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Does Critical Theory Contradict Religious Belief?

Vahid Houston Ranjbar | Aug 13, 2021

PART 2 IN SERIES Critical Theory in Light of the Baha’i Teachings

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.

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Vahid Houston Ranjbar | Aug 13, 2021

PART 2 IN SERIES Critical Theory in Light of the Baha’i Teachings

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.

By the mid-20th century, the “impending convulsions and chaos” that Baha’u’llah, the founder and prophet of the Baha’i Faith, foresaw had already ravaged the world in the form of fascist and Soviet-style totalitarianism and the World Wars they provoked:

The winds of despair are, alas, blowing from every direction, and the strife that divideth and afflicteth the human race is daily increasing. The signs of impending convulsions and chaos can now be discerned, inasmuch as the prevailing order appeareth to be lamentably defective.

RELATED: World Unification or World War

This chaos and the human suffering it engendered led the Frankfurt School of German Marxist intellectuals and philosophers to question some of the fundamental assumptions of Marxism and the Western Enlightenment tradition – primarily, that a society based on Enlightenment-era reason rather than traditional religion could deliver a better life for most people.

In their response, the Frankfurt School introduced what they termed “Critical Theory” as a method to expose the inherent power structures embedded in the assumptions of Enlightenment-style thinking. Ultimately, they believed that these structures of knowledge, in the service of a ruling class, were responsible for domination and abuse — which manifested themselves, for example, as racism, militarism, and sexism. 

They concluded that racism and sexism were maintained by the social structures and reinforced by what they termed the “culture industry” – more than by the actions or psychology of any given individual. Max Horkheimer described Critical Theory as an approach “to liberate human beings from the circumstances that enslave them.”

Understanding the “Culture Industry”

Herbert Marcuse, a philosopher and member of the Frankfurt School, sought to challenge the very concept of domination and exploitation inherent in Enlightenment-style thinking in his works Eros and Civilization and One-Dimensional Man. Marcuse believed that part of the solution to the catastrophic consequences of the Enlightenment were to be found in the use of art as a method of social awakening and in the exercise of what he termed “The Great Refusal” against what “Is.” 

Social change, in Marcuse’s view, required a change in the subjectivity of the masses of people, since societal problems arose from cultural norms, developed and reinforced by the entertainment and marketing industry. This so-called culture industry brainwashed humans into thinking of themselves in only two roles: workers and consumers, lacking any depth outside of these two narrow categories of being. Marcuse saw art as one of the few ways to effect change against this mode of thinking and enkindle the type of radical subjectivity necessary to challenge outdated and oppressive cultural norms. 

The Liberation of Women as a Marker for a Truly Modern Civilization

Herbert Marcuse also saw the liberation of women as central to the liberation of all oppressed people in society, thus echoing Abdu’l-Baha’s pronouncements, made decades earlier, concerning the imperative of the education and emancipation of women:

… among the teachings of Baha’u’llah is the equality of women and men. The world of humanity has two wings – one is women and the other men. Not until both wings are equally developed can the bird fly. Should one wing remain weak, flight is impossible. 

In a speech he gave in New York in 1912, Abdu’l-Baha said:

The status of woman in former times was exceedingly deplorable … Baha’u’llah destroyed these ideas and proclaimed the equality of man and woman. He made woman respected by commanding that all women be educated, that there be no difference in the education of the two sexes and that man and woman share the same rights.

RELATED: The Happiness of Mankind Depends on Equality for Women

This new religious law – the Baha’i principle of gender equality – represents a profound change in the way society treats its women. It opens up avenues for enormous progress; frees half of the human population from its historical subjugation; and allows societies that have previously suppressed their feminine qualities to achieve a better balance between male and female attributes, as expressed in this passage quoting Abdu’l-Baha from J.E. Esslemont’s book Baha’u’llah and the New Era:

The world in the past has been ruled by force, and man has dominated over woman by reason of his more forceful and aggressive qualities both of body and mind. But the balance is already shifting; force is losing its dominance, and mental alertness, intuition, and the spiritual qualities of love and service, in which woman is strong, are gaining ascendancy. Hence the new age will be an age less masculine and more permeated with the feminine ideals, or, to speak more exactly, will be an age in which the masculine and feminine elements of civilization will be more evenly balanced.

These unique Baha’i teachings – not just the emancipation of women, but the eradication of warfare and prejudice of all kinds and the unification of humanity – preceded the insights and critiques of the Frankfurt school and their development of Critical Theory by many years. So how do the Baha’i prescriptions for an equitable human civilization relate to the modern conceptions contained in Critical Race Theory? In the next essay in this series, we’ll delve into that question.

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