The National Baha’i Center in Wilmette, IL claims that there are 140,000 Baha’is in the United States. However, it is almost axiomatic among Baha’is that half of the Faith’s enrolled members are inactive. In fact, the reality may be even worse than that. One independent poll on American religions estimated that there are only 28,000 people in this country who consider themselves Baha’is.
One reason for this huge discrepancy is that no one is ever removed from the membership rolls unless they write a letter to the National Center renouncing their belief. So a person who becomes disillusioned and simply drifts away can remain on the rolls indefinitely. While the 28,000 figure is probably low, the Baha’i assumption that there are thousands of people who consider themselves Baha’is but have no contact with the community is not realistic. (There is the possibility that some do maintain their belief in isolation, but there are not likely to be many who do so.)
What I propose to examine here are the possible reasons for that. This article is not based on scientific data, but my own observations. I would not have the resources to research something like this, even if I had the training. However, I did spend thirteen years in the Baha’i community, and watch a lot of people come and go. Also, the Internet is rife with “ex-Baha’i” stories, and I think the Baha’i community can learn something from what these people are saying. The teachings of the Baha’i Faith — the unity of religion, the individual’s right to investigate truth, racial harmony , and the agreement of reason and religion — have a wide appeal. The Baha’i Faith appears to be a religion that is wasting its potential.
I have no way of knowing which of the problems I mention is responsible for the greatest amount of convert dissatisfaction, I have therefore put them in the order that a convert is likely to encounter them:
THE FALSE FRONT
The Baha’i Faith, in its public presentations, emphasizes the more broad and tolerant aspects of Baha’u’llah’s teachings. The itself is not dishonest, since those liberal teachings are actually present in Baha’i scripture, and historically, converts into the Faith have been from among more open-minded and educated people. However, these free-spirited seekers often do not find out about the more authoritarian and exclusive aspects of Baha’i thought until after they have enrolled.
There are a few things commonly told to converts that can hardly be seen as anything other than deceptions. (To be fair, however, Baha’is often convince themselves that they are true.) One example is that the public is told that Baha’is do not proselytize; they merely teach the Faith as long as a person is interested. However, the new believer soon discovers that community life is centered around the need to gain new converts, and finds himself pressured into “teaching” plans and projects. So a person who has perhaps always held a dim view of those who try to push their religious beliefs on others now must participate in exactly that type of activity. It is hardly surprising that some of them decide that they’ve made a mistake.
One convert who rapidly left after discovering this called the Baha’i Faith “the Amway of religions.” Another more bluntly said “No proselytizing, my rear end!”
Another example is the exclusion of women from the Universal House of Justice, the religion’s supreme governing body, even though equality of the sexes is promoted as a fundamental principle. That fact also can come as a shock to a new convert, and perhaps cause them to leave. [For a more detailed look at this issue, see my Themestream article http://www.angelfire.com/ca3/bigquestions/uhjwomen… “But Some are More Equal than Others”.]
UNSATISFYING COMMUNITY LIFE
One of the least understood aspects of the Baha’i Faith by the general public is the central place administration holds in Baha’i community life. Life as a Baha’i can seem like an endless series of frustrating committee meetings. Building a multitude of LSAs scattered geographically all over the country has taken priority over building solid communities. Once a community has the nine adults necessary to form an Assembly it can be left virtually on its own. In fact, Assemblies exist on paper that never actually meet because not enough of the people in the community are active. But such Assemblies are counted in the impressive statistics given to the public.
The vast majority of Baha’i communities are too small to offer much in the way of services. In an era when megachurches that provide something for everyone are all the rage, the Baha’is look pretty thin. In a very small community, sometimes just getting together for any activity at all can be difficult. Baha’is are often enjoined to be patient, and told that the Faith is only in its infancy. Realistically, however, a religious movement that has been part of the American scene for the last 100 years can hardly continue the claim that it is “embryonic”. The simple fact is that the Baha’i Faith has just done a terrible job in creating a rich and rewarding community life for its members, and many of them drift away for that reason.
On the bright side, however, there has been some recognition of this problem on the part of the Baha’i institutions, and in some areas, greater efforts towards community development have been made.
SANCTIONS AND PUNISHMENTS
Like Judaism and Islam, the Baha’i Faith has a religious law code that adherents are expected to abide by. Persistent, public, and continued violation of one of these laws (for example, drinking alcohol, or cohabitation without marriage) can result in sanctions, most commonly the removal of administrative rights. A person so sanctioned cannot participate in any administrative activity, including Feast, the main worship service. This can prove to be an extremely alienating experience, and can result in a person leaving the Baha’i Faith altogether. Even the threat of such sanctions can be the cause of disillusionment. Also, unfortunately, some Baha’is feel it is their duty to “turn in” people who are not living up to Baha’i standards.
The most common reason for a Baha’i to be sanctioned is failure to have a Baha’i marriage ceremony, which requires the consent of all living parents. Baha’is who are married before conversion don’t have to face this, but for those who marry afterwards will not be recognized as being married unless they do so in a Baha’i ceremony. If parental permission is withheld, for whatever reason (including animosity to the Baha’i Faith itself), then a person is left with the choice of either abandoning one’s intended marriage partner or facing sanction by his religious community.
INTIMIDATION BY BAHA’I AUTHORITIES
There are abundant stories on the Internet that tell of Baha’is leaving after an encounter with a Counselor or Auxiliary Board Member (ABM). These appointed officials have the responsibility for the “protection and propagation of the Faith”. It is primarily those who have responsibiltiy for “protection” that show up to investigate cases of possible impropriety. The primary target of these officials are people who are showing an interest in one of the small Baha’i sects, known to mainstream Baha’is as “covenant-breakers”. Opposition to the current head of the faith, the Universal House of Justice, is considered to be a spiritual illness, that could possibly be contagious, so the news that someone is reading their material and openly discussing it will almost certainly bring an ABM into the community who will investigate, warn, and threaten with shunning, a person who fails to abandon such contacts.
However, with the advent of the Internet, “protection” duties will also include the monitoring of email traffic for anything that seems heterodox. The most notorious incident of this was the http://www.angelfire.com/ca3/bigquestions/talisman… Talisman crackdown in 1996, where professors and intellectuals were threatened with shunning for statements made on an email forum.
Besides associating with schismatics, or email heresy,a Baha’i can attract the attention of Baha’i authorities simply for oral statements, or being seen as a “charismatic leader”. Independent and innovative thinking are viewed with suspicion, with submission to the institutions viewed as a fundamental value. This can drive some of the more talented members away from the Faith.
Author’s note: This article first appeared in Themestream December 8, 2000.