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Q: what’s the opposite of a religious pluralist? A: a religious totalitarian—someone who believes that only their religion could possibly be right.
Eboo Patel, the young Ismaili Shiite Muslim who founded the Interfaith Youth Core organization in Chicago, defines a religious totalitarian as a person who believes that “Only one interpretation of one religion is a legitimate way of being, believing and belonging on earth. Everyone else needs to be cowed, or converted, or condemned, or killed.”
Have you ever met a religious totalitarian? If you have, you might have seen that person as a fundamentalist, a fanatic or a religious zealot, as someone with a very narrow definition of belief and belonging.
Sadly, the world has many religious totalitarians. No religion has a monopoly on rabid fanaticism. Hindu nationalists, xenophobic rabbis, Christian Identity preachers, and Muslim extremists all use violence, coercion and hate speech to advance their fundamentalist agendas.
Thankfully, these religious totalitarians only make up a tiny fraction of people of faith. The totalitarians make news, but the mass of the believers of every great Faith usually don’t. It seems that kindness, love and acceptance of other beliefs aren’t that newsworthy—but perhaps that should reassure us. After all, the news media, by definition, generally covers the out-of-the-ordinary, unusual stories. Journalists often cite the old definition of what constitutes news: dog bites man—not news. That happens all the time. Man bites dog—now that’s news!
When we see a news story about religious totalitarians, then, we can take some comfort in knowing that the news focuses on the strange anomalies brought about by fundamentalists and fanatics; and therefore sets the 99+% of peaceful believers into stark relief by contrast.
When you encounter a fanatic or zealot, though, what should you do? The Baha’i teachings have some good advice—first, they ask us to rid ourselves of every prejudice:
One of the forms of prejudice which afflict the world of mankind is religious bigotry and fanaticism. When this hatred burns in human hearts, it becomes the cause of revolution, destruction, abasement of humankind and deprivation of the mercy of God. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 338.
Second, the Baha’i teachings not only condemn any form of fanaticism, but forbid it:
Third, and most important, Baha’u’llah advises everyone who encounters a religious totalitarian not to contend with that person:
It is not permissible to contend with anyone, not is it acceptable in the sight of God to ill-treat or oppress any soul …. “O ye children of men! The fundamental purpose animating the Faith of God and His Religion is to safeguard the interests and promote the unity of the human race, and to foster the spirit of love and fellowship amongst men. Suffer it not to become a source of dissension and discord, of hate and enmity.” – Ibid., p. 38.
Baha’u’llah follows that encouragement toward love and unity with this specific advice regarding fundamentalists and fanatics:
It behoveth him who expoundeth the Word of God to deliver it with the utmost goodwill, kindness and compassion …. Should a soul fail, however, to accept the truth, it is in no wise permissible to contend with him …. “We have called you into being to show forth love and fidelity, not animosity and hatred.” – Ibid., p. 39.
For Baha’is, that admonition simply means that angry contention and violent argument over religion produces nothing but the opposite of religion:
In brief, O ye believers of God! The text of the divine Book is this: If two souls quarrel and contend about a question of the divine questions, differing and disputing, both are wrong. The wisdom of this incontrovertible law of God is this: That between two souls from amongst the believers of God, no contention and dispute may arise; that they may speak with each other with infinite amity and love. – Abdu’l-Baha, Tablets of the Divine Plan, p. 56.
The Baha’i teachings ask everyone of every Faith to choose noble ends, to evince a spirit of loving-kindness toward all people, and when bitter contention over religion arises, to leave that person to themselves:
The winds of the true springtide are passing over you; adorn yourselves with blossoms like trees in the scented garden. Spring clouds are streaming; then turn you fresh and verdant like the sweet eternal fields. The dawn star is shining, set your feet on the true path. The sea of might is swelling, hasten to the shores of high resolve and fortune. The pure water of life is welling up, why wear away your days in a desert of thirst? Aim high, choose noble ends; how long this lethargy, how long this negligence! Despair, both here and hereafter, is all you will gain from self-indulgence; abomination and misery are all you will harvest from fanaticism, from believing the foolish and the mindless. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Secret of Divine Civilization, pp. 104-105.