My friend, whom we shall just call David, was close. For many years he had been a pretty permanent part of my life. We operated a non-audited favour system; whenever he needed something, like help with his computer, or moving his stuff or, well, whatever, he called me and I helped. And if I needed some help, for example when I was building my house, David turned to. There was no imbalance, and while we often argued about matters of philosophy, we are both educated Scots; argument is in our blood.
So it came as a shock to me when he ended our friendship.
It came as more than a shock, actually. It came as a rude awakening, a clear demonstration of how damaging religion can be. Everyone who knows me knows that I am a pantheist-leaning atheist. I would put myself in the same camp as Einstein, Sagan, deGrasse Tyson. I’m not saying my achievements rival theirs, they clearly don’t, but my essential relationship to the planet, and my spirituality, are exactly as theirs are. For me, therefore, the universe is a real thing that can be explained by science, and my feelings of spirituality are a function of my brain, which can also be explained in the same way.
The Baha’i cult
David is a Baha’i. For those who don’t know, the Baha’i cult appeared in the 19th century in Iran. It is essentially a newer version of the Abrahamic monotheistic cults, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. (http://www.bahai.org/)
Although this appears to be, at first glance, somewhat less toxic than others in this group of beliefs, closer examination, again, reveals the lie.
However, to critique this particular cult is not the point here. My friend, who implicitly accepts all the tenets the Baha’i faith, could not suffer criticism of it. For nearly the whole time we knew each other, I hardly ever spoke of the religion he believed in, though he felt comfortable criticising my atheism. But I believed, and I still do, that friendship comes before faith. That if you like someone and you have established a relationship, then that’s it. Faith, for me, is pretty much like skin colour: whatever yours is, doesn’t affect the person you are, and I certainly won’t prejudge you on the basis of it.
Your faith is your own — just keep it away from my atheism.
For me, your faith is your own, and as long as you keep it to yourself, I will keep my atheism to myself and we will get along fine. Well, so I thought.
However, like all the Abrahamic cults, Baha’i has a political agenda. I will talk elsewhere about why this is. At the core of Baha’i belief, like the others, is the idea of world domination, though thankfully, they eschew the sword as a means to achieve this. Instead, Baha’i doctrine demands the establishment of a World Government, which, and here is the sly bit, must be run by Baha’i bureaucrats. Yup, just what the world needs, a massively distant, necessarily undemocratic, controlling authority run by religiously-deluded bean-counters. (We shall, for the present, leave aside the obnoxious homophobic views of this cult, and a few of its other charms.)
Well, in my view, that assertion, that the world must have a world government run by people of a certain religion, is a political, not a theological point of view, and is therefore open to, indeed must be subject to far more direct and pointed scrutiny than the purely metaphysical elements of the faith. I don’t care what your reasons are, if you intend to impose a governing structure on me, you’re going to have to justify this in public, and accept the level of criticism I would direct at, say, a Marxist. Sorry. Because it’s a part of your faith does not mean a political idea is above attack, and I expect to be able to discuss matters like that robustly.
And when I told David this, he ended our friendship. It was completely abrupt, without a word, and entirely one-sided.
The Baha’i ‘faith’ is just as bad as all the others.
Leaving aside the question of just how nice and harmless the Baha’i cult really is (I later discovered that ‘shunning’ which is what David did to me, is not only a standard but mandated response to criticism of their doctrines) this made me really ask questions about the nature of friendship and religion.
I have Muslim friends; I absolutely deplore their religion, but as people, I like them. I have many Catholic friends; again, while I can’t accept that what they believe in is true, I am able to be friends with them, and more. I have many Buddhist friends, and although I don’t believe in reincarnation, except in a very materialist sense, this difference never imposes, and indeed, amongst Buddhists I always feel both welcomed and that my own views are respected.
However I have to recognise that David’s position is by no means unique. I have subsequently come across many evangelical Christian preachers who insist that no Christian can ever be a friend to a non-Christian, and the same message of mistrust and hatred expressed by Islamic mullahs: shun those who are of different belief and who will not convert; or, unfortunately, worse.
As a secularist, I am horrified by this level of intolerance. I have always believed that it were valuable to expose myself to as many different cultures and ideas as possible, in order to broaden my world view. I brought my children up to believe this too; that individuals are far more important than their faith. Yet these people are saying the exact opposite: avoid all contact with those who disagree, that the individual does not count, only their faith.
Friendship before faith.
For me, a personal relationship comes a long way before religion. I see no reason why two people holding diametrically opposed views about spirituality may not be friends or more. Crissy, who was my girlfriend, is a devout Catholic and many times I took her to Mass, waited while she worshipped, and then we would go for a meal or do something else together, just like any couple. Never once did her faith, or my lack of it, come between us.
Nor should it have. Your faith is your affair and as long as it doesn’t lead you to try to meddle in my life, we can be the best of friends. All that is needed is respect for other points of view.
It is tragic that the preachers of many faiths would rather destroy relationships, even families, than accept legitimate criticism of their doctrines. It is a fine example of how religion can, and does, harm people.