At some point in the future, historians may look back on this early part of the 21st Century and declare it the age of unbelief. Never before have so many people in so many diverse societies come to the conclusion that organized religion does not merit their allegiance, adherence or belief.
Individually, many thinking people have simply decided to vote with their feet, leaving their churches, temples and mosques and deciding to practice what they believe on their own.
That leaves us, however, with an enormous vacuum. People and civilizations thrive when they participate in a spiritual community, a unified group of like-minded individuals that can support and help one another. Instead, because of the corruption and hypocrisy that religious institutions have demonstrated, we’ve thrown off all semblance of structure and authority, and left everything up to individuals. That permissive, anything-goes approach gives exactly the right opportunity for ambitious religious leaders who will say and do whatever it takes to advance their careers, or for belligerent politicians who will passionately invoke religious ideas to do things that are utterly contrary to their intent and purpose.
When this kind of corruption occurs, what could anyone point to as the embodiment of that religion’s true spirit? No satisfying answer to that question exists, if a religion is defined as whatever an individual wants it to be. And so long as a religion that teaches peace fails to practice peace, someone will usually fill the vacuum and put it to use as a religion of violence.
That’s where the right kind of organization becomes critically important. What needs organizing isn’t just people–but also the collective effort a community makes to translate its core principles into action. In other words, religion is as religion does. Only unified actions from any Faith will make its deeds as strong as its words.
Effective organization of community practice can make a religion inhospitable to capture by negative influences. Those kinds of organizational structures can allow people to get together from time to time, reflect and ask themselves: “How are we doing? Is our practice of this religion becoming stronger or weaker? Are we holding to or straying from our religion’s main purpose?”
That’s how I see things as a practitioner of the Baha’i Faith, a source of spiritual knowledge that has filled me with more hope for the future. The Baha’is have a democratically-elected organizational structure, without any clergy, that has embraced organizing and systematizing its action within the world. That structure, which promotes the unity of all Faiths and the return to their original messages of love and harmony, came directly from the original Baha’i teachings:
Baha’u’llah proclaimed the ideal of universal peace among religions. The fundamental principle of religion is one and the same–all the prophets guided mankind to divine love. They have called them to the knowledge of God. They have taught them the unity of the human race. They have summoned them to the furtherance of human virtues. They have enlightened the fundamental law of morality. The differences of the various religions are the results of dogmas and imitations, so we must give up dogmas and turn our faces to the foundation of religion. Dogmas have always been the cause of strife, while religion was always the cause of unity. Baha’u’llah proclaimed that religion will again bring love and friendship to mankind; if it does not fulfil this duty, then is it a failure. Religion must be the antidote for all illness. If the medicine makes the sickness worse, then it is better not to take it. – Abdu’l-Baha, Star of the West, Volume 3, pp. 156-157.
Baha’is believe that religion must produce spiritual progress and genuine human love and unity in order to demonstrate the truth of its message.