One of America’s Best Kept Religious Secrets

Jul 3, 2014

By Herb Silverman

 

Unsurprisingly, Christianity is the largest religion in all 50 states. Surprisingly, Bahá’í is the second largest religion in my home state of South Carolina. This news inspired two local papers, the Charleston Post and Courier and the Charleston City Paper, to write articles about Bahá’ís. It also inspired me, an atheist, to attend a local Bahá’í meeting.

There are more Bahá’ís in South Carolina than Jews, Muslims, and Hindus combined; however, Bahá’ís do not outnumber atheists and agnostics. “Nones” (those with no religious affiliation) have grown to 15 percent nationally and 10 percent in South Carolina. And in a 2013 national survey of “nones,” atheists and agnostics were 50 percent of online respondents and 36 percent of those interviewed by telephone. Taking the lower percentage, more than 100,000 atheists and agnostics live in South Carolina compared with about 18,000 Bahá’ís.

The Bahá’í Faith likely became popular in South Carolina because of Louis Gregory, who was born in 1874, was raised in Charleston, and was one of the founders of the Bahá’í Faith in America. After this grandson of a slave became a Bahá’í in 1909, he travelled the country promoting racial equality. Gregory married a white Bahá’í woman in 1912, an act that was considered a crime at the time in parts of the country. The Louis G. Gregory Baha’i Museum is located in downtown Charleston.

Bahá’ís and atheists have not been very public about their views because they’ve been demonized within their surrounding cultures. The Bahá’í Faith began in Iran in 1844 when a young man now known as the “Bab” (meaning “gate” or “door” in Arabic) claimed to be the promised redeemer of Islam. The Bab also said that a second divine messenger would usher in the age of peace and justice promised in Islam. The Bab alienated Islamic clergy and was executed by a firing squad in 1850 at the age of 30. One of the Bab’s followers, Bahá’u’lláh, revealed in 1863 that he was the messenger foretold by the Bab. The teachings of Bahá’u’lláh are the foundation of the Bahá’í Faith.

I recently attended a Bahá’í meeting in Charleston with 15 participants at the home of Dave and Bonnie Springer. I assumed they were local leaders, but they told me there are no Bahá’í leaders. Members periodically open their homes for Bahá’í meetings like the one I attended. We sat in a circle and the service began with Dave playing a plaintive melody on a recorder. Attendees then read aloud from a pamphlet called “Reflections on the Spirit of Unity.” Dave told us to think about how the writings might apply to ourselves, not about what others should do. He encouraged us to comment on this theme.

The reflections from Bahá’u’lláh described the unity of God, religion, and humanity. They focused on respect for and equality of all human beings. Diversity of race and culture were praised; racism, nationalism, social class, and gender-based hierarchy were seen as artificial impediments to unity. And, indeed, the participants at our service were white and black, male and female, young and old, rich and poor. I agreed with just about all the messages, except for the God parts.

After the reflections, we enjoyed a healthful potluck dinner, and although I’m not used to feeling comfortable in a room full of people I don’t know, this was an exception. Everyone seemed to like everyone else. Nobody but me even appeared to notice the diversity of race and color.

16 comments on “One of America’s Best Kept Religious Secrets

  • This article by Herb Silverman on the Bahá’í religious faith is well written and revealing.

    A noteworthy quote; “The reflections from Bahá’u’lláh described the unity of God, religion, and humanity. They focused on respect for and equality of all human beings.”

    Silverman’s article first appeared on the site, On Faith; was a little longer and ended on a more interesting note. “As I left and offered a small donation, I heard something I never expected to hear from any religious (or secular) organization: ‘I’m sorry. But we can’t accept money from you. We consider it an honor to contribute, and only members of the faith are afforded this privilege.’” – http://www.faithstreet.com/onfaith/2014/07/03/one-of-americas-best-kept-religious-secrets/32898

    Also, in the On Faith version of the article was Silverman’s, “My favorite religions are human centered without any gods, like Humanist Unitarians, Humanistic Judaism, and Ethical Culture. Since the Bahá’í Faith seems to be a human-centered religion with God, it might be my favorite theistic religion.

    I don’t get non-theistic religions. By whatever fuzzy, Postmodern definition of religion is used to come up with religions without any gods, then a football club could be a religion.

    So here is my take-away from Silverman’s portrayal of the Bahá’í Faith which is concerned with “the unity of God, religion, and humanity” and “focused on respect for and equality of all human beings.” -They are a religion with a belief in God. Doesn’t that set them apart as a particular religious sect? Doesn’t that set them apart from non-believers? Where, ultimately, is the unity of humanity in any religion when, “only members of the faith are afforded this privilege”. Doesn’t that attitude set them apart?

    Granted, the Bahá’í Faith is a model for a kinder, non-oppressive religion, the best of the breed, but isn’t there a tinge of arrogance there also?

    Further, Silverman wrote, “their belief in the importance of unity and the goal of achieving world peace when there is unity among world religions.” Just how, may I ask, is there ever going to be “unity among world religions”? It is not in their nature nor, bottom line, in their institutional interests. Any religion that says that any other religion’s dogma is as valid as their own, will implode. Are the Bahá’ís prepared to say that? -And what about unity with people of no religious faith? Come on. . .



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  • 3
    RevJimBob says:

    ‘I don’t get non-theistic religions. By whatever fuzzy, Postmodern definition of religion is used to come up with religions without any gods…’
    Deists believe in a God. I don’t think they are considered to be theists.



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  • RevJimBob Jul 4, 2014 at 10:18 am

    ‘I don’t get non-theistic religions. By whatever fuzzy, Postmodern definition of religion is used to come up with religions without any gods…’

    I think with a world-wide view of religions, the position is clearer.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atheism
    Atheism is accepted within some religious and spiritual belief systems, including Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, Raelism, Neopagan movements[19] such as Wicca,[20] and nontheistic religions. Jainism and some forms of Buddhism do not advocate belief in gods,



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  • I grew up a few miles from the Baha’i house of Worship in Wilmette, IL (http://www.bahai.us/bahai-temple/). It is a magnificent structure surrounded by beautiful gardens. I would ride my bike there often as a child. In college I took a “survey of religions” course which involved a formal tour of the place. I always thought the Baha’i faith was quite acceptable in terms of its tolerance of other faith traditions. A couple co-workers were Baha’is, and they were never in my face about it. Later in life I had a couple dental patients who were Baha’is from Iran. They told me how they had been persecuted (by the religion of peace, of course).

    Unfortunately, there were goofy rituals and fasting which I could not justify because I didn’t believe in the necessary deity. So, sorry…

    The temple is still a wonderful place to visit and walk around; it is one of the most beautiful places in the Chicago area.

    Steve



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  • A system of supernatural rituals and/or beliefs that either does not include or does not require a belief in a conscious god. Non-theistic religious systems can contain all manner of beliefs about the origin of the universe and life, life or consciousness after death, etc. yet take no position on the existence of supernatural beings, or even reject the notion of such existence.

    There are religious atheists.



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  • Jerry, I agree with you. The key is you explain the situation by changing “religion” into “all manner of beliefs.” There can be a non-theistic perspective where there are religious beliefs. As an example, this can happen when a person focuses on his or her being, the human animal, the one with all the talent. The religious practice might be finding a way to experience one’s being by finding a way to stop the constant flow of language which is what traditional meditation is about. Timothy, I loved your last paragraph!



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  • . Atheism is accepted within some religious and spiritual belief systems, including Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, Raelism, Neopagan movements[19] such as Wicca,[20] and nontheistic religions. Jainism

    I have a problem in the fact that atheism can be included as an acceptable view of say, Hinduism or Buddhism as this means that the atheist can be included in their numbers. It may seem inclusive, but I wouldn’t want my opinion to be lumped in with those views. India could claim for instance, that the population is 75% Hindu (or whatever the actual figure) and that implies that 75% of the population believe in the veracity of Ganesha, Shiva, Kali etc.



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  • @ Nitya
    It may seem inclusive, but I wouldn’t want my opinion to be lumped in with those views. India could claim for instance, that the population is 75% Hindu (or whatever the actual figure) and that implies that 75% of the population believe in the veracity of Ganesha, Shiva, Kali etc.

    If they believe in these deities influencing lives, they are not atheists. On the other hand, if some Buddhists believe in reincarnation, but no gods – they are (a least by the technical definition) “atheists”.

    As we keep telling people, atheism is not a philosophy. It is a lack of belief in gods. A philosophy or world view, is something personal in addition to atheism – (such as Humanism).

    There are thousands of Hindu gods, and by my limited understanding of it, people can pretty much make up their own specifications and additional personal ones!

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hindu_deities

    Within Hinduism, a large number of personal gods (Ishvaras) are worshipped as murtis. These beings are significantly powerful entities known as devas. The exact nature of belief in regard to each deity varies between differing Hindu denominations and philosophies.



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  • Okay, I give.
    So, anytime we speak of religion, to be clear, we should start referring to religions as either Abrahamic theistic religions or non-theistic religions. ATRs and NTRs.
    Of course there are theistic religions other than the three Abrahamics, but they are insignificant, at least in the West. -None represented on the Supreme Court. Any in the Senate or House of Representatives?



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  • Thanks Herb for a very interesting article.

    What I find interesting about the Baha’i faith is that it promotes the use of reason and science as a way to investigate the world, life and religion. The principle is that there is a harmony between religion and science and that if they appear in conflict, it is due to a lack of understanding of one or the other. I am trying to investigate this, but I don’t yet understand the positions on evolution or the big bang.



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  • Sir, I wanted to address some of your comments to help clarify them from a Baha’i viewpoint and increase your understanding.

    “Where, ultimately, is the unity of humanity in any religion when, “only members of the faith are afforded this privilege”. Doesn’t that attitude set them apart?” Donations are only accepted from Baha’is for a couple of reasons, but in my opinion the primary reason is so there’s never even a hint of undue and possibly malignant influence from external entities. In addition, it allows visitors to meetings and temples to encounter no pressure at all to contribute to the organization. Contrast this to your typical Protestant church where they “pass the plate” to you no matter if you’re a visitor or a member; or to church yard sales or car washes where they accept money from the general, non-member public in order to raise money for church-specific causes and missions.

    In instances where non-Baha’is are insistent on donating, a Baha’i group will accept the money but is under obligation to make it clear to the donor that their contribution will go to humanitarian causes not directly related to the growth and maintenance of the Baha’i Faith. In other words it will be designated for something like hunger relief or education initiatives, as opposed to the manufacture of Baha’i literature or the upkeep of Baha’i properties.

    Basically the point is not to exclude anyone, but to ensure that the integrity of the religion’s funds is pristine from viewpoints both inside and outside the faith.

    “how, may I ask, is there ever going to be “unity among world religions”? It is not in their nature nor, bottom line, in their institutional interests. Any religion that says that any other religion’s dogma is as valid as their own, will implode.”

    Unity among world religions is indeed one of the primary goals of the Faith. To Baha’is, all pathways to God are valid if they are walked in earnest. It is not our job to say we are “more right” than other religions. Instead we see all religions as one evolving religion along a spectrum. Much as 1+1=2 is true in kindergarten as well as college-level calculus, an older religion is still true even when a more advanced one comes along to build upon it. While the Baha’is certainly want more people to accept the message of the Faith, it is more important that we can all live in harmony regardless of our faith–or lack thereof. Baha’is have no hostility towards atheists or people of no religious faith. Will that hinder explosive or exponential growth? Probably. But it will never be the intent of the Baha’i Faith to pressure, much less compel, someone to convert.

    I hope my comments have been helpful!



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  • While this is true, the Baha’i Faith also teaches that is absolutely, unequivocally wrong to treat homosexual people with prejudice. It also does not consider homosexuality to be in any sort of “special class” of wrongness to be singled out for particular attention or scorn, and gay people can become Baha’is if they wish (with the expectation that they will make sincere efforts to comply with Baha’i law). The Baha’i Faith recognizes that everyone has their own path to follow. I’m a lifelong Baha’i but a very, very firm believer in political and civil equality for same-sex couples. (The Baha’i Faith as an institution takes no position one way or another on the political rights of same-sex couples.)



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  • I can try to help with this. Please note that these are Baha’i positions as I understand/practice them, and may not be authoritative.

    Evolution: Baha’is accept evolution as true. We accept that humans and other animals had a common ancestor. However we also believe that humankind is unique in that it has always had a special “destiny”, so to speak, that makes it different from other animals. And that the spark of humanity has always existed, whether manifest or latent. The analogy I prefer to use is that of an acorn. Is an acorn a tree? No, but the tree is manifest in the acorn and cannot exist without it.

    Big Bang: As far as I can tell, Baha’is do not dispute the Big Bang. As Baha’is do believe in God they also believe God had a hand in the Big Bang, but more in a “I designed the universe(s), and now I’m going to sit back and let it(/them) exist” sort of way. I hesitate to use the term “intelligent design” because that’s such a loaded phrase in today’s world, but I guess you could say that Baha’is believe in a (very benign) sort of intelligent design. Certainly not the flavor that evangelical Christians are pushing into textbooks and contemporary society, but one that says God is responsible for the universe and everything in it. Baha’i understanding of the universe also would not preclude multiple universes or life on other planets. In fact the religion’s central figures specifically stated that there are planets around other stars (130 years before anyone found one) and that life on other planets exists.



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