The biggest detriment to independence of thought is the temptation and pressure of peers to imitate others.
When we fall prey to this pervasive influence, and begin to imitate the thoughts, beliefs and actions of others, we effectively relegate our own free choices to their opinions or decisions, thereby abandoning the most precious of all human responsibilities: the obligation to determine for ourselves what path to follow.
So it is that the Baha’i writings denounce imitation as the antithesis of justice and as the source of human degradation.
In the Book of Certitude Baha’u’llah describes imitation as one of the most persistent and pernicious evils afflicting religion:
Consider how men for generations have been blindly imitating their fathers, and have been trained according to such ways and manners as have been laid down by the dictates of their Faith. – p. 74.
Abdu’l-Baha goes so far as to cite imitation as a cause of the decline of religion itself:
Imitation destroys the foundation of religion, extinguishes the spirituality of the human world, transforms heavenly illumination into darkness and deprives man of the knowledge of God. It is the cause of the victory of materialism and infidelity over religion; it is the denial of Divinity and the law of revelation; it refuses Prophethood and rejects the Kingdom of God. – The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 161.
Baha’u’llah summarizes the fundamental nature of autonomy when he states that inasmuch as each individual has the capacity to recognize divine attributes, everyone is responsible for his or her own spiritual condition:
… every man hath been, and will continue to be, able of himself to appreciate the Beauty of God, the Glorified. Had he not been endowed with such a capacity, how could he be called to account for his failure? – Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 143.
The most essential and distinguishing characteristic of the Baha’i concept of a justly functioning creation is the progressive and unremitting assistance provided for human advancement—and yet, because ceaseless motion towards perfection must be independent, it might seem that external assistance would encroach on our autonomy. But while the final responsibility for spiritual growth devolves upon individual choice, human progress of every sort, whether individual or collective, is impossible without some sort of external guidance.
This thesis is discussed throughout the Baha’i writings, and it is a logical axiom—we cannot instinctively know who we are or what we are or what objectives we should pursue without someone more educated than ourselves to set us in motion and assist us along the way. Indeed, Abdu’l-Baha goes so far as to assert:
A man who has not had a spiritual education is a brute. Were there no educator, all souls would remain savage, and were it not for the teacher, the children would be ignorant creatures. – Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 126.
Clearly, however, the teacher can only have an effect when there is a potential for spiritual perfections within the student, and such potentiality is the key to understanding the Baha’i concept of this vital but subtle relationship between the educator and the educated. In one of the most often cited passages on the human condition, Baha’u’llah likens human potentiality to a mine rich in gems. The function of the educator is to help us discover the treasures in that mine, bring them into the light, and polish and refine them:
Abdu’l-Baha observes the same principle, stating that:
… education cannot alter the inner essence of a man, but it doth exert a tremendous influence, and with this power it can bring forth from the individual whatever perfections and capacities are deposited within him. – Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 132.