This essay will explore one of the core teachings of the Baha’i Faith – the reconciliation of religions, focusing on its articulation in the talks of ‘Abbas Effendi (1844-1921), known as ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, the eldest son and appointed leader of the Bahá’i community after the passing of its founder, Bahá’u’lláh, from 1892 until 1921. These talks were given to American audiences in the course of his visit to Canada and the United States of America, in the year 1912.
The religion of man is a potent force for division among human beings. It is largely because of the destructive social influence of dogmatic religiosity that Karl Marx called religion "the opiate of the people." The religion of man has been responsible for violence on a grand and epic scale — the enslavement of races, the degradation of women, the exploitation of the poor and ignorant, the persecution of "infidels" and the execution of "heretics". 'Abdu'l-Bahá described this situation as follows:
History shows that throughout the past there has been continual warfare and strife among the various nations, peoples and sects...
Consider how discord and dissension have prevailed in this great human family for thousands of years. Its members have ever been engaged in war and bloodshed. Up to the present time in history the world of humanity has neither attained nor enjoyed any measure of peace, owing to incessant conditions of hostility and strife. (1)
What, then, is the source of enmity and alienation among humankind? Whence this conflict and strife? The real underlying cause is lack of religious unity and association, for in each of the great religions we find superstition, blind imitation of creeds, and theological formulas adhered to instead of divine fundamentals, causing difference and divergence among mankind instead of agreement and fellowship. Consequently, strife, hatred, and warfare have arisen, based upon this divergence and separation. (2)
The religion of man, composed of "blind imitation of creeds," is generally passed from parents to their offspring, and, for much of history, it has accepted uncritically, that is, without personal evaluation of any kind. In our century we have seen a second response on the part of offspring to the religious convictions of their forebears, namely, out-of-hand rejection and disavowal, once more, without personal evaluation. Both of these responses have led to tragic upheavals and persistent social disorders. Many secularists and religious liberals believe that "fundamentalism" in religion is the cause of our "divergence and separation." Isn't that an over-simplification of the problem? If by "fundamentalists" we refer to those religionists who base their convictions and observances upon a close and literal reading of religious texts, then surely there are many fundamentalists who do harm to no one.
If, on the other hand, by "fundamentalists" we mean those religious "terrorists" who wage wars of words and sometimes also of violent and destructive actions against their co-religionists, against other religionists, against secularists, against anyone they consider to be an "enemy of the true faith" then this variety of fundamentalists is indeed a threat to our peace and happiness. But we must be careful not to confuse the two.
Many of those who have been called "fundamentalists" in our own century are, in reality, wolves wearing sheep's clothing, politically motivated persons who masquerade as true believers, and whose pretensions to faithful observance of religious teachings is very much in doubt.
Moreover, in some communities, self-proclaimed "fundamentalists" rule, and their religious authoritarianism often results in unjust treatment, both of individual nonconformists and of client populations. For example, we heard lots of unpleasant things about the rule of the Taliban in Afghanistan, and we continue to hear about the abuses of the authoritarian religious state in Wahhabi Sunni Saudi Arabia and Imami Shi'i Iran. Lastly, if we consider Communism as one of the religions of man — and it certainly does represent a community of faith — we also see that Communist terrorists and authoritarian governments inflicted vast suffering upon millions of people over the course of the twentieth century.
However, as tempting as it may be to scapegoat one "public enemy" to the exclusion of all others, and although many of those who would characterize themselves as religious liberals are convinced that religious "fundamentalism" is the greatest scourge upon humanity, the reconciliation of religions does not depend alone upon addressing and somehow resolving the divisions amongst us caused by "fundamentalist" terrorists and authoritarians. Other trends in the religion of man have served to keep us apart, to keep us from seeing our common ground, and to keep us from walking upon it together, in genuine friendship. Reductionism, accommodationism, secularism and radical revisionism are less flamboyant species of this "opiate of the people" — this perversion of true religion which may be worse than no religion at all.
The reduction of the sublime, the exalted teachings of the religion of God, originally expressed in the incomparable language of Revelation, to simple formulas which represent the inherently limited understanding of particular individuals is a phenomenon which has characterized every religious tradition. After the departure of the Founder and his designated interpreters, the leadership of every religion has decided upon certain formulas which have come to be more important, more decisive statements of that religion's beliefs than any word of the Scriptures. This aspect of the religion of man has been called dogma and creed. Dogma is created to focus the attention of the believer upon a particular interpretation of the teachings and the words of the Founder, and away from whatever might distract the believer from paying his undivided attention to that interpretation. The actual teachings and words of the Founder may of course be interpreted in any number of ways, and hence the believer is often not encouraged to study these divinely-revealed sources, unless and until he has been properly indoctrinated prior to such study, and only if that study is supervised by someone who has mastered the dogma and who is unreservedly committed to upholding that dogma under all circumstances.
Reductionism may be carried out to simplify the teachings and translate the vocabulary of the Founder into the vernacular, with an aim to delivering those teachings and words to a wider audience. Reductionism may also be initiated in order to assure an elite's control over the minds and hearts of the masses of believers; for as long as only a few individuals belonging to that elite are informed of the actual teachings and words of the Founder, as long as that elite protects this privilege and allows only a select few to join their ranks, so long will that elite maintain control or at least dominance over its co-religionists. The elite will provide the masses with dogmas, and will impede their access to the revealed sources, for such access would empower the "uninitiated" to question those dogmas and furthermore, to question the paternalistic authority and assumed capacity of the elite in their vaunted role as custodians of the truth. The elite furthermore will assure the masses that all that is required of them is knowledge and acceptance of the dogmas, and obedience to the rule to the elite. Obviously, reductionism in the religion of man is the cause of much division amongst humanity, for each sect has its treasured traditional dogmas, and each is convinced that its dogmas fully and infallibly represent the teachings and words of its Founder. Furthermore, the religious elite of each of the religions of man insists that the dogmas of his religion are superior to those of all other religions. Whether his insistence upon this superiority is private or public, understated or bombastic, it is a potent force for division and conflict.
Another of the destructive trends in the religion of man is accommodationism, which would adapt the teachings of the Founder of the religion of God to various individual predilections, various cultural norms, and various social requirements. Accommodationism would render the religion of God acceptable to everybody. It would convert the divine into the human, deism into humanism. The accommodationist assumes that the various adaptations to which he subjects the religion of God are necessary and inevitable, natural and practical. If the Founder of his religion of preference calls for poverty, and if he does not wish to be poor, or if he is instructing a potential convert who is comfortable with his wealth, or if he lives in a society which values the accumulation of money above everything else, he may accommodate his understanding and portrayal of his religion in such manner as to accommodate its teachings to these values. Accommodationism may not seem to be harmful to anyone. After all, isn't it a form of "laisse faire," of "live and let live," of the immortal principle "when in Rome, do as the Romans"? 'Abdu'l-Bahá has this to say about accommodationism:
Man has forsaken the foundation of divine religion and adhered to blind imitations. Each nation has clung to its own imitations, and because these are at variance, warfare, bloodshed and destruction of the foundation of humanity have resulted. (3)
One of the pernicious effects of accommodationism is that it perverts the original teachings of the Founder, and it results in the misrepresentation of those teachings to the uninformed — who, because of the widespread prevalence of reductionism, include the vast majority of humanity, including most of those who consider themselves believers. If the teachings of the Founder were meant to educate human beings, to uplift hearts, to cure ailments, to cultivate virtues, to enlighten minds, the misrepresentation of those teachings will undoubtedly deprive the believer of the promised elixir, as well as deny the unbeliever any opportunity to encounter the real McCoy. If one of the aims of the religion of God is to unite the hearts of men, then undoubtedly accommodationism will thwart that purpose, and often result in the exact opposite, in the separation of human beings from one another. For when believers feel entitled to make accommodations in the religion of God, then that religion is divided into many sects, and these accommodators will not agree with each other. Accommodationism clearly serves the selfish individual and social purposes of human beings and in so doing it often embodies a species of idolatry and a variety of narcissism. Furthermore, because it appeals to the lowest in human nature, accommodationism is very hard to undo, to weed out. To you gardeners I say, accommodationism is not a harmless wildflower; it is an invasive parasite.
Secularism is not, per se, a religious phenomenon, right? Actually, I would suggest that secularism is the dominant religion of man in this twentieth century, and throughout the planet. Launched in the West, in Europe and North America, secularism has become far and away the most popular belief-system around, far excelling any of the religions of God. Secularism encompasses humanism, nationalism, racialism, capitalism, socialism (and communism), and scientism — these may be identified as some of its sects. Virtually every aspect of modern life is dominated by this religion of man. Like the other religions of man, it has also been targeted by reductionists and accommodationists. But secularism is also a direct threat, in itself, to the religion of God; for secularism boasts that humanity has no need of God, no need of religion, only a need for man, "the measure of all things."
Secularism would have us all believe that there is nothing above and beyond and outside of what human beings have experienced through the agency of the five senses and interpreted by the human intellect and emotions. Even as each of the other religions of man is governed by an elite, secularism in all of its forms and manifestations is controlled by "experts" and "authorities" and the average human being does not dare to think outside of their pre-determined parameters for fear of being wrong, of being humiliated, of being different. Secularism divides humanity, like all of the other religions of man, pitting one individual against another — for each believes firmly that he is the center of the universe, or that his perception of the universe is all that matters. It also pits each sect of this religion against all other sects thereof, fragmenting society into mutually antagonistic groups as well as atomistic individuals. The bloodshed in the name of this or that secular movement in this century alone is evidence abundant enough to prove the divisive legacy of this religion of man. But while secularism is a false religion, it has come into existence in response to other false religions, as described by 'Abdu'l-Bahá:
Inasmuch as the blind imitations or dogmatic interpretations current among men do not coincide with the postulates of reason, and the mind and scientific investigation cannot acquiesce thereto, many souls in the human world today shun and deny religion. (4)
Lastly, we consider radical revisionism, another plague upon humankind. This monstrosity calls for the redesign, the reinvention, the recreation of one thing or another, or of all things, including the religion of God, in the name of change, or history, or genius, or sheer willfulness. Radical revisionism would change the religion of God simply for the sake of change. "Change is good," says the revisionist. "My change in particular," he adds. The accommodationist wishes to accommodate the religion of God to the so-called "requirements" of his personal or social environment. The radical revisionist would challenge the religion of God in the name of "iron whim" or "as a matter of principle." He seems to prefer anarchy and nihilism to any set order, no matter how perfect. The revisionist says, "If the shoe doesn't fit, change it, replace it, redesign it; or, better yet, go barefoot." To continue this simile, the Founder of the religion of God designed the shoe for the protection and pleasure of the foot when it is exposed to circumstances which would otherwise result in its damage and discomfort; when the radical revisionist gets his way, and the shoe is discarded or radically redesigned, the foot may no longer be protected and made comfortable.
The radical revisionist is not concerned with the success of his innovations — he simply wants to "try something new" — and consequently he refuses to be held accountable for his changes. "Change for change's sake!" he proclaims, and shuffles away, content that he has made his mark and succeeded in stirring up some trouble. The radical revisionist frequently destroys the work of the other religions of man. He makes no distinction between the fundamentalist, the reductionist, the accommodationist, and the secularist — all "isms" come under his attack. He undermines all dogmas, from the least to the most popular. His attempt at whole-scale destruction (or, depending upon your point of view, whole-scale reinvention) may be interpreted as healthy, for much of the debris of the religion of man is swept aside by this advocate of the new. But he throws the baby out with the bath water. The radical revisionist destroys confidence in the religion of God; he goes further, in many cases, calling for the eradication of religion. If we value the religion of God, we must take his threat to its existence very seriously indeed.
Fundamentalism, reductionism, accommodationism, secularism and radical revisionism have one thing in common — they are blind imitations. They do not represent a free-spirited investigation of the realities of things by every individual on his own initiative and taking responsibility for his own convictions. Rather, they are signs of man's blind adherence to the views, the opinions, the judgments of others. In view of the wide differences which presently exist between the followers of Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam, Bahá’u’lláh has has set forth a plan for the reconciliation of the religions of God. This plan was referred to in one of 'Abdu'l-Bahá's talks in these words:
We are considering the divine plan for the reconciliation of the religious systems of the world. Bahá’u’lláh has said that if one intelligent member be selected from each of the varying religious systems, and these representatives come together seeking to investigate the reality of religion, they would establish an interreligious body before which all disputes and differences of belief could be presented for consideration and settlement. Such questions could then be weighed and viewed from the standpoint of reality and all imitations be discarded. By this method and procedure all sects, denominations and systems would become one. (5)
What are the implications of such a plan? This plan calls for representatives of various religions to venture beyond dialogue, and beyond fellowship; to consult with one another and to endeavor collaboratively to identify those essential truths, which are enshrined in the Scriptures of every Faith. There are no preconditions stipulated for this consultation, this collective investigation of spiritual realities. The Christian is not required to disavow his belief in Jesus Christ. The Muslim is not told that the Qur'an is a plagiary of the Bible. The Jew and the Hindu are not asked to leave behind their rituals and dietary restrictions. Bahá’u’lláh does not demand that all of humanity recognize and accept his spiritual leadership prior to convening such a gathering of religionists. Indeed, the only prerequisite he sets forth is that the participants in such a consultation lay aside their prejudices and freshly investigate things for themselves; that they see with their own eyes, hear their own ears, and think with their own minds, rather than relying upon the testimony of others. In order to be effective, this plan must be implemented at every level of society, among religionists of all varieties and degrees of knowledge and expertise. The implementation of such a plan would seem to require educators and collaborators, rather than pundits or programmers. It affirms the primacy of the divine teachings over the dogmas, the rituals and the institutions evolved by generations of religious specialists. Those specialists continue to have a role, but they are asked to participate as peers in the universal path of search rather than to pontificate to the many on the behalf of the few.
This simple plan need not wait for an international convocation of religious leaders to be realized. It can be implemented in any school, in any college, in any agency of private and public education. Nor need it await the approval of the masses. It can begin with a few courageous individuals. We can all readily recall the courage of Martin Luther King in the United States, Lev Walensa in Poland, Badshah Khan in Afghanistan, Nelson Mandela in South Africa, and Mohandas Gandhi in South Africa and India.
It has often been affirmed that religious values have no place in our public schools and universities. We have been told that because the U.S. Constitution does not permit the establishment of religion, religious values may not be integrated into the public education of the American people. Does the Constitution mandate the adoption of secular values, of a religion of man? Of course not. But this is precisely what we have, for, as the scientists tells us, "Nature abhors a vacuum." Schools and colleges must inculcate values, for values are attached to all aspects of learning; so, if they are forbidden to advocate religious values, they must then replace these with secular values.
And if schools must inculcate values, then shouldn't those values be universal, world-embracing? Bahá’u’lláh affirms that the fundamental values underlying each of the religions of God are in agreement. 'Abdu'l-Bahá states that one of the values shared by all religious traditions is the "love of humanity":
Bahá’u’lláh said that God has sent religion for the purpose of establishing fellowship among humankind and not to create strife and discord, for all religion is founded upon the love of humanity. Abraham promulgated this principle, Moses summoned all to its recognition, Christ established it, and Muhammad directed mankind to its standard. This is the reality of religion. If we abandon hearsay and investigate the reality and inner significance of the heavenly teachings, we will find the same divine foundation of love for humanity. (6)
Here we find references to the teachings of the so-called Abrahamic tradition, that is, of Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad. In some of his other talks (7), 'Abdu'l-Bahá referred to Krishna, Buddha, and Zoroaster as promulgators of the "love of humanity." He makes no distinction between any of these spiritual Educators, affirming that they are essentially and necessarily in agreement with one another:
Man must be a lover of the light, no matter from what dayspring it may appear. He must be a lover of the rose, no matter in what soil it may be growing. He must be a seeker of truth, no matter from what source it [may] come...If we investigate the religions to discover the principles underlying their foundations, we will find [that] they agree; for the fundamental reality of them is one and not multiple. By this means the religionists of the world will reach their point of unity and reconciliation. They will ascertain the truth that the purpose of religion is the acquisition of praiseworthy virtues, the betterment of morals, the spiritual development of mankind, the real life and divine bestowals. All the Prophets have been the promoters of these principles; none of Them has been the promoter of corruption, vice or evil. They have summoned mankind to all good. They have united people in the love of God, invited them to the religions of the unity of mankind and exhorted them to amity and agreement. (8)
For hundreds, for thousands of years, ecclesiastics and educators have stressed the differences rather than the common ground between religious communities. It was in order to safeguard that diversity that the U.S. Constitution prohibits the establishment of religion. However, the narrow interpretation of that provision, which has blocked the integration of religion-based values into the curriculum of public schools and universities may have outlived its usefulness. Bahá’u’lláh would have us reconsider this interpretation of the Constitution in the light of our universal human need for ethical, moral and spiritual education.
Let us imagine how this plan might be realized. First of all, if a school or college were to make a commitment to spiritual education by educating administrators, instructors and students alike with regard to the fundamental spiritual values shared by the religions of God — as well as the differences between the communities of faith — they will not have violated either the spirit or the letter of the Constitution. Clear distinctions, between education and indoctrination, between knowledge and conviction, are integral to this plan, inasmuch as the reconciliation of religions is based upon collaborative investigation of truth rather than upon politics or proselytizing. This is not the only possible application of this plan. Secondly, a school or college may go beyond promoting spiritual education and knowledge. Every institution must require adherence to specific behavioral standards. Institutionalized learning does not take place in a state of anarchy. Even if it could take place in such a state of total individual freedom, there is no society which would find this acceptable. At present, the behavioral standards adopted by most schools and colleges are secular, and they reinforce the inherently divisive manifestations of the religion of man. If these standards were to be based upon a mutual understanding of and commitment to upholding the essential teachings of the religion of God, they would promote this plan for the reconciliation of religions. We must be clear about this: specific knowledge and standards of behavior can be mandated by our public schools, but they must not overstep their boundaries and seek to mandate personal conviction. Not in the United States of America! And, if we take the International Declaration of Human Rights seriously, not on this planet!
The implementation of this plan in a single school might well result in the refashioning of the curriculum, the pedagogy, the disciplinary procedure, and the relationships between administrators, instructors and students. It might also influence the relationship between students and their families and friends, and, in due course, their employers and employees. In other words, the implementation of this plan in one school could touch thousands of lives. This is practical, not utopian.
The twentieth century witnessed much idealism and heroism, and most of us have looked forward to this new century with hope and determination. We have already attempted many initiatives to effect peace and justice in our time. We are weary of war, weary of wrong, weary of want. We all want unity and love, not just for ourselves, but for all human beings. That longing has attracted us to this conference and to other similar associations.
What harm, I ask you, can possibly come from trying out Bahá’u’lláh's plan for the reconciliation of the religious systems of the world? What can we lose from coming together and seeking to identify those essential principles, which have been promulgated alike by the Founders of all of our Faiths? If, in carrying out such a plan, we find that this plan is nothing but an artificial, syncretic attempt to mask the fundamental differences which divide us, then so be it — at least we will have made an earnest attempt to rid ourselves of the fragmentation which plagues our human family, which has provoked acts of unspeakable cruelty in this century, and which, unabated and uncontrolled, may yet bring our existence on this planet to an untimely end. And if we find that this plan succeeds, then indeed we may say, along with 'Abdu'l-Bahá:
There is an emanation of the universal consciousness today which clearly indicates the dawn of a great unity...the unification of humankind. (9)
* Paper presented by Peter Terry to a conference on religious studies at Bates College, Lewiston, Maine, in 1999; and published in revised form on bahaiteachings.org, in 2015.
(1) 'Abdu'l-Bahá, talks translated into English and published in a collection entitled,The Promulgation of Universal Peace, Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1982, pp. 228, 229: talk given at the All Souls Unitarian Church, New York, 14 July 1912.
(2) Ibid., p. 393: talk given at the Universalist Church in Washington, D.C., 6 November 1912.
(3) Ibid., p. 232.
(4) Ibid., p. 374: talk given at Hotel Sacramento, Sacramento, California, 25 October 1912.
(5) Ibid., pp. 233-234. (6) Ibid., p. 231-232.
(7) Ibid., pp. 168, 169; 221, 346: talk given at the Church of the Ascension, New York, 2 June 1912; talk given at 309 West 78th Street, New York, on 5 July 1912; talk given at the Japanese Y.M.C.A., Oakland, California, 7 October 1912.
(8) Ibid., pp. 151-152. (9) Ibid., p. 229.