Thursday, January 01, 2009

Can Baha'is be free thinking?

Last year Mavaddat Javid posted a couple responses to some ideas I shared on this blog, and he had some of his readers leave interesting comments related to his posts. I posted a response to his idea that it’s intellectually dishonest to believe that the Baha’i Faith asks believers to exercise their judgement and pick and choose on how they apply the Baha’i teachings in their lives. I think it’s okay. It was clear (to Mavaddat) that the Baha’i Faith demands that believers not pick and choose among the laws and teachings. I agree that Baha’u’llah dismissed the idea that some people are above the laws, or beyond the laws of God. I agree that He did emphasize that religious laws are important, and should be obeyed. (I don’t see how a religion or a religious teacher could say anything other than this.) But, I think that when Baha’u’llah stressed the idea that Baha’is should follow all the teachings and laws, He was including in “all,” those particular teachings emphasizing that many religious sources are figurative and metaphorical. He was also including (I suppose) the principles of independent pursuit of truth, respect for our rational faculties, and so forth. I think you also need to consider Baha’u’llah in the context of His time and the ideas that were popular among the people who received His message while He lived. Baha’u’llah was clearly fond of people with liberal or progressive theologies, such as Jala-u-din Rumi and Shaykh Ahmad (1753-1826), whose teachings were the source of the Shaikhi School. I think Baha’u’llah wanted to avoid a descent into antinomianism or some extreme dervish dismissal of all religious law and authority, but he was in the tradition of Maimonides, who wanted to correct ridiculous literalism both among the faithful and those who used literalistic interpretations to attack a religion. Baha’u’llah was not a literalist reactionary like Muhammad ibn ‘Abdu’l-Wahhab, Ibn Taymiyyah, Moses Schreiber, or Norman Geisler.

One problem I have with the way Mavaddat described religion is that he supposes that calling yourself a believer in a particular religion implies that you will follow all the laws and hold all the beliefs of that religion. I think that religions instead ask us to strive toward perfection, and attempt to instill in us a desire to aspire toward perfection without much hope that we will ever reach perfection. This means, in a practical sense, that you might not always obey the letter of the law in every situation. You would try to, strive to, and hope to obey the law, but sometimes you wouldn’t obey. This might be because you conceive of laws as existing in a hierarchy, and some laws are more important than others, and you might perceive that obeying a lesser law might make it difficult to obey a more significant law. You might also simply not be able to follow a particular law, and although you wouldn’t resign yourself to a life where you never obeyed that particular law, you might have various priorities about which laws you followed, and leave some laws for later in your life while other laws would immediately get your attention as targets for achievement. Or, you might understand some laws as general principles rather than literal laws.

You might also violate Baha’i laws because you understood some laws as existing in a figurative sense where the spirit of the law is more important than the letter of the law. For example, some people think laws about personal appearance and hygiene seem more sensible if they are not always taken literally. If we instead take them as general rules about how to remain clean, they make more sense. So, for example, the quotation from Baha'u'llah that urges Baha’is to not even wear an item of clothing that has a stain on it may simply mean to generally clean one’s clothing, and not literally mean that we must stop wearing anything with any sort of stain on it. (...Cleave ye unto the cord of refinement with such tenacity as to allow no trace of dirt to be seen upon your garments. Such is the injunction of One Who is sanctified above all refinement. Whoso falleth short of this standard with good reason shall incur no blame....) Rules about not plunging our hands into common food dishes may mean that in general we should avoid having potentially germ-contaminated surfaces such as our skin come into contact with foods we are sharing with others, at least as far as reasonably possible. Rules about avoiding pools of water in Persian courtyards may mean that we should generally try to secure clean water for our washing and drinking, and not allow situations in which people must use contaminated water. Baha’is who serve in government or public utilities might be the intended audience for such laws, rather than those of us who visit unhygienic Iranian homes with courtyard pools. Given that approach, I might share a platter of finger food with some friends while wearing a shirt with a small stain on it, and also go wading in a public fountain where others have also been wading, and still think I was obeying Baha’i laws about hygiene, because I was striving to obey the spirit of the laws rather than the letter of the laws. It’s not a case that such laws may be ignored, but rather, that we should realize there are different ways to approach those laws and try to obey them.

Religions have many laws and rules and suggestions for how people ought to live. A person who takes their religion seriously might aspire to follow all the laws, and believe all the teachings, but accommodate themselves to a situation where they have not yet reached a point where they can follow all the laws and believe all the teachings. Or, a person might understand a particular point of belief or law differently than you do, so while it appears to you that the person is violating a law, to that person’s point-of-view they are obeying it. Saying that people are “giving lip service” to their religion is a claim that people say they believe in a religion while they in fact do not believe it, and so they are being dishonest. The accusation is that they make a claim about their state-of-mind (saying “I am a Baha’i”) while in fact their state of mind is different than described (they don’t believe all the Baha’i teachings).

This is a viewpoint that a religious identity or belief system is a dichotomous thing, a black-and-white thing, where either one accepts and lives according to 100% of the religion’s content in belief and practice or else one isn’t really a member of that religion. This is not a way of conceiving of religion that we use when we look at religions with a social science perspective, because belief and practice are really things that exist along a continuum. There is an idealistic sense in which only a person who really believes and practices everything taught by a religion can legitimately claim to be a member of that religion, and this is the sort of aspirational definition. We aspire to be true Baha’is, but perhaps only one human ever was such a thing (The Master, ‘Abdu’l-Baha).

You can claim that it would be more intellectually honest to stop claiming to be a member of a particular religion if you didn’t accept every teaching and law within that religion. Leave the religion, and make up your own religion that only includes beliefs and practices with which you agree. That would be good advice if the purpose of religion is to provide a set of beliefs and practices with which one entirely agrees so one can have intellectual honesty. But, I don’t think this is the purpose of religion. I think one purpose of religion is to provide human societies with standards and codes that anchor morality and ethics outside the opinions of any individual. In essence I’m suggesting that religion plays a role something like the Leviathan, which Hobbes described as a thing having a monopoly on legitimate violence and coercion in order to give people security so they could devote their talents to improving themselves and their community rather than devoting their time to defending themselves from anarchy (the war of all against all). Religion provides society with a thing that has a monopoly on final ethical authority so that people can be protected from trends in human nature that would allow societies to surrender ethical decision-making to a powerful leader or king, or to a powerful ideology. Without religion, if everyone has their own personal religion, there are weak community codes of ethics. With religion, there are shared codes of ethics, and everyone must deal with those codes, accepting them or challenging them, but sharing a sense that those religion-provided codes are worth consideration.

I wouldn’t want to live in a society where everyone was “making up and inventing their own religion to which they could be true, because their own religion would be free from the objectionable or difficult bits they ignore in the existing religions.” This is because I think many humans would make up and invent their own religions that would endorse selfishness and deceit. Many people would create religions that had exaggerated us-versus-them moral codes where outsiders could be treated as sub-human and only insiders would get decent treatment. Religion (good religion) is a check against some defects in human nature that give us (when unchecked) such abuses as genocidal ideologies, super-violent warrior cultures, and predatory gangsterism.

It is also possible to believe that “true religion” has a pure source that gets obscured in the process of Revelation, so that not 100% of a religion's content is really Divine Truth. A person might believe that as some Truth comes from the Divine Source in a pure form it is converted into human thought in the brain of a human who serves as a Manifestation of God, and then the Truth is converted from human thought to human language, and then it is converted to the speech or writing of the Manifestation, or it may be written by a secretary or note-taker, and then it may be converted through language translations. Nuances that existed in the languages that existed when the Revelation came may change, and the original subtleties of meaning may be lost (the meanings of words are always changing, and the meanings of words can often be debatable). With this perspective I'm describing, it’s possible to “believe in a religion” and suppose that some teachings or laws are closer to the Truth than others. A religion must claim that all its teachings and laws are true and that believers must follow all of its teachings and laws. If it doesn’t, the religion will allow people to settle into comfort in their decisions about what aspects of a religion are true and important, and which are misunderstandings or unimportant. Also, foolish and ignorant people would be given freedom to propagate all sorts of stupidity if a religion said, “sure, some of this religion is false and unimportant, so you are free to ignore portions of it.” So, religion gives believers a vast amount of material, and those who think carefully about their religion must make reasonable and cautious decisions about what they believe and how they should behave.

I disagree with anyone who tells me that to be a true Baha’i I must be dogmatic and literalist. Yes, I suppose a Baha’i may be dogmatic and literalist, but a Baha’i may also have a quest-orientation to religion and take a liberal theological approach to textual analysis and religious law. That’s something I like about the Baha’i Faith, it seems to me that Baha’u’llah and ‘Abdu’l-Baha intended to have this religion be broad and accepting of a wide variety of thought and belief and practice.

Religions set high standards, but people fall short. For example, religions generally teach chastity and purity, but most human beings have strong sexual drives that are somewhat unfocused, and thus impure and unchaste thoughts plague humanity, and many people act on these thoughts rather than finding the discipline to dismiss them or sublimate them. For example, lust is a basic element of human nature, while self-sacrificing love may be a higher, and more complicated and socially-embedded aspect of our emotional and behavioral repertoire; so while lust is the basis for huge and profitable industries (pornography, many forms of popular music, some forms of advertising, etc.), you see much less commercialization around higher levels of love and commitment. It’s difficult to quickly evoke the self-actualization and personal improvement through long-term loving relationships that demand self-sacrifice and dedication and faith, but it’s very easy to evoke desire for sensual delight. Anyway, religions have a task of helping people find the long-lasting love and relationships that will help people grow and develop, and also create stable families where children will be reared well. If religions allow lust to be the main form of love in a society, the society is going to be doomed to significant trouble (violence rooted in jealousy and poorly-reared children). A religion needs to demand high standards of purity and chastity in order to help people control their lust or express it in limited ways so that other higher forms of love can be fostered and society can get along with the business of helping people live good lives.

Yet, given human biochemistry, people won’t perfectly embody the highest expressions of purity and chastity. So, religion has to also give people a break, and allow them to turn back to religion when they fail or fall short. Just as a relapsing former addict needs to be able to return to whatever treatment techniques have generally helped prevent a full-blown return of an addiction, so religious people need to be able to return to their religion after they have strayed. So, strong religions that last will have both the high standards and a sort of recognition that people will fail to live up to them. That failure must be presented as based on the difficulty of the task or the weakness of human nature, not not presented as a thing that is okay, so that people can just give up on trying to reach their spiritual goals and settle for a life of debauchery or whatever.

The human intellect must be used when considering religious laws and teachings, and in deciding how to behave one must consider not only a specific written law, but also the entire body of scripture, authoritative interpretations, traditions established by Manifestations of God, and opinions that were praised or endorsed by the religion’s legitimate authorities. As with other forms of human law (religious law is a form of human law, it is the root of secular law), an unwritten and invisible system of assumptions and social constructions lie outside the written text, and a person will approach the literal written word of a law with influences from these sources that lie outside the literal written word of the law. In the Baha’i Faith, when we consider the entire body of scripture, authoritative interpretations, traditions established by Baha’u’llah and ‘Abdu’l-Baha, and opinions that were endorsed by Baha’u’llah and ‘Abdu’l-Baha, we find that there is considerable emphasis on people using their intellects and their own understanding, and there is considerable material to discourage blind imitation, literalistic and static interpretations, and collective consensus on the meaning or application of religious laws and teachings. Instead, we're supposed to have some degree of diversity, because people have varying capacities.

Can Baha’is “cherry pick” their beliefs and the laws they will follow? Maybe they can. I don’t mean they can select things in the Baha’i scriptures that support what they want to believe and ignore things in authoritative Baha’i sources that contradict what they want to believe (that would be one literal understanding of what “cherry picking means”). Rather, I mean that in religious law, ethics, and spiritual teachings there are various rules and laws that help humans find good ways to live, and such laws discourage extremes, and therefore sometimes laws and teachings seem to contradict one another. Thus, Baha’is must think about what they should do, and choose from among the various teachings and laws, sometimes recognizing that there are seeming contradictions. The choices must be motivated by a honest desire for truth, self-improvement, and righteousness, rather than a desire to prove a pre-existing and unexamined bias. In choosing among the various teachings and laws to find the right way to behave, Baha’is may make better or worse decisions, as some ways of applying Baha’i teachings are close to ideal, while other methods of application would be disastrous. In other words, Baha’is must pick from a range of possible ways to apply Baha’i teachings, and they must choose which laws and teachings to follow, and how to follow those laws and teachings.

There are many examples to illustrate. I’ll first use the issue of speech. It is possible to speak too much. Some speech harms others, and is tactless or rude. Sometimes people use speech to inflict harm, share anger or hurt, or mislead. It is also possible to use too much discretion, and fail to use speech when we ought to. People often remain silent when they should speak up. It is possible to use too much wisdom and withdrawal, and fail to add one’s voice to a discussion. Religious teachings have to advocate tact and wisdom, and discourage angry and hurtful speech or backbiting. That’s religion’s way to address the first problem (of too much speech). Religious teachings also must ask for boldness and audacity in speech (to address the second problem of people not speaking up when they ought to). In any given situation, when one is thinking about whether to speak, or how to speak, one must pick and choose among the various teachings and laws about speech. I suppose one must cherry-pick to find the best teaching for whatever situation one finds oneself in.

Here’s another example. A religion needs to encourage believers to show obedience to authority; it needs to encourage collective identity and social cohesion among believers, which pretty much means in practical application that a religion must encourage believers to think of themselves with some degree of pride or satisfaction in the fact of their belief and religious identity. The obedience and hierarchy of authority is a necessity if the religion is going to remain coherent and unified. Without some framework of authority and obedience the natural divisions of understanding will make the religion very broad, and some people will create their own authority or divisions within the religion, or split off from it. Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam, and of course in Christianity religious authorities and teachers organize and lead their religions, and others follow those leaders and teachers.

On the other hand, if you want to have a good religion that can deal with some flaws in human nature, you need to help people avoid religious bigotry, spiritual pride, cross-religious conflict, and blind imitation. You also want to have elements of your religion that will prevent religious persecution or religious war. And so, a religion (if it’s any good) will have some teachings and rules that help people be critical of their religious leaders. There will be teachings that encourage people to retain some ethical decision-making instead of surrendering their critical faculties to blind obedience to authority, but at the same time, there will be teachings about the importance of obedience to authority (to preserve the unity and continuity of the religion). There will be elements of a religion that encourage believers to feel good about their religious identity, and other elements that warn believers that even though they are members of the “true” religion, they still must be humble and recognize that they may be imperfect or weak or wrong. You will have teachings asking people to respect the learned, the leaders, the teachers, and the administrators, but you will also have teachings lamenting the defects in the learned, the leaders, the teachers, and the administrators. Religions need authoritative teachings that guard against the extremes.

Religions must work against the cognitive distortions and biases that make some people feel too bad about themselves. Thus, a religion must have much that is affirming. Religions will describe people as being glorious and great and wonderful. We’re made in God’s image, and God is in us, and God made us because God loves us, and so forth. But religions must also work against the human tendency to have blindness to one’s own faults and failures, or the human tendency to overvalue the individual and ignore one’s own insignificance or mortality. Thus, a religion will have teachings that help people find self-effacing thoughts and beliefs. There should be ego-destroying stuff about how we are just dust and worthless, but also life-affirming stuff about how we are made in God’s image and have God’s attributes manifested through us.
And so, a healthy religion will have diverse teachings and passages. These teachings and passages must be considered in their entirety, and this will help people find the balance they need. In any situation, a believer may draw from various prayers and teachings. A person who is depressed may not benefit from those prayers that emphasize our powerlessness and helplessness, and might instead find solace in those prayers and teachings about the nobility of the human spirit. Or, perhaps the content of the religion that emphasizes the destruction of the self and the worthlessness of human life would be helpful to some depressed or grieving people, and they could find religious wisdom and insight out of their dark night of the soul, and those people wouldn’t easily relate to the content about how marvelous humans are. At any rate, one must choose from among the wide and diverse content of a religion to find what one needs in any given situation.

I had earlier written that...
You must also accept the idea that we should use science and our rational thinking to enhance our understanding of our religion. You can’t reject that, because if you take the Baha’i Faith in its entirety, you can’t get away from such fundamental teachings.
Mavaddat responded by citing Baha’u’llah’s statement to clerical leaders:
Say: O leaders of religion! Weigh not the Book of God with such standards and sciences as are current amongst you, for the Book itself is the unerring Balance established amongst men.
This was of course a letter to clergy, and the term that is translated as “standards and sciences” had at the time a connotation of the best academic practices used in religious study to verify religious truth. We’re not talking about laboratory-based natural sciences, or even empirical social sciences here, are we? It seems to me that Baha’u’llah is saying that in a religious investigation of religious truth the standard of truth is found in revealed writings from Manifestations of God rather than in other forms of human learning and argument. For example, this blog and what I write in it is not a standard by which anyone should judge the Baha’i Revelation. If one takes as an axiom that the Baha’i Revelation is the Truth from God, this makes sense. I agree it’s not a convincing argument to win over non-believers, but clergy of other religions are already supposed to be believers, so I suppose this line of argument was appropriate for the context.

Mavaddat also offered a quotation he (imprecisely) attributed to Shoghi Effendi (in fact it was a letter written by Shoghi Effendi’s secretary on the Guardian's behalf to someone in New Zealand back in June of 1946). You can find an extract from the letter in Arohanui. Such letters written by Shoghi Effendi's secretaries to individuals are not legitimate or authoritative sources of Baha’i doctrine or law, so I won’t even bother responding to it. Nor will I bother to respond to the quotation Mavaddat offered from a letter from the Universal House of Justice, as that body is a source of legislation, but not doctrine, and the letter he cited only made a (correct) distinction between “eternal principles proclaimed by God’s Messenger” and “scientific statements and theories.” Baha’is make a distinction between eternal spiritual principles and the social teachings of religions. Religions will always teach people to refrain from murdering others or stealing (with some exceptions in unusual situations), but we always expect that science will have new and better theories about why matter has mass, or what dark matter is, or how galaxies form, and so forth.

Mavaddat offered the quotations from Baha’u’llah, Shoghi Effendi’s secretary’s letter to an individual in New Zealand, and a passage from a letter from the Universal House of Justice to establish that “The Bahá’í Faith is dogmatic through and through.” I don’t think his quotations do establish that. He also offers the blessing from Baha’u’llah that: “Blessed is the learned who doth not allow science to intervene as a veil between him and the Known....” as evidence that the Baha’i religion expects believers such as me to be dogmatic. I don’t see how this blessing establishes that. I am a scientist, and I do scientific research and publish in scientific journals and teach scientific research methods to my students at the university where I am employed. It does seem to me that science can be a veil that makes faith difficult. Surveys of scientists seem to confirm that religious faith is less common among those of us with doctorate degrees than among the general public. Saying that those of us who have faith in the scientific method without losing our religious faith are blessed doesn’t seem to me to be a call to dogmatism or literalist mentalities.

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