One of the Top 10 trending subjects on twitter today is #YiyeAvila, a Puerto Rican televangelist and preacher from the old school who called people to repentance and frequently used fear tactics related to hell and the afterlife to weave a supposedly moralizing message that almost seemed in line with Salafi Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia. On youtube, there is a video with a long rant where he admonishes women to never wear pants. In another one, he speaks in tongues and laments aimlessly on stage without really making any sense for about ten minutes. The hysterical pentecostal crowds loved him.
But Yiye Avila belongs not in the 21st Century. The world is changing. Marriage equality was given a boost yesterday at the federal level. In the midst of all the social media reactions from all sides to all the events of the last few days, atheist media personality Shirley Rivera twitted “How sad that you’ve died. I would have enjoyed you watching the first same-sex wedding in Puerto Rico“. There were many other reactions, but this one drew venom from the pious.
And so this raises a moral question for humanists who consider people of Yiye Avila’s ilk to be profoundly detrimental to modern society. I was never moved to hate him or to relish the fact that he’s dead like some of the more cynical atheists. In fact, I felt a good deal of compassion for him during his last days.
With his death, I was concerned that people would eulogize him and forget that he was a fraud and a parasite who lived off the credulity, ignorance and vulnerabilities of simple-minded people … but wanted to make sure that in recognizing that fact, I did not dehumanize him. He was not evil in the way that Jerry Falwell was evil. His evil was mixed with good and derived from his (and his constituency’s) profound ignorance.
Epicurus forbade attacks against people. Instead, we are to attack false beliefs, not the believer. This customary respect, in spite of the profound differences of deeply-held opinion with regards to common religious views, was perhaps the result of his exile from Mytilene in the island of Lesbos, where philosophers who were partisans of false Platonic doctrines had gained political power and the gymnasiarch had been influenced to threaten Epicurus with accusing him of impiety, for which the death penalty was the punishment. Socrates had suffered a similar fate.
Faced with the tyranny of false religion and philosophy, Epicurus developed a philosophical tradition that made a virtue of frank speech yet, somehow, remained carefully respectful of religious symbols. Today, at least in the Western world, we usually do not get intimidated and threatened into submission by religious powers, but it’s still a sign of good character and of prudence to hate the belief, yet respect and love the believer.