Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Yahoo religion & spirituality

It almost feels like a confession: I, um, Yahoo.

That is to say, I use the Yahoo service for their free e-mail. And for those of you unfamiliar with the world of Yahoo, they have this thing now called "Y! Answers" where people of all stripes can ask questions on any number of subjects -- and others can write in their answers.

An interesting idea. Then they throw in their little incentives. For example, you start on "Level One." Being on this level is the Yahoo equivalent of serfdom status in the Middle Ages. Sure, you can put in your answers and try desperately to achieve the lofty status of, say, Level Two. But can you comment on other people's questions or answers (with the all-powerful "thumbs up" and "thumbs down" rating)? Nope.

Not being one to willingly remain in such a denigrating position, I set to work achieving Level Two. Need help with your homework on why and how Hitler could be classified as a bad leader? I'm there with helpful advice like "read your history book" and "pay special attention to mentions of the word 'Holocaust.'" Wondering if you should leave your spouse simply because you're unhappy? Once again, I'm there with tasty morsels of wisdom like "don't make this kind of decision lightly" and "try talking to them about your concerns."

But what was most interesting for me was the section of questions dealing with "Religion and Spirituality." In my brief experience, this was easily the area of Y! Answers most filled with nut jobs (to use the technical term for them). In this section, we find questions like "Can I perform miracles if I eat the right kind of Scooby snack?" and "How come there's no verse in the Bible condemning sex with minors?" We also find debates about whether the earth could possibly be more than 6000 years old, whether anybody should give credence to the theory of evolution, and "Why does American society hate Christianity?"

Some of the questioners seem to be deliberate "flamers," people who make outrageous statements or who ask inflammatory questions just to get a response. But others seem to be genuine in asking their questions, like one individual who sincerely asked whether her "religious experience" while on Acid would be sufficient to gain her entry into heaven.

It's difficult to know for sure just how representative that particular community in terms of religious believers (or the athiests who hang around that site in order to insult the more outrageous statements by the fundamentalists). But I found the whole experience very disheartening (except for the part about achieving Level Two -- now I revel in my almost godlike ability to cast fear into the hearts of fellow posters by clicking the "thumbs down" next to their comments.)

But seriously, are these kinds of questions indicative of modern religious discourse on a broader sociological level? Are the kinds of accusations, insults, and outright hatred indicative of how many people talk and treat each other when discussing matters of religion?

In the end, I found myself sympathizing more with the athiests, who generally stood up for the recognition of science, an acceptance of homosexuals as full human beings, an attempt to live live with dignity and compassion. And then I found myself asking: where are the religious moderates? Why are our voices so silent, so overwhelmed by the loudness of the ideological extremes?

Sometimes it can feel that way in our larger society, not just on Y! Answers.


JC Shakespeare said...

Sad, ain't it? I had a similar experience several months ago on Beliefnet; genuine interest in spiritual matters devolved quickly into quoting different scriptures to prove the pro-war vs. anti-war teachings of Jesus. I finally sent some pictures of me and my daughter to one of the more vehement posters named "catholic soldier" in an attempt to humanize our "debate." He sent some pictures back and we exchanged some civil emails. But the next time I checked, he was attacking someone else.

So I stopped posting on Beliefnet. Maybe I'll try again one of these days . . . How do we express our opinions without trashing those who disagree? Still working on that one!

more cows than people said...

good to hear from you again.

i got into the blogosphere first this sermon when my husband and i went to germany and the folks in one of my bible study classes wanted to know how they could hear about what was going on while we were away. i enjoyed so much being able to reflect on the rich experiences we were having and get feedback from loved ones. i came back and started reading other blogs, first a few from friends (mags, of course) and then a few Unitarian blogs that all my friends seemed to be reading, and then one day I said "I really ought to be reading some Presbyterian blogs." So i found the ring of presby bloggers and started working my way through. and the vitriol was depressing. course i did find a few blogs on that day of eye-popping hostility and rants that i read every day now, but i've become more cautious about what lakes i dip my toes into in this great world wide web.

i commend you for trying to engage conversation in difficult sectors. and for attaining level 2 status! thumbs up, brother.

i guess the mask of the screenname allow for a vulnerability that makes some posts more powerful, but also for a nastiness that usually gets edited in face to face encounters. so the question is, or remains, is this how people really are? or does this medium draw this out of people? and is what you're experiencing about religion, or do we find this dynamic in all chat rooms and on all discussion boards, and if so is it more about our brokenness, our sin?

just some random musings on your thoughtful post.


steve said...

jc shakespeare,

Thank you for dropping by! It really is sad how people who claim to worship a God of love can fail so miserably to discuss things lovingly. I think people tend to feel threatened rather easily when it comes to religious matters, and those on the ideological extremes tend to think in absolutes anyway. That makes it easy to treat those who disagree with them as "enemies."

Oh, and BTW, I love the picture of you and your daughter. Blessings to you and your family.

more cows,

Your word of caution about dipping one's toes into various lakes on the web is well taken. What really interests me is this question of whether this is how most people really think about (and discuss) religious matters.

Obviously, I really hope this isn't the case. Yet when I look at how religious matters are dealt with in politics, how conservative religious organizations react to matters like gay rights, or even polls on the number of Americans who believe the earth is only 6000 years old...I wonder.

My hope is that somehow what is considered "normative" in religious matters will shift -- to a point where the discussion and rhetoric used is more loving, compassionate, and understanding.