The Baha'i Faith & Religious Freedom of Conscience

Subject: Another ex-Bahai speaks out!
Date: 1999/10/18
Newsgroups: talk.religion.bahai,alt.religion.bahai,talk.religion.misc,soc.culture.israel
fyi. Personal testimony of a recent ex-Baha'i. Berekiah [forwarded by]
My Life in the Baha'i Community
It has taken me a long time to decide whether or not to publicly tell
the story of how I became a Baha'i and why I left the Baha'i community.
However, I've decided that I am probably not important enough for anyone
to persecute. Also, I find that there isn't much written about the
experience of Baha'is in small communities, even though most Baha'i
communities in the U.S. have less than 30 members. This is not mean to
be an examination of philosophical differences with the Baha'i Faith,
but a simple recounting of my experience.
For the sake of continuity, I have decided not to digress in order to
explain Baha'i terms and history. Such information is abundantly
available in other Baha'i websites and publications, for non-Baha'is who
are interested.
I first heard of the Baha'i Faith through a friend of mine, who was an
inactive Baha'i. I almost certainly would never become a Baha'i had I
been exposed to the typical teaching project. However, I became
intrigued because of the teachings on the unity of religion, which is
something I already believed in. At first, I was completely unaware that
a Baha'i group was just forming in my town, but I simply investigated on
my own for about three months, before even meeting the local Baha'is.
The Writings of Baha'u'llah were what made me a Baha'i. I decided that
if these writings were not a revelation from God, then such revelation
does not exist. That is still true for me. Take Baha'u'llah away, and
the whole Western prophetic tradition falls like so many dominoes. So if
the reader wonders "Why did she stay so long when she was so unhappy?",
that is the main explaination. That, and the fact I made a commitment
and felt I had an obligation to make it work.
After enrolling in the Baha'i community, I endured a serious of three
shocks that I never quite got over, although I tried for many years:
The first, and actually the least important was the discovery that in
spite of the Baha'i principle of equality between men and women, women
cannot be elected to the Universal House of Justice, which is the
supreme elected body in the Baha'i world. The reason for this is that
'Abdul-Baha said that this must be the case, and that the reasons for it
would be revealed in the future. Like most Baha'is, I was not willing to
abandon the Faith on that account, saying "Well, I don't like it, but I
guess I have to live with it." The composition of the House of Justice
is a rather distant matter and does not intrude on the local life of the
community, where women are very much a part of the authority structure.
Some scholars have questioned whether the prohibition of women was meant
to be a permanent and fundamental principle of administration. This
is an interesting debate, but I would not expect it to change anything
in the near future.
The second shock was, although I had been told that Baha'is do not
prosyletize, there was intense pressure to "teach the Faith." In fact,
community life is supposed to be organized around this mission.
I don't believe that this is a deliberate attempt at deception. The idea
that "prosyletizing" and "teaching" are different come from Shoghi
Effendi, who was Oxford-educated and had a real feeling for fine
distinctions between words. For him, "teaching" was explaining the
principles of the Faith to an interested listener, while proselytizing
was a more aggressive attempt at conversion. However, the average
American doesn't see much difference between "proselytizing",
"converting", "teaching" or "sharing". It all amounts to the same thing,
and most people find it pretty obnoxious. Another thing that happens is
that frustration at the slow growth rate of the American Baha'i
community leads some believers to cross the line.
There actually is a good deal of pressure to do so. A lot of this
pressure is internal: the Writings are clear that teaching the Faith is
one of the obligations of a Baha'i. However, there always seems to be
other people around to remind you should you forget. Occasionally, some
hot-shot makes it his business to give the community a good dressing
down for not meeting their responsibility to the Faith. I know of at
least two people who left the Faith after such a scolding.
This pressure also consumes the community's time with futile projects. I
never knew anybody to come into the Faith through a teaching project; it
was always by personal contact. This endless drive towards teaching
deprives the community of its spiritual center: namely, the Writings of
Baha'u'llah. There is this sense that Baha'is must always be rushing
about doing some activity or another and there is never any time for
study, contemplation, or even fellowship.
Another problem where teaching is concerned is that very few new
converts are active even six months after signing their card. I don't
know how many times I was introduced to a new believer, then never saw
them again. Until we are able to create a fulfilling community life,
there really isn't much point in teaching anybody. People will stay
where they are nurtured, and they won't stay where they aren't nurtured.
It really is that simple.
The final shock, and the worst of all, is the utter all-pervasiveness of
administration. I became Secretary of an LSA within months of becoming a
Baha'i. Many times during those early days I felt as if the Baha'i Faith
had found me a seeker of truth, but for some inexplicable reason, wanted
to turn me into a bureaucrat. In fact, I went searching through the
Writings, and of course, the letters of Abdul-Baha and Shoghi Effendi,
looking for a way I could be a Baha'i and not have all this endless
administrative stuff hanging over my head. I had just undergone the
profound religious experience of recognizing Baha'u'llah, and I was hurt
and disappointed to find His community consumed with things that seemed
rather trivial.
My research only pulled me deeper into the administrative web. According
to traditional Baha'i thinking, there really is no escape from
administration. It was mostly laid down by Shoghi Effendi, the
infallible interpreter of the Writings of Baha'u'llah, who was appointed
by Abdul-Baha, who was appointed by the Manifestation Himself as an
infallible interpreter. When I came to understand the doctrine of the
Covenant, I was basically trapped. ( I should note as an aside that to
new believers who don't research these matters find administration
meaniningless, and this is one reason why they drift away.)
Administration was inescapable. Not only did I have frequent LSA
meetings, but administration takes up one-third of Feast, and elections
must be attended to during Ridvan, the most joyous holiday of the Baha'i
year. (No matter how "spiritual" you claim an election is, it still is
basically business, not a celebration.)
The basic problem is, that in a small community, the Assembly and the
community amount to the same thing; that is, virtually all active
members are on the LSA. Inevitably, the assembly activites take
precedence over community-focused ones. Most disappointing of all, in
this situation, no one has the time for actual study of the Writings:
all the other obligations take precedence. Just try to organize a
deepening in a community of between 8-12 people, and see how far you
Worst of all, is that this administrative activity, for which so much is
sacrificed, never seems to result in much. I'm very familiar with the
old saw that we cannot judge the results of our teaching activity, since
it may have an influence that we don't get to see. However, when year
after year goes by with very few new believers, and those hard-won souls
drop out of sight within months, then it is only sensible to question
the validity of what you
are doing.
Another inexplicable roadblock put in the way of small communities is
the separation of the urban area from the surrounding countryside. It
is, in a word, insane. One long-time believer told me that years ago,
they begged the NSA to allow the "city" community and the "JD" community
to merge, but the pleas fell on deaf ears. "We lose people out in the
country", this believer sighed, and he's right! We've got to be the only
religion on the planet that asked new converts whether or not they live
within the city limits. I personally have had the experience of driving
into town from the JD, through the city, past the very place where the
city was having their Feast, to the other side of town where our Feast
was. I know this policy contributed to my isolation in later years.
After living with, and considering this problem for many years, I've
finally come to the conclusion that the National Spiritual Assembly
doesn't give a rodent's hindquarters about the quality of community life
at the local level, but is only concerned about how good the statistics
look. Why have only one LSA, when you can have two? They both might be
completely defunct; they may only exist on paper, but when we tally up
the statistics for the public, it sure looks good. At one point, there
were over 20 Baha'is living in my county, but they were divided up into
two communities, and two "isolated believers". Instead of a strong,
continuous community, we had two assemblies that were always
jeopardized, bumped down to group status, or barely rescued by Ridvan.
Worst of all, it reduced all of us to just cogs in a big machine.
Perhaps typical of this attitude was a strange phone call I got quite
recently: A Baha'i lady from the "city" community called, after hearing
a rumor that I had come back to the Faith. She did not call to see how I
was, or to invite me to an event, or even just to chat. She called me to
see if I would help with the Unit Convention which they are hosting in
October! Why worry about the state of someone's soul, when they have a
pair of hands?
Activity in our community went in "pulses", as one of the long-time
locals described it. Activity would gear up, usually sparked by someone
new moving in. Things would chug along pretty good for a while, then key
people would move out and things would fall apart, until the cycle
started all over again. I served on LSAs, when we had them, for nine
years, in spite of my distaste for this kind of work. It's hard to just
bow out and say "You guys can do all the work". Besides, I was a Baha'i.
How could I not want to help the Cause? But I resented it terribly, and
felt guilty about my resentment, and so those years were ones of intense
conflict for me.
This contributed to my decision to move to another town in the county,
with a population of 400, which by historical accident happens to be
incorporated. (That wasn't the only reason we moved there. Finding an
affordable, adequate house was the main thing.) I thought, with a twinge
of guilt, that I could enjoy the best of both worlds, able to attend the
events of two communities while escaping the administrative net.
However, it didn't turn out that way. The JD community basically
consisted of two busy families who could never find a mutually agreeable
time to meet. The city, for some reason couldn't stick to a calender,
even when it bothered to print one. Many times I found myself on a front
porch for an advertised event only to be informed that it had been
cancelled, or that I should have called first, or there was simply
nobody there. When I was informed of events, it was often scant hours
beforehand. Basically, if you weren't in the inner circle of four or so
that consistituted the most active people, it was impossible to get
accurate information about what was going on. To this day, I'm not sure
whether or not my exclusion was deliberate or simply the lack of
organization. Often, city community members would refer to me as a
"homefront pioneer" and made it clear they expected me to raise up
my own community by converting people in my little town.
Eventually, I decided I wouldn't bother about Baha'i activities, except
for children's classes, which were very important to me. They always
seemed to start off with a bang in the Spring, meander on haphazardly
through summer, then be completely defunct by October. The final straw,
as far as putting up with the local community was concerned, came in the
fall of 1998. I called, as usual, to check if children's classes would
really be there, and was told that they were having a big intercommunity
event over Labor Day Weekend. I would be called back when children's
classes began again. About a month later, I saw Baha'i children's
classes advertised in the local paper. I was very hurt that no one had
bothered to call me, but I took my children into town anyway. And, for
the last time, I stood on a front porch where nobody answered the door
and something snapped. I finally didn't care anymore whether anybody
called me or not.
I was furious. While at this point, I had no plans to leave the Faith, I
did have one recurring thought: if the administrative order were
ordained by God, surely it would work better.
In spring of 1999, I went back to school in pursuit of my teaching
credential, and for the first time had access to the Internet. And I
found that article entitled "A Modest Proposal", which, if you aren't
familiar with it, was an article slated for publication in Dialogue
magazine containing proposals for reform in the Baha'i community.
As it happens, I attended the now-infamous 1988 National Convention with
a friend of mine who had been elected delegate. I was a subscriber to
Dialogue magazine, and was a bit distressed to hear Firuz Kazemzadeh
denounce it on the floor of the Convention. I had sometimes found
articles in the magazine disturbing, but I mostly found it a refreshing
change from the "official" stuff that seemed to bear so little relevance
the the real struggles we were going through.
I don't recall exactly what Dr. Kazemzadeh said. I most clearly remember
a Persian believer say that these people were worse than
Covenant-breakers, which I thought was a bit of an overstatement.
However, the impression I got was that the "Baha'i dissidents" behind
the magazine were snotty and disrespectful, and that I should withhold
my support.
And there I was, eleven years later looking at "A Modest Proposal", and
I knew I'd been lied to. All the "dissidents" had done was make
proposals that could improve the situation in the American Baha'i
community. All they had done was express opinions. I think what the NSA
feared most was that these proposals might sound reasonable to more than
a few Baha'is, and might actually result in change.
I withdrew from the Baha'i Faith on Naw-Ruz, after nearly fourteen years
as a Baha'i.
The more I've investigated, the more I am confirmed in my belief that
leaving the Baha'i organization was the right thing to do. I am appalled
at how legitimate scholars have been treated. As far as I'm concerned,
the National Spriritual Assembly have betrayed the Message of
You can't investigate truth without asking questions. You can't claim
that science and religion agree, then persecute the scientists. If the
Covenant must be defended by dishonesty and injustice, then maybe its
not worth defending.
I still am, and always will be, a believer in Baha'u'llah, though that
faith was severely shaken for a while. I've had time now to work through
the anger, which would have been impossible if I'd remained in the
Baha'i community. I am hoping, instead, that someday there will be a
real Baha'i community, one in which people care about each other and the
good of mankind. A community that serves God, not a bureaucracy that
cares little for the people that support it. I'm keeping my eyes open,
and I'm waiting. (September 24,1999)