On recent travels, I ran into a group of Mormon missionaries on a bus in Spain. I couldn't help but wonder if missionary zeal had gotten out of hand. What were they doing, converting the savage Catholics? This is just one of the strange faces of the religious mission today. The intense religious belief that has caused some of the bloodiest wars mankind has seen seems to have deteriorated to a huge game of "my God is better than your God."
Churches have run missions since the start of organized religion, as Jewish, Christian and Muslim gods replaced the animist pantheons of older societies. Although the swords and crosses that served to convert countries colonized in medieval times have given way to more humanitarian work, the end results are just as sinister.
Under the guise of altruism, many great societies and civilizations were lost. In colonial Peru, the Spanish priests slowly adapted the Incan rituals to better fit Catholic rites and festivals, destroying many of the culture's artifacts in the process. There is no doubt the intentions of the Spanish colonizers were good and sincere, but every missionary group in history has acted in the same good faith.
Today's humanistic missions fulfill much the same process. By providing a service to a group, they make its people more open to the teaching and preaching that invariably accompany it. As religion is often a defining characteristic for a society, the presence of a new influence in a troubled time can often signal the end of a community whose bonds are already suffering. This can be seen today in Latin America and both northern and southern Africa, where colonial influences--be they European or Arab--have eradicated many distinct cultures they deemed incorrect or simply inferior.
In today's more homogeneous world, many churches continue the practice of bringing their faith to others to show them the religious "truth." Ironically, this often takes the form of Protestant missionaries working in Catholic countries and regions, like Spain and Latin America. The Catholic and Protestant religions are strikingly similar, the latter resulting from a reformation of the former. Although the two branches of Christianity are different in practise, the God they worship is the same. To an admitted agnostic, the strife between these faiths and their unending attempts to convert one another seem almost laughable.