Yet, religions have many teachings, and many laws. Do followers of a particular religion obey all the laws and follow all the teachings? Should they be expected to? What if they fall short, or ignore some laws and teachings? Does that make them hypocrites? Also, the laws seem to have varying importance. Laws forbidding murder, incest, theft, and dishonesty seem extremely important. We don’t admire religions that allow adherents to ignore rules against murder and robbery. But what about rules about washing feet, cutting one’s fingernails, the sort of coffin one should use at burial, and so forth? What about teachings that seem to contradict one another? Most religions teach the values of kindness, tact, wisdom, and benevolence. Yet, most religions warn believers to beware of certain types of people (e.g., false prophets, non-believers, apostates, evil-doers, atheists, “enemies of the religion,” and so forth). What about dietary restrictions? What about exhortations to “take care of the poor” and “look after orphans and widows,” and so forth? Many religious rules are like this, general directives to do particular types of acts, like serving humanity. When has one done enough to address one’s obligations to others? When can one in good conscience turn from serving humanity or serving one’s faith and give attention to one’s own family or interests quite apart from altruistic or religious work?
Some religious people, including myself, have concluded that as a practical matter, people must pick and choose among the various teachings and laws their religions offer them. Some teachings and laws must be obeyed. Some should be obeyed, but in certain circumstances or situations it might be permissible or even advisable to overlook or ignore those laws. Some laws and teachings seem somewhat trivial or unimportant, and we may practically ignore the literal meaning of such teachings and instead try to find the figurative meaning or spirit of such teachings and follow that. That is, the in some cases “following” a teaching or rule might mean that we should ponder the teaching or rule and try to find some symbolic value in it. As a practical matter, it seems to me that even fundamentalists do this, and ideally wouldn’t let their commitment to being obedient believers drive them to obey the letter of the law in the trivial matters if this caused them to violate the bigger teachings of their religion.
For example, my religion teaches that we ought to bury our dead, not cremate them. If one of my co-religionists has died and his family wants to cremate him, how firm should I be in opposing the cremation? Should I take the issue to court, and fight against the family, thus alienating them and showing my inflexible obedience to the law, or should I allow the family to cremate my friend’s body? Allowing the cremation would show that I valued the preservation of good-will and kindness in a situation of grief. Religions (including mine) teach that we ought to be kind, and help people when they are grieving, so maybe those teachings should be considered as more important over obedience to the letter of the law in burial matters.
Long ago, when philosophers first started asking questions about moral and ethical matters, some concluded that ethics involve a class of rules where there are few natural laws that must always be followed. With other classes of phenomena, such as physics with its potentially precise measures of weights and forces, or mathematics with its rules and numbers, we can often say with great confidence that something is certainly true or not-true. With ethics we don’t usually have the same degree of certainty. Aristotle observed, this, and so have many other philosophers. And yet there is a certain mindset that says, “such-and-such is absolutely clear” and “the inescapable conclusion is that thus-and-thus must be done.” Yes, a certain personality-type may prefer black-and-white thinking and clear and direct rules that remove the need for reasoned thought and careful decision-making, but I don’t think religions are only meant to be spiritual homes for people with those kinds of psychological preferences.
In order for religions to work in human societies they may need to give literal teachings that are quite strict and absolute, but allow some discretion for believers to deal with the letter of the law in a flexible way. Religions that take away all flexibility and become rigid in most matters of religious law and belief will fail to provide workable or satisfactory solutions to new social problems. Religions that remain extremely vague and flexible in the literal presentation of rules and belief systems will be unsatisfactory for the many people who need such clear directions, and such vague and ambiguous teachings may also not impose a strong check on certain tendencies in human nature that get people into trouble.
Secular legal codes are lengthy and detailed, and people still argue about their application or contradictions. Laws given to us by our secular authorities often have exceptions, exemptions, and loopholes, and these are sometimes thoughtfully written into the laws to make them workable. In contrast, with religions we have the potential for more absolute rules and laws. Religions give more general directives, and it usually ruins the effect of a general directive to add in a list of exceptions, exemptions, or situations where the directive must be applied with more delicacy and less rigor. Even if there are exceptions where a law should be ignored, it seems hardly feasible to address all the various contingencies where this might be so. If laws are good in 98% of all situations, but in 1.9% of situations the law may safely ignored, and in 0.1% of situations it would be better to break the law, then do we really expect holy scripture to go through all possible situations and specifically address the few cases where a law should be ignored or violated?
Most laws, such as “do not murder” are easy to follow. We hardly ever really want to murder anyone. Other laws, such as “only express your sexual nature within a married relationship” are harder to follow. Most humans have opportunities and temptations to violate such a law, and many would gladly do so if there were no law forbidding sexual behaviors outside of marriage. If religions gave us laws that stated, “it’s generally a bad idea to murder, so refrain from it as much as possible” this would hardly increase the rate of murdering going on in our societies. The simple commands “no not murder” or “punish murderers severely” gives us nearly the same result as the milder exhortation to avoid murder as best as we can. Yet, with laws concerning sexual behavior, we would get a different result. If religion taught us that in general we should try to confine sexual behavior to marriage, or we should strive toward heterosexual sexual behaviors as much as possible, this would allow people to engage in homosexual behaviors or sexual behaviors outside of marriage with little caution and little guilt. Simple rules such as “heterosexuality is approved, and homosexuality isn’t,” or “sexual acts within marriage are acceptable, but sexual acts outside of marriage aren’t” give us clear direction, and will aid us in conforming to those standards, even if there are exceptional cases where those standards shouldn’t be used.
Let’s examine homosexuality as an example. I personally assume that homosexuality is “right” and the correct, moral, and ethically responsible way for some small percentage of the population, say about 1% of any human population, to feel and behave. I am convinced of the evidence that in about this percentage of cases the homosexuality is rooted in the configuration of the body rather than learned behavior (that could be unlearned). There is certainly evidence that some persons with homosexual identities and behaviors live satisfying and spiritually rich lives, are good people, and suffer no obvious harm from their homosexuality (beyond the harm inflicted upon them by the prejudices of their societies). This percentage might also include some of us who are born with an indeterminate gender, or those of us born with unusual physical conditions (e.g., women with XY chromosomes and no sensitivity to testosterone, persons with mosaic conditions involving the fusing of male and female twin zygotes, etc.) There is more diversity in human sexuality and sex determination than most people realize, and it seems reasonable to me that homosexuality is the “right” situation for a large number, but small percentage, of the total human population.
Homosexuality isn’t a dichotomous thing where one is either straight or gay. This sort of thing exists along a continuum, where some people are only attracted to same-gender partners, while others are mainly attracted to same-gender partners, and so forth, down the continuum to the many of us who are only attracted to other-gender partners. Still, it seems reasonable, given what we know from research into human sexuality and sexual behavior, that another 4-6% of any population tends toward homosexuality, but could, with some effort, become completely fulfilled in heterosexual relationships. Does it matter if we have values and expectations that allow these 4-6% of potentially homosexual or bisexual persons to do whatever they like, and live with homosexual relationships or heterosexual relationships merely depending on circumstances of their lives? Perhaps it’s better if more of these potentially homosexual persons are urged to actually live as homosexuals, especially if this lowers the birthrate, given the world’s current problem of human numbers and available crop-producing land. Or, perhaps it’s better if society encourages more heterosexuality among those who are potentially homosexual. Or, perhaps it’s better if society and religion make no preference or expectation, and allow people to explore and find what’s right for them without social and institutional pressures.
This is the sort of question where we might turn to religion for an answer, and religions seem to generally discourage homosexuality. I therefore assume it’s better for almost all of these potentially homosexual people to go about the task of pushing themselves toward heterosexual relationships in traditional marriages. But note that I don’t think everyone should be heterosexual. I still think some people are purely homosexual, and I see no reason why they should be pushed toward heterosexuality. There will also be “potentially homosexual” persons who have already formed life-long partnerships or marriages with someone of the same gender, and it would be a violation of the religious teachings about divorce and family to encourage such persons to try to transform into heterosexual persons. To me, the values of loyalty and life-long love in marriage or partnerships seems far more important than the rules about homosexuality.
I assume over half of any population could be socialized toward homosexuality, but that in almost any situation, societies and civilizations are more sustainable and peaceful if in fact this half of the population is generally socialized toward heterosexuality. It seems to me that if religions say nothing about homosexuality or heterosexuality, then perhaps 5% to 10% of a population might engage mainly in homosexual relations, and the potential exists for a society to evolve toward a situation where over half of the population engages sometimes in homosexual acts. Such a society, I suppose, would be overly homosexual. It wouldn’t be healthy, and many people would be living false lives. On the other hand, a society with zero tolerance for homosexuality, in which all homosexuality was severely punished, might force 1% or 2% of the population into false lives and bad moral situations. I don’t want to go into detail about what it means for homosexuality to be “bad” or “good” in various circumstances, or the idea that there may be an optimal range for the incidence of homosexuality in a civilization. Suffice it to say that my reading of the literature on why people become homosexual, how people explore sexuality in heterosexual and homosexual ways, and so forth convinces me that homosexuality can be good and can be bad, and that it seems to be “good” for a small percentage minority of general populations. [Actually, evolution probably gave us homosexuality as a case where there is too much of a good thing. Guys who are almost-but-not-quiet homosexual tend to have more sexual partners than men who are not-at-all-even-close to being homosexual. The advantages to our male ancestors who carried the potential for homosexuality without actually becoming exclusively homosexual outweighed the costs to their male descendants who inherited "too much" of the homosexual predisposition and ended up never reproducing. Even those non-reproducing homosexual relatives could have been helpful uncles and brothers to their more sexually successful siblings and nephews.]
So, if reality works the way I am supposing it works with homosexuality, what are religions to do? If they allow or encourage something that is good for only a small minority, they risk allowing many people to follow a path that isn’t spiritually healthy for them. If they totally forbid something, they risk forcing many people (even a small minority may be millions of people) into a path that isn’t spiritually healthy for them. Given realities like this (if I’m even right that there are such ethical realities), how could religions encourage societies to reach the optimal mix?
It seems almost like a math problem to me. If the religion offers no prohibitions, perhaps 10% to 15% will experiment with this behavior, and 5% to 10% will end up with a life-long pattern of doing this behavior, but only 1% of the population will be having a spiritually good result in the behavior, and the other 4% to 9% will have a spiritually damaging experience. If the religion does prohibit, perhaps only 4% to 8% will experiment with the behavior, and only about 1% of the population will end up with a life-long pattern, and of that 1% about half will be doing what is spiritually correct for their needs, while another half will be have spiritually damaging experiences with the behavior, but also now another 0.5% of the population will be refraining from the behavior when in fact this behavior would be beneficial for them. With no prohibitions, all the 1% of the population that “should” have done the behavior are living as they should, but an additional 4% to 9% is living as they shouldn’t. With prohibitions only half of all the population who “should” have done the behavior are living a life without the benefit of living as they should have, but that’s only half of 1% of the "right" population, and now with the prohibition only about half-of-a-percent of the population that should have refrained from the behavior is actually doing this behavior that is wrong for them. So, without the prohibition perhaps 4% to 9% of a population is living the “wrong” way, while with the prohibition only about 1% is living the “wrong” way.
There might be many experiences in life that work this way. Divorce, homosexual marriage, killing, theft, war, and many other things might generally be bad, but in some rare cases these could be good. Religions may be more helpful to us if they generally prohibit these things, but allow for them through some flexibility and some allowances for discretionary application of religious law in unusual circumstances. Liberally allowing these things in all cases without any cautionary language or discouragement might allow civilizations to do too much of these things. Imposing strict legalistic and literal rules that forbade all killing, theft, divorce, or homosexuality could lead to societies that were also flawed. Sometimes divorce is a good solution to a horrible problem. There are conditions in which a war could be the best solution to an evil situation. I think there are people for whom homosexuality is the best sexual orientation. It seems to me that religions can try to achieve the optimal situation by forbidding certain behaviors softly, and encouraging other behaviors that will help the right people find the right behavior, even if that behavior is softly forbidden.
I really don’t know if sexual behavior and homosexual behavior in particular has any spiritual value or harm attached to it. Promiscuous sexuality seems harmful to most individuals and most societies. But is it evil and sinful? I don’t know. Maybe it is. Maybe homosexuality is bad. Or maybe homosexuality is spiritually neutral, with no good or bad implications. Possibly homosexuality is, as I’ve suggested, a “good thing” for some people, and a “bad thing” for others.
The point is, in many behaviors it’s difficult to know whether an act is always bad or good. Honesty is usually good, but sometimes it’s cruel and tactless, and then it can be bad. Chastity is usually good, but it can be taken to excess where a person hates their sexuality or sexual desire in general, and becomes frigid or prudish or so sexually repressed that after marriage they still cannot enjoy the sexual aspects of love in a marriage. Kindness is certainly a virtue, but it is possible to show too much kindness to a child or a criminal who has behaved in a destructive way, and then too much kindness can lead to a child learning a bad lesson (that they can get away with a bad behavior) or a criminal being let loose to harm another victim. It is praiseworthy to work for social justice and help the poor or disabled, yet a person can devote so much of their life and mental activity to good and selfless deeds that they fail to adequately care for their own needs or fail to develop their spirit in other areas beyond service. For example, a humanitarian could become so dedicated to doing good works for others that they never had time to learn about economics and politics, and then never got involved in changing laws or policies that would raise many people out of poverty or prevent many people from becoming disabled Or, a person could spend so much time doing good works that they lost time for cultivating their own intellect or social networks, and thus missed out on opportunities to innovate or collaborate to have greater efficiency in their good deeds.
So, while religions may say, “such-and-such is bad” or “people must do such-and-such” you will also find that religions make allowances for the fact that sometimes people will do “such-and-such” and in extreme circumstances it may not even be very bad for people to do this. And, likewise, religions tend to teach moderation and wisdom, and ask people to balance various claims on their time and attention. Maybe we all should do “such-and-such” but we can’t do it every waking hour, and we’re not expected to do so.
I don’t expect perfection in complex systems. The universe has some serious flaws in it. For example, with life as common as I assume it is, there must be many planets in every galaxy on which complex multi-cellular life forms evolve into intelligent social animals with emotions and behaviors analogous to what we know as love, loyalty, honesty, and nurturing kindness. Some of these beings probably experience awe, religious ecstasy, and spiritual insight. No doubt that among the several planets with such beings, there must be some that have had life wiped out by supernovae or asteroid collisions. That looks like an imperfection to me. The way that the Black Plague spread over Europe in the 14th century looks like a flaw. But, given the laws of physics and evolution that even make physical existence and life as we know it possible, it’s also a given that you’ll have some of these unimaginably tragic catastrophes. Miscarriages are another example. Some estimates based on studies of women’s hormones suggest that as many as 30% of fertilized eggs (pregnancies) end without a live birth. That’s a terrible cost in dead embryos, fetuses, and babies, but with evolution and sexual reproduction you pay a price like this. That’s the way life works, and it looks like an imperfection and flaw, but it’s no more of a flaw than any other fact of the universe or law of physics or principle of mathematics. It’s just the way the universe works.
Likewise in human systems I expect a certain amount of flaws. In any religion, corporation, government, or family there will be problems rooted in laziness, incompetence, selfishness, and lack of vision. You can expect petty feuds, unimaginative stupidity, a bit of gossip and back-stabbing, some freeloading, and plenty of failure. That’s just the human way, and in any large group of people working together, some of these unimpressive aspects of the human way are going to manifest. Given a human nature that allows us to be noble, creative, ethical, skilled, talented, and altruistic, you’re pretty much stuck with some of the other traits as well.
Religion is a way to give us a push towards what is best in us, and a way to help us recognize and struggle against our worst. I don’t think, however, that religion is a way to force people to become perfect and leave all their flaws behind. Yes, it would be nice to make that quantum leap from our limited humanity and become instant saints. Certainly religion gives us high ideals and goals, and I appreciate that higher expectations lead to better results. Yet, as a practical matter, we’re not all going to become saints, and patience with ourselves and others will help us keep on striving toward the impossibly high goals we have set for ourselves, and never give up.
Some people believe strongly that we must not pick and choose the laws and teachings a religion provides us. We must accept it all or else not accept it. I have known former Baha’is who left the religion because they believed it was intellectually irresponsible to claim identity as a Baha'i while holding beliefs or practicing behaviors that contradicted the mainstream Baha'i beliefs or teachings. I remember one Baha'i girl who had been brought up in a very literalist and fundamentalist family, who seemed to believe that one had to choose between the style of religion she had grown up experiencing or atheism, and she chose atheism.
People who want to judge religions and hold them accountable for their teachings and laws prefer religions in which the laws and teachings are clearly spelled out and all held with equal seriousness and literalism. If the religion says on page X of book Y that action Z is forbidden, then action Z is clearly forbidden, and there is no getting around it. So, in evaluating your religion and its merits or logical consistency, we have established that action Z is clearly forbidden. That is the way they would have it. But do believers really always refrain from action Z? If sometimes believers do action Z, what does that mean?
This is an old question. In the early Christian church there was some controversy over whether Christians should obey the laws of the Old Testament. The Gospel of Matthew (chapter 7, verses 21-23 and much of chapter 13) seems to encourage people to obey the laws and expect that righteous obedient actions are required for salvation. The Epistle of James (e.g., chapter 2, verses 10-14) takes the position that if you break any laws you become a law-breaker, which is bad. But on the other hand, whoever wrote Paul’s letter to the Hebrews stressed that the old Jewish laws were no longer so important (Hebrews 7:11-28; 8:12). See also chapter 7 in Paul’s letter to the Romans, and Ephesians 2:15. You may remember the famous account of Jesus and the disciples gleaning grain on the Sabbath (see Mark 2:27), and the saying that “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” Such a phrase may remind some Baha’is of the fifth paragraph in the Kitab-i-Aqdas, “Think not that We have revealed unto you a mere code of laws. Nay, rather, We have unsealed the choice Wine with the fingers of might and power…”
Here are some of the quotations from Baha’i scriptures related to laws and rules.
“My commandments are the lamps of My loving providence among My servants, and the keys of My mercy for My creatures.”
“Were any man to taste the sweetness of the words which the lips of the All-Merciful have willed to utter, he would, though the treasures of the earth be in his possession, renounce them one and all, that he might vindicate the truth of even one of His commandments…”
“From My laws the sweet-smelling savour of My garment can be smelled, and by their aid the standards of Victory will be planted upon the highest peaks. The Tongue of My power hath, from the heaven of My omnipotent glory, addressed to My creation these words: “Observe My commandments, for the love of My beauty.”
“They whom God hath endued with insight will readily recognize that the precepts laid down by God constitute the highest means for the maintenance of order in the world and the security of its peoples. He that turns away from them is accounted among the abject and foolish.”
What does it mean to “turn away from them” and what does it mean to “observe My commandments” as described in the above texts? For some people, if we find particular laws or teachings in the Baha'i Faith that we dismiss or ignore, then we are “turning away from” the commandments, and we are not observing them. For others, the Baha'i Faith and its laws, including the Kitab-i-Aqdas must be understood in a broad context of religion, human nature, and the covenants between God and man. For some with this sort of understanding, a careful study of the commandments and ordinances reveals that the various laws and ordinances should not be read as a simple list of what we must do and what we must not do, and therefore if we ignore the literal meaning of some laws and teachings we're not really "turning away from God."
The Kitab-i-Aqdas tells us, “To none is it permitted to seek absolution from another soul; let repentance be between yourselves and God.” Does this mean that we can’t ask others to forgive us when we apologize to them? No, it’s a rule prohibiting something like the relationship between a priest who is acting as a confessor and a layperson seeking absolution for their sins. The same paragraph in the Kitab-i-Aqdas prohibits the kissing of hands. Is this a law about a form of sexual expression? No, it’s a rule about egalitarianism and avoiding certain forms of ceremony that would abase one individual in relation to another. The literal meaning of the laws would be misleading. One must understand the context (that some people seek forgiveness through ritual confessions or show respect for authorities by kissing their hands) to see that the laws have a meaning in a context that isn't exactly the literal meaning.
The Kitab-i-Aqdas also tells us to pare our nails. In the same paragraph we are warned to avoid the stinking pools in Persian courtyards. So, how long may we allow our nails to grow? And, does it make sense to give us a book of laws for the whole planet that will be in force for centuries and make a condemnation of a specific sort of cultural phenomena (many different people washing over and over again in a single water source that wasn’t refreshed)? Perhaps it does, if you take everything literally. But there are probably deeper meanings here. For example, the passage about how horrible the Persian pools are illustrates that we should be hygienic. The rule that we should cut our nails comes after a paragraph that forbids any of us from taking authoritative positions where we claim authority for our interpretations. Clearly there is some deeper meaning here, we should protect ourselves, and avoid harming ourselves (the juxtaposition of giving wrong-headed authoritative interpretations to scriptures with the laws about grooming helps make this apparent, as I think Terry Culhane once pointed out).
Imagine a teacher encourages you to use your intellect, look for the deeper meanings, and obey their teachings because you’re motivated by love for the teacher. And then that same teacher says that they value independent and critical thought, that they dislike people being picky, and using religion to play status games about superiority and putting others down. Further, the same teacher sometimes suspends some of their own rules and laws in certain circumstances. The teacher gives you letter after letter telling you how to organize your life and how to organize society so that life will be best for you and for your society, but these letters are mostly exhortations to be devout, virtuous, loving, pure, honest, etc. Then, someone in your class asks for a book of laws, and the teacher gives you a book of laws that is largely concerned with how inheritance rules should work when a person doesn’t leave a will (but the rules say that someone should leave a will). The law book tells readers how people ought to recognize the teacher’s status, but also tells people to pare their nails, bathe regularly, and not commit murder or marry their widowed step-mothers. Now, when you say you are a student who follows such a teacher, will you mean that you follow every letter of the rules in the book of rules, or will you mean that you aspire to follow those rules in the multiple letters that urge people to be decent, devout, loving, honest, etc.? When you do an assignment to demonstrate to your teacher that you have learned your lessons well, will you memorize all the details of the laws in the law book and show that you follow them all to the letter, or will you show that you have passionately been trying to follow all the advice in those letters about being a good person, and also trying to live by the laws in the law book as much as possible? Would such a teacher really expect you to consider all these things equally important? I'm an educator, and I know some of the things I try to help my students learn are vital to their success in life or in their careers, while other things are more like interesting details that might help increase their understanding or appreciation, but aren't really so significant. Isn't that how most things are? Is religion an exception to this?
The Baha’i book of laws has some guidance like this:
Adorn your heads with the garlands of trustworthiness and fidelity, your hearts with the attire of the fear of God, your tongues with absolute truthfulness, your bodies with the vesture of courtesy. These are in truth seemly adornings unto the temple of man, if ye be of them that reflect. Cling, O ye people of Bahá, to the cord of servitude unto God, the True One, for thereby your stations shall be made manifest, your names written and preserved, your ranks raised and your memory exalted in the Preserved Tablet.The book of laws also has some guidance like this:
The Lord hath decreed that the dead should be interred in coffins made of crystal, of hard, resistant stone, or of wood that is both fine and durable, and that graven rings should be placed upon their fingers…. …The Lord hath decreed, moreover, that the deceased should be enfolded in five sheets of silk or cotton. For those whose means are limited a single sheet of either fabric will suffice…. It is forbidden you to transport the body of the deceased a greater distance than one hour’s journey from the city; rather should it be interred, with radiance and serenity, in a nearby place….I’m suggesting that some of this guidance is subordinate to other forms. It matters a great deal that we are trustworthy and truthful. It matters also that we are interred in coffins made of durable wood or stone in a cemetery near the place where we died, but this is certainly less important. Sometimes we won’t be truthful and trustworthy. We’ll fail to follow though on things we said we would do. We will exaggerate. And likewise, some Baha’is will ask to be cremated after death, or they will donate their bodies to medical schools for students to study, or they’ll die without leaving a will.
Yet, these people are all Baha’is. It makes no sense to me to encourage people to leave a religion simply because they don’t live up to all the laws and believe all the teachings.