Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Atheism - a religion or not?

We often hear it said that atheism is itself a religion. This past weekend, T mentioned that he had a friend, whose response to this claim is that "Atheism is a religion in the same way that non stamp collecting is a hobby." In the moment, this seemed a very witty and rather penetrating response, but on further reflection I must say I have my doubts about whether this analogy makes any sense - so I thought I'd throw this out here to see if anyone has any thoughts to share on this.

The key, in my mind, is understanding that stamp collecting (like both religion and atheism) is a position of association, while non stamp collecting is a position of non-association, indicating a vacuum that has not been filled. Religious and atheistic claims are both clear stances on the question of what reality is. And so when it is claimed that atheism is a religion, what people really mean is that atheism makes a truth claim about the world in much the same way that any religious philosophy does - it claims that there is no God or spiritual existence beyond the material domain. It then goes on to judge anyone who believes in a God as false. By adopting this stance, atheism ceases to be just a position of non-association, and becomes one of clear association with a creed. One can also see in today's world that fanatical atheists are quite similar to fanatical religionists in the way they think and act, exhorting people to follow their philosophy and not the other's and freely judging the other side as being morally bankrupt, harmful to society and hindering its progress. From these perspectives, if religious beliefs are likened to stamp collecting, atheism should maybe be likened to something like coin collecting.

If I had to make an analogy at all with hobbies, I think agnosticism (and not atheism) would be the true analogue to non stamp collecting, as it clearly takes no stance on the matter - just as non stamp collecting is not a hobby.

Thoughts? :)

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Integrating spirituality into our daily lives

Recently, T asked an excellent question when we were with V - how does one integrate spirituality into one's daily life? Is there a danger of losing perspective on all the things one wants to do in the world, all the ways in which one wants to serve others (such as through one's career)? Is there a danger of not being able to achieve one's goals for service in the material realm because one is too focused on being spiritual? How does one begin to integrate a focus on spirituality one's life as it is today in a smooth and seamless way?

There are several facets to this question, and several ways of looking at it, which I thought I'd write about - more to help crystallize my own thoughts on it than for any other purpose! So please bear with my ramblings as I attempt to clarify this important question for myself :) - here then are the things I think one should take into consideration.
  1. Spirituality is to be attained in the real world, not on a mountaintop - Lets get the easy part over with first. The Baha'i writings clearly discourage giving up one's life as it is and going to meditate on a mountaintop in order to become spiritual. There might have been a time for it - now is not it. Baha'u'llah calls out to all the monks in their seclusion, saying,
    "O concourse of monks! Seclude not yourselves in churches and cloisters. Come forth by My leave, and occupy yourselves with that which will profit your souls and the souls of men."
    Therefore attaining spirituality is not something one does in isolation, or at the cost of living a normal life - one must continue living in the real world and occupy oneself in service to others. Such service allows us to hone our spiritual skills and attain further growth - after all, if there were noone around us to test our patience, could we truly become patient?

    Additionally, enjoying our material life in itself is not blameworthy, as long as it does not come between us and our spiritual path. There is absolutely nothing wrong with acquiring wealth - it is when this becomes the focus of one's life, increasing one's attachment to money and the material world that it becomes harmful to our spiritual growth. As Baha'u'llah says, "All that is in heaven and earth I have ordained for thee, except the human heart, which I have made the habitation of My beauty and glory..."

    David Starr Jordan, first President of Stanford, said of Abdu'l Baha when he came to talk at Stanford - Abdul Baha will surely unite the East and West, for he treads the mystic way with practical feet. This is exactly what we must all strive to do.
  2. Using spiritual principles to guide one's actions: The previous point of course raises the next - given that one has to continue living in the material world in order to attain spiritual growth, how exactly does one go about doing that? First and foremost, I think we use spiritual principles to guide our actions/decisions. In any situation, our job is to see what spiritual principles are involved, and then see how those can practically be applied to resolve the situation. This is the first way in which gradually aligning ourselves with a spiritual life starts changing how we interact with the world. We should recognize that in all situations, our actions and decisions are influenced by our values, beliefs, attitudes and perspectives - never are we doing anything in isolation from these. The effect of integrating spirituality into our lives, then, is the understanding and then transformation of these very values, beliefs, attitudes and perspectives that guide our decisions, in such a way that they align one with that which is good for our spiritual growth. A focus on spirituality, therefore, might not change our circumstances in life - however it will certainly change how we respond to those circumstances and how we prioritize our lives. As we slowly integrate a spiritual perspective into one's life, we start examining our towards everything more carefully. We approach even seemingly mundane things as our work in a different way, viewing it through the lens of such spiritual qualities as service to others or the search for truth. It lends new meaning to all our daily endeavors, and enables us to set the right intention in all situations.
  3. Material service and spirituality do not occur at the cost of each other: One thing we often get caught up in is wondering if the material service we want to do in the world (say, through helping in development of underserved people, education, elimination of poverty etc) will somehow suffer if we start dedicating our time to spiritual pursuits. After all, we only have a finite amount of time in our lives, right? To get over this, we first have to understand that we are creating a false dichotomy. The intention to be of service is one of the highest spiritual attitudes one could adopt, whatever realm that might be in.

    The man who makes a piece of note- paper to the best of his ability, conscientiously, concentrating all his forces on perfecting it, is giving praise to God. Briefly, all effort and exertion put forth by man from the fullness of his heart is worship, if it is prompted by the highest motives and the will to do service to humanity. This is worship: to serve mankind and to minister to the needs of the people. Service is prayer. A physician ministering to the sick, gently, tenderly, free from prejudice and believing in the solidarity of the human race, is giving praise.
    -- Abdu'l Baha
    Therefore material service rendered to people does not take away time/energy from spiritual pursuits (or the other way around) - this service is already the highest spiritual pursuit. What matters, of course, is one's intention of being of service - and this is where, again, understanding the underlying spiritual principle helps guide one's service.
  4. The multi-dimensional nature of service: At the same time, while one continues serving the world in the material realm as one did before, embarking on a spiritual journey enables one to realize that true service goes much beyond the material, and has many multi-dimensional aspects to it. One sees that one is truly of service to people not just when one improves their material conditions, but when one engenders a spiritual transformation in them, which revolutionizes their lives and enables them to take charge of their own spiritual and material growth. A spiritual attitude therefore brings service to our very own doorstep - instead of having to go to materially underdeveloped communities/cities/countries to be of service, one can be of service in one's own neighborhood. Service is no longer restricted to the socio-economic realm. We do not have to wait till we get the opportunity to serve in some remote, impoverished country - instead we can start serving the people who are already a part of our lives, by effecting a spiritual transformation in the community we live in. This holistic notion of service helps us in the process of community building, of forming strong and deep bonds with our friends, coworkers and neighbors. We look for opportunities to be of service in the myriad interactions we have with people during each day. World peace and unity are not achieved by some world leaders declaring it and imposing it upon people, claims the Baha'i Faith - instead it is a truly bottom-up process that starts at the grassroots level in every neighborhood, village, city and country. The point is this - one gains perspective and sees how one can integrate spiritual service into one's daily life, without needing to create circumstances that allow one to be of service to others.
  5. Prioritizing spiritual growth: While it is true that many circumstances in one's life might remain unchanged as one integrates a spiritual perspective, it is also true that certain others will change. And this is a natural process, as one comes to prioritize spiritual growth over other, possibly more mundane things in life. And this of course is not a discrete change, but happens slowly over time - as one starts perceiving the value that a spiritual perspective adds to one's life, one starts devoting more time and energy to developing and honing that perspective. And therefore it might be that one ends up spending less time/energy on relationships that exist primarily at the level of the superficial and banal, and instead focuses one's energies on fostering those relationships that are positive and uplifting; or that one develops a regular habit of saying prayers/reading spiritual writings/having spiritual discussions with friends that take away some time from other activities such as watching TV; or that one looks for opportunities to elevate everyday conversations to a more spiritual level; or that one prioritizes the time set aside for meditation/reflection, etc. Again, it is not that one completely gives up other aspects of one's life - it is important to do fun things, and enjoy life. As Baha'u'llah says, "In all matters moderation is desirable. If a thing is carried to excess, it will prove a source of evil." Balance and moderation, therefore, are essential. However, when push comes to shove, one prioritizes that which contributes to one's spiritual growth more often than not. If one has a deadline at work, in order to meet which one can either choose between skipping a spiritual study circle or losing an hour of sleep, one is more likely, over time, to pick the latter. This shift in priorities is natural and desirable - therefore while we should let go of the fear that we might have to surrender all that we hold dear today when we step on the spiritual path, we should at the same time accept that our priorities will indeed shift, and that that is ok.
  6. Little by little, day by day: Nothing on the spiritual path happens instantly - and so it is with the integration of spirituality into one's life. One might balk when we look at the standards set in the writings, for they call us to strive to attain the highest stations of spiritual servitude and detachment from the material world. But these are ultimately standards, meant to inspire us into action and do the best we can in our present circumstances. Two things are important - first, that we get started on the path in whatever way we can, investing however much time/energy our circumstances currently permit; second, that we strive to do the best we can at all times, and seek to grow. As long as one does those two things, we will see things changing over time - for there is dynamic feedback loop between our actions and our thoughts, such that as we start acting in specific ways, our thoughts and priorities get shifted over time (which then further changes how we act, etc). So let's all set out on our spiritual paths with whatever we have, to whatever measure we can - and over time, we will see what a difference it can make.

Monday, May 16, 2011


If thou speakest not I will fill my heart with thy silence and endure it.
I will keep still and wait like the night with starry vigil
and its head bent low with patience.

The morning will surely come, the darkness will vanish,
and thy voice pour down in golden streams breaking through the sky.

Then thy words will take wing in songs from every one of my birds' nests,
and thy melodies will break forth in flowers in all my forest groves.
-- Rabindranath Tagore

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Oneness of humanity vs oneness of religion

One of the things I've been thinking about this week is related to a quote that I included as part of the series on the oneness of religion. The quote I'm referring to is one that talks about how society, in the last 100 years or so, seems to have far more readily accepted the notion of the oneness of mankind than the oneness of religion. I've pasted the quote below here for your reference:

In contrast to the processes of unification that are transforming the rest of humanity's social relationships, the suggestion that all of the world's great religions are equally valid in nature and origin is stubbornly resisted by entrenched patterns of sectarian thought. The progress of racial integration is a development that is not merely an expression of sentimentality or strategy but arises from the recognition that the earth's peoples constitute a single species whose many variations do not themselves confer any advantage or impose any handicap on individual members of the race. The emancipation of women, likewise, has entailed the willingness of both society's institutions and popular opinion to acknowledge that there are no acceptable grounds — biological, social or moral — to justify denying women full equality with men, and girls equal educational opportunities with boys. Nor does appreciation of the contributions that some nations are making to the shaping of an evolving global civilization support the inherited illusion that other nations have little or nothing to bring to the effort.

So fundamental a reorientation religious leadership appears, for the most part, unable to undertake. Other segments of society embrace the implications of the oneness of humankind, not only as the inevitable next step in the advancement of civilization, but as the fulfilment of lesser identities of every kind that our race brings to this critical moment in our collective history. Yet, the greater part of organized religion stands paralyzed at the threshold of the future, gripped in those very dogmas and claims of privileged access to truth that have been responsible for creating some of the most bitter conflicts dividing the earth's inhabitants.

-- From a letter written by the Universal House of Justice to the world’s religious leaders in 2002

P commented when he read this quote that it seems that it "indicates that it is easier to shift the moral/social teachings aspects of a religion than to shift the relation of a religion’s followers with their particular understanding of the divine." I thought this was a very insightful comment, and one worth writing more about - why is it that people find it easier to shift their own moral principles than their relationship with the divine? What is it about the particularity of that relationship that is so deep and resistant to change/evolution?

After some thought I think I've come up with five possible reasons why. Here they are:
  1. Moral teachings define our relationship with other people and society, while one's understanding of the divine is seen as a very personal thing, to be guarded against any encroachment. Therefore, the individual is almost forced to change one's moral perceptions as society evolves - if for nothing else, but for fear of being judged by society. For example, a 100 years ago it was very common to think of certain races of people as being somehow inherently inferior to others. In today's world though, expressing even the slightest hint of such a sentiment would immediately lead to one being labeled a racist - and so people are forced to revise their opinions and confront the reality that truly there is no essential difference between various races. One's relationship with God, on the other hand is seen to be extremely personal, and one that is not subject to the dictates of society, or to popular vote. So what if everyone in society came to believe in a God whose essence is unknowable? I could still choose to believe in my own image of God, as that relationship exists within the domain of my subjectivity that no one else has access to. The fundamental truth that any claims about God are, at some level or another unprovable, bolsters this view that one's image of God can be completely at odds with everyone else's, and that that is ok.
  2. One's relationship with God, though very personal, is also often strongly linked to the tradition/culture one has grown up in - and this creates a level of attachment that is extremely hard to overcome. Holding the religious beliefs that one grew up with is often seen as a sign of cultural fidelity, and one is often judged on this basis - if my religious beliefs evolve, then somehow I am seen as being untrue to my own culture. This is particularly true with religions such as Hinduism and Islam. Even apart from the judgment angle, one gets attached to the rituals, practices and social aspects of one's culture - and these are usually so strongly linked to religious belief that it is hard to separate one from the other. Social mores, on the other hand, are tending to become more and more universal over time, and blending into different cultures.
  3. Related to the above two, the proofs of the oneness of humanity are much more tangible and evident, while those of the oneness of religion are far more abstract and intangible. As one interacts more and more with people from different races, cultures and backgrounds, and as scientific evidence points more and more to there being tremendous commonalities in terms of genetic structure, the acceptance of the oneness of humanity becomes more and more inevitable - after all, as we form friendships with people from different cultures, get to know them and love them, how can we not accept them as being one with us? The oneness of religion, on the other hand, is much harder to prove, especially since on the surface they are so evidently different! When considering the oneness of humanity one looks at people as they are today in the world - while when considering the oneness of religion, one has to make the additional jump to thinking about the different times in history at which each religious system came up, the particular context of the society in which it evolved, etc - and this can be hard to analyze even for the most perceptive amongst us!
  4. The fourth point is related to the key element in the second - attachment. Though one develops a personal relationship with God, we then seek to find other people who share a similar relationship. As humans, we need that company, we need to feel accepted within a community, we need to feel (ironically) like we are one with a group of people - and so we develop an attachment not just to the culture that our religious beliefs represent, but to the people who form that community. Presented with a different set of religious beliefs, it then becomes very hard to separate oneself both from one's culture and one's people - because we see both of those as being strongly tied to one's religious convictions.
  5. Finally, I think there could be another angle to all of this - in many cases, individuals themselves might not change very much, both in their religious beliefs and in their humanist beliefs. And so many members of the Ku Klux Klan, for example, might never have changed their opinions about certain races of people, however much society around them changed (even if they changed how openly they expressed those beliefs). However the change happens over generations - and this change is much easier in the domain of social/moral beliefs than in the domain of religious beliefs, mostly for the reasons listed earlier.
So is there no hope then? Are we doomed to never accept, as a society, the oneness of religion? I usually tend to be a staunch optimist, so of course I'd say there is hope - but I think there are some clear pathways ahead that one could take to facilitate this process:
  1. Communication is the first (and maybe most important) step - too often we are afraid to talk about our religious beliefs, for fear of being judged or because we don't want to hurt someone else's sentiments. The desire for secularism has firmly pushed us into the realm of relativism and created a situation where we instinctively feel uncomfortable talking about religion. We are willing to accept people's beliefs at face value, and don't want to go to the trouble of understanding where those beliefs come from, what they might mean, how they might be similar to my own beliefs, where the differences arise from etc. We prefer to remain largely insular in this context, and are comfortable sharing these ideas only within a circle where we know everyone else believes much the same thing. As we learn to step outside these boundaries and create spaces where people can more openly share their beliefs without being afraid that they might be judged, I believe we will come to understand each other as well as the underlying commonalities in our beliefs better.
  2. A lot of us tend not to apply reason to faith - we think that by definition faith cannot be subject to reason, and so fail to question our own beliefs and see whether they make sense or not. Understanding how one can apply scientific principles on the path of spiritual discovery might be one of the biggest challenges facing us all. Fostering this spirit of questioning, of being comfortable with evolution in thought, of valuing truth above all else will help us overcome some of these hurdles.
  3. Developing the ability to differentiate between culture and religion also seem important. Too often people are scared to change anything about their thinking because they don't want to abandon their culture - but if we come to accept that our understanding of spiritual reality can evolve while we continue to value our culture for what it is and foster those aspects of it that don't impede our spiritual growth, the path ahead will be much smoother.
Before I end, I should clarify - I certainly don't think that the ideal is for all of us to develop the exact same relationship with the Divine. I think there is much richness in the diversity of our personal relationships, and that that will always be the case - however I do think that we can, over time, develop a common framework within the bounds of which we develop our personal relationships. Accepting the notion of God as an unknowable essence, as propounded by the Baha'i writings, has certainly changed, to some extent, how I perceive the Hindu pantheon of Gods. And yet, that background and upbringing has helped form my own unique relationship with the unknowable essence that is God, with the forces of nature that are represented by the Hindu Gods, and molded specific aspects of my spiritual practice. This, I think, is both natural and desirable.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011


The following is a beautiful poem that captures, in a very profound yet succinct way the human craze for dominance over the material world.

`Prisoner, tell me, who was it that bound you?'

`It was my master,' said the prisoner.
`I thought I could outdo everybody in the world in wealth and power,
and I amassed in my own treasure-house the money due to my king.
When sleep overcame me I lay upon the bed that was for my lord,
and on waking up I found I was a prisoner in my own treasure-house.'

`Prisoner, tell me, who was it that wrought this unbreakable chain?'

`It was I,' said the prisoner, `who forged this chain very carefully.
I thought my invincible power would hold the world captive
leaving me in a freedom undisturbed.
Thus night and day I worked at the chain
with huge fires and cruel hard strokes.
When at last the work was done
and the links were complete and unbreakable,
I found that it held me in its grip.'

-- Rabindranath Tagore (from Gitanjali)

Friday, May 6, 2011

Progressive revelation and the Baha'i approach to overcoming religious differences

So far in this series of posts, we've looked at what religion means in the Baha'i faith, how that leads to the notion of the oneness of religion, and how one can approaches the very real differences that people have in their beliefs in spite of this underlying oneness (as claimed by the Baha'i writings). There is one final element, I think, that will provide a way to understand where these differences fundamentally arise from, and what they mean - and that is understanding that there is a distinction between religious systems as they were intended by their founders, and religious systems as they exist today. Christianity, Islam, Hinduism etc today are all but a shadow of what they were intended to be. The Baha’i teachings assert that any of these systems today consist of three layers – the essential principles that are their foundation and are common to all religious systems, the social laws/practices that have been preserved faithfully, but were only relevant to a particular day and age, and finally all the stuff that imperfect human beings have added on over the ages – consciously or unconsciously. The process of progressive revelation, according to Baha’is, therefore serves two vital purposes:
  1. It helps refocus society away from all the junk that has been added on, and back to the essential principles
  2. It allows the revelation of a new set of social laws and teachings more relevant to humanity at its current stage of evolution
These ... mighty systems, have proceeded from one Source, and are the rays of one Light. That they differ one from another is to be attributed to the varying requirements of the ages in which they were promulgated.
-- Baha’u’llah

The second point above is actually quite critical. As humanity evolves, so does religion – and with it, the social laws it provides society that guide its further evolution also change. Seemingly irreconcilable differences therefore often arise in people's beliefs because we sometimes either believe things that were never stated by the Manifestations, or because we accept as eternal things that were meant to be only temporal.

The Baha’i Faith does claim, btw, that it represents the face of religion (that relationship between God and humanity) for this day, and claims that it provides the necessary social teachings that will enable humanity to progress to the next stage of its evolution (yet another claim to investigate!).

For Bahá’u’lláh, we should readily recognize, has not only imbued mankind with a new and regenerating Spirit. He has not merely enunciated certain universal principles, or propounded a particular philosophy, however potent, sound and universal these may be. In addition to these He, as well as ‘Abdu’l-Bahá after Him, has, unlike the Dispensations of the past, clearly and specifically laid down a set of Laws, established definite institutions, and provided for the essentials of a Divine Economy. These are destined to be a pattern for future society, a supreme instrument for the establishment of the Most Great Peace, and the one agency for the unification of the world, and the proclamation of the reign of righteousness and justice upon the earth.
-- Shoghi Effendi

This, it should be recognized, is a much stronger claim than just talking about the commonalities in all religions – and the writings strongly encourage all seekers of the truth to study, learn and evaluate this claim with an open mind. However, this claim should not be taken in any way to mean that somehow the Baha’i Faith is greater than past religious systems. Instead, one should view this in terms of the needs, requirements and capacities of this age.

Beware, O believers in the Unity of God, lest ye be tempted to make any distinction between any of the Manifestations of His Cause, or to discriminate against the signs that have accompanied and proclaimed their Revelation. This indeed is the true meaning of Divine unity.... Be ye assured, moreover, that the works and acts of each and every one of these Manifestations of God ... are all ordained by God, and are a reflection of His will and Purpose.
-- Baha’u’llah

Know of a certainty, that in every Dispensation the light of Divine Revelation has been vouchsafed to men in direct proportion to their spiritual capacity. Consider the sun. How feeble its rays the moment it appears above the horizon. How gradually its warmth and potency increase as it approaches its zenith, enabling meanwhile all created things to adapt themselves to the growing intensity of its light. How steadily it declines until it reaches its setting point. Were it, all of a sudden, to manifest the energies latent within it, it would, no doubt, cause injury to all created things…. In like manner, if the Sun of Truth were suddenly to reveal, at the earliest stages of its manifestation, the full measure of the potencies which the providence of the Almighty has bestowed upon it, the earth of human understanding would waste away and be consumed; for men’s hearts would neither sustain the intensity of its revelation, nor be able to mirror forth the radiance of its light. Dismayed and overpowered, they would cease to exist.
-- Baha’u’llah

The evolution in capacity of humans to assimilate greater spiritual truths is something pointed out by other manifestations such as Jesus as well, as in the quote below – while at the same time he hints that future prophets would manifest themselves.

12I have yet many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now.
13Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth: for he shall not speak of himself; but whatsoever he shall hear, that shall he speak: and he will shew you things to come.
14He shall glorify me: for he shall receive of mine, and shall shew it unto you.
-- John 16:12-14

Lets bring all this back to the fact that among believers in various faiths there are real commitments to conflicting spiritual teachings”. I think what the Baha’i Faith has to offer is this:
  1. Our first commitment should always be to the truth, and not to our own opinions, or the beliefs of our forefathers. We cannot evaluate truth by the standards set by other people, and instead have to seek it in an open-minded and detached way.

    …man can never hope to attain unto the knowledge of the All-Glorious, can never quaff from the stream of divine knowledge and wisdom, can never enter the abode of immortality, nor partake of the cup of divine nearness and favour, unless and until he ceases to regard the words and deeds of mortal men as a standard for the true understanding and recognition of God and His Prophets.
    -- Baha’u’llah
  2. All religious systems, the Baha'i teachings claim, are all part of the same eternal relationship between God and humanity, a relationship that lives, breathes and organically evolves as humanity does. Understanding the of this claim, well help us all live in greater harmony with each other.
  3. The differences that exist are indeed often real, but understanding where they come from, and the context and perspective is critical in resolving them. If we do try and understand all that, we would see that differences, even if not incidental, would be temporal – while the principles underlying all religious systems are both essential and eternal. We would be able to piece together our different perspectives to form a greater and more complex understanding of reality. If one understood the true purpose of religion, and the context for one’s own religious system, I think we would be much more comfortable letting go of those aspects that hindered progress along the path of truth, relegating others that are of cultural value to the domain of individual choice, and embracing the larger implications of seeing that specific religious system within the global scheme of religion. This claim of course needs to be verified in practice and should not be accepted as such.
  4. None of this, of course, can ever be imposed on anyone. The Baha’i writings constantly exhort each one of us to take charge of our own spiritual growth, to seek truth with open and humble hearts, and do the best we can to further that process – but we can never impose our own understanding of reality on anyone else. All this provides us a suggestion for how to lead our own lives, and we should not use it as a way to judge anyone else. We can (and should), of course converse with others, share ideas, learn from them, but always with a spirit of complete detachment and non-expectation.
Consort with all men, O people of Bahá, in a spirit of friendliness and fellowship. 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 good-will. If it be accepted, if it fulfil its purpose, your object is attained. If any one should refuse it, leave him unto himself, and beseech God to guide him. Beware lest ye deal unkindly with him.
-- Baha’u’llah

12And when ye come into an house, salute it.
13And if the house be worthy, let your peace come upon it: but if it be not worthy, let your peace return to you.
14And whosoever shall not receive you, nor hear your words, when ye depart out of that house or city, shake off the dust of your feet.
-- Matthew 10:12-14

It is true that along this path we might all have to shed beliefs that at some point used to be essential to our very identity. Whether we choose to do that, or not, is of course a personal choice – but isn’t that what spiritual growth is all about, anyway? :)

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Dealing with disagreements and differences in belief

Having understood the Baha'i concept of the oneness of religion, let's now see what all this means in practice, because clearly as we see today, the disagreements people have are indeed very real – and these differing viewpoints are often essential to people’s beliefs and identities. Now to understand how to deal with this, I propose that we think of two criteria – agreement, and truth. Based on this, we can categorize all the things people believe into one of three categories:
  1. People agree about something that is either true/false – This case is easy to understand. The former includes statements like “The earth revolves around the sun”, which we all agree on and are also true. The latter includes statements like “The sun revolves around the earth” 5000 years ago – at that time, everyone believed this, but it was later shown to be false.
  2. People disagree, and some of them are right, some are wrong – An example of this situation would be the alarmingly large number of literalists who claim the Earth was created 6000 years ago, in 7 days, and deny evolution; or those who believe that the fundamental purpose of their religion is to kill those who are disbelievers. Clearly these are situations where people disagree, and one side is wrong and another right. A lot of these cases are represented by the extremes in any religious system/sect.
  3. People disagree, and they are all right from their own perspective – This is where the hard part comes – a large proportion of what people believe, claims the Baha’i Faith, fall in this category. And understanding this might be the most challenging task of all. Reality in general is so multi-dimensional and complex that no single human being has the faintest hope of understanding it perfectly. We are all within our own Platonic caves, grasping at shadows. The picture is akin to the famous story of the blind men and the elephant, where each person touches a different part of the elephant and draws a different conclusion about what an elephant is – so the one who touches the trunk thinks it’s a snake, the one who touches its leg thinks it’s a tree, etc. One of the pre-eminent Baha’i scholars, Paul Lample, puts this extremely well in one of his books:
Although the statement, "if I believe something to be right, then he whose opinions differ from mine must be wrong" passes the tests of formal logic, and although it is applicable in countless situations, its usefulness vanishes once the object of discussion becomes relatively complex. It is not that "A" and "not A" can both be true, but that the vastness of truth does not allow most matters of belief, if there is any depth to them at all, to be reduced to such comparisons. The only options this simplistic posture finally leaves open are either religious and ideological fanaticism or the brand of relativism that does away with faith, embraces skepticism, and idolizes doubt.
-- Paul Lample, Revelation and Social Reality

The Baha’i teachings therefore urge one to make efforts to figure out which of the above categories people’s beliefs fall into, and tread extremely carefully when it comes to cases where people disagree, for a vast majority of differences arise from the different points of view people have, and our inherent subjectivity in viewing objective reality.

It is clear that the reality of mankind is diverse, that opinions are various and sentiments different; and this difference of opinions, of thoughts, of intelligence, of sentiments among the human species arises from essential necessity; for the differences in the degrees of existence of creatures is one of the necessities of existence, which unfolds itself in infinite forms.
-- Abdu’l Baha

Diversity of opinion, therefore, is a natural part of existence, and the Baha’i Faith in no way attempts to achieve uniformity of thought and opinion. Rather, there is a strong appreciation of the value of unity in diversity. Therefore what is desired is really the preservation of the richness and texture of human diversity within the umbrella of conviction in the oneness of the essence of humanity. What is called for, in the words of Shoghi Effendi, is a “wider loyalty”, and the development of a self-identity that is first founded on one’s humanity, and then on one’s nationality, religious affiliation, gender, etc. What we should all seek, therefore, is harmony, not uniformity. And this can only be achieved if we always understand that our opinions should be subservient to the truth – so if we realize the truth in a situation, we should be willing to let go of any opinions that go contrary to that truth. This will help, over time, eliminate situations that fall in category 2, and help us live largely in categories 1 and 3.

Consider the flowers of a garden. Though differing in kind, color, form and shape, yet, inasmuch as they are refreshed by the waters of one spring, revived by the breath of one wind, invigorated by the rays of one sun, this diversity increaseth their charm and addeth unto their beauty. How unpleasing to the eye if all the flowers and plants, the leaves and blossoms, the fruit, the branches and the trees of that garden were all of the same shape and color! Diversity of hues, form and shape enricheth and adorneth the garden, and heighteneth the effect thereof. In like manner, when divers shades of thought, temperament and character, are brought together under the power and influence of one central agency, the beauty and glory of human perfection will be revealed and made manifest. Naught but the celestial potency of the Word of God, which ruleth and transcendeth the realities of all things, is capable of harmonizing the divergent thoughts, sentiments, ideas and convictions of the children of men.
-- Abdu’l Baha

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The oneness of religion

Now on to the second part of this series of posts on the oneness of religion from the Baha'i perspective. In yesterday's post, I tried to show how the Baha'i teachings define religion - in terms of the relationship between God and humanity - and the how it views religious revelation as way to understand reality (just like science).

This then leads us to where this principle of the oneness of religion comes from – religion is a reflection of reality, and reality is one – therefore the essence of religion is one.

First, it is incumbent upon all mankind to investigate truth. If such investigation be made, all should agree and be united, for truth or reality is not multiple; it is not divisible. The different religions have one truth underlying them; therefore, their reality is one.
-- Abdu’l Baha

The key point is this – the oneness of religion is seen by Baha’is to be a reflection of reality. All religious systems come from the same one Source. The principle of the oneness of religions, therefore, is NOT an a posteriori pronouncement that attempts to find that which is common between varied religious systems, and arrive at some kind of least common denominator amongst them. Instead, the Baha’i writings advance this principle as an a priori claim, as a claim about how things are, rather than how they should be, and urge us to use this principle as a filter that can help us better understand the teachings propounded by different religious systems.

The vision, therefore, is not that people will discard all the things they disagree about, and just find the lowest common denominator that they can all agree on, and live based on that. The Baha’i Faith makes no attempt to do this, and does not try to be selective in choosing principles that people can agree on today as a basis for its teachings. It is not a syncretic religious system, nor is it just some interfaith project attempting to focus on commonalities and ignore differences.

The Revelation, of which Bahá’u’lláh is the source and center, abrogates none of the religions that have preceded it, nor does it attempt, in the slightest degree, to distort their features or to belittle their value. It disclaims any intention of dwarfing any of the Prophets of the past, or of whittling down the eternal verity of their teachings. It can, in no wise, conflict with the spirit that animates their claims, nor does it seek to undermine the basis of any man’s allegiance to their cause. Its declared, its primary purpose is to enable every adherent of these Faiths to obtain a fuller understanding of the religion with which he stands identified, and to acquire a clearer apprehension of its purpose. It is neither eclectic in the presentation of its truths, nor arrogant in the affirmation of its claims. Its teachings revolve around the fundamental principle that religious truth is not absolute but relative, that Divine Revelation is progressive, not final. Unequivocally and without the least reservation it proclaims all established religions to be divine in origin, identical in their aims, complementary in their functions, continuous in their purpose, indispensable in their value to mankind.
-- Shoghi Effendi

However central the ideal of the oneness of religion unquestionably is, therefore, the task of sharing Bahá’u’lláh’s message is obviously not an interfaith project.
-- Universal House of Justice

From this viewpoint, the Baha’i Faith should be considered a distinct religious system, and this is why we don’t just have Baha’is in different religious groups trying to get them to talk to each other. Interfaith dialogue and an understanding of commonalities is certainly an effort in which Baha’is participate strongly – but this is not the fundamental purpose.

Interestingly, the realization of the oneness of humanity itself is something that has received far greater credence in the world today, than the claim of the oneness of religion.

In contrast to the processes of unification that are transforming the rest of humanity's social relationships, the suggestion that all of the world's great religions are equally valid in nature and origin is stubbornly resisted by entrenched patterns of sectarian thought. The progress of racial integration is a development that is not merely an expression of sentimentality or strategy but arises from the recognition that the earth's peoples constitute a single species whose many variations do not themselves confer any advantage or impose any handicap on individual members of the race. The emancipation of women, likewise, has entailed the willingness of both society's institutions and popular opinion to acknowledge that there are no acceptable grounds — biological, social or moral — to justify denying women full equality with men, and girls equal educational opportunities with boys. Nor does appreciation of the contributions that some nations are making to the shaping of an evolving global civilization support the inherited illusion that other nations have little or nothing to bring to the effort.

So fundamental a reorientation religious leadership appears, for the most part, unable to undertake. Other segments of society embrace the implications of the oneness of humankind, not only as the inevitable next step in the advancement of civilization, but as the fulfilment of lesser identities of every kind that our race brings to this critical moment in our collective history. Yet, the greater part of organized religion stands paralyzed at the threshold of the future, gripped in those very dogmas and claims of privileged access to truth that have been responsible for creating some of the most bitter conflicts dividing the earth's inhabitants.

-- From a letter written by the Universal House of Justice to the world’s religious leaders in 2002

I leave it to the reader to reflect on why it might be the case that the world has shown more openness the principle of the oneness of humanity than the oneness of religion.

Hopefully this short overview provided a peek into the Baha'i understanding of the oneness of religion. We'll stop here for today - tomorrow we'll look at how this principle can be applied in practice, and how we can understand the very real differences that people have in their belief systems.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Religion as defined in the Baha'i writings

Over the last few months at my new job, I have had the privilege of forming a very spiritually enriching friendship with a coworker and his wife. In recent conversations he raised some excellent and thought-provoking questions on the Baha'i claim of the oneness of religion that got me to do some research into the exact nature of this claim, and what it implies. Born out of this was the impetus to get back to blogging, after a year and a half hiatus - a hiatus necessitated by changing life circumstances, getting married, graduating, finding a new job, etc. Anyway, here I am now, and hopefully I can keep the momentum going. For now, in order to address these issues of the oneness of religion, I'll be putting up several posts over the course of the next few days, addressing a variety of concepts around this central theme in the Baha'i teachings.

The first topic we'll address is religion - before we get into any discussions about the oneness of religion, I think we need to clarify the concept of religion as presented by the Baha’i writings, as it is somewhat different from what people usually mean when they talk about religion. Two traditional views of religion are nicely summarized in the following paragraph that I copied from the international Baha’i website:

To put the Bahá'í concept of religion more clearly in focus, let us compare it with some other ways in which religion has been regarded. On one hand is the view that the various religious systems result from human striving after truth. In this conception, the Founders of the great religions do not reveal God to us, but are rather philosophers or thinkers, human beings who may have progressed farther than others in the discovery of truth. This notion excludes the idea of a basic unity of religion since the various religious systems are seen as representing different opinions and beliefs arrived at by fallible human beings rather than infallible revelations of truth from a single source.

Many orthodox adherents of various religious traditions, on the other hand, argue that the Prophet or Founder of their particular tradition represents a true revelation of God to humanity, but that the other religious Founders are false prophets, or at least essentially inferior to the Founder of the tradition in question. For example, many Jews believe that Moses was a true Messenger of God, but that Jesus was not. Similarly, many Christians believe in Jesus' revelation, but consider that Muhammad was a false prophet, and hold that Moses was inferior in status to Christ.

The Baha’i concept of religion, on the other hand, arises from two concepts – the oneness of God, and the oneness of humanity (all of humanity derives ultimately from that same Source, the one God). The relationship between the one God and one humanity is what is termed as religion (which comes from the Latin root, religio, which means “to bind together”). Religion, therefore, is seen as a relationship that is woven into the very fabric of reality, rather than as just a set of beliefs and principles that someone devised.

The foundation of the divine religions is reality; were there no reality, there would be no religions… Reality is as the sun, which shines forth from different dawning points; it is as the light, which has illumined many lanterns.
-- Abdu’l Baha

In this sense, it might be useful to distinguish between religion (this relationship), and religious systems (different manifestations of this relationship, such as Christianity, Islam, the Baha’i Faith, etc). These terms are usually used interchangeably in the world today, though in my understanding the Baha’i Faith makes this clear distinction. Depending on context, therefore, the word “religion” can be used to mean either of the above two things in the writings. For the purposes of these discussions, I’ll use religion when I mean the first, and religious system when I mean the second. Different religious systems are seen, by the Baha’i Faith, not as sociological phenomena, or philosophies engendered in the minds of wise thinkers, but rather organically evolving responses to the condition of humanity, communicated to us through who we call Prophets or Manifestations of God, who are considered divine (and we can get into what that means in the Baha’i Faith in another conversation).

On a side note, the close tie between religion and reality is really the foundation for the Baha’i belief in the unity of science and religion, as both are considered windows into reality.

Any religious belief which is not conformable with scientific proof and investigation is superstition, for true science is reason and reality, and religion is essentially reality and pure reason; therefore, the two must correspond. Religious teaching which is at variance with science and reason is human invention and imagination unworthy of acceptance, for the antithesis and opposite of knowledge is superstition born of the ignorance of man. If we say religion is opposed to science, we lack knowledge of either true science or true religion, for both are founded upon the premises and conclusions of reason, and both must bear its test.
-- Abdu’l Baha

Understanding the notion of the unity between science and religion further, however, will require more time, so lets leave this as is for now. The relationship between religion and reality is the reason that the first principle of the Baha’i Faith is always stated as the “independent investigation of truth.” Religion is therefore seen as a tool that helps us discover the nature of reality (just like science).

Among these teachings was the independent investigation of reality so that the world of humanity may be saved from the darkness of imitation and attain to the truth; may tear off and cast away this ragged and outgrown garment of 1,000 years ago and may put on the robe woven in the utmost purity and holiness in the loom of reality.
-- Abdu’l Baha

The primary task of the soul will always be to investigate reality, to live in accordance with the truths of which it becomes persuaded and to accord full respect to the efforts of others to do the same.
-- From a letter written by the Universal House of Justice to the world’s religious leaders in 2002

I think we should stop here for today and let all that sink in! Tomorrow we'll go from here to the oneness of religion.

I'm back

and its time to revive this blog...