I am a 30’ish white male in America. I’ve noticed that many of my Baha’i friends are really struggling with their personal faith these days. There are a variety of reasons for each one. Some have become inactive Baha’is, others have left the Faith entirely and turned to agnosticism or atheism. This trend deeply concerns me. These were young men and women with incredible capacity. They were well-deepened, well-educated, and inspired with zeal and enthusiasm for the Baha’i Faith. They were tremendous assets to the Baha’i community, and I am truly saddened for the loss of their contributions to the Cause.
On the surface of it, it is their choice. They are making a decision of their own free will. But on the other hand, I think the Baha’i community does have a role to play in this process. I think the Baha’i community can make it harder for my friends to stay Baha’is, and this is something we can change. Instead of making it harder for them to stay a Baha’i, I believe we can make it harder for them to leave the Baha’i Faith,.
A more complex problem
I would explore all the reasons I think my friends struggle with their personal faith and how the Baha’i community actually makes it harder for them in this struggle, but this blog post would probably take on epic proportions. Suffice it to say that they face many mental tests. Some face tests from their coworkers, others face tests from their higher education environments, others face tests from the other Baha’is and the institutions. Many of them feel like they were betrayed, like they were brainwashed, or taken advantage of in their youth. They were made to believe during youth institutes, study classes, and conferences that the world was black and white, that teaching the Faith and devotion to the Cause were simple equations of personal will triumphing over lesser ideologies, and that if they stayed true to the Baha’i Faith that they could overcome anything. They often adopted Baha’i heroes who they held up as examples of sacrifice, intellectual achievement, and devotion to the Faith.
The double-edged sward of age and experience
As they got older, they found out that the world was not black and white. They found out that even we Baha’is are flawed human beings, that their heroes had flaws, weaknesses, and limitations. They discovered that the problems of the world are far more complex and entrenched than the way they were described in Sunday school, and that the non-Baha’i world also logical explanations for the difficult questions of our time. These other explanations also made sense and were far more elaborate and developed, and often proven with rational and scientific analysis. Finally, many of my friends found out (often to their horror) that they themselves could slip up and fall to moral, spiritual, and materialistic temptations of society. Their black-and-white explanations did not hold and more. Without a more flexible intellectual and spiritual conception of reality, they were left to drift away. This made them question the very foundations of that black-and-white world.
The wrong way to respond
Unfortunately, when they question the foundations of the Baha’i Faith, they were often met with criticism and fear. We have a strange fear of criticism in the Baha’i Faith. We sometimes treat people who have honest doubts about the teachings of the Faith as if they are weak, ignorant, or otherwise lesser. Even worse, sometimes we even get defensive and accuse the doubters of flirting with breaking the covenant. I think there is a better way to deal with this.
Here are some ideas on how we could try to stop this hemorrhage of some of the most intelligent, enthusiastic, and devoted young Baha’is.
1. Create a structured mentorship program
We should create a database of knowledgeable, wise, and educated Baha’is who will offer their services to be mentors to young Baha’is. This mentorship program should be structured so that the young Baha’is have regular contact (via phone, email, Instant Messenger) and arrange regular meetings of mentors and their mentees. So many of my friends are going off to fancy pants colleges and universities and being sucked into the ivory towers and adopting their professors as their role models. These professors are incredibly self-confident, educated, and secure in their beliefs. Additionally, the professors are often held in a god-like aura by students which only adds to the tests that young Baha’is must face. Other times, young adults go off to work in business environments where their bosses and organizations set up strict hierarchies and achievement milestones that can completely absorb a person’s sense of identity and goals in life.
Sending our young Baha’is off to be educated and trained in such environments is often like sending lambs off to the slaughter. Having a strong mentorship program where mentors can help young Baha’is deal with the trials, tests, and difficulties of life; and where mentors can offer encouragement, inspiration, and challenge to the ideologies and established orders of such man-made organizations can help our young Baha’is keep balanced and focused during times of difficult mental testing. These mentors should also be weary of being held up on pedestals for hero worship. Mentors should share their own weaknesses and limitations freely and openly so that the young people recognize that there is no perfect Baha’i life and that we are all in this struggle together. Instead of trying to be a Baha’i hero, mentors should strive to be a friend, a confidant, a supporter, and a guide.
2. Create a safe forum for full and free intellectual debate
We also need to make it safe for people to air their doubts. We need to openly, freely, and honestly debate the things that make people question their own faith. We need an environment where it is encouraged to ask the fundamental questions about what we believe, why we believe it, and why it matters. Currently we have organizations like the Association for Baha’i Studies and annual conferences and retreats that too often pay lip-service to intellectual matters and are more just excuses for people to get together, see friends, and shop for potential mates. Too often the topics at these events are superficial, esoteric, overly-academic, or myopic. Additionally, I fear that we have created an environment of intellectual repression where people who question the system are labeled trouble-makers and outsiders who ‘just don’t get it.’ We need to end this attitude. We could do this by creating journals or periodicals, forums and mini-conferences where young people are directly asked to air their most difficult questions and the community of participants is encouraged to offer Baha’i defenses to those questions. We could create online communities and forums where people are encouraged to ask honest questions and engage in debates on these issues. We could openly ask and re-ask the questions that challenge our Faith and invite new perspectives, new analyses, new approaches to solving them. The days of relying on Abdu’l-Baha’s talks alone to defend against the philosophical, sociological, theological, and spiritual questions of the day are passed. This is not to say Abdu’l-Baha was wrong or that His arguments were defective in any way, rather, it is to recognize that we are not dealing with a 19th Century understanding of the world anymore. We have to admit that the world that Abdu’l-Baha was addressing was a very different world than the world of today. We need to build on the works of the Master and find ways to bring His Wisdom and the Wisdom of the Baha’i Writings into the language, mentality, and capacity of our own Age.
3. Encourage people to intellectually explore, define, and defend Baha’u’llah’s World Order and its implications for humanity
We also need to give our young people some intellectual challenges. I believe that merely asking them to hold Ruhe study circles and children’s classes does not exercise their capacities to their fullest potential. We need to challenge them to define the Baha’i World of the future. We need to challenge them to explore the implications of the teachings of the Baha’i Faith for humanity. We need a constantly growing and evolving body of communal work that excites, inspires, and builds our collective capacities. We need to ask our young intellectuals to propose ways that societies can be re-ordered and re-built, communities can evolve, technologies can be developed, processes can be improved, tactics can be adjusted, and on and on. We can create a brain trust that the Baha’i Institutions of the world can turn to for ideas, solutions, and energy. Our creativity, energy, and capacity for analysis needs to be captured, harnessed, and appreciated in a productive, systematic, and on-going manner. Any Baha’i who wants to participate should be invited, empowered, and encouraged to think about building the Baha’i world.
4. Never leave a fellow soldier behind
Finally, we must not leave our Baha’i brothers and sisters behind. We must do everything in our power to keep them active in the Faith. It is our duty. These young men and women should be treated as treasured resources that must be discovered, cultivated, and harnessed and never left to drift away and be lost forever.