This is the cycle of maturity and re-formation in religion as well. Dogmatic imitations of ancestral beliefs are passing. They have been the axis around which religion revolved but now are no longer fruitful; on the contrary, in this day they have become the cause of human degradation and hindrance. Bigotry and dogmatic adherence to ancient beliefs have become the central and fundamental source of animosity among men, the obstacle to human progress, the cause of warfare and strife, the destroyer of peace, composure and welfare in the world. Consider conditions in the Balkans today (1912); fathers, mothers, children in grief and lamentation, the foundations of life overturned, cities laid waste and fertile lands made desolate by the ravages of war. These conditions are the outcome of hostility and hatred between nations and peoples of religion who imitate and adhere to the forms and violate the spirit and reality of the divine teachings.
While this is true and apparent, it is likewise evident that the Lord of mankind has bestowed infinite bounties upon the world in this century of maturity and consummation. The ocean of divine mercy is surging, the vernal showers are descending, the Sun of Reality is shining gloriously. Heavenly teachings applicable to the advancement in human conditions have been revealed in this merciful age. This re-formation and renewal of the fundamental reality of religion constitute the true and outworking spirit of modernism, the unmistakable light of the world, the manifest effulgence of the Word of God, the divine remedy for all human ailment and the bounty of eternal life to all mankind. — Abdu’l-Bahá, Foundations of World Unity
In another post, fellow blogger Stephen Friberg suggested that people who ask impertinent questions and challenge the orthodoxy are doing religion (or any orthodoxy) a favor. I think this is true, though I doubt the pastors of the various churches I went to felt that way when I wondered aloud why God stopped sending prophets or doubted that He’d blithely consign anyone who happened to be born outside the influence of Christianity to hellfire (if there even was such a thing).
This idea of self-discovery and the personal acquisition of knowledge and wisdom is literally enshrined in the teachings of the Bahá’í Faith. It is, in fact, a primary principle of the Faith: the independent investigation of truth and reality. We were put here to ask questions and, ultimately, to find answers.
Hence, the idea of exploding myth and dogma is, to me, a sacred principle.
But it’s one thing to ask questions with a mind open to receive information upon which to base an opinion. It’s another to ask them with a belief that you already know all the answers and have no interest in understanding any other point of view. In essence, that implies that the way to fight dogmatism is … wait for it … TA-DA! More dogmatism!
Pardon me for doubting the efficacy of this approach.
Yes, we all try on principles in our lives that we can live by. We may find principles that we believe would benefit the world if others also lived by them. This is good. If we choose principles that lead to peaceful—and even helpful—co-existence between disparate individuals and groups, and behave according to those principles, it’s a win-win.
The problems arise when we choose principles, attach a laundry list of attitudes we feel exemplify those principles, then insist that everyone else must abide by them—or at least by our interpretation of them. This is what Abdu’l-Bahá refers to above as “dogmatic imitations of ancestral beliefs”, and it’s a common human behavior.
It is also, alas, a view some of us impress upon our children, often without meaning to. We tell them that it’s good to be popular and bad to be the odd one out, the misfit. Yet, this idea competes, bizarrely, with the alternative message that we should “take the road less traveled” as my daughter’s principal recently told an assembly at her elementary school. Her hope for her students was that they each grasp their unique dream and distinguish themselves. These are the sorts of mixed signals we send our kids. We tell them that humility is good, and selfishness and pride bad, but we show them something else when we reward tough political talk at the ballot box, and corporate greed at the cash register—when we applaud the idea that our school, our city, our nation, our ethnic group, our religion is better than anyone else’s and we should therefore be deferred to as superior beings.
But I digress. Sort of.
What I’m getting at, really, is that immature humans try to force behaviors on each other rather than encouraging the acquisition of knowledge and analytical skills and allowing for informed choices to be made. We see it in every middle and high school; we see it in fraternity and sorority hazings; we see it gender politics, in gang culture, in corporate culture. “Smart” isn’t cool. Non-binary thinking is too confusing to follow. Acquiring knowledge on which to base opinions is work—much easier to base them on sound bites, second-hand opinions gleaned from peer groups, and emotional resonances.
This is how bigotry and dogmatic thinking propagates, and Abdu’l-Bahá lays out a stark image of what this sort of behavior has wrought:
Bigotry and dogmatic adherence to ancient beliefs have become the central and fundamental source of animosity among men, the obstacle to human progress, the cause of warfare and strife, the destroyer of peace, composure and welfare in the world.
There are those who assume it will always be this way. But Abdu’l-Bahá rejects that idea with an affirmation that the elements are in place for humanity’s adulthood.
“While this is true and apparent,” he says of the effects of bigotry and dogma (which are inescapable these days) “it is likewise evident that the Lord of mankind has bestowed infinite bounties upon the world in this century of maturity and consummation.”
I chat online with people who scoff at the idea that what Abdu’l-Bahá calls bounties (principles such as the Golden Rule, justice, kindness, civility, mutual respect, even love) can have an effect in the world.
Well, you never know until you try. I’ve spent my entire adult life in a social experiment to put the principles of my faith into practice in every situation in which I find myself. This is not always easy. It’s much easier to respond to the urges of the moment when someone calls you a name or denigrates something you hold dear or assaults you in some way. But eventually it becomes easier, and then it becomes what you do and who you are. I’ve found the effects of this to be pretty amazing. I’ve made friends of inveterate enemies and people disinclined to like me for one reason or another because I’ve incorporated those bounties and principles into my life in however inept a fashion.
So, here’s the deal: Ask yourself if you want to see humanity grow up. Would you prefer constant war, or would you prefer peace? Would you prefer a community in which neighbors are pitted against neighbors because of ethnicity, religion, or political views, or one in which diverse people work together for the benefit of the community and in which no one group tries to force their views on another?
If you’d rather live in a peaceful world, help out—try to maintain a peaceful attitude. If you’d rather live in a just world, practice justice in your own attitudes toward others. If you’d rather live in a compassionate society, give your own sense of compassion a daily workout—pay attention to what’s happening in your world and ask what compassion and justice would look like in this or that situation.
To cite a recent example: I’ve seen a number of people react to the recent violence in Libya with fear (and even hatred) of all Muslims. They put that fear into words in their conversations and spread the animosity Abdu’l-Bahá is talking about in his talk. If these individuals reacted instead by seeking to learn more about Muslim belief or by reaching out to their local Muslim community to let them know they don’t hold all Muslims responsible for what a handful halfway around the world have done would have gained them new friends and one less American to be afraid of.
Even taking that attitude of justice and compassion into our conversations with others on a contentious subject can cause real change to occur in the thoughts of those who hear us. More important, it can change us. This is how we evolve, little by little, toward adulthood as individuals, as families, nations, and as a species.
After over thirty-five years of social experimentation, I don’t believe the old saw that the individual has no effect and cant’ change anything. That, my friends, is a dodge. Don’t believe it. At least give the alternative a try. As Abdu’l-Bahá says, if we try peace and don’t like it, we can always go back to war. Same principle applies. If you find being kind is intolerable, you can always go back to the flame wars. So, this is what I believe—because I’ve tried it and it works:
If you desire with all your heart, friendship with every race on earth, your thought, spiritual and positive, will spread; it will become the desire of others, growing stronger and stronger, until it reaches the minds of all men. — Abdu’l-Bahá, Paris Talks, p. 31