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My friend the historian and I had a long discussion about religion the other day. When he learned about my belief in the Baha’i Faith, he challenged me by saying “I think religion has been responsible for most of the problems of humanity throughout history.”
It shocked him when I agreed.
I told him that Baha’u’llah, the Prophet and Founder of the Baha’i Faith, spoke out strongly against all outmoded, dogmatic and debased forms of religion. In fact, Baha’u’llah blamed the corrupt leaders of religion for the chaos and confusion in the world, and for the suffering of the Prophets of God:
Leaders of religion, in every age, have hindered their people from attaining the shores of eternal salvation, inasmuch as they held the reins of authority in their mighty grasp. Some for the lust of leadership, others through want of knowledge and understanding, have been the cause of the deprivation of the people. By their sanction and authority, every Prophet of God hath drunk from the chalice of sacrifice, and winged His flight unto the heights of glory. What unspeakable cruelties they that have occupied the seats of authority and learning have inflicted upon the true Monarchs of the world, those Gems of divine virtue! Content with a transitory dominion, they have deprived themselves of an everlasting sovereignty. – The Book of Certitude, p. 14.
After our discussion, I think my friend understood that Baha’is have a nuanced, scientific and factual view of the history of religion. We believe, I explained to him, in the pure, altruistic beginnings of all the great religions. We believe that the original teachings of the Prophets and Founders of the world’s great Faiths have formed the chief instrument for the establishment of moral character, order and harmony in the world. But Baha’is also understand that the clergy, who took power and possession of the minds of the people, slowly altered and adulterated the purity of those original teachings, replacing them with dogmas and superstitions and using their positions to advance their own interests. Religion gradually declined and became corrupt, warlike and dead, devoid of its original ideals, inspiration and intent.
In every cycle of religious revelation this pattern of gradual decline and revelatory renewal has taken place. As in all things, the new replaces the old. True religion, when it appears in the world, brings love and unity to humanity. But as the Baha’i writings clearly say, when that original intent is corrupted by religious “leaders,” religion can become “the most harmful agency on this planet”:
True religion is the basis of divine civilization. Material civilization is like unto the body; divine civilization is like unto the spirit. A body without the spirit is dead, although it may be clothed in the utmost beauty and comeliness.
In short, by religion we mean those necessary bonds which have power to unify. This has ever been the essence of the religion of God. This is the eternal bestowal of God! This is the object of divine teachings and laws! This is the light of the everlasting life! Alas! A thousand times alas! that this solid foundation is abandoned and forgotten and the leaders of religions have fabricated a set of superstitions and rituals which are at complete variance with the underlying thought. As these man-made ideas differ from each other they cause dissension which breeds strife and ends in war and bloodshed; the blood of innocent people is spilled, their possessions are pillaged and their children become captives and orphans.
Thus religion which was destined to become the cause of friendship has become the cause of enmity. Religion, which was meant to be sweet honey, is changed into bitter poison. Religion, the function of which was to illumine humanity, has become the factor of obscuration and gloom. Religion, which was to confer the consciousness of everlasting life, has become the fiendish instrument of death. As long as these superstitions are in the hands and these nets of dissimulation and hypocrisy in the fingers, religion will be the most harmful agency on this planet. These superannuated traditions, which are inherited unto the present day, must be abandoned, and thus free from past superstitions we must investigate the original intention. The basis on which they have fabricated the superstructures will be seen to be one, and that one, absolute reality; and as reality is indivisible, complete unity and amity will be instituted and the true religion of God will become unveiled in all its beauty and sublimity in the assemblage of the world. – Abdu’l-Baha, Divine Philosophy, pp. 161-162.