brainwashing by hiring out it's premises to these whackjobs is a disturbing one.