What’s your first thought when you hear the word religion? Today, many people definitely do not have an immediate positive association.
In the modern era, the word religion can carry a hefty load of several preconceived notions and misunderstood connotations. Along with the word religion, many terms associated with it such as obedience, law, power, rank, authority, institution, and so forth seem archaic, outmoded, and at times coarsely medieval in the modern and post-modern age.
Many of us think of religion as an arbitrary code of laws that must be mechanically or ritualistically followed; or an overly authoritative, dictatorial and coercive way of life foisted on unthinking people by a rigidly institutionalized belief system.
These conceptions of religion stem from our history with manipulative, power-hungry clergymen in the past. The clerical authorities in many different faith traditions have traditionally punished, suppressed, threatened to excommunicate, and used various unscrupulous methods to manipulate their followers to ensure full dominance. As a result, a separation between church and state developed in western cultures. In eastern cultures, many still suffer from clerical oppression, brain-washing hate speeches, denominational tensions, geopolitical interference, terrorism, and so forth.
To remedy that tendency, Baha’is have no rabbis, priests or mullahs. Instead, the Baha’i teachings encourage everyone to independently investigate the truth and decide what to believe themselves. According to the French Encyclopedia Larousse, the Baha’i Faith:
… has no clergy, no religious ceremonial, no public prayers; its only dogma is belief in God and in his Manifestations …. Ritual holds no place in the religion, which must be expressed in all the actions of life, and accomplished in neighborly love …. No one has the power to receive confession of sins, or to give absolution. The priests of the existing religions should renounce celibacy, and should preach by their example, mingling in the life of the people.
How did a global religion develop without clergy? Baha’u’llah, the prophet and founder of the Baha’i Faith, established the Baha’i law that no clergy would ever exist in his Faith: “This is not the day whereon the high priests can command and exercise their authority.” – The Proclamation of Baha’u’llah, p. 105. Also, the Baha’i teachings say:
God has created in man the power of reason, whereby man is enabled to investigate reality. God has not intended man to imitate blindly his fathers and ancestors. He has endowed him with mind, or the faculty of reasoning, by the exercise of which he is to investigate and discover the truth, and that which he finds real and true he must accept. He must not be an imitator or blind follower of any soul. He must not rely implicitly upon the opinion of any man without investigation; nay, each soul must seek intelligently and independently, arriving at a real conclusion and bound only by that reality. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 291.
With this independent investigation of reality, the Baha’i Faith has the regenerating power to renew and shift our paradigms. In other words, The Faith does not abandon terms like religion, power, and obedience—but rather elevates the understanding of the terms; eliminates common distorted misperceptions of their connotations; and renews their purpose:
Every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God is endowed with such potency as can instill new life into every human frame, if ye be of them that comprehend this truth … Through the mere revelation of the word “Fashioner,” issuing forth from His lips and proclaiming His attribute to mankind, such power is released as can generate, through successive ages, all the manifold arts which the hands of man can produce. This, verily, is a certain truth. – Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, pp. 141-142.
The world’s equilibrium hath been upset through the vibrating influence of this most great, this new World Order. Mankind’s ordered life hath been revolutionized through the agency of this unique, this wondrous System—the like of which mortal eyes have never witnessed. – Baha’u’llah, The Proclamation of Baha’u’llah, pp. 118-119.