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The Problem with Organized Religion

Greg Hodges | Feb 16, 2015

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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Greg Hodges | Feb 16, 2015

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

But do not therefore attribute to the Masters and Prophets the evil deeds of their followers. If the priests, teachers and people, lead lives which are contrary to the religion they profess to follow, is that the fault of Christ or the other Teachers? – Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 41.

Countless people today feel the importance of spirituality in their lives, but remain uncommitted to any specific faith tradition.

For a great many of them, the reason is the same: they do not believe in organized religion. They don’t necessarily reject the teachings of historical figures like Jesus, the Buddha, or Muhammad–quite the contrary. Instead, they understand that once the spiritual paths those great teachers represent become institutionalized, they start to lose their power to enlighten souls and instead become tools for violence, exploitation, and fame.

It takes a willful ignorance of history to deny that. In fact, much of what humanity remembers about its collective past centers around large-scale, religiously-legitimized violence. This passage from the Baha’i teachings describes the pattern and the problem in a brief but powerful analysis:

…the foundation of all religion is brotherhood, comradeship and friendship to all. But alas, a thousand times alas! Religion, which should serve to promote oneness and love among men, has become an instrument of animosity and hatred. Religion, which was established to build up and gladden hearts, has become a means of darkening the world. All the prophets appeared that oneness of men might be taught. How much suffering these prophets had to endure to unfold this illumination among men. His Holiness Jesus Christ offered His life. He endured the greatest humiliation; His head was crowned with a crown of thorns. He endured all things so that the world might again unite and that He might cement the hearts of men through His love. But today the first duties of religion are neglected. The first duty and the basis of each religion is the love of God. Love has vanished and hate and animosity have taken its place. Instead of these simple principles we now have dogmas and imitations, and because the dogmas and imitations differ we have constantly strife and war. Fanaticism is the only aim. These fanatics are actually thirsty for their brother’s blood, they condemned one another and considered each other unclean. – Abdu’l-Baha, Star of the West, Volume 3, p. 156.

Religious-textSo what should we do about organized religion? First, we need to decide what to make of religion itself. If you don’t believe in God, the soul, or other such things, then the solution is clear enough: Just reject all of it, whether organized or not, and move on with your life. After seeing the hypocrisy in much of organized religion, many people have done exactly that.

However, things get a little trickier if you believe there is something to religion, something deeply important to us during our stay upon this earth. What follows I address primarily to this second group of people. I want to reframe the problem, by suggesting that what religion needs is the right kind of organization, rather than an abolition of all organization per se. Religion may need more organization, not less, to hold on to its authentic spiritual core–and not be co-opted by those who would distort it for their own corrupt purposes.

How does a religion that stresses compassion, tolerance, and enlightenment gradually get corrupted? How does it get misshapen into a state ideology for powerful, violent and oppressive empires? Here’s a partial answer: at an important crossroads in its growth and evolution, those who represented that particular Faith’s original spirit of love and compassion did not have enough influence to counteract the all-too-human trends toward institutionalization–which made it easier for the rich and powerful to manipulate it for their own ends.

At that crucial juncture, a rising tide of power struggles and rigid formulas overwhelmed the true, original spirit of the religion, and gradually marginalized that spirit until it became little more than a memory. This process has occurred over and over, throughout history, to most of the world’s great Faiths. Given that framework, the next question becomes obvious–how can the true spirit of a religion perpetuate itself from century to century and protect itself from the corrosive influence of wealth and power?

In the second and final part of this essay, we’ll explore that critical issue.

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  • Feb 19, 2015
    The solution to the problem of institutions in general, including religious institutions, is (1) To eliminate from institutions the psychopathology of alpha-male competition for power and control of the institution; this, in theory, is what Baha'u'llah accomplished in the Bahai administrative order. (2) To publicly assess, measure, consult about, and "bring to account" society's institutions in terms of their effectiveness in helping build a progressive, sustainable Earth Community. This process of open self-assessment is something that the Baha'i community needs to work on in relation to its own institutions..
    Take for example the issue of Bahai engagement with the person-to-person friendship and cooperation language Esperanto.
    Abdu'l-Baha said, "Praise be to God that Dr. Zamenhof has constructed the Esperanto language." He told us of the "divine benefits" of Esperanto, told us "all" to learn Esperanto and to get it into the schools. In 1938, Shoghi Effendi informally proposed that the Baha'is should provisionally adopt Esperanto. In 1973, the House of Justice created the Bahai Esperanto League.
    For the most part, the words of the Master, the Guardian, and the House of Justice in this regard have been ignored by the grassroots and mid-level Bahai leadership. Despite brilliant individual exceptions, over the decades, since Abdu'l-Baha and the time of the Guardian, creative Baha'i engagement with Esperanto has faltered, despite the fact that greater and more thoughtful individual Bahai use of and engagement with Esperanto could have created incalculable spiritualizing and globalizing benefits for millions and tens of millions of children around the world -- for Esperanto's ideal role would be to serve as a child's first foreign language, leading to the easier and quicker learning of other more difficult languages such as English and Spanish.
    Through support of Esperanto in the schools, the Bahai community could have become known worldwide for its embrace of global education. Instead, blocked by their geopolitical and cultural biases from appreciating the spirituality latent in Esperanto, many or even most current grassroot Bahais and mid-level Bahai leaders have failed to take heed of the Master's and the Guardian's words and, now, have often no clue about the practical benefits that could be flowing to the Bahai community and particularly its children from Esperanto, thinking of Esperanto as having "failed" when in fact it is among the top 30 languages of Wikipedia and is more active than ever before.
    In effect, through a failure to follow their own high-level leaders, the Bahai community and its mid-level leadership have thrown away a golden opportunity to help improve the world in terms of educational and community-building projects that fit exactly into the Plans of the House of Justice.
    Now, as the Esperanto movement expands over the Internet, the Baha'is are being left behind and are often seen by other Esperantists as hypocrites to their own teachings---one more reason to abandon interest in organized religions and people who do not walk their own talk.
    Much the same could be said about the social and economic teachings of the Catholic Church. If the world were to follow these teachings, it would be another world. However, the failure of mid-level Catholic leaders and the lay community to follow and insist on their own socio-economic teachings simply spreads cyncism about the Church and its teachings in general.
    A special set of national and regional assessment and consultation conferences with direct input from the Bahai public about the effectiveness of the Bahai administrative order in following its own teachings would be a great cleansing force that could invigorate the faith and energy of many who have become discouraged about institutional religion and its bureaucratic and self-perpetuating tendencies.
    As Christ told us long ago, institutions are made for humanity, not humanity for institutions. Even if we believe that our institutions are infallible at the top, we know they aren't so below the top, and the failure of religious institutions to have a significant impact on the plethora of global problems now in front of us should alarm us to call them into account, just as we should call ourselves to account every day.
    If religions and their institutions are not solving our urgent global problems, including the problem of global person-to-person communication, why bother with them? Let institutions that ACT lead us instead.
    John Dale
    • Feb 20, 2015
      The 'open self-assessment' that John courageously calls for in his opening paragraph is named CONSULTATION:
      “Consultation He [Baha’u’llah as penned in GPB by the Guardian] establishes as one of the fundamental principles of His Faith; describes it as ‘the lamp of guidance,’ as ‘the bestower of understanding,’ and as one of the two ‘luminaries’ of the ‘heaven of Divine wisdom." Elsewhere, in a rare call as to the use of force, He has stated that this matter of consultation must be forcibly stressed by thee and so I obey though my pusillanimous personality prefers anything but the use of ...force - verbal or physical.
      This BahaiTeachings site i m o is A! re compositions but seriously sub optimal, as befits not such a professional and dedicated team of Baha'is, vis-a-vis interactivity and consultation as demonstrated once again in the paucity of response to John's many wise suggestions which I'm sure he sees as a melancholy but necessary duty to air at all.
      In excess of one quarter of a century in circumstances tantamount to propagation-deceleration the Bahá'í International Community conducts virtually no systematic consultation on Esperanto and the Bahá'í Teachings! and worse yet, rarely presents a paper or promotes consultation on the fundamental and eternal principle of a universal auxiliary language whatever language is eventually chosen.
      Given in all matters that consultation is incumbent upon all followers of Bahá’u’lláh how much more important it is vis-à-vis an eternal principle of the Faith vitally linked to its dissemination! This last claim is amply proved in the Writings. Let’s be crystal clear as to what’s at stake here whether the Bahá’í congregation is stuck, stable or swelling: those who purposefully retard or merely shun consultation - itself a fundamental principle of the Faith – in regard to another fundamental principle of the Faith are demonstrably in breach of the Covenant. All of the principles are obligatory! “Observe every ordinance of Him Who is the Desire of the world” constitutes the crux of Bahá’u’lláh’s opening paragraph of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, His Book of Laws and the Mother Book of the Bahá’í Dispensation.
      Again, for my part, none of the above criticizes Baha'i institutions per se because the Universal House of Justice as an institution is perfect and so are its elucidations regarding Esperanto. Some Baha'is are simply and demonstrably in error when they rule out criticism as a valid modus operandi.
      Baha'i love.
  • Feb 16, 2015
    Greg writes: 'I want to reframe the problem, by suggesting that what religion needs is the right kind of organization, rather than an abolition of all organization per se.'
    Me too Greg, I want to reframe it too because if leaders of institutions fail to follow the Teachings and are demonstrably seen failing to follow those Teachings then a beautiful shell of administration and infrastructure and Houses of Worship etc remains in tact which the general public admires from a distance but wont engage until it sees something better than what it already has. For example, I think the Roman ...Catholic church has a beautiful admin and monumental architecture in which to frame it but few new believers come on board and many believers require constant pep talks to buoy them. So much influence is held by the one leader in Rome or one grand ayatollah in Teheran etc no matter how beautiful the religious system is. Let's not forget that Baha'u'llah has not ruled out the coming of another Manifestation of God. What does that suggest about our own Baha'i future? What the Catholics and Muslims need Greg is the right kind of organizers, i.e. real leaders with courage and enthusiasm, setting the right kind of example vis-a-vis the teachings of the Founder and then the public wants to come along.
    All of the previous Dispensations were fine and all of their administrations were more than adequate for saving the world until certain 'leaders' inside those fine administrations betrayed the teachings of the Founders or simply ignored or obscured them. The Baha'i Faith likewise from the time of Mirza Yaya and in the era of Mason Remey and in our time vis-a-vis Covenant Breakers and other pretenders to the Guardianship includes traitors and hypocrites all dressed up for one another.
    “The worst enemies of the Cause are in the Cause and mention the name of God. We need not fear the enemies on the outside for such can be easily dealt with. But the enemies who call themselves friends and who persistently violate every fundamental law of love and unity are difficult to be dealt with in this day, for the mercy of God is still great. But ere long this merciful door will be closed and such enemies will be attacked with a madness.”
    (‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Star of The West, Vol.6, No.6, p.45)
    Baha'i love
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