Editor’s Note: I’m always struck by the fact the nonreligious are expected to be respectful and tolerant toward the “faithful,” but, because we’re some sort of evil heathens, we don’t deserve the same sort of courtesy. In fact, if you’re a good churchgoer, it’s pretty much perfectly acceptable to call atheists and agnostics whatever name you feel like using. This is why the eclipse photograph shown below with the rather repulsive Bible verse overlaid on top of it strikes me as so offensive.
The French have a pithy saying: “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” — the more things change, the more they stay the same. Being “de-friended” recently on Facebook reminded me of this adage.
For those unfamiliar with social networking, Facebook is a free Internet domain that enables you to set up a mini-website — a personal page where you can interact with fellow Facebook participants. You then designate some members as “friends,” and if, at some point, they annoy you, you can “de-friend” them — a cyberspace slap in the face.
As with most new technologies, I was reluctant at first to use Facebook. But I’d also pooh-poohed the answering machine and caller ID, until I discovered that the ability to screen one’s calls is the greatest advance in communications since Marconi. And I’d sneered at the iPod, the most-important technological innovation in music since Edison invented the phonograph. I now own two of them; maybe, one day, I’ll even get a cell phone.
In the cyberspace realm, I wondered why anyone wanted e-mail, until I discovered it combines the telephone’s immediacy with just enough of a delay to inhibit my tendency to say really stupid things in real time. And I considered Facebook a waste of server space until I became hooked on its artful blend of community and privacy.
My Facebook de-friending came at the hands of a friend of more than 50 years, after a trivial religious debate. Since converting to a rather extreme form of Protestant fundamentalism, this old friend has become inordinately annoyed by my stubborn inability — absent proof or even a shred of evidence — to come around to her way of thinking.
Fundies of all sorts seem to find us agnostics irksome. Believers regularly call me “smug” and “arrogant,” although it’s hard to see how agnosticism — defined by the admission, “I just don’t know” — could possibly be classified as arrogant, especially by those who claim that they possess The Truth and that everyone who doesn’t see it their way is deluded and hellbound.
There are many good reasons to avoid my Facebook page, not least of which is my headshot. However, this specific de-friending was based on a hateful and hate-inducing verse from St. Paul: “Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common?” (2 Cor. 6:14) This seems a strange admonition from a follower of a holy man who dined with tax collectors and prostitutes. It’s also smug, insulting and bigoted to presume that unbelief necessarily equals “wickedness.”
This type of attitude invites extreme reactions, like those from the militant atheists, such as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, who attack all religious beliefs, no matter how benign, as primitive and moronic. And it’s the same type of belief that undergirds fanaticism among extremists from Pakistan to Palestine, including those Islamic fundamentalists who consider the rest of us to be infidels who deserve to die.
In many Arab countries, Christian evangelists are risking their lives to smuggle Bibles to potential converts. This is a dangerous business, because, among fundamentalist Muslims in places like Saudi Arabia, attempting to convert a Muslim is a capital crime. Indeed, according to Shariah law, any Muslim who converts from Islam (i.e., becomes an apostate) is subject to execution.
Of course, such extremism isn’t limited to Muslims. The Old Testament states that any believer who “worships other gods” should be “stoned to death” (Deut. 17:2-5). And this isn’t merely a suggestion — it’s a divine command. Biblically, it’s better to murder people than to allow them to fall into the wickedness of apostasy. (Luckily, America’s tradition of church/state separation prevents Christian fundamentalists from acting on a literal interpretation of this scripture.)
During the last millennium, religious enthusiasm consistently provided one more reason for people to alienate (i.e., avoid being “yoked together with”) those who think differently — a symptom of what sociologists call ethnocentrism. Taken to its extreme, it’s always given the devout one more reason to kill each other, as if they needed another excuse.
During the 20th century, religious warfare was largely superseded by conflicts based on politically motivated ideologies. With the demise of Nazism and communism, and the Cold War at an end, it looked like the world was entering a more-civilized period. Instead, in this first century of the new millennium, religious strife has returned on steroids. Once more, fanatics want to kill each other, because true believers can’t be yoked together with infidels. Plus ça change …
At a time when you can carry 10,000 songs around on an appliance the size of a credit card and watch 500 channels in high-definition on an enormous TV set that weighs less than your Thanksgiving turkey, you’d think we would have learned to stop hating each other over our differing opinions about ancient mythologies. But then, I’m just an agnostic, which means, by definition, what do I know?
It would be nice to think that, here in the 21st century, we wouldn’t be de-friending each other over disagreements on theology. It would be nice to think we’d have evolved a bit spiritually in the past few millennia. But that’s probably too much to ask. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
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