10 August 2009

Addressing Criticism of the Baha'i Faith

I have a twitter account which I regularly check for mentions of "Bahai". Most of the mentions are from Baha'i's posting inspiration quotes and links to blog posts, or updates regarding the situation in Iran. Some however are from skeptical onlookers who take a negative view of the Faith. One tweeter in particular seemed to have special vitriol for the Baha'i Faith, which he mentioned as being hypocritical, especially regarding gender equality and homosexuality. I went to his blog and read through his posts, one of which can be found here. While reading through them, I thought of two things. 1) much of his argument against the Baha'i Faith is based on an incomplete understanding of the teachings and history of both the Baha'i Faith and other faiths. 2) however, based on the intellectual standards of post-modern liberal democracies, some of his arguments are rational and fair. And, I suspect, they will become more and more common as the Baha'i Faith makes its way into the public consciousness. As Baha'is we will have to be especially careful not to think about and argue the merits of our faith based upon a dichotomous worldview. Paul Lample, a member of the Universal House of Justice, describes it this way in his excellent new book "Revelation and Social Reality".

"Observers may seek to impose a liberal-fundamentalist dichotomy (or relativist-foundationalist) when assessing the development of the Baha'i Faith. So too, without caution, the tension between liberal and fundamentalist influences can enter the Baha'i community, shaping attitudes and understanding, and ensnaring Baha'i's in competing claims made about the nature of Revelation, of knowledge, and of truth. Legitimate questions, posed out of context, create the illusion of irreconcilable differences

What will be required, it seems to me, is an exerted effort on our part to not get sucked into a defensive mode of apologetics. Instead we should change the nature of the conversation that accounts for their particular concern but places it in the context of truth discovery through consultation. Paul Lample continues...

Rejecting the false dichotomy of liberalism and fundamentalism, therefore, does not impose uniformity or diminish the diversity of views within the Baha'i community; rather, it preserves the entire spectrum of individual interpretation as an asset in the search for truth. All views are welcome save those that persist in extremes of orthodoxy or irresponsible freedom, since these extremes are in themselves threats to the process of free investigation...In consultation, there is the freedom to say what one thinks and the freedom to give up one's opinion after hearing the ideas of others. In this way, diverse views are harmonized to achieve unity of thought and action"

Ultimately, the process of free investigation must be channeled through consultation to achieve unity, which in turn is ultimately grounded in divine revelation.


Update: Per responses on the last sentence, let me restate what I meant.
Ultimately, the result of an individuals free investigation must be channeled through consultation to achieve unity....


  1. So much of these things are just bad cultural habits. American society has a very strong tendency to approach everything in binary terms, a problem that is no doubt exacerbated by the power the zero-sum two party political system has on our consciousness. The liberal/ fundamentalist divide can be very useful in understanding other religious communities, especially American ones, so people often turn towards that when seeking to understand the Baha'i community. I know I did when I was first adjusting to being a Baha'i. So if people have a taste for culture wars in the broader society, its likely that they'll actively seek it out inside the Baha'i Faith.

    I'd say more, but I think it really requires a fully-thought out post of its own in order to do it justice. Suffice to say, Baha'is who regard themselves as "orthodox" or "mainstream" should be very careful about how they invoke the Covenant and covenant-breaking in such contexts. We do it a great disservice if we turn so mighty an Institution into a cheap way to get other people to give up uncommon or unpopular viewpoints. In the worse case scenario, the person put under pressure might even believe what their opponent is telling them. They may develop a low opinion of the Baha'i Faith if they mistake the ossified, intolerant Cause of their acquaintences to be the Cause of Baha'u'llah and the Master.

    Paul Lample is right on. It's essential that we sustain a process in which we can come together and freely investigate the way forward.

  2. Greg,

    That is a great point. We have to be VERY carefull how we, as imperfect individuals, invoke our definition of authority to pressure others to fall in line. I have seen this in some cases with the institute process being apply too zealously and narrow-mindedly. Even more carefull when we in any way consider covenenant breaking, which is a very specific thing that people often confuse as something else. That is not for us to determine, but for the board member of protection.

  3. This is an awesome post and makes me eager to read Paul Lample's book. It reminds me that as a blogger I need to avoid similar intellectual/spiritual traps when people leave critical comments on the blog. Thanks for reminding me.

  4. re your final sentence:

    You seem to be mixing up consultation when it is for a group of individuals to come to a decision or to take action with an investigation of truth.

    Baha'u'llah states in the following that this shouldn't be channelled by anything.

    "That seeker must, at all times, put his trust in God, must renounce the peoples of the earth, must detach himself from the world of dust, and cleave unto Him who is the Lord of Lords."

    Gleanings, p. 264

    This is not what consultation is about at all. Baha'u'llah also doesn't put any limit on the investigation and I'd argue nor on any views, even though Lample does in the quotation you sourced. Any view as a free expression of an individual as long as it carries no authority cannot be a problem. How can an extreme of liberalism be a threat to anyone?

    How could an extreme orthodox idea limit freedom of expression?

    Then the next question would be, who decides that is extreme? You? Me? I think I'll stick to Baha'u'llah and have complete freedom of investigation.

    In your post above you discredit the blogger you referred to in point 2 by stating they were based on intellectual standards of post-modern liberal democracies but earlier you state in reference to Lample's book that making such dichotomies was a bad thing. You just did this yourself by calling those views liberal. It might be more useful to engage with the issues raised instead, I'd argue. Although to be honest, I don't think the term 'liberal' in itself is a bad thing. It is the context of how we use these words that matters. If they are used to be dismissive or divisive, then they are harmful to the dialogue. Personally rather than focussing on whether or not there really is a fundamentalist / liberal dichotomy, I'd say, engage with issues people bring up and look for answers in response to these.

  5. Sonjavank,

    Thank you for your thoughtfull and critical response.

    In my final sentence, I don't actually refer to "truth", but unity. I wouldn't disagree with you that a Baha'i is obligated to follow their own consciounce and come to their own truth according to their best understanding of the writings. But on the other hand, we have to live as a community with diverse sets of views. Our ultimate goal is unity, and much of what has been introduced by the UHJ in the last 13 years to achieve that goal involves a dialogical process of consultation, action, and reflection. Which, I would argue, is a method of revelation subserviant to the physical manifestation of Baha'u'llah. We are all realized the Kingdom of God on earth. Maybe that is what you are talking about in your definition of consultation.

    Regarding Paul Lample's quotes, perhaps I took them out of context. Paul Lample was arguing that to trends in our society, extreme relativism and extreme foundationalism both inhibit a genuine and collective search for truth. Extreme relativism asserts that their is no higher truth, so everything is just based on opinions and applied by existing power arrangements. Extreme foudationalism asserts that our understanding of truth has already been definitively and eternally established. As Baha'is we are building the Kingdom of God, and that will involve further evolution of the covenant, which is why the UHJ has the power to legislate on things not explicitly found in the texts from the founders.

    So you ask, who decides what is extreme. Well, I would say that it will be obvious to all. It's defining characteristic will be intolerance, either to any other opinions, or to the idea of truth at all.

    On your last point, perhaps I was sloppy in relagating the blogger's opinions to that dichotomy. You are right that we shouldn't just dismiss particular issues out of hand, because many of them are legitamit. The point I was trying to make is that we shouldn't get bogged down defending the faith on an issue by issue basis using only the standards of modern society. Instead we should try to broaden the conversation and steer it way from argument into dialogue and consensus building, grounded in the writings of Baha'u'llah of course.

    PS. I love your art by the way

  6. Paul Lample's quoted comment about which views are not welcome "extreme orthodoxy" and "irresponsible freedom" and his definition of the liberal conservative tension in any community as a "false dichotomy" strike me as being, in the first case, contrary to the facilitation of true free expression of views in that if nothing else they provide a point of reference for each other and for the other points of view and therefore should not be excluded as he proposes, besides who is to say which view is orthodox or irresponsible and in what context? And if you do then whoever is in contol of labeling such becomes in control of the debate and of the community.

    In the second case defining something as a false dichotomy is simply a tactic to invalidate a conceptual framework by saying it doesnt apply. But it does apply because it is being applied and people think about it that way, so you have to also if you want to talk to them, although you can lead them to a more transcendent perspective.

    Basically my point of view, from observation and a long life, is that people gravitate to points of view based more on personality tendencies and less on rational processes. As their personalities evolve so do their points of view, not the other way around. This is the root cause of most sects. Maintaining in religious community an atmosphere where all points of view are welcome will prevent disunity more surely than excluding the extremes of "orthodoxy" and "irresponsible freedom" which in no way impede independent investigation of truth in a group (they do in an individual who doesnt wish to change or take responsibility but not in a group of diverse individuals).

    To more clearly view the various approaches to religious community(as well as any other community) one must transcend predefined notions such as liberal vs. conservative and see a larger perspective of humanity as a continum of growth in consciousness which often takes the individual and the community through a circular revolution of change wherein liberals become conservatives and vice versa in a spiral of upward evolution until they finally realize an undifferentiated unity(City of Unity). This is the stated goal of this Revelation in innumerable places and should be held out at the solution to this debate. In my limited opinion.

    The rhetoric of power players must be descerned if one is to remain free of its manipulations.

  7. beautiful post anonymous!, my sentiments entirely.

    we need to focus on promoting diversity not unity and in my view, making those individuals who are the most diverse, the most welcome for the health of a community.

    Lample's argument is circular anyway. You burn the village to save it, is the same as saying you limit freedom to have freedom :)

  8. The prerequisite of unity is love. Without love first, unity is impossible. If personalities feel defensive they can never come together. To demonstrate love basis needs must be addressed in a real way. Following Maslov's hierarchy of needs provides a genearl guide to evaluate how to best serve others.

    The core activities are a systematic approach to fulfilling some of the higher needs on that hierarchy.

    Freud said that the basis motive of human beings are sex and attention. Or more basically biologial survival. Sex for the race and attention for the individual when in an immature state so that it can acquire its basis needs from its care givers.

    In the constructed reality of the Bahai Faith sex is contained(more of less), as it should be, in marriage, but the needs of attention are what seem to give the communities and LSAs most of their problems. Dealing with immature individuals unrealized needs consumes a great deal of time in the LSA meeting as well as NSA and UHJ meetings.

    It is along the alignment of these groups of similar personalities attempting to satisfy their unconscious needs for attention that most of the community polarizations occur, including the liberal conservative debate. At some point people become defensive to their perceived common needs. This I believe is the fundametal reason why covenanat breakers arise. It is a personality struggling for survivial. Eventually though in order to attain true unity we have to surrender this personality attention motivation. This can only be done in an atmosphere of love.

    So whatever we can do to increase the feeling of extreme loving kindness in our communities the more we will succeed in bringing in the Kingdom of God on earth and establishing the World Order of Baha u llah.

    Administrators and religiocrats who attempt to implement "obediance" by force or "decree" or demand will only create distortions in the fabric of the community and its individuals which will have to be resolved at a later time.

    Thank God we have a homeopath on the UHJ who understands the deliterious effects of suppression.

    Love is the way. Always, love is the way. This I beleive is the true guide we must follow. Whenever we are confronted with conflict in the community or nonconformity to the law by some individuals, ask what needs have we as a community failed to fulfill for them, and then do that which is most loving. Then so many of the problems that we face will dissolve into the light of unity.

    So often Shoghi Effendi remarked that most of the problems beleivers would write to him about would be resolved if they would just do the Baha'i thing. The Baha'i thing is loving kindness. It is the essence of all Faiths. It was the path of Abdul Baha.

  9. To the Previous commentor.

    Thank you for such an inspiring comment. Indeed love is the most crucial element that I forgot to mention. I especially liked this paragraph.

    "It is along the alignment of these groups of similar personalities attempting to satisfy their unconscious needs for attention that most of the community polarizations occur, including the liberal conservative debate. At some point people become defensive to their perceived common needs. This I believe is the fundametal reason why covenanat breakers arise. It is a personality struggling for survivial. Eventually though in order to attain true unity we have to surrender this personality attention motivation. This can only be done in an atmosphere of love."

  10. I've been a Baha'i for about 13 years.....and recently been feeling kind of unsettled about this whole idea of gay Baha'is having to be celibate. I have a few friends who I love so much who are gay........If they are married would that make a difference?, since gay marriage is seemingly going to be passed in many states......This is the only issue in the Baha'i Faith that is troubling for me to talk about. I am so enthusiastic about every other aspect...

  11. "All views are welcome save those that persist in extremes of orthodoxy or irresponsible freedom, since these extremes are in themselves threats to the process of free investigation."

    Having been a Baha'i for 35 years before I resigned 5 years ago the holes in Mr.Lample's spiel are quite apparent. I have not heard of one individual Baha'i being disciplined or expelled from the BWF for holding extremely orthodox Baha'i views. Quite the contrary. Individuals who hold extreme orthodox Baha'i views consistently rise in the ranks of the Baha'i pseudo clergy. Until such time that they are appointed to the ITC and then eventually raised to the UHJ.

    To deny the reality of a liberal conservative dichotomy in the Baha'i religion is pure willing blindness. A blindness motivated not to facilitate discourse and consultation but to cut off discourse and consultation. Just attempt to bring up any difficult Baha'i subject at conference to see what I mean.

    Difficult subjects such as the full equality of women in the Baha'i religion. Canadian Michael McKenny was excommunicated from the BWF simply for openly stating that he believed women could one day be treated as full equals in the Baha'i religion and be welcomed as members of the UHJ. Is such a view an extreme view, a irresponsible view? A view which sees Baha'i women enjoying full equality in a religion which supposedly has the full equality of women with men as one of it's precepts?

    "All views are welcome save those", which do not agree with my views and the views of select other Baha'i elites. This is the truth of Paul Lamples vision for and of the Baha'i religion.


    Larry Rowe