Sunday, May 22, 2005

Raising Moral Kids

The previous entry got me thinking, naturally about my own kids, who are both teenagers now, and how you raise kids with good family values. And, I don't know how I did it, but both of my kids have pretty good values. My son rejects religion, but is as straight-laced morally as the strictest religious conservative could desire. This is a kid who would only go to lunch with Grandma on the condition that she not take him to the restaurant at the casino -- because he disapproves of gambling. His main concern about sex is that he doesn't want to give way to temptation. My daughter is a bit more of a rebel, and certainly more curious about sex, but she's in no big hurry either. Once she was watching one of those godawful daytime shows where families air their dirty laundry for fifteen minutes of fame. I was just about to insist she turn the channel when she says "Mom, that girl is really mean to her mother -- and her mother loves her!" She was in tears about it. (The girl on t.v. was openly and deliberately trying to get pregnant.) Tory also has a very solid sense of self, and isn't likely to be pushed around by some guy. She told me once that she wanted to marry a nerd, so she could push him around!

Now, I know that some folks will think "Ah, but you don't really know what your kids are doing behind your back". Oh, yes I do -- 'cause I'm around and I pay attention. All that's been happening so far are giggling talk about some 7th grade cutie in Tory's case, and unrequited longing in Trevor's case. I'm not even getting phone calls from boyfriends or girlfriends, much less ever met one.

Now, this didn't happen because I've given my kids stern lectures about the value of chastity, and I absolutely disapprove of the scare tactics popular among the Christian right. I answer questions, and tell it like it is as best I can. The closest I came to giving a lecture to my daughter was I used an example of one of her friends, who was in a bad family mess, and I said "Your dad and I have given you a home with two parents who love each other, and who love you. If you have a child before getting married, that baby won't grow up with that."

I think example, and that atmosphere a child is raised in has more to do with their moral viewpoint than any kind of lecture.

Virginity or Death!

There have been successful trials of a vaccine that will immunize young women against the human pampilloma virus -- a sexually transmitted virus that is responsible for about 70% of all cervical cancer. Good news, right? Not according to the Christian right who seem to think that reducing the risk of getting cancer in middle age is going to figure into the sexual choices of teenagers. This article calls it "honor killing on the installment plan". O.K., a bit dramatic, but it's quite appalling that such a simple thing -- a single shot! -- that could prevent women from dying of cancer is a matter of controversy. These people *want* sex to mean death.

These conservative Christians can't even keep their own kids from having sex before marriage, although I suspect they start sexual activity at later ages, and marry a bit earlier. Nearly 90% of teenagers that sign those "virginity pledges" default. If the intense pressure put on these kids doesn't work, then nothing will, short of locking the girls up in convents and rushing them from there to their wedding, strictly chaperoned.

It's not that I'm against chastity, especially for vulnerable young girls, but if they can't quite live up to the ideal, I don't think they ought to die for it.

One Common Faith, paragraph 36

Besides, the diversity of practices, the paper goes on to condemn the clergy of earlier religions, for their theological views:

More detrimental still to religious understanding has been theological presumption. A persistent feature of religion's sectarian past has been the dominant role played by clergy. In the absence of scriptural texts that established unarguable institutional authority, clerical elites succeeded in arrogating to themselves exclusive control over interpretation of the Divine intent. However diverse the motives, the tragic effects have been to impede the current of inspiration, discourage independent intellectual activity, focus attention on the minutiae of rituals and too often engender hatred and prejudice towards those following a different sectarian path from that of self-appointed spiritual leaders. While nothing could prevent the creative power of Divine intervention from continuing its work of progressively raising consciousness, the scope of what could be achieved, in any age, became increasingly limited by such artificially contrived obstacles

I think this is a little harsh -- after all, for centuries, the vast majority of people were not literate, and could not pursue "independent intellectual activity" even if they wanted to. I was just reading a while back that women in Saudi Arabia have gone from mostly illiterate to mostly literate only within the last generation. You can only begin to dispense with clergy when most adherents are educated -- and even then clerical training has some value, certainly in terms of study in the scriptural languages, and in having a perspective on the history of the tradition. In fact, technically, Judaism and Islam doesn't have "clergy", like Christianity; what they have are "scholars" which these communities depended upon to give rulings on religious law, because they are knowledgeable.

Besides, I don't find that Baha'i administrators are free from the faults it attributes to clergymen -- it has done its own share of "impeding the current of inspiration and discouraging independent intellectual activity". For all the claims that no one has individual authority within the Baha'i Faith, upper-level Baha'i administrators are enormously powerful, and their ideas very influential, even at times becoming doctrine with very little basis in the Writings. The idea that the Baha'i Faith is opposed to individualism is one outstanding example. And just like the religious leaders of old, Baha'i administrators are extremely concerned with holding on to their authority, reacting vehemently to the least challenge. The conflict I mentioned in my previous entry within the Anglican church over the acceptance of homosexuality would be inconcievable in the Baha'i Faith -- a person like Maggie Ross could easily be booted out of the Faith for writing an article like that, and that would happen long before any sort of cohesive movement for reform got off the ground. But, as she pointed out, it isn't about homosexuality (or women's rights, or freedom of expression or whatever issue you want to name); the response of religious leadership is really about power and control. And one feature of modern life that is going to cripple any chance the Baha'i Faith has to be more than just an exotic alternative to mainstream religion is that people can choose not to be ordered around by their religious leaders -- and they will. Even conservative Christian preachers complain that their congregations won't hang around on Sunday if they are lectured about their sins, creating an ethical dilmemma over whether or not folks in the pews should be told what they want to hear, rather than what they need to hear. And the Baha'i administration does more than lecture; Baha'is live under the threat of sanction to a much greater extent than any of the well-established religions, and that's one reason so many leave.

Praying With Our Feet

I came across this article by Maggie Ross, author of one of my favorite books on mysticism *The Fountain and the Furnace: The Way of Tears and Fire*. She's a Christian solitary, bound by all the vows of a nun, but not living in a bounded community. One might expect that she would have a rather old-fashioned outlook on the rest of the world -- and in fact, the texts she studies and talks about are much older-fashioned than anything that comes from conservative Christians who think they have "that old-time religion". But that expectation would be wrong.

This article is a fiery denunciation of those that are refusing to accept gay priests in the Anglican church. But what she says would be true for any issue, or any religious community. Some quotes:

Faith is not about suspending critique, but about exercising it.

The sayings attributed to Jesus in the gospels apply to discernment in this life. He wishes to teach us a wisdom into which we grow progressively that enables us to shake off the shackles imposed in the name of the closed and unthinking strictures imposed by family, culture and even religion. We might say especially religion, since our Christian religious institutions seem to have recreated the very sort of religious climate that Jesus spent his entire ministry criticizing.

But faith is precisely about challenging complacency. It is about finding security in insecurity, the realization that unless we work hard to maintain a hole in the heavens (Lathrop, 2003) by which the closed universe of human self-consciousness is breached, human engagement will be tragically determined by the fear of "death," which is not mortality but our fantasies about mortality, which are in fact fantasies about power and control, in whose name real death is inflicted on others.

By contrast, so-called values imposed on others by frightened people can only be abusive, and values inflicted under the name of religion by the bigoted, the arrogant and the greedy are no values at all. A culture based on greed and fear wants its members to be team players, sycophants, ciphers. It does not want to produce people who can exercise a critique.

It also means that in our learning and teaching we have reverence for a kind of holy self-doubt. Our thoughts are not God's thoughts, and when we start pretending they are, we create havoc.

There is always risk involved in such a stance. Such people may be regarded as mere crackpots. As non-members of the establishment, particularly the religious establishment, they are considered presumptuous even for raising their voices to be heard, much less insisting on keeping on being heard. And if by some miracle they escape censure, or persecution, or being silenced if only by being ignored or isolated, they will continue to speak out until their last breath.

With so many fake Christians around, it's really nice to meet a real one. And a real Christian has a lot to teach those of us who follow other spiritual paths.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

One Common Faith, paragraphs 28-35

In short, through the ongoing process of revelation, the One Who is the Source of the system of knowledge we call religion demonstrates that system's integrity and its freedom from the contradictions imposed by sectarian ambitions.. . .

This is something of a Baha'i myth i.e. that schism and creation of sects is inevitably the result of "ambition". That just doesn't hold up in the light of history. There is such a thing as sincere disagreement over what a religion means. Since the next few paragraphs largely concern the idea of progressive revelation -- a belief common to all Baha'is -- I really have little to say about them.

The objection most commonly raised against the foregoing conception of religion is the assertion that the differences among the revealed faiths are so fundamental that to present them as stages or aspects of one unified system of truth does violence to the facts. Given the confusion surrounding the nature of religion, the reaction is understandable.. . .

I have certainly seen Christian objections to the Baha'i Faith of exactly this type. What it comes down to is what one thinks is important about religion. Christianity, historically, has made theology a major issue, so naturally the idea of the unity of religion looks like utter nonsense to them. If you don't equate conceptions of God with God Himself, then theology ceases to matter so much. For Baha'is, God is unknowable, therefore arguments concerning what we think we know are rather pointless. However, the Baha'i community is not, unfortunately, completely free of rigidity concerning the nature of God -- more than one liberal intellectual got into trouble, at least partly, because he held a "low theology" of Baha'u'llah.

The next few paragraphs focus on the difference is religious practices, giving the basic Baha'i view that the former religious laws were revealed as appropriate to past ages.

The concept of progressive revelation places the ultimate emphasis on recognition of the revelation of God at its appearance. The failure of the generality of humankind in this respect has, time and again, condemned entire populations to a ritualistic repetition of ordinances and practices long after these latter have fulfilled their purpose and now merely stultify moral advance. Sadly, in the present day, a related consequence of such failure has been to trivialize religion. At precisely the point in its collective development where humanity began to struggle with the challenges of modernity, the spiritual resource on which it had principally depended for moral courage and enlightenment was fast becoming a subject of mockery, first at those levels where decisions were being made about the direction society should take, and eventually in ever-widening circles of the general population. There is little cause for surprise, then, that this most devastating of the many betrayals of trust from which human confidence has suffered should, in the course of time, undermine the foundations of belief itself.

Again, it remains to be seen how the Baha'i Faith will do better on this score. Already there are issues, some of which were mentioned in this paper, where the prevailing interpretations of Baha'i teaching seem to be pushing mankind backwards towards a more authoritarian era. There is no point whatsoever, for example, to excluding women from the UHJ -- even that body itself admits that it doesn't know the reason for it. When I was researching this issue, I found the arguments made in support of this exclusion to be virtually identical to those made by the Catholic Church for its exclusion of women from the priesthood. Very well, religious communities decide to hold on to their traditions and the authority they deem so essential for the preservation of the Founder's teachings. However, they then give up any viable claim to be compatible with modernity, or to be on the cutting edge of human progress.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Worldview Quiz

O.K. I'll admit it; I like doing goofy little quizzes. Credit for pointing me to this one goes to Umm Yasmin, who once upon a time was known as Maryam Rachel Woodlock in Baha'i circles, but who has apparently chosen an honorific in celebration of her baby girl -- which sounds like a terrific idea to me remembering those precious days when my kids were babies. Actually, there was a phase in my kids' lives where all the children in the neighborhood called me "Trevor's Mom", which isn't so different, I suppose. :-)

Anyway, my quiz results:

You scored as Cultural Creative. Cultural Creatives are probably the newest group to enter this realm. You are a modern thinker who tends to shy away from organized religion but still feels as if there is something greater than ourselves. You are very spiritual, even if you are not religious. Life has a meaning outside of the rational.

Cultural Creative
















What is Your World View?
created with

One Common Faith, paragraphs 24-27

As I mentioned in the previous entry, the next paragraphs continue with a restatement of some pretty basic Baha'i teachings:

The teachings of Bahá'u'lláh cut through this tangle of inconsistent views and, in doing so, reformulate many truths which, whether explicitly or implicitly, have lain at the heart of all Divine revelation. . . .

The only problem I have with this is the rather arrogant dismissal of previous traditions; it is, of course, Baha'i teaching that Baha'u'llah has reconfirmed many of the basic and eternal truths these traditions contain.

To presume to judge among the Messengers of God, exalting one above the other, would be to give in to the delusion that the Eternal and All-Embracing is subject to the vagaries of human preference . . .To imagine, further, that the nature of these unique Figures can be-or needs to be-encompassed within theories borrowed from physical experience is equally presumptuous.

These kinds of statements always worry me, because this was the basis for harrassing Baha'i scholars i.e. that they used academic methods, regarded by the House as "materialist" to examine the Faith -- and in particular, the treatment of Baha'u'llah as a human being and historical figure.

What is meant by "knowledge of God", Bahá'u'lláh explains, is knowledge of the Manifestations Who reveal His will and attributes, and it is here that the soul comes into intimate association with a Creator Who is otherwise beyond both language and apprehension: . . . 26
Religion, thus conceived, awakens the soul to potentialities that are otherwise unimaginable. To the extent that an individual learns to benefit from the influence of the revelation of God for his age, his nature becomes progressively imbued with the attributes of the Divine world:

However, it might be pointed out that the soul can be awakened to such potentialities by following the teachings of any of the Manifestations.

Belief is thus a necessary and inextinguishable urge of the species that has been described by an influential modern thinker as "evolution become conscious of itself".16 If, as the events of the twentieth century provide sad and compelling evidence, the natural expression of faith is artificially blocked, it will invent objects of worship however unworthy-or even debased-that may in some measure appease the yearning for certitude. It is an impulse that will not be denied.

I really don't know what is meant by "artificially blocked" here. Something similar is mentioned in the introduction to this paper: accelerating breakdown in social order calls out desperately for the religious spirit to be freed from the shackles that have so far prevented it from bringing to bear the healing influence of which it is capable.

I do not know what they think is preventing religion from doing its healing work; we have religious freedom -- indeed, religious choice has never in history been more free than it is right now. This is not universal, of course, there are still countries that limit, or even actively persecute religious minorities, but it is precisely in the Western "materialist" countries so condemned by this paper that religion is most free -- and material techological advances that have made information about different religions more free than anyone could ever have dreamed possible. However, it may be that freedom of religious choice is not what they are talking about here.

Rules for the Religious Right

For those readers who are getting tired of *One Common Faith* -- I thought you might enjoy this. My favorites:

1. If any member of the religious right has been divorced, they must sit out of any conversation directly or indirectly about so-called "family values." Duct tape will be placed on the mouth of a religious rightist if they have divorced a spouse while she (or he) was sick or in the hospital, just to let everyone know that they have nothing meaningful to add to a discussion of family values.

5. If you have had an extra-marital affair, dated your secretary, or been with a prostitute (paid or unpaid), you must leave the field. You cannot tell the rest of us what to do when you don't live by your own rules. This is a very fair deal considering that you don't have to wear any scarlet letters.

10. Anyone who says they know what God meant by anything, especially anything written in a holy book, scroll, or divine fingerpainting is immediately to be dismissed from influencing the public life of the republic. Since you know what God wants, then politics is probably the last thing that you should spend your time on. Really.

One Common Faith, paragraphs 21-23

Few today among those who have some degree of objective familiarity with the subject are likely, therefore, to entertain an illusion that any one of the established religious systems of the past can assume the role of ultimate guide for humankind in the issues of contemporary life, even in the improbable event that its disparate sects should come together for that purpose.

Oh, I don't know. People who are seeking such guidance from their religion on these issues generally find it. The Bible doesn't say "Thou shalt not do research on stem cells obtained from aborted fetuses", yet many Christians find a religious basis to object.

Each one of what the world regards as independent religions is set in the mould created by its authoritative scripture and its history. As it cannot refashion its system of belief in a manner to derive legitimacy from the authoritative words of its Founder, it likewise cannot adequately answer the multitude of questions posed by social and intellectual evolution.

Religion is constantly being re-fashioned and re-interpreted, in every age. There are plenty of people who are quite certain they have all the answers they need. Of course, those answers don't do the rest of us that much good, because for them, the answer is for the rest of the world to adopt their religious viewpoint. In fact, I think this may be the kind of answer this paper is offering us.

Distressing as this may appear to many, it is no more than an inherent feature of the evolutionary process. Attempts to force a reversal of some kind can lead only to still greater disenchantment with religion itself and exacerbate sectarian conflict.

I am guessing that by "reversal" they mean the solutions proposed by fundamentalism -- which does disenchant those who can't swallow it and lead to sectarian conflict.

The dilemma is both artificial and self-inflicted.

The dilemma being, I suppose, that religion is needed, but none of the older traditions are adequate. Well, I suppose it is "self-inflicted" to choose a religion other than the Baha'i Faith.

The world order, if it can be so described, within which Bahá'ís today pursue the work of sharing Bahá'u'lláh's message is one whose misconceptions about both human nature and social evolution are so fundamental as to severely inhibit the most intelligent and well-intentioned endeavours at human betterment.

O.K., but this paper is quite vague on what Baha'i answers are going to be superior to those already tried.

Particularly is this true with respect to the confusion that surrounds virtually every aspect of the subject of religion. In order to respond adequately to the spiritual needs of their neighbours, Bahá'ís will have to gain an in-depth understanding of the issues involved. The effort of imagination this challenge requires can be appreciated from the advice that is perhaps the most frequently and urgently reiterated admonition in the writings of their Faith: to "meditate", to "ponder", to "reflect".

Again, there's this vagueness -- Baha'is are exhorted to think about these issues. That's great; I can get behind the notion of thinking about issues. I've been doing that right here, but I'm not sure the UHJ would appreciate the thoughts I've come up with.

A commonplace of popular discourse is that by "religion" is intended the multitude of sects currently in existence. Not surprisingly, such a suggestion at once arouses protest in other quarters that by religion is intended rather one or another of the great, independent belief systems of history that have shaped and inspired whole civilizations.

Actually, that depends on the awareness of the person one is talking to. Probably most Americans, when talk about "religions" think of the various denominations of Christianity. In the vernacular, to "get religion" means to become a Christian. Most of the people I know that have a broader awareness of religion are those that have been interested enough in the subject to look outside Christianity.

This point of view, in turn, however, runs up against the inevitable query as to where one will find these historic faiths in the contemporary world. Where, precisely, are "Judaism", "Buddhism", "Christianity", "Islam" and the others, since they obviously cannot be identified with the irreconcilably opposed organizations that purport to speak authoritatively in their names?

Actually, these religions are quite unconcerned about that. When Baha'is go bragging to Christians about how united they are, Christians just look at them blankly -- they don't view the multiplicity of denominations as a fault. Denominational lines have become less important than the liberal/fundamentalist divide, anyway. It reminds me a bit of when Christians criticize the Baha'i Faith for not promising salvation, saying "You don't know you're saved". Well, that's because it isn't an issue to us. If you're going to talk to other religions, a good first step might be to find out what they *do* care about.

Nor does the problem end there. Yet another response to the enquiry will almost certainly be that by religion is intended simply an attitude to life, a sense of relationship with a Reality that transcends material existence. Religion, so conceived, is an attribute of the individual person, an impulse not susceptible of organization, an experience universally available. Again, however, such an orientation will be seen by a majority of religiously minded persons as lacking the very authority of self-discipline and the unifying effect that give religion meaning.

The "spiritual, but not religious" category is one of the fastest-growing approaches to religion in this country. It must be meaningful to somebody. I would agree that it is sometimes approached in a rather haphazard fashion, where you're religious when you feel like it, but don't have to worry about any of those pesky restrictions on behavior. I have even seen supposed devotion to one's spiritual quest used as an excuse for utter selfishness. However, that does not necessarily have to be the case. Nor does formal adherence to an organized religion necessarily mean "self-discipline" and "unity". The person who goes to church on Sunday, and plays dirty the rest of the week is a cliche all of us have heard about. The person who prays and meditates daily, carefully weighing their moral actions, but does not belong to a religious community is certainly more devout than the one who checks in once a week in his best clothes and doesn't give God a thought the rest of the time.

Some objectors would even argue that, on the contrary, religion signifies the lifestyle of persons who, like themselves, have adopted severe regimens of daily ritual and self-denial that set them entirely apart from the rest of society.

Well, that most certainly is one form that religion can take.

What all such differing conceptions have in common is the extent to which a phenomenon that is acknowledged to completely transcend human reach has nevertheless gradually been imprisoned within conceptual limits-whether organizational, theological, experiential or ritualistic-of human invention.

Wait a minute. Didn't this document just say that being outside an organizational framework, and just operating as a spiritual individual was meaningless? I would certainly agree that God cannot be contained within any kind of conceptual limits, or organization, or theology, or ritual -- that's basic Baha'i teaching. In fact, the next several paragraphs go on to recap some basic Baha'i teachings, and so this is a good place to break.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

One Common Faith, paragraphs 12-20

It would end up being repetitive to go through the next several paragraphs piece by piece, so I'm just going over this in general. The reader should refer to the original document to get all the details.

Paragraphs 12-16 speak of the forces of globalization, which I don't think anyone would dispute. The very fact that I can write these words, and they can be read by people all over the world is little short of a miracle -- and this increasingly global exchange of ideas certainly has an impact on the spiritual life of mankind, and how diverse peoples view each other. The response to a disaster like December's tsunami is just an obvious example -- the people affected are foreign, having a very different culture and outlook than our own, yet there was an outpouring of charitable effort like nothing I've never seen. And, of course, that's only one very obvious example among many.

The paper shifts, beginning at paragraph 17, from a denunciation of materialism and secularism, to a discussion of the benfits that religion has brought mankind. In paragraph 18, the UHJ asks Why, then, does this immensely rich heritage not serve as the central stage for today's reawakening of spiritual quest? Then, in the next paragraph, answers its own question:

It is here that the spiritual nature of the contemporary crisis comes into sharpest focus because most of the decisions called for are not merely practical but moral. In large part, therefore, loss of faith in traditional religion has been an inevitable consequence of failure to discover in it the guidance required to live with modernity, successfully and with assurance.

Well, actually, the "rich heritage" of the older religions actually *has* been the focus of spiritual quest for the vast majority of people. One thing I've seen online is a great resurgence of interest in Christian mysticism, and what the early Church fathers had to say about that. There are certainly more examples, but the most spiritual exploration goes on within the framework of these religious traditions, so I don't even know what the UHJ is talking about here.

What remains to be seen, however, is how the Baha'i Faith will be more successful in dealing with the ethical problems that come about through social and technological change. Baha'is, after all, do not live in a bubble; we are subject to the same forces of modernity as everyone else is. And it is strange that the UHJ should bring up such tricky moral questions such as stem cell research and sexual identity, when it has avoided ruling on such topics.

Then, the paper goes on to say:
A second barrier to a re-emergence of inherited systems of belief as the answer to humanity's spiritual yearnings is the effects already mentioned of global integration . . .

Basically, the idea I'm picking up here is that since people of various religions have been thrown together, they find they have much in common, and inevitably can't regard their own religion in quite the same light. What the UHJ doesn't mention is that while such contact can and does create interfaith understanding, it also can and does result in the defensive stance of fundamentalism.

People have been asking about what *A Common Faith* is aimed at -- what's it's general message? That actually hasn't been all that easy to figure out. So far, what I've gotten is that materialism and secularism, while they have brought mankind unimagined material benefits, have neglected its spiritual nature, bring moral chaos and the degeneration of society. So, basically, if lack of religion is the problem, then religion is the answer, but the world's religious systems haven't been able to do much about the world's problems either. At this point, the paper has shifted to examining the reasons for that.

One Common Faith, paragraph 12

Clearly, materialism's error has lain not in the laudable effort to improve the conditions of life, but in the narrowness of mind and unjustified self-confidence that have defined its mission.

Well, as I said earlier, I'm not sure "materialism" has a mission, except if you're talking about Marxism. But since the previous paragraph was complaining about consumerism, I assume they're talking about the West.

The importance both of material prosperity and of the scientific and technological advances necessary to its achievement is a theme that runs through the writings of the Bahá'í Faith. As was inevitable from the outset, however, arbitrary efforts to disengage such physical and material well-being from humanity's spiritual and moral development have ended by forfeiting the allegiance of the very populations whose interests a materialistic culture purports to serve.

I'm trying to make sense of this. Are they complaining that religion has not been injected into scientific endeavors? One reason for that is that religion very often has fought against, and sought to place limits on scientific experimentation that would destroy its very foundation. The relationship between scientists and religionists has not, historically, been very friendly. The last thing any scientist is going to want is interference by any religion, telling them that they can't investigate in certain areas, or that their conclusions must be rejected on the basis of religious dogma. I'd like to know exactly how the UHJ thinks the two should be blended. Would they like scientists to talk about God or scold us about risky behaviors while they try to cure disease? Would they prefer certain avenues of research to be prohibited on a religious basis?

One Common Faith, paragraphs 10-11

The fate of what the world has learned to call social and economic development has left no doubt that not even the most idealistic motives can correct materialism's fundamental flaws. Born in the wake of the chaos of the Second World War, "development" became by far the largest and most ambitious collective undertaking on which the human race has ever embarked. Its humanitarian motivation matched its enormous material and technological investment. Fifty years later, while acknowledging the impressive benefits development has brought, the enterprise must be adjudged, by its own standards, a disheartening failure. Far from narrowing the gap between the well-being of the small segment of the human family who enjoy the benefits of modernity and the condition of the vast populations mired in hopeless want, the collective effort that began with such high hopes has seen the gap widen into an abyss.

Certainly, the UHJ is right to be concerned about the enormous gap between rich and poor in the world -- a gap which has stubbornly resisted solution. However, I don't think that the aid given to these poor countries was ever really intended to narrow that gap substantially. The wealthier countries of the world mostly want the Third World to be a source of resources and cheap labor. So, it's by the UHJ's standards that this effort has been judged a failure, not by its own. And, I am uncertain as to what solution is being offered here that would be better than what is being done. The context would suggest that replacing material values with spiritual ones would somehow solve this problem. But what do they expect to happen if there were, indeed, the kind of spiritual revolution in the world that the UHJ wants?

Consumer culture, today's inheritor by default of materialism's gospel of human betterment, is unembarrassed by the ephemeral nature of the goals that inspire it. For the small minority of people who can afford them, the benefits it offers are immediate, and the rationale unapologetic.

Well, they've got us there. Consumer culture is seen as being pretty hollow and bankrupt even by the people caught up in it. It's virtually inescapable. Americans live in what, by the world's standard, extreme wealth, but it takes two good incomes and going into incredible debt in order to sustain a middle-class lifestyle -- and we feel perpetually stressed and like we're falling behind.

Emboldened by the breakdown of traditional morality, the advance of the new creed is essentially no more than the triumph of animal impulse, as instinctive and blind as appetite, released at long last from the restraints of supernatural sanctions.

I'm not sure what "traditional morality" has to do with it. The greatest shift I've seen, since my parents' and grandparents' generation is that we no longer know how to be careful with our money, we have higher expectations for material comforts, and we go into debt at the drop of a hat. I don't think that's less "materialistic", though. Saving money and pinching pennies is just as materialistically motivated as spending it. As for supernatural sanctions", I haven't noticed the religious people of this country being particularly afraid they are going to hell because they have a high standard of living, in spite of what Jesus said about rich men and the eye of a needle.

Its most obvious casualty has been language. Tendencies once universally castigated as moral failings mutate into necessities of social progress. Selfishness becomes a prized commercial resource;

"Selfishness" has always been "a prized commercial resource". People invest in order to make money -- and that also ends up making money, or at least a living, for other people. The big difference I see with earlier generations is that they also took pride in hard work; people still work hard, but they complain about it.

falsehood reinvents itself as public information;

I'm not sure what they are talking about here. We do, now, live in an information society, and with so much out there, it is sometimes no easy task to separate the true from the false -- and sometimes it's just a matter of what spin is put on the facts. Yes, people lie -- but people have always lied. They just have broader platforms on which to do it.

perversions of various kinds unabashedly claim the status of civil rights.

I assume they are talking about the Gay Rights movement here. I don't think "spiritual values" are going to put that genie back in the bottle. Young people are every bit as offended by our bias against gays as we were about our parents' racism. Religious leaders can go ahead and thunder all they want about the sin of homosexuality, but the trend towards tolerance isn't going to be reversed for the foreseeable future. I'm not sure exactly what the UHJ would like to see happen anyway, in terms of social attitudes. I've got a cousin who is a lesbian, and she and her partner show up to family gatherings -- and this is a pretty conservative family, on the whole. Would it be a better thing to make her an outcast? Would that be more "spiritual"?

Under appropriate euphemisms, greed, lust, indolence, pride-even violence-acquire not merely broad acceptance but social and economic value. Ironically, as words have been drained of meaning, so have the very material comforts and acquisitions for which truth has been casually sacrificed.

I don't really know what they are talking about here, except perhaps that playing upon our "greed, lust, indolence, pride" and violent tendencies is used to sell us stuff. But it's a two-way street; if advertisers could sell by appealing to our better nature, they'd do that. And sometimes they do -- advertising appeals to the desire to be good parents, for example, when they sell child-oriented products. "Material comforts" aren't supposed to provide meaning; they provide material comfort -- they just are what they are. I don't sacrifice "truth" in order to buy something new; I sacrifice money which could possibly go to another purpose. The morality involved has to do with choices we make.

Protests in Afghanistan

Protests over the story that broke a few days ago over U.S. interrogators flushing pages of the Qur'an down the toilet are growing violent, with eight people believed dead. One of the most disgusting aspects of the stories of prisoner abuse in Guantanamo and Abu Graib, are the reports interrogators deliberately attempting to humiliate prisoners because of their religion e.g. forcing them to eat pork or drink alcohol, or smearing red ink on them and telling them it is menstrual blood, leaving prisoners unable to say their prayers until they have washed.

The last paragraph of the article says: Radwan Masmoudi, president of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy in Washington, said a "serious investigation" of the Guantanamo allegations was needed because the incident "strengthens the voice" of extremists who say the United States is "not serious in promoting freedom and democracy in the Muslim world."

Investigation? An investigation that will, in several months, result in a report that few will read isn't going to be adequate. We need the President to come out with an apology, assurance of punishment for those responsible, and a strong statement that the U.S., with its tradition of religious freedom does not approve of disrespect to anyone's religious scriptures.

Now, it may very well be true that these protests are being coordinated by extremist groups, but a Muslim doesn't have to be an extremist to be revolted by this. How would you expect the adherents of any religion to react to the desecration of their scriptures? I thought we were supposed to be winning hearts and minds over there, and promoting democracy.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

One Common Faith, paragraphs 8-9

The most obvious cause of these re-evaluations has been the bankruptcy of the materialist enterprise itself. For well over a hundred years, the idea of progress was identified with economic development and with its capacity to motivate and shape social improvement. Those differences of opinion that existed did not challenge this world view, but only conceptions as to how its goals might best be attained. Its most extreme form, the iron dogma of "scientific materialism", sought to reinterpret every aspect of history and human behaviour in its own narrow terms. Whatever humanitarian ideals may have inspired some of its early proponents, the universal consequence was to produce regimes of totalitarian control prepared to use any means of coercion in regulating the lives of hapless populations subjected to them. The goal held up as justification of such abuses was the creation of a new kind of society that would ensure not only freedom from want but fulfilment for the human spirit. At the end, after eight decades of mounting folly and brutality, the movement collapsed as a credible guide to the world's future.

I think there are few people left who would disagree with this.

Other systems of social experimentation, while repudiating recourse to inhumane methods, nevertheless derived their moral and intellectual thrust from the same limited conception of reality. The view took root that, since people were essentially self-interested actors in matters pertaining to their economic well-being, the building of just and prosperous societies could be ensured by one or another scheme of what was described as modernization.

People *are*, for the most part, "self-interested actors" when it comes to economics, which is one reason communism didn't work. People just don't spend or invest money out of concern for the common welfare. The only limit on "self-interest" here is that people will sometimes forgo economic opportunities for other types of advantage i.e. for their family's well-being (e.g. career women who follow "the Mommy track") or for reasons of personal self-fulfillment or even personal ethics. I'm not sure that "modernization" could really be called a "scheme", though, except in instances where the government did some deliberate planning, e.g. the rural electrification projects back in the 30s and 40s. A lot of it has to do with technological advances. I'm sitting here at a computer, not because anybody had a "scheme", but because a combination of creative minds and economic forces made it possible. Sure, Bill Gates could be said to have had a "scheme" to write software, but that's like saying I had a "scheme" to be a teacher.

It also strikes me as odd to see a capitalist economic system as "social experiementation"; it's simply what happens when the government refrains from interference with individual economic decisions -- and there's virtually no such thing as a purely laissez-faire system anyway. I would be very curious to see exactly what sort of economic model the UHJ would approve of.

The closing decades of the twentieth century, however, sagged under a mounting burden of evidence to the contrary: the breakdown of family life, soaring crime, dysfunctional educational systems, and a catalogue of other social pathologies that bring to mind the sombre words of Bahá'u'lláh's warning about the impending condition of human society: "Such shall be its plight, that to disclose it now would not be meet and seemly."2

The "social pathologies" discussed here pretty much peaked in the 1970s, but through the 1980s, there was a conservative backlash -- crime is down, drug use is down, teenage pregnancy is down, educational standards were toughened. Various organizations, including our schools, proclaim "zero tolerance" for a host of ills ranging from violence to drugs to sexual harrassment. For all the troubles that plague us, my children are growing up in a less "pathological" society than I did.

And it's easy to forget the social pathologies that prevailed in the Western world at the beginning of the 20th century, but which have greatly dimininshed, especially where the treatment of women, children, and ethnic minorities are concerned. It's easy to complain about "dysfunction" in education, but at the beginning of this century most children left school at what would now be considered unacceptably young ages in order to work. You can gripe about "family breakdown", but a world in which women were forced to remain in abusive marriages through fear of social disapproval and inability to support themselves had very little to brag about. It does seem, sometimes, that for every advance, there's yet another problem, but that doesn't mean that progress hasn't been made.

Monday, May 09, 2005

Threatened Boycott of Baha'i Speaker Ends Up Being No Big Deal

The St. Charles Mayor's Prayer Breakfast broke with tradition and invited Baha'i Billie Mayo as keynote speaker. Emcee Tom Hughes, and a handful of others didn't show up, but the 210 people that attended hardly noticed, so as a boycott it was pretty much a flop. It's always nice to hear a story that reminds us that the majority of people are not jerks.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Mother's Day is Peace Day

Mother's Day was originally founded as part of the Peace movement; Julia Ware Howe, founder of the holiday insisted "Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience."

I was recently talking about how I would do anything to prevent my son from being sent off to war, but what I didn't add is that it's not only fear that he would be killed -- I don't want him turned into a killer, either, which would be the obvious necessity for his survival. No matter how you justify it, the obligation to kill other human beings does something to the human soul, something that I don't want done to my son -- or daughter, for that matter. As Baha'u'llah said "It is better that you should be slain than that you should slay."

One Common Faith, paragraphs 5-7

Since the next three paragraphs pretty much elaborate on the same theme, and the quotes, combined with my own commentary would make this blog entry impossibly long, I'm just going to quote a short bit of it, and refer the reader to the entire document.

As the twentieth century approached its close, therefore, nothing seemed less likely than a sudden resurgence of religion as a subject of consuming global importance. Yet that is precisely what has now occurred in the form of a groundswell of anxiety and discontent, much of it still only dimly conscious of the sense of spiritual emptiness that is producing it. . . . Perhaps the most insistent factor in producing the change is reluctant recognition that there is no credible replacement for religious belief as a force capable of generating self-discipline and restoring commitment to moral behaviour. . . .

The reawakened interest in religion is clearly far from having reached its peak, in either its explicitly religious or its less definable spiritual manifestations. On the contrary. The phenomenon is the product of historical forces that steadily gather momentum. Their common effect is to erode the certainty, bequeathed to the world by the twentieth century, that material existence represents ultimate reality.

As I said before, the idea that religious faith somehow disappeared from view during the 20th century, then suddenly has sprung to life again is simply ahistorical, with the sole exception of the former Communist countries where religious expression was either strictly regulated or banned outright. But Americans have always been religious; in fact, church membership was much higher in the 20th century than in the 18th. From the modernist vs. fundamentalist debates of the early 1900s to the Culture Wars of our own generation, from New Thought to New Age, religion has been alive and well all along -- if what they are talking about is the interest and need of human beings to find some kind of sense and meaning to their lives. Should I name all the religious movements that have emerged since 1900? The very term "New Religious Movement", by definition, means a religious group founded since 1945, and they are numerous enough to be considered a whole specialty among academics that study religion. Of course, if the need for spiritual meaning and experience in our lives is a fundamental part of being human -- and I certainly think it is -- then I would not expect it to disappear during any historical period, but for specific outlooks and beliefs to change.

One of the things that has created the illusion that this search is somehow "new" is that over this century, there have been new tools which enable spiritual seekers to explore a vast array of alternatives that simply weren't accessible before. We've gone from an era of books, to broadcast media, then video and audio tapes, to the Internet, where information about any subject is cheaper than water, and an increasing portion of the population is educated enough to explore their religious options. One is no longer limited to joining a local religious congregation; one can find like-minded thinkers in cyberspace, or one can just live one's spiritual life without any formal affiliattion, as the book *Generations*characterized the Baby Boomers: "They built churches inside their own heads."

Of course, as the House implies, this spiritual seeking has not been all to the good: The twentieth century also saw the rise of fundamentalism -- a phenomenon named, at least for Christianity, at the beginning of the century, not its end, and which was growing throughout it. The big change that has occurred in the last 30 years or so is that fundamentalism has grown more respectable and middle class, while mainstream churches have been in decline. My grandmother has been a bit bemused that a religious outlook that was largely confined to the poor and ignorant when she was young, has suddenly emerged to become a political force to be reckoned with, while her friends complain that their churches have been drained of young people. I would argue that this is not a sign of becoming more religious or spiritual, but the growth of a defensive intolerance. It is not, as I mentioned in an earlier entry , an indication of signifantly improved moral behavior, either.

Saturday, May 07, 2005

Faith-based News

Here's a good article on something that ought to be obvious, but very often isn't: Christian broadcasting is enormously influential on the political life of this country. An issue like the Terry Schaivo case can simmer for years in Christian media, completely ignored by the mainstream, until it bursts out suddenly into view, and everybody else wonders where it all came from.

This used to be true of right-wing media, too. Oklahoma City wasn't a great shock to folks who had been following the right-wing press and/or broadcasting because although Waco had virtually dropped out of sight in the mainstream, it had *never* been forgotten on the right, and there was an entire industry of videos, books, etc. about how it was a frightening example of government oppression. But, with the dominence of Fox News, I don't think it's quite so "underground" anymore.

There's another aspect to the Religious Right that this article notes in passing, too: That more than a few evangelical and fundamentalist Christians are dedicated to living in a safe and hermetically-sealed world of their own. They associate only with other Christians like themselves, send their kids to Christian schools ( or homeschool), then send them off to Christian colleges, where they will meet and marry one of their own. For some of these folks, the only place they encounter non-Christians, or even liberal Christians, (or even conservative Catholics) is at work -- and those that work in these Christian-oriented information and educational industries don't even do that. They can even now plug into a satellite network that carries *only* Christian broadcasting. It's no wonder that they see liberal, or even moderate viewpoints through a lens of stereotypes that present them as self-evidently ridiculous.

One Common Faith, paragraph 4

Throughout that part of the world where the vast majority of the earth's population live, facile announcements that "God is Dead" had passed largely unnoticed.

This is, in itself, a pretty "facile" statement, if one looks at what "God is dead" means. According to Wikipedia, "it is Nietzsche's controversial way of saying that God has ceased to be a reckoning force in the people's lives, even if they don't recognize it." This appears to be similar to what the UHJ is complaining about -- that religion no longer has the kind of influence that it once did. The difference is in whether one thinks this a good thing or a bad thing.

It's also worth noting that Neitzche put his famous statement in the mouth of a "madman" who wasn't simply throwing it in the faces of the faithful, but crying out in despair that humanity had killed God.

The way pre-modern peoples used to view God, as opposed to the way moderns do is a pretty complex subject, but the scientific advances that have been made in the modern world have made it virtually impossible to believe in God in quite the same way as people did before. We are left with a choice between a modernist version of religion, which makes a distinction between scientific facts and religious truth, or a fundamentalism that attempts to claim that religious truth is scientific fact.

The experience of the peoples of Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Pacific had long confirmed them in the view not only that human nature is deeply influenced by spiritual forces, but that its very identity is spiritual. Consequently, religion continued, as had always been the case, to function as the ultimate authority in life.

Well, it's pretty easy to retain a pre-modern conception of God when people are uneducated; those living in the Third World who have a Western education are subject to the same dilemma that faces other moderns. However, I find myself a bit puzzled at this romanticizing of a past where people were more "spiritual"; I have always seen the Baha'i Faith as unique in *not* looking backwards towards a golden era of the past, but rather oriented towards the future. In fact, my understanding of Baha'i teaching is that this is the Day of God because the very life of mankind has been "revolutionized"; Baha'u'llah didn't come to return us to the way of life that prevailed on this planet for over 4500 years.

A good deal of this "spiritual" orientation of pre-modern people was what even religious people today would call superstition. It would not take too much effort to think of the disadvantages of such a perspective, particularly from the point of view of human rights -- some of these issues are still being fought over. The spiritual orientation being praised here also leads premodern cultures to do things like cut off parts of girls' genitalia in order to ensure their chastity, or to burn widows, or to view lower castes as "unclean", or to punish sexual misdeeds with stoning or to regard mental illness as demonic possession. One could go on and on in this vein. Yes, the supernatural permeates the world of pre-modern people, but this is not an unmixed blessing. Neither is modernity, of course -- but I'm not sure that we can really just pick out the advantages of both. We can't tell science "O.K., give us your material benefits, but leave our world-view alone." It doesn't work that way.

These convictions, while not directly confronted by the ideological revolution taking place in the West, were effectively marginalized by it, insofar as interaction among peoples and nations was concerned. Having penetrated and captured all significant centres of power and information at the global level, dogmatic materialism ensured that no competing voices would retain the ability to challenge projects of world wide economic exploitation. To the cultural damage already inflicted by two centuries of colonial rule was added an agonizing disjunction between the inner and outer experience of the masses affected, a condition invading virtually all aspects of life. Helpless to exercise any real influence over the shaping of their futures or even to preserve the moral well-being of their children, these populations were plunged into a crisis different from but in many ways even more devastating than the one gathering momentum in Europe and North America. Although retaining its central role in consciousness, faith appeared impotent to influence the course of events.

I can't argue with the rest of this: A lot of people in the Third World have experienced modernity as invasive, oppressive, and disorienting. Indeed, some people in Europe had a similar experience in the early modern period. The only thing I might note here is that although the primary motivation of colonialism was economic, religious motivations, i.e. the wish to convert the heathen, also played its part.

Repent! Of Being a Democrat?

Well, I guess at least one preacher thinks that being a Democrat is a sin; I'm sure glad that "his actions aren't politically motivated" -- but I'm going to have to go back to my Bible to find where it says "Thou shalt vote Republican".

The article is quite short, so I'll put the whole thing here:

The minister of a Haywood County, North Carolina Baptist church is telling members of his congregation that if they're Democrats, they either need to find another place of worship or support President Bush.

Already, the Reverend Chan Chandler has ex-communicated nine members of East Waynesville Baptist Church. Another 40 members have left in protest. During last Sunday's sermon, he acknowledged that church members were upset because he named people, and he says he'll do it again because he has to according to the word of God.

Chandler could not be reached for comment Friday, but says his actions weren't politically motivated. One former church member says Chandler told some of the members that if they didn't support George Bush, they needed to resign their positions and get out of the church, or go to the altar, repent and agree to vote for Bush.

A former church treasurer says she's at church to worship God and not the preacher.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

One Common Faith, paragraph 3

Some folks have been asking where they can find a complete copy of *One Common Faith* -- it is now available at

I'll give the entire paragraph first, so folks can read it more easily, then give my commentary:

This posture was reinforced by the assumption that the values, ideals and disciplines cultivated over the centuries were now reliably fixed and enduring features of human nature. They needed merely to be refined by education and reinforced by legislative action. The moral legacy of the past was just that: humanity's indefeasible inheritance, requiring no further religious interventions. Admittedly, undisciplined individuals, groups or even nations would continue to threaten the stability of the social order and call for correction. The universal civilization towards the realization of which all the forces of history had been bearing the human race, however, was irresistibly emerging, inspired by secular conceptions of reality. People's happiness would be the natural result of better health, better food, better education, better living conditions-and the attainment of these unquestionably desirable goals now seemed to be within the reach of a society single-mindedly focused on their pursuit.

This posture

Just to clarify: The "posture" they mean here, from the previous paragraph, humanity could take charge of its own destiny without the need for Divine authority.

was reinforced by the assumption that the values, ideals and disciplines cultivated over the centuries were now reliably fixed and enduring features of human nature. They needed merely to be refined by education and reinforced by legislative action.

There is some merit to this point. People who aren't particularly religious are often unaware of just how much our conceptions of what is "moral" are influenced by our religious heritage -- they just think of it as "natural". However, if you compare the values of societies that have not been influenced by Christianity, you will find an entirely different conception of what "natural morality" is. Of course, religious values aren't the only influence at work, in any society. Some of the practices that horrify us so much about the Islamic world (veiling, female genital mutilation, honor killings) are holdovers from pre-Islamic culture. Americans, no matter how religious, are strongly influenced by the Enlightenment ideas on which our country was founded, and even pre-Enlightenment practices in our Anglo heritage, such as the right of trial by jury.

However, I don't think anyone was arguing that the values learned through Christianity were so fixed that we could now dispense with the religion itself. Thomas Jefferson, for example, wanted to keep what is good about Christianity, while getting rid of "superstition".

The moral legacy of the past was just that: humanity's indefeasible inheritance, requiring no further religious interventions.

I'm not sure what they are talking about here. If they by "divine interventions" they mean the Baha'i concept of progressive revelation, even religious Westerners never expected another prophetic dispensation. If, as the context suggests, they are talking about the influence of religion on government, the American Founding Fathers were as concerned about state interference in religion as they were religious interference with the state. The aim was not to eliminate religion from people's lives; on the contrary, they thought it was morally beneficial. But there is no way for "religious interventions" to occur in governmental affairs without favoring one religious group over another; we still battle with these issues to this day.

Besides, 'Abdu'l-Baha' clearly forbade the interference of religious leaders in governmental affairs, so if this is what the UHJ is referring to in this rather vaguely-worded paragraph, then this isn't something Baha'is should be promoting anyway.

Admittedly, undisciplined individuals, groups or even nations would continue to threaten the stability of the social order and call for correction. The universal civilization towards the realization of which all the forces of history had been bearing the human race, however, was irresistibly emerging, inspired by secular conceptions of reality. People's happiness would be the natural result of better health, better food, better education, better living conditions-and the attainment of these unquestionably desirable goals now seemed to be within the reach of a society single-mindedly focused on their pursuit.

The betterment of material circumstances is not only a secular issue; many of those who fought for reforms, such as compulsory education and governmental care of the poor had religious motivations. A Protestant society where each person had the right to read scripture for himself requires literacy (remember the Old Deluder Law of the Puritans?), and giving food, shelter, and medicine to the poor has been a Christian practice since the very beginning. The biggest change in conception was in seeing these things as a function of government, rather than private charity.

Partisan Takeover at PBS

CPB chairman Kenneth Tomlinson is trying to correct the "liberal bias" at PBS, which actually means he doesn't want shows with a liberal bent at all, since PBS has always had conservative shows on:

By right-wing arithmetic, Mr. Moyers alone outweighs the copious conservative programming that has graced PBS for nearly four decades, dating back to William F. Buckley's inaugural broadcast of Firing Line in 1966.

Indeed, the list of conservative and corporate-oriented shows aired on PBS over the ensuing years is quite impressive, including The McLaughlin Group, Peggy Noonan on Values, Ben Wattenberg's Think Tank, Adam Smith's Money World, Wall Street Week, National Desk featuring Laura Ingraham, Fred Barnes and Larry Elder, and Tucker Carlson's Unfiltered.

I have a very warm spot in my heart for public television. For seven years, I lived in an area where we couldn't get cable, given the choice of only two (later three) other channels, we watched PBS from Sesame Street (when our kids were little) in the morning to Masterpiece Theatre at night. Only in select instances did the networks lure us away from PBS. Strangely enough, Jim used to complain of "liberal bias" on the station, too -- but it was usually in the context of particular programs. And he watched the shows, bias or no. In recent years, I've even taken phone calls during the pledge drive. (You know, half the calls you get aren't to offer pledges -- they are either to complain about the pledge drive, or changes in programming, or crank calls.)

When right-wingers call for "balance", what they really mean is that they don't want liberals to have a voice at all -- whether it's in the classroom, or on television. In fact, conservatives used to call for the complete dismantling of public television, in part because of its supposed bias, but mostly out of the general principle that it's not the government's business to fund television programs. As I've said before, conservatism has become something very different than it was when I was conservative -- it used to be about freedom, and getting the government out of our lives. (And, if you haven't noticed, I'm still a strong civil libertarian.) Now, it seems to be all about imposing a right-wing form of political correctness on everybody else. Never, at my most conservative, would it have occurred to me to interfere with the other side's freedom of expression. In fact, this whole incident rather strengthens the old style conservative idea that "he who pays the piper calls the tune" i.e, if the government funds something, then they'll get to call the shots.

But while real conservatives don't think that government should call the shots in the realm of ideas, the new breed seems to have no problem at all with it. If anybody wonders why I've drifted towards the left in recent years, there's one reason.

If you'd like to sign a petition protesting this development, and calling for Tomlinson's resignation, you can go here.

Comparing Reconstructions

Here's an article that I've seen linked to in a couple of places, but is worth linking to here: David Ignatius compares the postwar reconstruction in Iraq to that of the Civil War. Unfortunately, Americans seem stubbornly averse to learning from history.

One thing is for sure: The Iraqis can outlast us; it's their country, and sooner or later (more likely sooner) the American people are going to get tired of the effort, and the dead soldiers coming home, and we will leave whether our goals are accomplished or not.

While I'm on ths subject, there's another article here that discusses the Rand Corporation's sharply critical report about how the Iraq War has been handled, especially the failure to plan for postwar recontruction and the assumption that the task would be easy.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Fighting the Enlightenment

Here's another article Grandma sent me some time back -- while I'm catching up on blogging, I might as well go for it. Besides, it rather goes along with what I said in the previous entry. Here's the heart of it:

What's under siege here is nothing less than the Enlightenment. Please recall that what we benignly remember as the Renaissance coexisted with centuries of vicious religious persecution -- Christians persecuting heretics like Galileo, expelling and slaughtering Muslims and Jews, then doing bloody battle with each other following the Protestant Reformation.

The philosophers of the Enlightenment were men of science who understood that faith could not be disputed but that reason could be subjected to the test of logic and evidence. The American Revolution was a triple triumph -- for political democracy, religious tolerance, and for the free inquiry demanded by the scientific method.

Today's religious extremists are not only trying to use the state, with all its power, as religious proselytizer. They oppose science when it happens to conflict with their version of revealed truth. They twist history to claim that the Republic's freethinking Founders, like Jefferson, Adams, and Madison, were really theocrats like themselves. They long for the predemocratic world of absolutes circa 1500.

Virtually all fundamentalists I've ever heard hate the Enlightenment, either implicitly or explicitly. The only difference with Baha'i fundamentalists is that they seem to think that going back is going forward i.e. that returning to a pre-Enlightenment state of society where religious authority had the power of the state at its disposal is a step forward for humanity, and this will somehow be conducive to the unity of mankind. Sometimes, to hear them talk, one could get the impression that they think the major part of Baha'u'llah's mission was to undo the Enlightenment -- which is ridiculous if you read what He said.

One Common Faith

The Universal House of Justice has just released a long essay, called *One Common Faith*, which is commended "to the study of the friends" i.e. it is primarily addressed to Baha'is. I found it interesting, so I'd like to make some comments about it, and these major statements are very important for understanding the direction that the UHJ wants to take the Baha'i Faith -- however, it is such a long document that it would be impractical to put it all on one blog entry, or for me to try to do that in one sitting. So, I'm going to have to do this in installments, and over a long time:

THERE IS EVERY REASON FOR confidence that the period of history now opening will be far more receptive to efforts to spread Bahá'u'lláh's message than was the case in the century just ended. All the signs indicate that a sea change in human consciousness is under way.

Early in the twentieth century, a materialistic interpretation of reality had consolidated itself so completely as to become the dominant world faith insofar as the direction of society was concerned. In the process, the civilizing of human nature had been violently wrenched out of the orbit it had followed for millennia. For many in the West, the Divine authority that had functioned as the focal centre of guidance-however diverse the interpretations of its nature-seemed simply to have dissolved and vanished. In large measure, the individual was left free to maintain whatever relationship he believed connected his life to a world transcending material existence, but society as a whole proceeded with growing confidence to sever dependence on a conception of the universe that was judged to be at best a fiction and at worst an opiate, in either case inhibiting progress. Humanity had taken its destiny into its own hands. It had solved through rational experimentation and discourse-so people were given to believe-all of the fundamental issues related to human governance and development.

It always makes me a bit nervous when I hear the UHJ denouncing "material interpretations of reality" because it was, at least partly, on that basis that Baha'i academics and intellectuals were persecuted. But, leaving that aside for the present, the UHJ here is complaining that "materialism" rather a religious outlook had become dominent "insofar as the direction of society was concerned", leaving religion to the individual. I'm not sure why they think this is a bad thing; after all, it is because of that freedom that the Baha'i Faith has been able to spread all over the world. A religion largely composed of converts has good reason to be grateful for the separation of church and state, which allows for individual choice in religious matters. Iran has got rid of such "materialistic" ideas in its philosophy of government, and it hasn't worked very well -- and most certainly has not been a benefit for the Baha'is there. At the same time, the U.S. which separates church and state completely, is manifestly a better society according to any measure you want to name, and has the strongest Baha'i community in the world. American society is also profoundly religious, as far as individual participation in religious and spiritual activities -- certainly much more so in European countries where there usually are "established" churches. Certainly, the events of history have proven that the best thing a government can do for religion is to leave it the heck alone to develop in its own way, with individuals free to make their spiritual choices. Religious viewpoints certainly influence politial ones -- in fact, so much so that I simply have to disagree with the UHJ here that American society, at least, religion has ever stopped exercising a profound influence. (Just find me an American politician that doesn't claim to be "a man of faith" or who admits to being an atheist!) We *have* a religious society; we don't have a religious government -- which most of us think is a good thing. It just goes to prove 'Abdu'l-Baha' right when he said that freedom in religious matters causes religion to flourish.

Deathbed Dollars

This morning, Grandma sent me this:

Before Terri Schiavo died on Thursday, March 31, her parents apparently had agreed to sell the names and e-mail addresses of donors to their daughter's case to Response Unlimited, a right wing direct mail house. However, within twenty-hours of David Kirkpatrick's March 29 New York Times piece exposing the arrangement, Response Unlimited withdrew Schindler's list from its catalogue.

However, they've recognized their p.r. mistake and are waiting until the story is no longer so fresh is everyone's memory.

In a few months, when the Terri Schiavo case has drifted into the ether now inhabited by such cultural cataclysms as the Elian Gonzalez case, those who sent money or a supportive message to the Terri Schindler-Schiavo Foundation might discover that they've made Schindler's list.

Their e-mail boxes and snail-mail boxes will be stuffed by a host of appeals from organizations pushing everything from the privatization of Social Security to school vouchers to an anti-gay-marriage amendment to the constitution.

A bit creepy, no?

Advise and Consent

Daily Kos has a good discussion of the issue over the filibuster and judicial appointments. I was going to write something up about that myself, but as with so many blog ideas, I never quite made it.

My eye was caught the other day by Juan quoting Federalist Papers #10, where Madison warns about the potential for the tyranny of the majority in a democratic system. I have the clearest memory of reading a handout of this back in my college days, in an Economics class, and the professor saying to us "You think we live in a democracy, but we don't". Actually, my memory is that this particular teacher rather disapproved of the sentiment. But I remember Madison talking about the possibility of a "factious majority", and being rather stunned that a majority of the people could be considered a "faction".

It's real simple: If the judiciary is to be independent, and not just an extension of the executive branch where a president can simply pack it with judges congenial to his ideological outlook, then the Senate must be allowed to function as a check on that, not just as a rubber stamp on whatever the President wants.

Juan Cole on Pat Robertson

Juan's got a long rant today, about Pat Robertson's bigoted statements about Muslims being unfit to serve in the Cabinet. Can't blame him for that; Robertson is easy to get steamed up about.

Juan says: Robertson knows nothing about the Koran or Islam.

I would submit that he's not real expert on the Bible or Christianity either. I am vehemently opposed to the idea that fundamentalists are the "real" spokesmen for any religion, or that their incessent scripture-quoting reflects any depth of knowledge.

However, the most important thing Juan does here is demolish the idea that Thomas Jefferson (!) would have approved of excluding anyone from office on the basis of religion. There is this very popular myth being pushed by the Religious Right, which many people who ought to know better buy into, that the Founding Fathers were committed to establishing a Christian country, which is totally wrong and dangerous.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Military Families

I was talking on the phone to Grandma this morning, as I frequently do, and she was quite upset over a story in our local paper about a young man, who graduated from the same high school my son attends, who was killed in Afghanistan. What upset her most is that his wife was serving in Iraq, and their three children are left here with grandparents.

Grandma is WWII vintage, you know, and she says they never sent people in the same family into combat. In those days, of course, they weren't talking about spouses, but brothers, usually. (That was the whole basis of the story line in the film *Saving Private Ryan*.) She then went off into stories of people she knew, brothers that had to wait until the brother serving overseas came home, before they could go.

There is something more than a little insane about having two parents in a war zone, while their children have to be cared for by grandparents. I wonder what they do when there aren't grandparents who can step in.

And they wonder why they are having
trouble getting recruits.
If you want people to volunteer to put their lives on the line, then it just naturally follows that you have to treat them like gold -- and our government doesn't. The AmericaBlog story also notes that the way we have treated our National Guard and Army Reserve troops could hurt this country for a long time. You aren't going to get guys to sign up to be to part-time soldiers, if they think they are going to be shipped overseas for an indefinite period, while their jobs go to other people, and the wives left at home can't make the house payments.

Just like some of the people making feedback comments to that story, I say "They can't have my son. No way.". The very thought puts me into Mama Tiger mode -- the defensive rage that mothers get into when their offspring our threatened. Even your toughest military man is no match for a Mama Tiger when she's roused. I would put my own life and freedom on the line to prevent my son from being put on a battlefield; I'm not kidding. Unless I were convinced that our country was in such grave danger that there really was no other option, and the current war does not satisfy Mama Tiger in that respect.

Terry Schaivo Revisted

I know the Terry Schaivo case has mostly dropped out of sight, while the mainstream media has moved on to such earth-shattering topics as the Michael Jackson trial and the runaway bride (whose name I never learned, because I was determined to ignore the story, which seemed everywhere for a couple of days), but I ran across something in Jim's copy of First Things which is a conservative Catholic commentary magazine. They don't have this article online yet; it looks like they only put the previous month's issue up on the web, so I'll have to type the relavant quotes in here.

Remember my own commentary about the case, where I asked several questions about, if a person's spouse isn't allowed to make end-of-life decisions, then who should? I said:

It's his decision; that's the law. What kind of law would we want in its place? That feeding tubes are never disconnected even if that's what the family wants? That parents, and not spouses, are made legal guardians of completely disabled people? That a government agency makes the decision?

Well, commentator Robert T. Miller, an assistant professor of law at Villanova University has an answer for me: Nobody should be empowered to make the decision, because the decision to remove a feeding tube shouldn't ever occur.

He correctly noted that all the right-wing talk about out-of-control courts in the Schaivo case was nonsense -- the law was followed in every particular, and Terry Schaivo's legal rights were not violated in any way. This, according to Miller, is the real horror of the situation.

These quotes are from the end of his article:

In short, the courts followed the law precisely when they decided that none of Terry Schaivo's rights under the Constitution and laws of the United States had been violated. How then could the result be so unjust? The answer is perfectly simple: The laws of Florida . . . like the laws of most states expressly provide that a guardian may starve to death a ward in a persistent vegetative state . . .

Miller doesn't even want the patient themselves to have that choice through a living will. He goes on:

Laws authorizing a guardian to starve to death a ward are profoundly immoral, even as applied to those who would have wanted to die; we do not accomodate suicides.

He pointed out, as I did earlier, that the Schaivo case was only unique in that her parents' opposition to removing the feeding tube led them to take it before the media. Miller says:

But in hundreds of cases across this country every year, such laws are enforced, and hundreds of people die like Terry Schaivo. The only thing extraordinary about the Schaivo case is that her parents have done everything in their power to prevent her death, with the result that Schaivo has received much more process and much more publicity than others to whom the same thing has happened. One commentator described the Schaivo case as "the crime of the century." In fact it is a banal, run-of-the-mill crime of a kind that happens every day in the United States.

I have a certain respect for a pro-life position that insists that all life is sacred; I would hope that Miller's position on this also includes the death penalty, and the killing that occurs in war. I *don't* respect a pro-life position that weeps over expelled zygotes and patients who literally have no brain left, yet shrugs off civilian casualties in war and is downright eager to fry criminals. My own position is that the taking of life is a serious matter, and should only occur in the gravest of circumstances -- but that principle applies across the board, not in selective instances.

But the reason that it is legal for a guardian to remove a feeding tube is that this is the way most Americans want it. I've yet to meet a person over 70, whether liberal or conservative, that doesn't see a persistent vegetative state as a kind of nightmare. There's nothing more frightening to an older person, especially, than the prospect of having their mind gone: it is, for a awful lot of people, a fate worse than death. That's the whole reason the practice of making living wills has become so popular.

Now Miller can go ahead and shake his head over the sad state of a society that allows this if he wants to; that's his right as an American. But it is also the right of other Americans to make an alternative choice, and it would be very scary to live in a country where that choice was taken away.

ABC Likes Dobson, but not UCC

I'm sure a lot of you remember the flap a while back over the United Church of Christ's ad that emphasized that church's inclusiveness, which was rejected by the major networks for being "too controversial". The ad depicted chuch officials denying entrance to various people who showed up at the door, to promote UCC's own policy of accepting gays, the disabled, and ethnic minorities.

Well, ABC is running ads from Focus on the Family, which is decidedly on the conservative side. Dobson's program is very popular with parents; I listened to it a few times, and had friends who tuned in regularly. He gives a sense of confidence to beleagured parents who don't know quite what to do with their unruly offspring. But, politically, Focus on the Family supports pretty much all of the positions of the religious right.

And *this* isn't controversial? Apparently, the ad itself isn't all that political, just promoting the website, and a toll-free number, which might be the reason it passes muster.

UCC is not happy. From its press release today:

Focus on the Family is clearly a religious organization," the Rev. Robert
Chase, director of the UCC's communication ministry, told United Church
News. "Here's yet another illustration of how a particular narrow agenda
makes up the rules as they go along, while another religious viewpoint
cannot even purchase time on the people's airwaves to proclaim an
all-inclusive message."

In December and March, the three major networks denied a purchasing request
by the Cleveland-based UCC. NBC and CBS rejected the UCC's 30-second ads as
"too controversial." ABC, however, sidestepped the fray by maintaining that
it has a blanket policy against all religious advertising.

"Why are the network executives so willing to bow to this narrow agenda of
the religious right?" Chase told United Church News. "Why is one religious
viewpoint continually accommodated by the network elites?"

"Focus on the Family may be using a non-sectarian come-on, but what kind of
assurances can ABC provide that Focus on the Family's follow-up literature
is respectful of all faiths, respectful of non-traditional families,
respectful of the one million kids that have same-sex couples as parents?"

Oh, I think one can safely bet that same-sex couples will not be treated respectfully in any follow-up literature given out by Dobson's group. His position on that is pretty clear.

And people think the media is dominated by liberals!

Monday, May 02, 2005

The "Troops" are Thinning Out

This year's Ridvan letter from the US NSA is out, and it reports, that
Thousands of Bahá'ís are well along
in the main sequence of institute training courses. Twenty
clusters have achieved "A" status and many more will be so
designated by the end of the Five Year Plan. Study circles,
children's classes, junior youth classes, and devotional gatherings
are thriving, in numbers ranging in the thousands.
Community vitality is high, contributions to the Bahá'í
Funds are setting records each year, and projects of social
and economic development are increasingly well organized,
effective, and numerous. In the light of this progress, we
have asked ourselves why growth has declined by 60 percent
in the past seven years.

Low growth in the Baha'i community is, of course, an old story. Baha'is have been asking themselves what happened to "entry by troops" ever since growth slowed down in the early 80s. And, there are a lot of factors, both external and internal, to account for that. One of them, they mentioned in this letter i.e., the aging of the community:

In the late 1960s, when we first experienced "entry by
troops," the Bahá'í community was 80 percent youth. The
average age of American Bahá'ís was 25. Today, the community
is 80 percent adults, with an average age of 50. And
although there is strong evidence of spiritual receptivity
in every generational cohort, youth are, by far, the largest
community of interest.

I read once that in 1973, 90% of all Baha'is on the rolls were under the age of 25. It remains, to this day, a religion that is largely composed of Baby Boomers. The community was very small before that generation came along, and it was never successful at attracting later cohorts. I could have told you, without the official statistic, that the average age of the Baha'i community is 50, because most Baha'is I know are just right around that age. And, this is a problem, because young folks aren't as likely to be converted by someone in their parents' generation, and 50-year-olds, for the most part, have settled on their religion. I myself was an rather aged convert of 25; most Baha'is I know converted before they were 21. An aging religious group is in trouble if it expects growth.

There are other factors, much discussed on the Internet, but I'd like to focus on what, in particular, has been happening during the last seven years that would cause such a steep decline during that period. What's been happening for the last seven years? Well, the Internet is one thing. Yes, I know it's easy to exaggerate the impact of the Internet when you're on it all the time, and of course, the web didn't just pop up in the last seven years. It has, however, expanded a great deal. I wasn't online seven years ago. One used to have to subscribe to email lists through email, instead of clicking a button at the website -- a mystery I was unaware of for the first couple of years I was online. Anyway, cyberspace has gotten both larger and more user-friendly; there are more people here.

And the administration no longer controls what is said about the faith. Those who come online seeking information about the Baha'i Faith get the good, the bad, and the ugly. And some seekers have probably been stopped by the controversy. I once had someone write to me about my article *Enemies Within*, just furious because a seeker who had been investigating the Faith for months decided it wasn't a place she wanted to be. And, I felt bad, because that isn't actually why I wrote the article. On the other hand, the things I said were true -- and a person turned off by the content of that article would also certainly be turned off by the reality of life in the Baha'i community, sooner or later. It might behove Baha'is like Ms. Furious who wrote to me to think about addressing some of the problems I raise, rather than ragging on me about exposing it. I never say a bad word about Baha'u'llah, in whom I believe, and I believe in His Message. She didn't notice that.

The second major thing that's been going on during the last seven years has been Ruhi. For those who don't know about it, it is the main curriculum for Baha'i study circles and has been all the rage in the Baha'i community for the past few years. Some people love it; other absolutely hate it, and there have been complaints about it's rigid, rote style of programmed learning -- rather reminiscent of the Jehovah's Witness courses. Other have complained that it has virtually taken over their communities, crowding out other activities. Most Baha'i communities are small, and can only sustain so much.

Nevertheless, the big push has been to get "clusters", which are areas that contain several Baha'i communities within the same geographical area. (I looked up mine, and it includes towns way up in the mountains that nobody here would travel to, particularly if they had to drag kids along.) These clusters are classed D, C, B, and A, depending on how many have taken the Ruhi courses and how many books of the series they have completed. I've heard that to be an "A" cluster, there has to be about 50 people who have made their way through all the books.

Now, here's a real shift: Lesser clusters have actually been *discouraged* from putting together teaching programs. You're supposed to get your cluster to "A" first. I spent most of the time I was enrolled feeling intense pressure to teach, and bring in new members, but that seems to have gone by the wayside. Some of these clusters will never be "A"; some probably don't have 50 active Baha'is willing to drag themselves through Ruhi. But there are now 20 "A" clusters in the U.S. all set for entry by troops. The idea has been floated that this year is the test year for Ruhi -- because that has been the theory; get the community deepened and properly prepared before trying to bring in new members. That's not a bad idea in itself, although I question the idea of having all communities tied to a single program.

Anyway, Ruhi has to be one of the key factors in the dramatically slowing growth of the last few years. Teaching hasn't even been on the front burner, for one thing, and the community is committed to a program that some of the more intelligent and freethinking Baha'is find alienating.

Relativism vs. Fundamentalism

Here's a talk on NPR by James Davison Hunter, author of *Culture Wars*. Just click on "Listen".