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What if we thought of religion as more than just a series of rituals and gatherings?
Modern society offers us a wide diversity of activities we can dedicate ourselves to, so for some people religion has become yet another kind of extracurricular activity, like playing a sport, or taking a weekly class. Lots of people practice religion, and some people bond over it, but for many it’s merely one more activity, rather than something that affects every aspect of their lives.
As a result, more and more people think of religion as largely irrelevant, and see it as an old-fashioned institution with little positive effect in their communities.
All over the world one hears beautiful sayings extolled and noble precepts admired. All men say they love what is good, and hate everything that is evil! Sincerity is to be admired, whilst lying is despicable. Faith is a virtue, and treachery is a disgrace to humanity ... But all these sayings are but words and we see very few of them carried into the world of action. On the contrary, we perceive that men are carried away by passion and selfishness, each man thinking only of what will benefit himself even if it means the ruin of his brother. They are all anxious to make their fortune and care little or nothing for the welfare of others. They are concerned about their own peace and comfort, while the condition of their fellows troubles them not at all. – Abdu'l-Baha, Paris Talks, pp. 79-80.
When we reduce religion to just a series of concepts that we agree are good, and keep it at that, does it really have the power to change our society? All holy writings speak of religion’s ability to change mentalities, behavior and entire civilizations—but the decreased importance we give it in our lives has severely watered down its influence, on the individual and on society as a whole.
Why the Baha'i Faith is a Practical Religion
The Baha’i Faith envisions religion as much more than just a nice pastime or a series of meetings. The Baha'i Faith has no rituals, and avoids making distinctions between those who are Baha’is and those who are not. Rather than a religion exclusive to those who consider themselves Baha’i, the Baha’i Faith opens a multitude of activities to anyone who wants to participate. Baha’is make an effort to have spiritual conversations with others, and explore both the inner and outer influence of spirituality with others.
But to describe the Baha’i Faith only as the activities its members organize, or as a series of concepts, or by the characteristics of its members, is to miss the purpose of religion itself. Abdu’l-Baha said:
Religion, moreover, is not a series of beliefs, a set of customs; religion is the teachings of the Lord God, teachings which constitute the very life of humankind, which urge high thoughts upon the mind, refine the character, and lay the groundwork for man’s everlasting honour. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, pp. 52-53.
Refining character and laying groundwork takes an incredible amount of time and effort, and most importantly, it takes a shift in our priorities. As a friend once told me, “religion is not a set of events.” Only meeting semi-regularly to read and speak of profound topics has no real effect on the world, and activities carried out on their own without reflecting on their spiritual effect can quickly fizzle out.
As we make an effort to transform ourselves and our communities, maybe we should re-examine our concept of religion and how it affects our order of priorities. Do we assign it the same value as we do our hobbies? Does all our interaction with religion have to do with scheduled times, or is it something that permeates our entire life, beyond what’s scheduled? Is it a part of the way we think, the way we make decisions? Do we live compartmentalized lives, where our actions become separated from the beliefs we profess?
In different moments in our lives, religion manifests itself differently, and naturally we don’t want to judge how others decide to translate their beliefs into actions. But on a personal level, we can all recognize that we often have the capacity to do much more than we originally thought.
Perhaps, if we want our most deeply-held inner beliefs to truly manifest themselves in the world, we can strive towards more constructive activity in our communities. Maybe we can organize or join activities such as prayer gatherings that strengthen unity among the diverse people in our neighborhood, children’s classes that bring spiritual education to the young, or junior youth groups that empower adolescents to see their own value and role in the world. Those kinds of ideals translated into actions will help us never lose sight of the importance of constantly learning more and more on our own or with others, deepening the understanding that drives everything we do, and always looking to become the best we can be.
Abdu’l-Baha said to the members of all religions:
Actions must be more to them than words. By their actions they must be merciful and not merely by their words. They must on all occasions confirm by their actions what they proclaim in words. Their deeds must prove their fidelity, and their actions must show forth Divine light. – Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, pp. 80-81.
If we view religion as more than just a set of events or weekly meetings, we begin to see the importance of its role in society. It lays the groundwork for a future civilization based on mutual understanding, compassion, and love that celebrates the diversity of mankind. It has an inner component, but is also what drives people’s actions to improve the world around them. Our true religion, so involved in the way we think and act, becomes much more than a set of beliefs we hold ourselves to: it becomes the framework for the life of all human society:
Is not the object of every Revelation to effect a transformation in the whole character of mankind, a transformation that shall manifest itself both outwardly and inwardly, that shall affect both its inner life and external conditions? – Baha’u’llah, The Book of Certitude, pp. 240-241.