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Culture

The Elusive, Illusive “They”—You know, THEM!

Maya Bohnhoff | Jul 4, 2016

PART 9 IN SERIES Terms of Faith

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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Maya Bohnhoff | Jul 4, 2016

PART 9 IN SERIES Terms of Faith

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

Consider what it is that singles man out from among created beings, and makes of him a creature apart. Is it not his reasoning power, his intelligence? Shall he not make use of these in his study of religion? I say unto you: weigh carefully in the balance of reason and science everything that is presented to you as religion. If it passes this test, then accept it, for it is truth! If, however, it does not so conform, then reject it, for it is ignorance! – Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 144.

One particularly egregious type of Straw Man argument attributes a set of ideas, beliefs and actions (usually negative ones) to a loosely defined “They.”

For example: in his historical perspective Jews, God and History, Max Dimont presents the idea that racism is a misbegotten child of the Enlightenment. In the course of arguing a point about the political application of anti-Semitism, he states:

The religious politician in the Middle Ages had asked for the banishment of the Jews… The secular politician of the Modern Age did not ask for the banishment of the Jews, because it would not have served his purpose. …The way the first manipulators of anti-Semitism saw it, the Jews had to be kept around as perpetual scapegoats. What they had not foreseen, or wished for, was the emergence of a new breed of totalitarian politician who would advocate the actual extermination of Jews. They had not foreseen that their own irresponsible propaganda would be seized by neurotics and sadists and shaped into a philosophy of murder.

Does this sound familiar? Around the world, many voices have called for the banishment or extermination of groups that are “Other”—Them, and not Us. Various groups fit that definition and suffer the consequences at various times: Muslims, Baha’is, Jews, Buddhists, even Christians.

Individuals and movements blindly make use of the raw material at their disposal to achieve their goals—in the case of Nazism, the raw material included the dire economic and political situation in Germany after WWI, the faux-Darwinian theories of philosophers like Nietzsche and Gobineau, and the human desire to be able to point to something or someone and say, “That is why I hurt! They have done this.” THEM.

In one of his letters to our small-town newspaper, my Christian apologist friend stated that “The Babis attempted to assassinate the Shah.” He generalized an act committed by two deranged young men seeking revenge for the execution of their prophet, and imputed it to an entire religion. Our environment is awash in such broad-brush statements: “The Jews crucified Christ,” “The Muslims want to govern the world through Shariah law,” “The Haitians made a deal with the devil,” “Atheists are immoral,” or “Religion poisons everything.”

All of these statements are evocative and emotional, but none of them are true—and when you think about it, it takes only a moment of “reverse engineering” to realize it.

Let’s take the alleged Haitian “deal with Satan” expounded by a famed televangelist after the earthquake that leveled Port au Prince. This deal was supposedly struck in the late 1800s when the country was held by the French. The televangelist said, on-air: “Something happened a long time ago in Haiti, and people might not want to talk about it. They were under the heel of the French. You know, Napoleon the Third, or whatever. And they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, ‘we will serve you if you will get us free from the French.’ True story. And so, the devil said, ‘OK, it’s a deal.’”

haitians

Setting aside the question of how the televangelist came by this information in the first place, what does it mean to say “They got together?” What “They?” Who? The entire population? Every man, woman and child? In a land without the Internet, email, television, telephones and possibly even consistent mail service, how did They do this? Who contacted the Devil? How did they get in touch with Satan, anyway? Did They do it as a gestalt? Did They elect someone to do it? How? By popular vote? Secret ballot? And how is it that an infallible God aimed the earthquake, fired, and hit a generation of innocents who had nothing to do with this alleged deal?

If you ask questions about propositions like this and the answers don’t make sense, it’s highly likely the proposition doesn’t either.

Aptly did Abdu’l-Baha ask: “Shall man gifted with the power of reason unthinkingly adhere to dogma which will not bear the analysis of reason?”Foundations of World Unity, p. 84.

This generic use of the unspecified “They” has real-world consequences. It can determine how we behave toward others as individuals, as members of religious or secular organizations, as nations. It can affect whether we react to the plight of other human beings with empathy, apathy, or contempt.

So the next time you read a book or an article that makes claims about what a certain “They” thinks, believes, or does, simply reverse-engineer the propositions to see if they make sense. Then ask yourself if the writer has drawn a clear distinction between individual beliefs and actions, and institutional or collective ones.

More than that, ask yourself if those institutional or collective beliefs and actions even exist.

Next: The Benefits of Vagueness

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Comments

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  • Jul 13, 2016
    -
    I wish this engine would allow edits. I meant to say below that none of the people who tried purposefully to undermine my spiritual goals were atheists—unbelievers. They each professed belief in God.
  • Jul 13, 2016
    -
    Sorry my answer below got repeated. Not sure why. Anyway, I wanted to comment that the teachings of the Manifestation must be taken in context with the commandments we know are primary to the Cause of God. Bahá'u'lláh and Abdu'l-Bahá have given much instruction as to how we are to treat even those we view as our enemies. Jesus Christ answers a young lawyer's question about what leads to eternal life by citing one of these primary commandments: "Love your neighbor as you love yourself." To illustrate, He tells the story of the Good Samaritan in which a Jew is ...aided by a member of a group Jews regarded as beneath contempt. He defines those two enemies—men who would have despised each other under normal circumstance—as neighbors to whom His commandment to love applies.
    Bahá'u'lláh does tell Bahá'ís to eschew fellowship with the ungodly, but I think it is too easy to indulge in the same behavior as we see in society around us and define ungodly with a broad, straw brush.
    In the quote about those who disbelieve in God, it is the betrayal that He calls out. And that is what informs whose fellowship I eschew. If I see another person as someone who pushes me to behavior or attitudes that are in opposition to the virtues I want and need to nurture in my own soul, I will eschew that person's fellowship for my own protection.
    Here is the sad reality: none of the handful of people I have distanced myself from because they attempted to undermine my spiritual development were other people who claimed belief in God. My atheist husband never once tried to keep me from going to feast, or spending time with my Bahá'í friends. He rather encouraged me to go to Bahá'í events and attended them himself because my friends became his friends and because he saw my faith as something that contributed to the person he loved.
    Read more...
  • Jul 12, 2016
    -
    Paul, I married an atheist/agnostic. I did this because, despite the fact that he'd been raised in a secular household, he had been raised with the values that have permeated our society because of the teachings brought to us by the Manifestations of God. He was, despite his occasional claim not to believe in God, a godly man. He followed the Golden Rule at least as well as the Christians I had grown up with (with the possible exception of my parents.) My husband has now been a Bahá'í for over 30 years because of his spiritual leanings.
    Conversely, ...I know people who call themselves believers in God whose behavior and attitudes caused me to rethink what Bahá'u'lláh meant when He used the word "ungodly". If I read the scriptures in context, I see godliness as a function of how well one's outer and inner character show forth godly virtues regardless of what they proclaim themselves to be.
    A person can say they do not believe in God, yet harbor spiritual susceptibilities. Another can lay claim to belief and truly be one who disbelieves in God." As Lord Jesus has said, "You shall know them by their fruits."
    Or, as Muhammad put it in the Qur'an, Hast thou observed him who belieth religion? That is he who repelleth the orphan, and urgeth not the feeding of the needy. Ah, woe unto worshippers who are heedless of their prayer; who would be seen (at worship) yet refuse small kindnesses! — Qur’an, Surih 107
    So, ultimately, only God knows the state of a person's soul, we know it only from their attitudes and behaviors. So, I do not think that when Bahá'u'lláh says "ungodly" he means merely someone who claims not to believe in God. Indeed, a religious person who breaks the core principles of faith, who is unloving, unkind, false or vengeful is more ungodly than a loving, kind, truthful or compassionate person who has no religious persuasion. For that religious person behaves as he does in spite of a standard of behavior he claims to believe is divine. The atheist who behaves as Bahá'u'lláh describes has no standard to uphold.
    Bahá'u'lláh's warning does not suggest to me that Bahai's should not befriend atheists or work with them on shared goals—especially in the realm of social change. Were that the case, no Bahá'í would be able to follow the House of Justice's exhortation to become engaged in the public discourse for many engaged in that discourse are people who are not believers.
    Read more...
  • Jul 12, 2016
    -
    Paul, I married an atheist/agnostic. I did this because, despite the fact that he'd been raised in a secular household, he had been raised with the values that have permeated our society because of the teachings brought to us by the Manifestations of God. He was, despite his occasional claim not to believe in God, a godly man. He followed the Golden Rule at least as well as the Christians I had grown up with (with the possible exception of my parents.) My husband has now been a Bahá'í for over 30 years because of his spiritual leanings.
    Conversely, ...I know people who call themselves believers in God whose behavior and attitudes caused me to rethink what Bahá'u'lláh meant when He used the word "ungodly". If I read the scriptures in context, I see godliness as a function of how well one's outer and inner character show forth godly virtues regardless of what they proclaim themselves to be.
    A person can say they do not believe in God, yet harbor spiritual susceptibilities. Another can lay claim to belief and truly be one who disbelieves in God." As Lord Jesus has said, "You shall know them by their fruits."
    Or, as Muhammad put it in the Qur'an, Hast thou observed him who belieth religion? That is he who repelleth the orphan, and urgeth not the feeding of the needy. Ah, woe unto worshippers who are heedless of their prayer; who would be seen (at worship) yet refuse small kindnesses! — Qur’an, Surih 107
    So, ultimately, only God knows the state of a person's soul, we know it only from their attitudes and behaviors. So, I do not think that when Bahá'u'lláh says "ungodly" he means merely someone who claims not to believe in God. Indeed, a religious person who breaks the core principles of faith, who is unloving, unkind, false or vengeful is more ungodly than a loving, kind, truthful or compassionate person who has no religious persuasion. For that religious person behaves as he does in spite of a standard of behavior he claims to believe is divine. The atheist who behaves as Bahá'u'lláh describes has no standard to uphold.
    Bahá'u'lláh's warning does not suggest to me that Bahai's should not befriend atheists or work with them on shared goals—especially in the realm of social change. Were that the case, no Bahá'í would be able to follow the House of Justice's exhortation to become engaged in the public discourse for many engaged in that discourse are people who are not believers.
    Read more...
  • Steve Eaton
    Jul 6, 2016
    -
    I want to comment separately from my post of a minute ago, on
    this "atheist" discussion. The
    Baha'i scriptures say to avoid ungodly people, and they also say
    to mingle lovingly with those of different beliefs. Some folks were
    horrified that Jesus had contact with
    supposedly unworthy people. Aside
    from any specific cautions from the
    Baha'i Institutions, I believe we should weigh the potential good and
    bad effects of any social contacts we
    have, and use wisdom. I haven't
    gotten near the point of seeing my
    enemy as a friend, as Abdu'l-Baha
    urged. ...Therefore, for the time being,
    it might be wisest for me to limit some contacts in order to avoid
    descending into sadness, bitterness,
    and hatred. Somebody else may have put himself in a better spiritual
    place, and have a different pragmatism. We do know that love
    takes risk, so we won't get anywhere
    being unduly self-protective, either.
    There is also the consideration of
    perceptions, as Mr. Desailly mentioned: we have to weigh the
    risk of sending the wrong message
    about Baha'i values with the benefit
    of serving people's needs. It really
    shouldn't be too hard to address
    both issues at the same time!
    Read more...
  • Steve Eaton
    Jul 6, 2016
    -
    I think the urge to simplify in order
    to limit our mental stress is natural;
    everybody wants to feel mental ease
    and peace. However, our aversion to
    daunting complexity can lead us astray, especially when combined with our desire to feel in the right
    (itself partly to serve that internal
    peace) and our also natural aversion
    to perceived external threat. I think over-simplification, generalization, polarization, and on through scape-
    goating to persecution are all just the tactical offshoots of our "inner child's" desire for tranquility and
    safety.
  • rodney Richards
    Jul 5, 2016
    -
    Maya, good article, and agree, "They" and "Them" do not truly exist until labelled or stereotyped, both wrong. Both are generalizations of convenience, poor research and even poorer opinions not based on fact, such as "The Babai's attempted to assassinate the Shah." Yet they and them are so pervasive, from Gallop Polls to surveys, to small group studies, that we don't distinguish the truth from falsehood anymore, it's just accepted.
    This acceptance, blind imitation as the Master calls it, is the bane of humanity, our worst flaw.
  • Joey Meneghini-Relf
    Jul 5, 2016
    -
    So your saying you don't want to share a platform with people just because they might be ungodly? That's kind of against the teachings of unity surely you can't help bring people together if you're arguing firstly to seperate us from people who don't share the same opinions as you.
  • Allen Warren
    Jul 4, 2016
    -
    Inquiry as reverse engineering. Thumbs up.
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