13 November 2018

Defection of the Faint in Heart

 I grew up a Baha'i. My older brother never had an interest in it and later told me that anyone who believes in God is an idiot. My sister enrolled as a Baha'i, had a Baha'i wedding, then mostly quit participating. Of all the Baha'is in my generation growing up, about half of them no longer identify as Baha'is. Now as an adult, about once a year I see someone leave the Faith, sometimes distant acquaintances, sometimes close friends.

So what does that mean about the truth of the Baha'i Faith? What does the current social climate say about the long-term prospects of the growth of Baha'u'llah's message? How should we view people leaving almost as fast as they're joining? Here are some thoughts.


As a teenager I studied the Baha'i Faith, and during one intense summer I faced a challenge: is this true or not? I was attracted to the teachings and people, but that's not why I committed myself. It was the truth at the foundation of the religion that made it clear that I should live to serve it. I recognized that some people treat religion as a social club, participating for the worldly conveniences of it, holding on by a weak connection that could easily detach when difficulties arise. 

And so it went with many young people I grew up with, I was often confused and distraught seeing someone who was raised in a Baha'i family drift away. That's the best way to describe it, drifting away, because it is exceptionally rare that Baha'is ever convert to another religion; if they are not interested in committing to this faith they simply become inactive, have no faith in God, or get swallowed up by other life pursuits.

As I gained some maturity I realized that my confusion was part of the idealism of youth, believing that if something is true then people will recognize it. But sharing truth is like sharing moonlight with someone in a cave, people have to seek it out on their own, and if their heart is not open to it, continuing to press your case will just drive people away. Baha'u'llah said,
If ye be aware of a certain truth, if ye possess a jewel, of which others are deprived, share it with them in a language of utmost kindliness and goodwill. If it be accepted, if it fulfill its purpose, your object is attained. If anyone should refuse it, leave him unto himself, and beseech God to guide him. Beware lest ye deal unkindly with him.


Pilgrim's notes record Shoghi Effendi sharing that teaching involves three processes: attraction, conversion, and consecration. Of course, at the stage of attraction it is easy for people to come in and out of the Baha'i Faith. In when things are going well, and away when challenges arise. After conversion, people might still have a crisis of faith or simply drift away. But those who are consecrated, who dive deep into the ocean of Baha'u'llah's writings, pass through the seven valleys, and sacrifice themselves, they will weather any storm that arises.

This helped me make sense of that sense of loss that I saw growing up, and there are many concepts that give some perspective on how to feel about people leaving this faith.

Crisis and Victory

Particularly in Shoghi Effendi's writings, there is this idea that the Baha'i Faith has passed from crisis to victory throughout its history.

The first Baha'i teacher in America was Ibrahim Kheiralla, who brought in many of the early American believers, including Thornton Chase and Lua Getsinger. In 1899 Kheiralla defected and announced his support for Muhammad-Ali, `Abdu'l-Baha's half-brother who was attacking his leadership, and who, less than a decade later tried his best to have `Abdu'l-Baha exiled. In the years leading up to 1908, the crisis was so deep that `Abdu'l-Baha finished His will, buried it in a courtyard, and sat waiting for a hostile government commission to decide his fate while Muhammad-Ali held a celebration, anticipating his imminent seizure of the Baha'i properties and his ascent to leadership. Suddenly, the boat in the harbor holding the commissioners turned and went to Istanbul, forgetting about `Abdu'l-Baha to deal with other business. A short while later the Ottoman leadership was overthrown by revolution, `Abdu'l-Baha was freed from prison, the Shrine of the Bab was completed, as well as the House of the Bab in Shiraz restored, `Abdu'l-Baha made His historic trips to Europe and America, and Muhammad-Ali's influence was greatly reduced.

Lua Getsinger with Mirza Abdu'l-Fadl
The stories of crises and victories abound. World War I brought another crisis to the Holy Land that was followed by the Tablets of the Divine Plan and the replacement of Ottoman authorities. The passing of `Abdu'l-Baha in 1921 saw yet another rise in hopes for both Muhammad-Ali and Yahya, which were later crushed by the clarity of `Abdu'l-Baha's will and Shoghi Effendi's leadership. An attack by an Egyptian court declaring that Baha'is are heretics became an opportunity for Baha'is in the West to establish their independence in the minds of academics who insisted that they were a branch of Islam. The unjust seizure of Baha'u'llah's house in Baghdad and the destruction of the House of Worship in Ishqabad were followed by Baha'i institutions maturing and petitioning the world's highest tribunal to condemn the actions, while at the same time coordinating pioneers that brought the Faith into 34 new countries and completing the temple near Chicago. The defection of Mason Remey and his attempt at schism was a serious crisis to the Baha'i world, but was followed by the establishment of the Universal House of Justice, Remey's total loss, and a great expansion of Baha'is all over the world.

Severe Mental Tests

Each of these crises, especially the defection of Covenant-breakers, brought purification to the Baha'i community by pulling out those who held a weak grasp of the teachings. And this is how it has always gone, an influx of new believers is followed by tests and difficulties that end up purging some who were not consecrated, whose continued adherence would compromise the character of the Faith during its infancy and prevent its message from reaching ever greater heights. The loss is then followed by some great victory and another surge of new believers.

The Baha'i writings are full of references about this purification (here is a compilation on crisis and victory). `Abdu'l-Baha promises repeatedly that western Baha'is will face great difficulties, and He notably said that He is happy that they will face these tests,
The more difficulties one sees in the world the more perfect one becomes. The more you plough and dig the ground the more fertile it becomes. The more you cut the branches of a tree the higher and stronger it grows. The more you put the gold in the fire the purer it becomes. The more you sharpen the steel by grinding the better it cuts. Therefore, the more sorrows one sees the more perfect one becomes . . . The more often the captain of a ship is in the tempest and difficult sailing the greater his knowledge becomes. Therefore I am happy that you have had great tribulations and difficulties… Strange it is that I love you and still I am happy that you have sorrows.
Shoghi Effendi said,
in particular during the concluding years of His mission on earth, [`Abdu'l-Baha] laid stress on the 'severe mental tests' that would inevitably sweep over His loved ones of the West — tests that would purge, purify and prepare them for their noble mission in life.
It is always sad to see someone discover the Baha'i Faith, become attracted to its teachings, maybe even declare their belief, then walk away from it. However, it should be expected given the nature of the process. Even more so during one of the great tests that has assailed the Faith, when strong social forces are pulling hard at those shallow roots that did not penetrate the ground far enough.


Shoghi Effendi also provides context for people leaving the Faith in the early years of its rise.
How slow and painful the process that gradually brought it forth from [obscurity]... How severe the shocks which the ranks of its devoted adherents have sustained through the defection of the faint in heart, the malice of the mischief-maker, the treachery of the proud and the ambitious!
He further anticipates people continuously deserting the Cause, and says that it would be unreasonable to expect otherwise.
Were anyone to imagine or expect that a Cause... should at all times be immune to any divergence of opinion, or any defection on the part of its multitudinous followers, would be sheer delusion, wholly unreasonable and unwarranted, even in the face of the unprecedented evidences of the miraculous power which its rise and progress have so powerfully exhibited.
 And this defection will increase as this Faith becomes increasingly in conflict with the desires of society.
Their Faith, they may soon find, has been assaulted, their motives misconstrued, their aims defamed, their aspirations derided, their institutions scorned, their influence belittled, their authority undermined, and their Cause, at times, deserted by a few who will either be incapable of appreciating the nature of their ideals, or unwilling to bear the brunt of the mounting criticisms which such a contest is sure to involve.
That contest is the "double crusade" described by Shoghi Effendi while addressing the Baha'is of the West. They must first "regenerate the inward life of their own community" through the weapons of,
A rectitude of conduct which, in all its manifestations, offers a striking contrast to the deceitfulness and corruption that characterize the political life of the nation and of the parties and factions that compose it; a holiness and chastity that are diametrically opposed to the moral laxity and licentiousness which defile the character of a not inconsiderable proportion of its citizens; an interracial fellowship completely purged from the curse of racial prejudice which stigmatizes the vast majority of its people
The second part of that crusade involves assailing "the long-standing evils that have entrenched themselves in the life of their nation."

Spiritual Prerequisites of Success

With those three goals in mind: moral rectitude, absolute chastity, and complete freedom from racial prejudice, Baha'is are used to being opposed by the greater society in America.

Throughout their history, the Baha'is have sought to be free from partisan politics and instead focus on building up their own administrative order. This non-partisanship is criticized as passivity or pacifism, and I've known seekers and Baha'is who disengage from the Faith so that they can engage in the endless movements and countermovements that seize power and force their beliefs on others.

Baha'is have always been active supporters of racial equality, which brought great opposition at a time when powerful social forces were forcing segregation and oppression. Standing fast to their principles, Baha'is were later vindicated after the civil rights era when the goal of racial equality was woven into the American psyche.

A chaste and holy life, however, presents a different challenge. Whereas racial equality was aligned with progressive liberal forces, chastity aligns more closely with the conservative type, particularly regarding abstention from sex outside of marriage and the exclusion of gay marriage. The current progressive climate portrays the acceptance of gay marriage as equal to the acceptance of racial equality, and openly mocks ideas of chastity as naive or backwards. This is the challenge confronting the current generation of Baha'is; having been aligned with many liberal causes, Baha'is are now facing opposition and defections for refusing to align with a liberal view of sexuality.

A Sea of Materialism

America was not chosen as the seat of Baha'u'llah's administration because of its inherent virtue. It is precisely its backwardness, oppression, and licentiousness that make it an ideal location to demonstrate the power in Baha'u'llah's message. Shoghi Effendi said,
It is precisely by reason of the patent evils... that the Author of their Faith and the Center of His Covenant have singled it out to become the standard-bearer of the New World Order envisaged in their writings. It is by such means as this that Bahá'u'lláh can best demonstrate to a heedless generation His almighty power to raise up from the very midst of a people, immersed in a sea of materialism, a prey to one of the most virulent and long-standing forms of racial prejudice, and notorious for its political corruption, lawlessness and laxity in moral standards, men and women who, as time goes by, will increasingly exemplify those essential virtues of self-renunciation, of moral rectitude, of chastity, of indiscriminating fellowship, of holy discipline, and of spiritual insight...

The Smallest Handful

There is another strain of thought that provides context to people deciding to abandon the Cause. The Book of Matthew records Jesus saying,
Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it.
Similarly, Baha'u'llah said,
...all but a few remain bereft of this celestial city, and even of these few, none but the smallest handful hath been found with a pure heart and sanctified spirit.
And again,
No more than a mere handful, however, hath been found willing to cleave to His Cause, or to become the instruments for its promotion.
And `Abdu'l-Baha said,
The dark hath taken over, and the brute traits prevail. This world of man is now an arena for wild beasts, a field where the ignorant, the heedless, seize their chance. The souls of men are ravening wolves and animals with blinded eyes, they are either deadly poison or useless weeds -- all except for a very few who indeed do nurture altruistic aims and plans for the well-being of their fellow men: but ye must in this matter -- that is, the serving of humankind -- lay down your very lives, and as ye yield yourselves, rejoice.
I think these references are describing a fundamental spiritual truth. A small slice of any population will have the spiritual thirst to seek out the truth and the fortitude to face the onslaught of society to uphold that truth. It's unfortunate to see people reject the new revelation, but it should be expected. And there is more. If someone defends their actions by saying, "but everyone is going down the wide path, so I went too", God will still hold them accountable for their choice. Baha'u'llah said,
If... any man should, whilst standing in the presence of God, be asked: “Wherefore hast thou disbelieved in My Beauty and turned away from My Self,” and if such a man should reply and say: “Inasmuch as all men have erred, and none hath been found willing to turn his face to the Truth, I, too, following their example, have grievously failed to recognize the Beauty of the Eternal,” such a plea will, assuredly, be rejected. For the faith of no man can be conditioned by anyone except himself.

When the Victory Arriveth

The truth that "all but a few remain bereft of this celestial city" does not mean that Baha'is will remain an extreme minority, nor always contending with an immoral culture, nor that they can disregard the arguments in cognitive dissonance, nor does it mean that only Baha'is are in the "celestial city". It means that during the hard times, when the storm is really blowing, most people will get pulled away. That is true now, it is true for Muslims and Christians, and it will be true in a future Baha'i society.

Baha'is are also anticipating a golden age in the future when the majority of many nations embrace the Baha'i Faith. Then it will be “easy” to be a Baha’i without challenges of being a tiny minority. Then, the challenges that arise will no longer see people leaving their Baha'i identity behind. Then, the vitality and depth in the Baha'i Writings will be able to sustain and advance civilization in a way that we can hardly imagine now.

It is comforting to know what is coming for the future, and the privilege that will belong to those who hold fast in the face of a spiritual tempest. Baha'u'llah wrote,
When the victory arriveth, every man shall profess himself as believer and shall hasten to the shelter of God’s Faith. Happy are they who in the days of world-encompassing trials have stood fast in the Cause and refused to swerve from its truth.
So have faith that the current crisis will pass, hold fast, and continue advancing the teaching work, because every crisis is followed by victory.


  1. Drifting away versus conversion needs a follow up article for people who do actually convert to other religions. Wikipedia has lists of converts articles both to and from the Bahai Faith, Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism, and Other.

    Sectarian tunnel vision tend to get people to view it as a true or false question of (insert religion here) true/false when real life confronts people with a more here are (100 plus religions) which one or one are true and does each individual want to affirm if any.

    You don't give any stats on what "exceptionally rare" means in terms of numbers, but ignore the however small group of people it is. For example, The Savvy Convert's Guide to Choosing a Religion: Compare and Contrast before You Commit is and part educational and yet part interesting book on comparing and contrasting 99 religious groups in depth, with an additional 9 groups in brief. 1-99 religious groups are in the book with an extra sections on 5 parody religions and 4 UFO religions not summarized in depth like the 99. Breakdowns goes 15 Christian, 12 Grab Bag, 11 Indigenous, 9 Hindu, 7 Esoteric, 5 Buddhist, 5 Islamic, 5 Neo-Pagan, 5 Syncretic, 4 Dharmic, 4 Jewish, 4 Non-Religious, 4 Revealed, 4 Spiritist, 3 Non-Revealed, and 2 Taoic groups.

    Noone of the info on why people fall away from a religion is really specific to any religion and can be applied to any and all religions. Jesus's quote and it's application to Christianity being an obvious example.

    Very few people can say they studied all 99-108 groups or even several of them and made a fully informed decision to be a specific religious group as viewing it as a multiple choice question rather than (insert religion here) studied at one time only yes or not true or false question. So a follow up article on the "extreme few" who convert to other religions like Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Unitarian Universalism, etc. would be nice.

  2. Well done, Bryon. I appreciated your writing style as well as the content and research. Your comments gave me a helpful way to think about and share the message of Bahá'u'llah about building a new civilization with regards to gay marriage and sexual morés of current times. Thanks for your efforts.