Thursday, April 21, 2005

Unenrolled Baha'is and Religious Identity

I lurk on a couple of academic Baha'i lists, without posting because although I have published one article, and have another on the way I don't precisely qualify as a scholar -- and those issues on which I do know something would probably not be appreciated very much by these groups, and I'd just as soon not get kicked off and lose the benefit of other discussions. Anyway, lurking on a Baha'i academic list isn't exactly like lurking on other academic lists, because the dust from the controversies of the last 10 years hasn't quite settled yet. Two issues come up on a pretty regular basis, like some sort of recurring illness, causing a flurry of posts that, while not exactly flames, have a bit of an edge to them -- causing pleas for the thread to halt, moderator intervention,and apologies, then normal discussion resumes for long stretches until these issues bubble up from under the surface again.

Anyway, the first is the old academic vs. doctrinaire viewpoint, which is an odd issue to be still hashing out on a scholarly list. One sees posts which are routine for debate lists, but rather bone-headed for such a normally erudite crowd. The other is whether or not Juan Cole is a Baha'i. This latter seems rather strange to me, since Juan hasn't been around Baha'i lists at all for a year and more -- although I understand he's had some book chapters published that have made the more conservative sorts unhappy. In any case, these folks haven't got over him yet, nor have they really understood the fact that a lot of people self-identify as Baha'is while not being on the Baha'i rolls.

Anyway, this time, the discussion broadened out from that, and some sociologists chimed in to say that from a social science viewpoint self-identification is all that matters. That's the one I used in my own survey -- and to me there's no other one that makes sense if you want to look at a religious community. Formal enrollment tells us nothing about religious belief, except that at one point in their lives these people were interested enough to sign a card. For some religious groups, notably Unitarian-Universalists, far more people identify as adherents than appear as formal members. That's the case, too, for Baha'is in some places. In Bolivia, where Radio Baha'i is popular, more than three times as many Baha'is appear on the religious census as on the rolls of the Baha'i Faith.

One of the group members there spoke of a rather interesting survey that estimates that there may be as many as 10,000 unenrolled Baha'is in the U.S. In some cases, this is the result of multiple identities e.g. a person says they are both Jewish and Baha'i. In other cases, people don't make their adherence "official" in deference to parents or spouses who object. Online, of course, we run into people who have either resigned their membership, or came close to enrolling but were turned off by some of the authoritarian aspects of the Faith.

Some people on the list objected and quoted the "official" line from the new official website, apparently not understanding that when you are studying a religion, what is "official" isn't important. But that's an old story; I've defended my religious identity from such people more times than I can count. But I did think it interesting that there was an actual educated guess about the number of unenrolled Baha'is.


Marco Oliveira said...

As you know, I don’t agree with the things you write about baha’i administration. Such public complaints make no sense to me.

But, I must say I believe you are a baha’i in your heart. I see you as a baha’i.

I just wish more your talent and energy were more focused on teaching the Faith and sharing with us some thoughts on your personal relationship with Baha’u’llah.

Anonymous said...

Some people on the list objected and quoted the "official" line from the new official website, apparently not understanding that when you are studying a religion, what is "official" isn't important

Okay, for a normal internet debate this might be a subtle point. But this is an academic list, and some of these people haven't got as far as Weber yet? This is basic, basic, basic sociology for goodness sake!


Karen said...

Marco: I appreciate your position, and your acceptance of me as a fellow Baha'i. As far as "sharing thoughts on my personal relationship with Baha'u'llah", I find that more difficult -- since it's more personal -- although this is one reason why I started my other blog. I'm not like Alison, who has left "the world" behind; sorry -- I'm just not there yet.

Paul: Well, Paul, that's the thing; I don't know squat about Weber, either, except what I've managed to pick up in context of discussions. I am *no one* when it comes to scholarship, yet I know the difference between a religion's self-perception and official statements by the leadership, and the social reality that one studies. I don't know how I picked up it -- somewhere between majoring in a social science (Economics), and years reading books about early Christianity, maybe. I always liked that "neutral" scholarly voice more than the person who wants to make history sound like a sermon.

Anyway, yes, it's weird. No matter how far Baha'i scholars try to shield themselves in these lists from both fundamentalism and liberal dissidence, they just can't manage it. I think because people reflecting both of those views continue to be engaged in Baha'i scholarship. The tensions are there, lurking just below the surface, ready to burst forth any time.

Love, Karen

Anonymous said...

Yes, I think that's true - to some extent that tension is there anyway, not just because it's already their in different approaches to theology (Sen and the former Cardinal Ratzinger are both in their way practitioners of theology), but also because that tension, between rigidity/lawgiving and play/speculation is a part of human nature itself (this is that Puer/Senex stuff that Larry has been talking about recently).

Basically, the sociological point is that, whatever an organisation says it is "officially", the informal reality of how things works is always different. To take a less controversial example, consider the average medium-sized office. When you turn up there as a new employee, you will probably be given a "structural overview" of the office - who's the manager, who's the money guy, who their PA's are, who is responsible to whom, etc., etc.

But, after you've been there a few weeks, you'll start to realise that *really* if you want to get something done in accounts, the best way is not to put a formal proposal in the Mr Bloggs, the accountant, but instead to approach Doris, Mrs Y's efficient secretary, who will make sure that Mr J, the manager, will see it, and give it to Mr Bloggs. (for example) - and I'm sure you know many similar examples from staff-rooms you have known, and everyone else will know that the official organisation sheet of their own place of work should likewise be regarded with a healthy degree of skepticism.

The sociological insight is that it is these informal networks that really govern how our lives work, and that while the official chart might have some relationship with how things works, it will never be the whole story.

Like all things academic, it's really just common sense dressed up a bit - and to bring it back to the Baha'i topic, it is one of the reasons why things like CB scare stories ("I got a funny feeling just from touching that CB book"), and common Baha'i ideas about "World Peace by year 2000" have some force, even though they may not have been officially enshrined in proclamations or statements from the institutions...


Karen said...

Dear Paul,

Exactly. No matter how much we are warned about the non-authoritative nature of "Kitab-i-Hearsay", it permeates the community -- and in a few specific instances has become "official" doctrine in the sense that other views are considered "non-Baha'i". (e.g. the separation of church and state, and the importance of the individual conscience)

I could go on tangentially on this theme, but back to the issue of "official" Baha'i identity vs. self-indentification: When it comes to the Covenant-breaker groups, for Baha'is to follow the official line and insist that there are no Baha'i sects just makes us look ridiculous, when a simple Google search will reveal that there are, indeed, other sects identifying themselves as Baha'i. The idea that these groups are "not Baha'i" is a faith position, and not an objective reality.

When it comes to liberal, unenrolled Baha'is, the narrow definition becomes even more obviously prejudicial -- you don't have to be a sociologist to see the difference between official membership and private adherence.