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Religion

Truth, Propaganda, and Shaping the Dialogue

Maya Bohnhoff | Jun 26, 2016

PART 5 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 | Jun 26, 2016

PART 5 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.

…consort with the followers of all religions in a spirit of friendliness and fellowship, to proclaim that which the Speaker on Sinai hath set forth and to observe fairness in all matters. They that are endued with sincerity and faithfulness should associate with all the peoples and kindreds of the earth with joy and radiance, inasmuch as consorting with people hath promoted and will continue to promote unity and concord, which in turn are conducive to the maintenance of order in the world and to the regeneration of nations. Blessed are such as hold fast to the cord of kindliness and tender mercy and are free from animosity and hatred. – Baha’u’llah, Tablets of Baha’u’llah, pp. 35-36.

The purpose of language is to communicate. It can be used to educate and inform, or to obscure and confuse—to build bridges or to drive wedges. Earlier in this series, I wrote about writers who have divisive agendas. Because of the nature of Baha’u’llah’s teachings and the religious culture they inspire, the Baha’i agenda tends toward using language to build bridges between people. But that’s not true of everyone—especially those who attack other religious beliefs.

Some Christian apologists use language to create barriers, simply because their cultural imperative is toward separation and distinction from other faiths rather than unity with them. They divide humanity into the “saved” and the “unsaved,” and try to make them distinguishable from each other. I’m ashamed to admit that I used to say, “I don’t believe in religion. I’m a Christian.” In my naïve view at the time, religion was man-made; only the Christian faith was from God and hence, a real faith. In this realm, language becomes a tool of division, exclusion and disunity.

Let’s take a look at some of the tools used to shape the reader’s or listener’s thoughts and understandings about a subject. The first one that comes to mind is…

Retraction

You often see this tactic in TV legal dramas. An attorney knows the judge will have a particular question stricken from the record, but he asks it anyway, because he also knows that the jury cannot “unhear” it.

courtroom-drama

In philosophical discourse, or in a discussion about religious beliefs, the writer or speaker makes a statement, then retracts it in some way, perhaps by stating that it cannot be proved, or that he has no evidence for it, or that he’s just hypothesizing, but that he’s certain to one degree or another of the truth of the statement. So, the statement is essentially retracted, but once the listener or reader has taken it in, it cannot be unread or unheard. You’ll often see this tactic used in anti-religious rhetoric.

For example, the Lutheran Reverend JK van Baalen, in his 1938 book Chaos of the Cults, states that a Baha’i who leaves the faith (usually a woman, since this is a “ladies’ cult,” according to the author) “has good reason to hide as far as possible out of reach from the leaders of this loving cult. The last statement can, in the nature of the case, not be backed up by references; but the author vouches for its truth.” (p. 89)

This is masterfully done—if you like propaganda. The reader is not likely to remember that Mr. van Baalen said he had no references to show in evidence of his assertion, but they will remember that ex-Baha’is have some unstated reason to hide—an absurd claim, but one that does two things simultaneously. It uses an unfounded fear tactic, and then the fear tactic camouflages the author’s claim that the Baha’i Faith is some kind of cult.

There’s a very good reason Mr. van Baalen cannot back up his statements with actual references—they refute his assertions. They’re simply untrue, and in the way of most propaganda, they play on the emotions rather than relying on actual verifiable facts.

The Baha’i teachings ask us to do exactly the opposite:

Consort with all men, O people of Baha, in a spirit of friendliness and fellowship. If ye be aware of a certain truth, if ye possess a jewel, of which others are deprived, share it with them in a language of utmost kindliness and good-will. If it be accepted, if it fulfill its purpose, your object is attained. If any one should refuse it, leave him unto himself, and beseech God to guide him. Beware lest ye deal unkindly with him. A kindly tongue is the lodestone of the hearts of men. It is the bread of the spirit, it clotheth the words with meaning… – Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 289.

Next time, I’d like to talk about colorful language.

Next: Adding Color: Every Word Endowed with a Spirit

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Comments

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  • Suzanne Mahon
    Jun 29, 2016
    -
    Thank you, Maya, for your contributions to this site, which I have found very enlightening.
  • Steve Eaton
    Jun 28, 2016
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    The court room retraction, along with "non-denial denials" and "non-apology apologies", is in the spirit of "weasel words". I HOPE the majority of people don't fully trust them. Wikipedia and other sites have great articles on these topics. I guess you are right, though, that the "Chaos of
    the Cults" disclaimer could be overshadowed by the dramatic declarations, just as straw men and
    other logical flaws are easily missed.
    Senator Joseph McCarthy of my state
    of Wisconsin proved long ago the power of drama and fear over reason.
  • Eddie Desailly
    Jun 26, 2016
    -
    The selection question referenced by Maya is, as ever, of great interest but it is a decision resting with the Universal House of Justice and the parliaments of the world, not with the individual believers no matter how eruditely opined and expounded by them in favour of any particular tongue. Thanks to Dr. Meyjes' new Geo Ronald book TGI
    https://smile.amazon.com/Greatest-Instrument-Promoting-Harmony-civilization/dp/085398591X?version*=1&*entries*=0&ie=UTF8&pl no room exists any more as to doubting the Master's instructions re Esperanto or re our duty to study it as a religious incumbency on all individual followers of Baha'u'llah
    Darryl has asked a pertinent question ...very much linked to the repeated and emphatic admonitions of Abdul'-Baha, to cite the Guardian's wording, that all Baha'i individuals study and propagate Esperanto irrespective of which language is eventually selected :
    "What would be the advantage if we all learnt Esperanto, but failed to learn the language of ‘utmost kindliness and goodwill’ ?"
    As to judging the proviso inherent in his question I'll leave that to a higher authority. As to the lingual advantages re Esperanto the Guardian has explained in TGI in an official Baha'i letter in Farsi made available in English in TGI just a few months ago just how easy Esperanto is. As to the philosophical advantages and spiritual and religious advantages here we go mes amis:
    The very core of religion itself, i.e. the best beloved of all things in the estimation of Bahá’u’lláh (and Dr. Zamenhof!) is uppermost present in this story: investigating truth for oneself, relinquishing of cultural and lingual prejudice, the duty of consulting and of obeying, a generational stasis in enrolment growth, and above all faith, i.e. faith in ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s preference rather than our own - English, Persian or whatever:
    First: AN INDEPENDENT INVESTIGATION OF TRUTH
    Second: ELIMINATION OF LINGUISTIC PREJUDICE
    Third: CONSULTATION
    Fourth: OBEDIENCE
    Fifth: F A I T H
    Baha'i love. Paul
    Read more...
  • Eddie Desailly
    Jun 26, 2016
    -
    How true dear Maya's words ring! In most cases kindly and softly are best, to be sure.
    As ever of course there's a balance in Baha'i texts.
    What's to be done with the enemies of God, who as her article depicts,
    are often found in religion and what's to be done with our worst enemies among Baha'is?
    “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) (See also Book of Certitude p. 70.)
    Baha'u'llah makes it clear that certain hypocrites in religion forfeit the right to a kindly tongue by nature of their contumacious rebellion, deceit and obstinacy.
    "Be thou as a flame of fire to My enemies...."
    The one and only Guardian of the Baha'i Faith has explained that the exhortation above is unrelated to any physical punishment, rather, to words spoken in admonishment or in my case, written, vis-a-vis recalcitrance on the part of the disobedient and the unfaithful.
    It must be so it seems - unfortunately.
    Baha'i love.
    Paul
    Read more...
    • Jun 29, 2016
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      Abdu'l-Bahá, himself, is our best exemplar of how to handle the sort of deceit and subversiveness that he's speaking of. His language, when addressing the perpetrators of these acts was direct and forceful, but never mean-spirited, sly or cruel.
      It is possible to be "a flame of fire" and still not resort to "flaming". The person with whom I have had the strongest words in my online discussions of social issues is a Bahá'í. I warned him that there are certain behaviors I will not tolerate on my threads and when he refused to heed the warning, I blocked his ...posts from appearing in my thread.
      I did it for a number of reasons, but foremost was that I did not want other friends who frequent my threads and blog posts to be exposed to the sort of "flaming" this person tended to do. Or to the partisan political slants he put on issues that should never be tainted by partisanship.
      As Bahá'u'lláh notes: “Not everything that a man knoweth can be disclosed, nor can everything that he can disclose be regarded as timely, nor can every timely utterance be considered as suited to the capacity of those who hear it.”
      Read more...
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