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.