Sociology of Religion
The Baha'i: The Religious Construction of a Global Identity. (book review)
Issue: Spring, 2002
The Baha'i The Religious Construction of a Global Identity by MICHAEL MCMULLEN. New Brunswick, NJ, and London: Rutgers University Press, 2000, 251 pp. $65.00 (cloth), $29.00 (paper).
"Think globally and act locally" is the resounding theme of Michael McMullen's study of the construction of Baha'i identity in Atlanta, Georgia. This book is one of the few published sociological works on the Baha'i Faith, joining Will van den Hoonaard's The Origins of the Baha'i Community in Canada (1996) and Peter Smith's the Babi and Baha'i religions (1987).
Drawing upon cultural globalization theorist Roland Robertson, the author sets out to fill in theoretical gaps in the literature about globalization and religion by presenting empirical data concerning the organizational and ideological connections between the local and global. He succeeds by highlighting some mechanisms through which this new religion constructs identity and manages personal and community tensions. McMullen posits that the Baha'i religion is a universalizing movement that inspires within its members a collective consciousness with a universal message and identity. His significant finding is that while other religious movements or denominations are global in their outreach, Baha'is are: "global in a different way in that the ideology and the ecclesiastical structure of the Baha'i administrative order shapes the Baha'i identity as a situated universalist" (p. 177). The foundational concepts of the oneness of humankind and the oneness of religion are expressed by Baha'is through local lines of action oriented toward social justice, racial harmony, and collaboration with like- minded religions and organizations. The participation in, and recognition of, democratically elected local Baha'i governance, brings Baha'is into alignment with the national and globalized authority structures. This linkage is facilitated through frequent consultations and communications, reflexively molding the religious identity of Baha'is as world citizens (p. 74).
The key strength of this book is the author's rigor in providing a meticulous presentation of collective and personal Baha'i practices, observances, and theological teachings and laws of the religion. This is a multi-faceted study drawing upon participant observation, archival research, in-depth interviews, and survey questionnaire data from some 241 people. McMullen employs a very useful format in structuring the chapters of this book which will assist those readers who are unfamiliar with the religion and its practices. The first part of each chapter provides comprehensive details of Baha'i belief and theological doctrine, while the second part provides data from his case study material, interviews, and/or survey results from the metro Atlanta Baha'i community. In addition, the author explores in depth a number of different types of Baha'i events, international meetings and local gatherings, conducted in formal and informal contexts, which provide an interesting and richly textured exploration into the ever yday and extra special events of the life of this community.
My major criticism of this work is that in McMullen's attempt to convey an unbiased portrayal of the Baha'i community, and to explicate "the lived reality of the Atlanta community," he has overly favored discussion and analyses of the negative tensions and expressions in people's lives. There are few representations of any experience of certitude or confirmation in Baha'i religiosity, or of the adherents' rational insights into complex theological teachings. There are no discussions of participants' positive experiences of being of service (a major part of Baha'i life and ideology). In his summary discussions and conclusion, McMullen dwells primarily on the paradoxes in the ways Baha'is talk about their religion, the few theological issues which Baha'is cannot explain (e.g. nonparticipation in partisan politics), or cultural practice which is not as yet completely possible for the Baha'is to follow (the Baha'i calendar). The manner in which he presents and frames these and other tensions as "contradictions" a nd sometimes "hypocrisy," ignores in a number of cases the larger context of issues such as the organic growth and the marginal position of the religion in current society, the lack of understanding of certain topics in the broader context of the teachings of the religion, and the slow emergence and dissemination of scholarly knowledge in some of these areas. The Baha'is themselves may have trouble recognizing the vital elements of their own community's beliefs in this book. In the key chapters on race unity and the construction of a global identity, however, the author presents a picture of a consonant Baha'i identity and represents the Baha'i community and individuals as agents of social change. In the final analysis, Baha'i literature supports McMullen's argument, that faith and reliance on an ultimate global authority of the Baha'i administrative order is the way that Baha' is in general counteract any cognitive dissonance they may experience.
The book reads well, and the extensive notes and bibliography are a plus for undergraduate and graduate students. Since this is the first detailed empirical study of a local Baha'i group, it is a welcome addition to the social science literature, and will be of interest to sociologists of religion.
©Copyright 2002, Association for the Sociology of Religion