Ridvan 2009: Baha’is missing the point of their own religion

Today is the first day of Ridvan, a major holiday season for adherents of the Baha’i Faith.  As a former Baha’i who still agrees with many of the basic principles of that religion, I keep up with what’s going on in the Baha’i world.  This year’s Ridvan message from the highest leaders of the Baha’i Faith confirms my view that Baha’i has become an inward-looking religion that refuses to engage the world at large except for the purpose of trying to convert people.

Why am I bothering to comment on this?  Baha’i, with only a few million adherents, isn’t exactly an important religion in worldly terms and most people haven’t even heard of it.  But I think it’s a profound illustration of how beneficial, potentially transformative spiritual messages can be twisted and obscured by leaders and members of a religion for their own misguided ends — a problem that is all too common in every significant religion.

The Baha’i Faith was founded by Baha’u’llah (1817-1892), a Persian aristocrat in exile who in 1863 declared himself to be a new messenger of God.  Baha’u’llah was raised a Shi’ite Muslim, and in his young adulthood followed the radical millennarian movement of another contemporaneous Persian claimant to prophethood known as the Bab.  The Baha’i religion is above all an attempt to build a more universal spiritual paradigm out of the foundation of Islam.  Much in the way Christianity emerged as a Jewish reform movement and a project to spread the core principles of Judaism into the Greco-Roman world, Baha’i was born from an Islamic matrix as a project to modernize, universalize and spread the central ideas and practices of Islam to the whole world.

Baha’u’llah’s main teaching was that humanity is moving into an age when barriers of race, language, nation, and religion should come tumbling down, replaced by global unity and the transcendent consciousness that all religions come from the same God.  So what do the Baha’is do?  As one might guess from the rich history of religious followers doing the opposite of what the founder of their faith taught, Baha’is today focus all their energies on trying to build their own new sect and convert as many people as possible to it!

The latest confirmation of this attitude comes from the 2009 Ridvan message issued by the Universal House of Justice, the international leadership body of the Baha’i Faith:

To the Baha’is of the World

Dearly loved Friends,

A mere three years ago we set before the Baha’i world the challenge of exploiting the framework for action that had emerged with such clarity at the conclusion of the last global Plan. The response, as we had hoped, was immediate. With great vigour the friends everywhere began to pursue the goal of establishing intensive programmes of growth in no less than 1,500 clusters worldwide, and the number of such programmes soon started to climb. But no one could have imagined then how profoundly the Lord of Hosts, in His inscrutable wisdom, intended to transform His community in so short a span of time. What a purposeful and confident community it was that celebrated its accomplishments at the midway point of the current Plan in forty-one regional conferences across the globe! What an extraordinary contrast did its coherence and energy provide to the bewilderment and confusion of a world caught in a spiral of crisis! …

The Baha’i leaders open their message to the Baha’is during a major holiday season of their faith by talking about how wonderful it is that Baha’is are following the UHJ’s “global Plan” for “intensive programmes of growth” — i.e. that they are focusing, in a systematic way, on trying to convert as many people as possible.  And then they go on to mention how Baha’is held a lot of big conferences where they gathered among themselves.  This is supposed to be an “extraordinary contrast” to the world that is currently suffering from a severe economic crisis and so many other problems.

Baha’is think that they will get more members because they are trying hard to get more members — especially because they feel confident in their religion while the world outside the Baha’i bubble is “caught in a spiral of crisis.”  The irony is that if Baha’is shifted their focus away from proselytizing and organizing events for their own members, toward doing tangible things to help solve problems in the real world — economic development, human rights, peace movements, environmental protection, etc. — they would find that more people would naturally be attracted to their religion, because people would see that they care about helping the world, not the size of their membership rolls.

And therein lies the problem for Baha’is.  They, or at least their leaders, seem to believe that the only way to truly help the world is to convert people to Baha’i.  So that’s where they invest their time, energy, and money, leaving little or nothing for promoting the world-changing values and causes that really make a difference.

Sound familiar?  Yup, it’s the same tired old attitude of fundamentalists of all religions.  All of them essentially say some variation of the following:  “Our religion is the only way of true salvation, so the whole world needs to join us.  Doing other things is unnecessary or even counterproductive, because this world is destined to go through an apocalypse anyway, which will show people the glorious and absolute truth of our faith.”  Actually trying to solve the problems of the world so that we won’t have an apocalypse — while accepting people’s religious preference as it is and working constructively on real issues with people of all faiths — is not on their agenda.  Or if it is, it’s far down the list of priorities.

Baha’is, with their progressive belief that all religions are inspired by One God, should at least in theory be particularly able to avoid the trap of fundamentalism.  In reality, sadly, they are not.  I know a few liberal Baha’is who believe that the future of human spirituality lies not in one religious sect converting everyone else and taking over the world, but rather in “meta-spirituality” and interfaith respect and reconciliation.  But the Baha’is who follow the party-line of their religious organization, which seems to be most of them, are blinded to this reality and instead chase the quixotic, ever elusive dream of one world, one religious identity/practice for everyone.  Just as the fundamentalist Christians and Muslims do.

I think what this proves is that organized religion operating in a capitalist-style competitive environment of soul-winning is inherently going to focus on the bottom line — growing its rolls — even if it’s a religion that is based on the idea that all religions are worthy paths to the divine (and therefore that nobody needs to convert to escape hell).  The relative lack of growth of the Baha’i Faith compared to some of its competitors in the spiritual marketplace also proves that when a religion offers little else but an incessant membership drive as the basis of its community life, it won’t actually grow as much as it would like.  People don’t usually join groups unless they can see that the group is serving some noble or useful purpose other than to perpetuate and expand its own existence.

As I wrote in an article on Bahai-Faith.com recently:

Baha’u’llah said that “The Great Being, wishing to reveal the prerequisites of the peace and tranquility of the world and the advancement of its peoples, hath written: The time must come when the imperative necessity for the holding of a vast, an all-embracing assemblage of men will be universally recognized.” Perhaps the main reason the Baha’i Faith has not lived up to its potential is that, in its desire to make more Baha’is, it has neglected the bigger and broader teachings such as this — teachings which could be spread and implemented regardless of how many people are adherents of any particular religion. …

To be a true Baha’i, in my opinion, is to devote oneself to serving the cause of the oneness of human spirituality and the oneness of civilization. Simply promoting the Baha’i religion is not getting the job done. For various reasons, most people are not converting to the Baha’i Faith — and perhaps never will. That shouldn’t stop Baha’is from living and sharing the deeper meaning of their faith.

Since the Baha’i Faith is not going to take over the world, people know that how many people in the world call themselves “Baha’i” is pretty much meaningless.  What matters is what values, principles and causes people are working for, giving their time and energy and money to make a constructive difference in the world.  If Baha’is would take at least 50% of the time, energy, and money they’re currently devoting to the “global Plan” for “intensive programmes of growth” promoted by their beloved, supposedly infallible UHJ, and transfer those human and financial resources into doing actual work to promote ideals Baha’is have always believed in — things such as overcoming racism and gender discrimination, reducing the gap between rich and poor, and striving for peace between nations and religions — they might find that more people would want to get involved in their religious community!

This is a lesson that all religions should learn, not just the Baha’is.  The bottom line is that humanity needs to grow up.  The time for fruitless sectarianism is over.  The time for transcending religious differences to build a better world is at hand.  When a religion focuses primarily on proselytizing and conversion, it misses the point and excludes itself from being a meaningful part of the interfaith discussion today.  Spiritual maturity is when we are willing to devote ourselves to helping other human beings and helping the world, even if everyone else in the world belongs to a different religion than our own.

Abdu’l-Baha, the son and successor of the Baha’i prophet said:

Religion should unite all hearts and cause wars and disputes to vanish from the face of the earth; it should give birth to spirituality, and bring light and life to every soul. If religion becomes a cause of dislike, hatred and division, it would be better to be without it. … Any religion which is not a cause of love and unity is no religion.

Wise words we would all do well to heed.

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16 Comments on “Ridvan 2009: Baha’is missing the point of their own religion”

  1. David Merrick Says:

    Dear Eric,

    Might it not be that you haven’t seen the longer term vision? Often when you pursue a long term vision, it looks like you are negligent of the present.
    The prescription a doctor gives may seem to be no more than a piece of verbal advice, a change in lifestyle, or a simple pill, and it may appear to be irrelevant when everyone else wants the patient’s ill symptoms to be dealt with here and now. But the doctor does not deal with the symptoms, but the underlying problems.
    There are plenty of people fighting for justice and working noble endeavours in the world, and Baha’is are very much included. But whilst a tree is still small and growing it has a different mandate – in order to provide shade, it must grow. Whilst it does so, Baha’is *as individuals* work in all the areas you mention under the umbrella other other organisations, and so none of this comes under the public name of the Baha’i Faith. For example:-

    “The first major study of the contribution religious organisations make to life in Wales has revealed that the Bahá’í community leads the way in the percentage of members volunteering and working with young people… in proportion to their congregation sizes, the Bahá’í and Jewish faiths supply the highest percentage of volunteers, at three times and twice the overall average, respectively. Many of these volunteers work with children and young people. The highest reported proportion, at 61.95% of its volunteers, is seen in the Bahá’í community.”

    When the Faith is larger, these individual endeavours of Baha’is will come more and more under the public name of “Baha’i”. It is just as important for Baha’is to be working with their Baha’i values in banks as in dealing with poverty, since only by putting good values into *ALL* areas of society without exception will things transform, and in fact it is almost more important to scatter these values into the most material and satisfied areas of society rather than the most outwardly needy.

    When I look at the true issues in the world underlying all its symptoms, I see that what the House is working for is a long-term good provided by human unity through intimate communities in a single loving fellowship with the framework to ensure the integrity of that community. Deceptively simple, but devastatingly effective in the long term.

    All the best,

    david

    • stetsonius Says:

      Hi David,

      I’m really glad to hear that Baha’is in some places are doing a lot of charitable work. My own experience was that the Baha’i community I was in didn’t get involved very much in charities and humanitarian causes.

      I’m sure that plenty of individual Baha’is are involved in organizations that do good work in the world. What concerns me is that the UHJ is not encouraging this, but instead encouraging the focus of Baha’i community life to be on Ruhi study circles.

      For comparison, imagine if a Christian denomination encouraged all its churches to spend most of their time and energy on doing the Alpha Course (a popular introductory course about Christianity) and inviting people to come to it, and didn’t encourage active involvement in charitable and social causes. Most people in those churches would find it stale and unsatisfying. And most people outside that denomination would perceive it as a sect that focuses mostly on converting people.

      That’s what’s going on in the Baha’i Faith today, IMO.

      Eric

  2. Matt Says:

    Very good article. As a former Baha’i myself, I felt every single point you made in it. The Baha’i Faith as an organization does the complete opposite of what they teach ‘seekers’. They tell interested souls that it is a universal religion that accepts the validity of all religions, then goes around telling its own membership that the world is suffering because all of humanity hasn’t become Baha’is. It tells interested minds that the Baha’i Faith doesn’t demand or accept blind faith, unlike those ‘old religions’, but then tells skeptical believers that ‘there are some things you’re just going to have to accept, even if you can’t understand the wisdom of it at the moment’.

    It tells open hearts that there is no clergy in the Baha’i Faith, that the consciences of human beings are sacred and should be protected, that every one has the right and obligation to independently investigate the truth, that every one has the right to express their concerns and opinions without fear; yet its top leadership disenrolls, excommunicates, and shuns those who ‘cross the line’. I don’t blame Baha’u’llah or ‘Abdu’l-Baha for this, though. I think it is the organization’s fault for missing the mark of their teachings drastically. Baha’u’llah and ‘Abdu’l-Baha would have had to been total hypocrites or lost all memory of being prisoners of conscience in Iran and the Ottoman Empire, to then set up their own version of religion that scares people from speaking their true feelings and opinions by threatening them with the possibility of shunning and excommunication, or being subject to religious tribunals with different names, etc.

    If the Universal House of Justice would just once answer these legitimate objections that thousands have about the current administration of the Baha’i Faith, including many members (some of whom are quiet and some not so quiet), that would be a good start. But it appears that the people in the ‘higher up’ positions are just interested in short term goals and securing their status for as long as they can milk it. It’s sad, really, because the Baha’i Faith could have been a tremendous spiritual force in this world. But its vitality has been sapped by extreme over organization, meetings about nothing, meetings about having meetings, misplaced loyalties, politics when it suits their cause, abstention from politics when it is non-Baha’is who are suffering, etc.

    It still makes me angry that this institution dares to say that it is because of Baha’u’llah’s ‘blessings’ that all of this ‘great’ stuff is being done by the rank and file Baha’i membership obeying their instructions. It offends me that they drag his name through the mud to promote their agenda, and I’m not even a Baha’i anymore. But I still have respect and appreciation for Baha’u’llah, enough to get mad when an institution will exploit his name and life’s work to further meaningless ‘plans’ that never do anything but entrap a few new members every year.

    Why did 20,000 people become devotees of the Bab’ in such a short period of time? He didn’t have a stringent plan of ‘consolidation’, but he had extreme charisma, sincerity, and passion for what he believed in. People felt that, and were attracted to it. They wanted to be a part of it, and change the world. The same goes for Baha’u’llah. There are people in Iran who are sacrificing a college education just so they and their descendants can have the right to call themselves Baha’is and still go to school, so they don’t have to lie about their spiritual identity just to get an education, so they won’t be made an outcast by the wider society. These (and many other) people’s stories are far more important than any ‘plan’ of ‘cluster consolidation’ and conferences.

    But if you notice, the Baha’is of Iran are without organization and resort to their inner strength. And we see how they inspire the entire Baha’i world. Is that a coincidence?…..

  3. Ray Goodwin Says:

    Eric,

    Some good points here but you over state yourself. We Bahai’s here in the Caribbean don’t try to convert but rather try to help out where and when we can. We consort with all religions with love and faith and even go to church with our friends.

    Matter of fact I just wrote and delivered a eulogy for a Bahai/Christian in a funeral service in a Christian church. And we passed out pictures of the departed with the Bahai healing prayer printed on it..it was her favorite.

    The writings are clear. Independent search for the truth!

    LOve and many blessings

    ray

  4. Concerned Says:

    Seems you are really preturbed. Calm down… or if its something more sinister, as to try and defame… you can try! This is God’s Religion, do not forget.

    However… personally I have no problem with people who share their minds. I did read your article.

    Why do something which will cause no good? I wonder why dont you concentrate on the better things in life.

    Have a nice day, atleast try…

    Sayonara! 🙂

    • stetsonius Says:

      I’m not angry, and what I wrote was in a measured and calm tone.

      If you’re not willing to think critically about what your own religious organization is doing, then so be it, that’s your own choice. All I was trying to do with my article is to spark some much-needed thought and reflection among Baha’is and among people of all religions about what the focus of our religious activites should be.

      • owen Says:

        quite right stetsonius, great article and not at all angry. Concerned is using the old ‘you’re too emotional to have a valid opinion’ trick. traditionally used against women, glad things are getting more equal.

        And Concerned, i don’t think stetsonius believes that this is God’s religion. He’s a christian now don’t you know?

        I left the faith because of its increasing fundamentalism, and it just keeps getting worse. Surely encouraging bahai’s to consider their fundamentalism is a good thing – maybe it’s not to late to shift course.

    • Marcello Says:

      > This is God’s Religion

      Very true. Which is to say, it’s *not* the UHJ’s religion!

      Sometimes great religions need reform. Sometimes that reform must come from the outside. Where would Christianity be today if not for the Protestants? Where would the Catholic Church be? Most likely they would lifeless, mired in a stagnant dogma.

      As I stated on another blog, the great religions of the world have survived precisely because each new generation has questioned and challenged the conventional wisdom. Sometimes the conventional wisdom has been overturned; other times, it has been preserved.

      I’ve met some wonderful Baha’is, but as a whole, the faith seems to be stagnating very, very quickly. Maybe that’s a good thing — perhaps the faith needs to crumble so that the true spirit of Baha’u’llah can rise from the ashes. Let’s hope so.


  5. Dear Brother Eric Stetson,
    I am so happy to find you on-line here, Sir. I agree with what you’re saying here and want to see the true Vision of Shoghi Effendi actualized in a real way. I am politically active and may be future Press Secretary for prospective Chicago Mayor Bill Dock Walls. Peter J. Khan’s compilation POLITICAL NON-INVOLVEMENT AND OBEDIANCE TO GOVERNMENT must be updated with extensive, ongoing commentary. I have told people that I aspire to be President Obama’s new spiritual advisor. Allah’u’Abha.
    Andrew Nelson 773.221.8362

    • Woofus Says:

      I recommend that you send your CV to Ron Paul.

      • fubar Says:

        As a RP supporter (ex-bahai, after 30+ years of membership), I can not imagine anything that RP would find useful about shoghism/bahai.

        RP is a libertarian. Libertarian thought goes back to John Locke and the radical whigs, who developed a (“man made”) reinterpretation of christian religion that revolved around the principle of “Natural Law”, not prophetology.

        “Natural Law” inverted the power hierachies found in imperial cultures: it institutionalized the “separation of church and state”, and got corrupt aristocracy and ecclesiastic elites out of the business affairs and beliefs/ideas of the rising middle classes (capitalism/industrialism).

        bahai seeks to impose a backward system of cultural imperialism inspired by both christiandom and esoteric islam. read shoghi’s ideas about politics and apocalypse late in his career, and the imperialism becomes rapidly evident in his clear disparagement of (post-WWII) national liberation movements in the non-industrialized world.

        shoghi is simply promoting backwardness and going against the emergent consciousness of political evolution (modernism/postmodernism/integralism).

        and then, he died, and bahai was forever locked into a system of thinking that can’t be changed because there isn’t another guadrian to “reinterpret” shoghi’s imperialism.

  6. Farhan Says:

    https://stetsonius.wordpress.com/2009/04/21/ridvan-2009-bahais-missing-the-point-of-their-own-religion/

    Dear Eric,

    I feel you are missing the point of the Institute Process. Baha’is believe that the worlds ills cannot be remedied with out a spiritual outlook on our lives in this world and that no human plan, however generous and well thought can succeed if minds and hearts are not educated towards peace making and service to humanity.

    Baha’is also believe that the teachings enshrined in the words of Baha’u’llah, are able to bring about this change and their priority is to provide humanity with these teachings in their purest and unaltered form. Their aim is definitely not to bring in large numbers names on an enrolment list and to constitute some sort of a majority pressure group, but to bring about a change in hearts and souls for which they need workers, and these workers need training. Since the Baha’is have no professional missionaries or clerics, each and every person who recognises the value of these teachings as a remedy for the ills afflicting humanity is invited to participate in sharing the teachings and constructing a community based on them.

    Hence, the study circles, devotional meetings, children’s classes and junior youth activities are what the Baha’is offer to their friends and neighbours that they prefer to invite to their activities not trough anonymous advertising, but through direct contact which in some cases might be from door to door. These activities are not an aim in themselves, but mere tools for providing humanity with their teachings. Enrolling names on a list has no value unless those who join the Baha’is have recognised the validity of the Baha’i teachings for present day society, engage in transforming their lives towards service to humanity and are willing to engage in this enterprise.

    Door to door invitation and enrolment are meaningless if the community has no activities to offer. The institute process has to be considered as a whole chain of activities each step of which needs specialised workers. If you want to move from a kitchen garden providing your personal needs to mass production to meet the needs of the masses, you need specialised workers who deal with the grains to sow, machines to work the fields, water adduction and harvesting materials, barns to stock the wheat, trucks to carry them to the mills, bakers who can make and distribute bread, agricultural engineers, accountants and administrators who manage and harmonise the work, who decide how much and when to sow and when to harvest.

    Having many bakers taking bread from door to door will not compensate a lack of irrigation, and having a wonderful harvest is meaningless if we have no bakers to use the flour. In that case, each one of us might as well look after his own kitchen garden and personal needs.

  7. fubar Says:

    “Concerned” uses an old polemicist trick common to bahais: impugn the spiritual, or moral, worthiness of any nonconformist, critic, dissident, or ex-bahai.

    The use of such a trick indicates the vacuity of what currently passes for most “mainstream” bahai thought.

    “farhan” attempts to sugar coat feces with a more subtle, but equally distortionary, form of bahai polemics – the utopian “middle man scam” which posits that:

    if bahai followers simply subjugate themselves and become “spiritual slaves” to a dysfunctional bureacracy and failed organizational culture based on outdated metaphysics, they will be “allowed” to partake of “spiritually meaningful” tribal membership in an imperial project of world domination and conquest.

    bahai has become sucked back into the (cultural) “gravity well” of shiism and other tribal/imperial paradigms, it is backward, and seeks to impose conformity to an inflexible mindset.

  8. Amado de Dios Says:

    I am writing to say “thank you”! As I have increasingly seen my fellow believers get brainwashed (not everyone, of course) into obedience-is-everything lockstep, I think the occasional complaint may be having good results.
    We have recently heard interesting explanations (from “important” Baha’is) about the point being to help society change, to “influence” social evolution, and so on.
    We might not see such improvements if no one were pointing out the incongruencies! Thanks!


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