A few nights ago, I invited three of my friends over for dinner. At some point, the topic of religion came up and the conversation that ensued was very interesting, given the diversity of religious backgrounds represented in the room, but also incredibly challenging. Firstly, there was me, a Baha’i who had been brought up as a Christian in an Eastern Orthodox church with a strong – and very, very old – religious tradition of its own. And then there were my three friends – one of Druze heritage, another with a somewhat secular Anglican upbringing, and the last of Jewish descent. All three of them, however, are self-professed “militant atheists” with a profound disdain for religion that was only kept in check that night by their long friendship with me and their unwillingness to offend me (too much).
For the first ten minutes of the conversation, I found myself feeling incredibly relieved that my role as dinner hostess was keeping me occupied in the kitchen, where I could hear the conversation but be spared the unpleasant task of having to be the sole defender of religion! For the next ten minutes (after I ran out of dinnerware to fiddle around with), I sat with them, feeling a mixture of amusement, discomfort, defensiveness, guilt and indecision as to what the prudent thing to say was. However, as I kept listening, I felt more at ease, realising one very important thing: for the most part, I agreed with them!
It became quickly apparent, as the conversation unfolded, that my friends and I had many values in common and that much of their discomfort with religion came from a strong commitment to the very principles that I cherish as a Baha’i: justice, compassion, honesty and integrity – just to name a few. The only point of difference between us, however, was that while they felt dismayed and despondent about the problems that religion has caused in the history of humanity, I remained optimistic about the transformative power of religion.
There’s no denying that many wrongs and injustices have, in the history of human existence, been perpetrated in the name of religion. However, as we discussed the numerous issues that exist, I realised that so many of the principles of the Baha’i Faith go to the very heart of these issues, thus restoring religion to what it was intended to be – a blueprint for the spiritual and material progress of humanity.
Here are 3 common reasons people put forward for rejecting religion… and 3 responses based on the Baha’i teachings.
Problem 1: Religion is outdated.
Religion is outdated, I often hear my friends remark. Many of the laws that were appropriate for societies 2000 years ago have absolutely no place in today’s world. And if we were to try and adapt them to today’s environment, they go on to point out, how would we possibly agree on how to make the necessary adaptations? We can’t possibly agree on what to change and what to keep – who decides?
Agreed, agreed, and again, agreed!
Human society is drastically different now from what it was in the time of Jesus or Muhammad or Krishna. There are however, a number of spiritual principles that have remained just as relevant in every society, such as the principle of universal love contained in the Golden Rule. Baha’is believe in the concept of progressive revelation which states that over the history of humanity’s existence, God has sent Divine Teachers to reveal a code of laws that are relevant to the needs and capacities of the society to which it was revealed. This accounts for the differences in social laws that can be found between religions, which cater to the differing needs and social structures of human society over the ages.
The world that we live in today, just like human society of the past, has its own unique needs and circumstances. It is for this reason, that a renewal of religion is needed. Baha’is believe that Baha’u’llah, as the Divine Teacher sent for this particular period in humanity’s existence, has revealed teachings and laws that are relevant to the needs of the world that we live in today.
Problem 2: Religion is just about indoctrination and manipulation.
Again, it is true that in the past, there have been numerous occasions in which religion has been used to cause divisiveness, hate and violence. Religious education has come to mean little more than a process of indoctrination in which children are taught to blindly accept religious dogma in order to form a religious identity in which they see themselves as irreconcilably distinct from people of other faiths and cultures. Over the centuries, religious leaders in positions of influence have often abused their power and position, seeking to serve their own selfish interests by playing on the fears and ignorance of their congregations. It is little wonder that people are so suspicious of organised religion!
There is one important principle in the Baha’i teachings that acts as a protection against this form of corruption: independent investigation of the truth. Baha’u’llah has spoken of the need to acquire knowledge through one’s “own eyes and not through the eyes of others”. There is no clergy in the Baha’i Faith – the duty of seeking out knowledge and learning falls on the individual believer.
Problem 3: Religion just causes war and hatred.
It is a sad and undeniable truth that religion has, far too often, been the cause for war. Apart from the destruction to human life and society that religious conflict has caused, this fact is particularly devastating because it defeats the purpose of religion! Abdu’l-Baha 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.
In my understanding, a large part as to why religious conflict is so widespread is because of the manner in which so many societies practice and understand their religious traditions. Religious diversity is, in itself, a beautiful thing, which becomes dangerous when the followers of various religious begin to see their religious beliefs as competing and mutually exclusive. It’s the mentality of: “If I’m right, you must be wrong. If you’re right, I can’t be right as well”.
The Baha’i understanding of progressive revelation reconciles the seemingly irreconcilable between the world’s different religions, without detracting from the diversity that exists in the practices and traditions of each religion. By understanding that all religions come from the same source, and that each religion was just as perfectly suitable and complete for the society it was revealed to as the other, it is possible to truly appreciate the divine origin of each religion without denying the divine origin of another.
It is undeniable that there have been numerous problems associated with religion in the history of human civilization. However, these problems, in my mind, only underscore the entire concept of progressive revelation and emphasise the importance of the renewal of religion. Abdu’l-Baha tells us:
The appearances of the Manifestations of God are the divine springtime. When Christ appeared in this world, it was like the vernal bounty; the outpouring descended; the effulgences of the Merciful encircled all things; the human world found new life. Even the physical world partook of it. The divine perfections were upraised; souls were trained in the school of heaven so that all grades of human existence received life and light. Then by degrees these fragrances of heaven were discontinued; the season of winter came upon the world; the beauties of spring vanished; the excellences and perfections passed away; the lights and quickening were no longer evident; the phenomenal world and its materialities conquered everything; the spiritualities of life were lost; the world of existence became life unto a lifeless body; there was no trace of the spring left.
Baha’u’llah has come into this world. He has renewed that springtime. The same fragrances are wafting; the same heat of the Sun is giving life; the same cloud is pouring its rain, and with our own eyes we see that the world of existence is advancing and progressing. Abdu’l- Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace