The Baha'i Faith & Religious Freedom of Conscience


From: Negar Mottahedeh <motta003@MAROON.TC.UMN.EDU>
To: Multiple recipients of list H-BAHAI <H-BAHAI@H-NET.MSU.EDU>
Subject:      Freedom of speech and conscience, and Interpretation
Date: Wednesday, October 22, 1997 10:22 AM

Date: Wed, 22 Oct 1997 01:56:20 -0400
From: (Juan R. I. Cole)
Subject: Freedom of speech and conscience, and Interpretation

Dear Susan:

In my posting, I tried to make a number of points:

1) that a very weak and limited "freedom of conscience" without a freedom
of public speech was a feature of Public Religions (not just states) of the
Early Modern period, 1550-1789.

2) that from 1789 we see the advent of a much stronger freedom, that of
public speech, beyond just private conscience;

3) That `Abdul-Baha clearly advocated not only freedom of conscience but
also freedom of *speech* and a democratic society

4) That `Abdul-Baha explicitly forbade Baha'i institutions from punishing
polite speech about religious beliefs as opposed to behavior such as
breaking religious law

5) That since the Universal House of Justice may not authoritatively
Interpret the Baha'i writings, it in any case appears to lack any juridical
standing in imposing a narrow orthodoxy on individual believers.

In your reply, you ignored points 3-5, and seem to say that because the
Baha'i faith is not yet in a position to implement its policies as policies
of state, my argument is flawed. Since 3-5 do not depend on the Baha'i
faith actually coming to power as a theocratic state, however, your
statement does not in fact demonstrate any flaw in my argument. Moreover,
the Letter on Individual Rights and Freedoms of 1988 does argue for
policies extremely similar to those of early modern Protestant regimes that
allowed private freedom of conscience but disallowed freedom of public
expression. That there is a similarity here between Dutch Reformed
Calvinism of 1550-1789 and current Baha'i administrative practice seems to
me a promising comparison that I am sorry you simply dismissed.

I find it difficult to believe that you really hold that complete social
ostracization of people because of their individual views is not a
derogation of their autonomy and basic rights as defined by the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights.

As for the right of a "religion" to define itself, I am astonished that you
should reify the matter in this way. What we are really discussing is the
prerogatives of the Baha'i *administration* to define the religion. I do
not see in Baha'i scripture any bestowal on houses of justice of the right
to interpret the scriptures authoritatively, to make doctrine, or to
require assent to dogma/orthodoxy (which in the nature of the case could
only be their Interpretation of dogma/orthodoxy). Further, I find explicit
denials in `Abdul-Baha of their right to punish polite speech or doctrinal
unorthodoxy in adherents.

Finally, you end by attacking the Enlightenment. First of all, I was not
endorsing the entirety of the Enlightenment project. I was pointing out
that the Enlightenment was that point at which freedom of private
conscience was supplemented by freedom of public speech. Moreover, it was
*`Abdul-Baha* who praised the Enlightenment, in *A Traveller's Narrative*,
for abolishing Medieval restrictions on freedom of conscience and of
speech, thereby making modern liberty and science possible. You have not
addressed `Abdul-Baha's support for *aspects* of the Enlightenment.

As for Voltaire, he was a believer in God and morality, and in a form of
religion compatible with Reason. When he said "crush the infamous thing,"
he was referring to Roman Catholic practices of intolerance, which had led
to the revocation of the Edict of Nantes and therefore to the repression of
the Hugenot Protestants; Jews were also unfairly treated and taxed. The
pre-Enlightenment Roman Catholic Church, which did not even recognize a
right to freedom of conscience, was a major oppressor of non-Roman
Catholics, backed by the coercive might of the Old Regime State. Voltaire
was right to want that coercion of consciences and denial of basic human
rights "crushed," and was right to call it "infamous."

>Religion was to be privatized in order to prevent it from impacting
>society as a whole. Is this really a solution? If religion is not allowed
>to transform the way in which we live, what good is it?

There is a strong and frankly somewhat frightening Utopian strain in this
question. It is very similar to Marx's dictum that philosophers must cease
talking about the world and must now actually change it. The problem with
Utopian programs of world transformation is that they are open to becoming
extremely coercive in practice.

Religion is dying off in the industrialized world. Forty percent of the
French don't believe in God, fifty percent of Swedes don't, and the Dutch
are similar, as are the peoples of the former Soviet Union. Even in Tunisia
20% of the population is unbelievers, and I suspect it is higher in Turkey.
In China it is not clear that very many people at all have any serious
"religious" beliefs. Why have all these billions of people fled organized
religion? Because they found it coercive. They don't want you to set things
up so that their lives have to be transformed in the way that *you*
dictate. The places where religion still does fairly well, such as the
U.S., are places where religion is in fact recognized in law as a private
activity, unlike Sweden where it is very public and tied to the state. So
the evidence is that the sort of religion you advocate produces irreligion,
whereas the Enlightenment privatization of religion, as in the U.S., allows
it to thrive in relative terms. Life is full of paradoxes.


Juan R. I. Cole
U of Michigan