Being Religious, Not Just Spiritual

Lately it seems that everywhere I look I stumble across another article detailing how Americans are rushing in droves away from religion and instead defining themselves as “spiritual, but not religious.”

Truly, although I am myself a religious person, I greatly admire the SBNR folks because I see their dedication to the search for meaning as an evidence of the longing for transcendence implanted in the human heart by an all-loving Creator. It brings to mind a story found in my religion, the Bahá’í Faith, about the significance of spiritual search. Bahá’u’lláh, the founder of the Bahá’í Faith, writes of the fabled and mystically symbolic lover, Majnun, who searches tirelessly for his beloved, Layli:

“It is related that one day they came upon Majnun sifting the dust, and his
tears flowing down. They said, ‘What doest thou?’ He said, ‘I seek for Layli.’
They cried, ‘Alas for thee! Layli is of pure spirit, and thou seekest her in the
dust!’ He said, ‘I seek her everywhere; haply somewhere I shall find her.’”

Bahá’u’lláh further comments, tellingly, that “this betokeneth intense ardor in searching.” In fact, the right and obligation of individuals to engage in an unfettered search for truth is one of the cardinal principles of His Faith. So naturally I’m very sympathetic to the efforts of others who seek meaning and ultimate reality. No journey could be more significant.

The respect that is due to those engaged in this process demands, I think, a thoughtful response from those of us who belong in the “religious” category. Therefore, in a spirit of comradeship (because I too have been, and at times still am, a Majnun sifting the dust) I’d like to offer an unabashed rationale for the religious life, per se.

But first, a note on the pronoun I’m using for God. The Bahá’í concept of God asserts that His greatness cannot be contained by His creation, that He is neither male nor female, and far excels the human world. The use of the masculine pronoun to reference Him is a convention and a convenience, not a description.

For me the lure of religiosity arises from belief in God. I believe in a God who is the creator of the universe and all that it contains, who established and operates through natural laws, and loves all that He has created. This great, unknowable Creator has not, in the Bahá’í view, left humanity to struggle along without assistance or guidance. God is not watching us “from a distance” as we bumble around, laying waste to His perfect work. He is close to us, with us, actively intervening in human history, guiding us to our destined future. Religion offers not only a close personal relationship with God, but a sense of common purpose with Him, the hope that somehow our efforts to promote human well-being are in line with His plan. There is a path out of the mess we are in; we need to refer to His guidance to walk it.

I see this as a key difference between religiosity and spirituality. Spirituality can lead to a relationship with God, but religiosity demands the fulfillment of obligations to God. Why is that desirable? Because committing to God changes who we are; we can no longer be what we are automatically, or even what we aspire to; we are obliged to push ourselves beyond that and to find our true selves, the “soul who is pleasing unto God”.

And though it may be tempting to think that we are just fine operating with only individual conscience as our guide, there is plenty of evidence to refute this idea, especially when it comes to our relationships with the rest of humanity. Social relationships are complex and challenging and each person has wishes and agendas that conflict with those of countless others. Through religion, we know our duty is to align our thoughts and actions with God’s plan, not our own.

Many of those who reject religiosity do so for this very reason. They see the destructive power of religion, the ceaseless wars, the lives lost, the civilizations stamped out in the name of God and His plan, and they want no part of it.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Bahá’u’lláh’s son and appointed successor, likewise stated, “If religion becomes a cause of dislike, hatred and division, it were better to be without it, and to withdraw from such a religion would be a truly religious act. For it is clear that the purpose of a remedy is to cure; but if the remedy should only aggravate the complaint it had better be left alone”. What crime could be greater than to appropriate what is God’s, the human heart, and corrupt it by inciting it to hatred and destruction of His creatures?

Of course, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s words are conditional. He says, “if.” We can make the effort to discover those expressions of religious belief that do not fall into this destructive category. This opens for us new possibilities: not only of satisfying our heart’s yearning by responding to the call of God, but also of working with others to build a new society—for it is religion that, through the obligations it imposes on us, gives us the virtues, the necessary tools, to work and live with others. In fact, one of the chief functions of religion, in its constructive form, is to regulate and harmonize human relations. Surely in our day and age this is still relevant and necessary.

Interestingly, fulfillment of our social obligations enables us to partake of a wonderful and challenging gift—to help “build anew the whole world”. We cannot take part by withdrawing from religion. Religion IS the method of God, played out over human history.

Logically, then, if we can accept the theoretical possibility that religion can build and heal the world, we must ask ourselves how we choose, how we recognize God’s purpose, how we know that any religion is good and true.

Once an individual has come to this question, the world is her oyster! Each religion has an abundance of material to be “sifted.” Let us each become like Majnun and search with intense ardor for our Beloved.



I’m loving Twitter nowadays. I’ve finally figured out how to use it to learn about the things that matter to me–the news of the condition of the whole world. For me that means not just the 24-hour news blather, which tends to perseverate in its coverage of one or two high-ratings topics. I want to know about the water projects in the Africa and the education initiatives in America. I just retweeted something from the UN Foundation on a campaign to end child marriage. THIS is important to me.

But I must confess, scanning the tweets of those I’m following, I feel once again that I’ve embarked on a game of Whack-A-Mole, taking aim at an unending parade of ills in the world, with little accuracy or impact. I want a system-wide approach. We human beings are smart creatures. Can’t we fix this?

Certainly we could if we wanted to. And I believe that is the real hold-up. Despite the amazing work being done by outstanding people all around the world, most of us are too busy with ourselves, too greedy to change the status quo that benefits us, or too eager to protect our prerogative to hold power over others. In my little corner of the world, where most of us are decent people at heart, we secure our own safety and well-being, give with some degree of generosity to charity, and feel that’s all we can do.

We need a bigger change, a shot in the arm, a kick in the pants. This is what religion means to me. It is the voice of the ultimate Authority telling complacent little us that indeed what we are doing is NOT enough, that we can and must do something more, something different. And that the way out of the Whack-A-Mole game is to change our own hearts and to assist our neighbors in their efforts to do the same.

In the end, purifying the human heart is the only solution.

“A mature society demonstrates one feature above all others: a recognition of the oneness of humanity.”

A beautifully conceived and written open letter has been addressed by the Baha’is of Egypt to the people of Egypt. Seeking to offer some bedrock principles to guide the national conversation, the letter expresses unequivocally the necessity of recognizing human oneness and developing sound policies based on that recognition. The letter explores the equality of men and women, the need for equal access to education for all, the harmony of science and religion, and education to eliminate corruption and ensure the spread of economic benefits to all parts of the society.

WHO and World Health Day 2011: Antimicrobial Resistance

Antimicrobial resistance is not a new problem but one that is becoming more dangerous; urgent and consolidated efforts are needed to avoid regressing to the pre-antibiotic era.

For World Health Day 2011, WHO is introducing a six-point policy package to combat the spread of antimicrobial resistance.

Junior Youth: Not Simply A Time of Waiting

And the Baha’i view on the potentialities of young adolescents:

UNICEF dedicates ‘The State of the World’s Children 2011’ to adolescents

Moving video summarizing a vital report on the power and potentialities of children in early adolescence.

Governments condemn Iran’s reversal on jail terms


GENEVA — Governments and human rights organizations have been swift to condemn the reinstatement of 20-year jail sentences for Iran’s seven Baha’i leaders.

The seven were informed last month by prison authorities that the 10-year sentences – imposed after an appeal court revoked three charges against them in September last year – have now reverted to the lower court’s ruling of 20-year jail terms. Nothing has been seen in writing by the prisoners or their attorneys.

The development has provoked immediate and widespread response – both publicly and privately. Statements have been made by the European Union and European Parliament, as well as by governments, institutions and individuals, in Brazil, France, Germany, India, the United Kingdom and the United States.

All of these voices of support are combining throughout the planet to give this clear message to the Iranian authorities: Whether or not you intentionally took this action when global attention was focused on the drama unfolding in other parts of the Middle East, you cannot fail to appreciate that the world is closely watching your actions towards your own people, including the Baha’is in your country. You cannot hide this systematic abuse of innocent citizens.

Diplomatic support

In a statement dated 1 April, Baroness Catherine Ashton – the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy – said she was “disturbed” by the latest news concerning the Baha’i leaders. “I call on the Iranian authorities to clarify the legal situation of the seven individuals concerned,” she said. “They and their lawyers should be given the requisite access to all relevant documentation regarding their cases.”

Baroness Ashton called for the immediate release of the seven and an end to the persecution of religious minorities in Iran.

The President of the European Parliament, Jerzy Buzek, also expressed his “grave concern” at developments. “I appeal to the Iranian authorities to stop the unjustified detention of these religious leaders and provide more clarity and legal explanations in a transparent manner regarding their case,” said Mr. Buzek, in a statement on 4 April.

“The freedom of religion or belief is one of the most fundamental human rights,” he said.

The United Kingdom’s Foreign Secretary, William Hague, stated that he was “deeply disturbed” to learn that the 20-year prison sentences have been reinstated.

“In August last year, I made clear that we believe the leaders are fully entitled to practice their faith,” said Mr. Hague on 4 April. “I stand by what I said then, and once again call on the Iranian judiciary to review the case and to cease persecution of the Baha’i Faith.”

“I am also concerned by the reports that the seven are facing physical threats from other inmates and guards in the prison they have been moved to,” Mr. Hague added.

“This is yet another example of the Iranian authorities’ disregard of the legitimate rights of the Iranian people. While restating that I do not believe there are adequate grounds to detain the leaders, I urge the Iranian authorities to ensure their safety while in custody, and provide them with full legal rights under Iranian law.”

Germany’s Foreign Office Commissioner for Human Rights policy, Markus Löning, described the prison sentence as “scandalous.”

“The fact that this decision is taken in secret shows once more that Iran is not prepared to be transparent and respect fundamental constitutional principles,” said Mr. Löning, on 5 April.

In its statement, dated 1 April, the Foreign Affairs Ministry of France strongly condemned “the violence, discrimination and harassment against the Baha’is in Iran which prohibit them from exercising their freedom of religion or belief…”

The United States described the sentencing as an “unprecedented step” and a violation of Iran’s obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.” A Department of State press briefing – in Washington D.C. on 31 March – was told that the United States was “deeply troubled” by reports of the reinstatement of the former prison sentence.

In Brazil, Federal Deputy Luiz Couto – former President of the Human Rights and Minorities Commission – addressed a plenary session of the Chamber of Deputies and called upon the National Congress, Brazilian society and other countries to express their support to the Baha’i community.

“The accusations that keep the Baha’i leaders imprisoned are completely false, invented with the intention to justify the unacceptable, purely religious persecution,” said Deputy Couto on 4 April.

An open letter, already signed by some 90 prominent citizens from throughout India, has attracted more high-level signatories since news broke of the restoration of the 20-year sentence.

Senior members of the judiciary – including a former Judge of the Supreme Court of India – as well as prominent figures in education, have now joined the campaign.

“As citizens of India, a country that has rightfully prided itself in exemplifying for the world the spirit of coexistence and tolerance, we express our deep concern for the imprisoned Baha’is and their families” the statement says.

“Deeply entrenched discrimination”

A number of human rights organizations have also reacted strongly to reports of the 20-year jail terms.

Amnesty International has described Iran’s latest move as “vindictive” and “outrageous.”

“Yet again, the Iranian authorities are manipulating their own justice system to persecute members of a religious minority,” said Malcolm Smart, Amnesty’s director for the Middle East and North Africa.

“Instead of doubling their sentences, the authorities should be setting the Baha’i leaders free, right now, and guaranteeing their freedom to practice their religion free from threat or persecution.

“Such arbitrary and vindictive acts are a salutary reminder of why the UN Human Rights Council voted recently to create a Special Rapporteur on Iran. The Council’s decision came not a moment too soon,” said Mr. Smart.

“This is the latest example of the deeply entrenched discrimination faced by the Baha’i minority in Iran,” he observed, adding that it “is also a reminder to the international community of how little regard the Iranian authorities pay to international human rights standards on freedom of belief, association, expression and the right to a fair trial.”

“The reinstatement of such a severe sentence on the Baha’is is a further blow to the group,” said Stuart Windsor, National Director of Christian Solidarity Worldwide, who added “it is clear that both the Baha’is and certain Christian communities are being targeted solely on the grounds of their faith.

“The international community must press Iran to release all detainees who are held solely on account of their religion,” said Mr. Windsor. “The Iranian government must also ensure that the members of the Church of Iran…receive due process, and are acquitted of all charges that have no legal bearing under Iranian law.”

The seven Baha’i leaders – Fariba Kamalabadi, Jamaloddin Khanjani, Afif Naeimi, Saeid Rezaie, Mahvash Sabet, Behrouz Tavakkoli and Vahid Tizfahm – were all members of a national-level ad hoc group that attended to the needs of Iran’s Baha’i community. They are incarcerated in Gohardasht prison – about 50 kilometers west of Tehran.

Special Report – “The Trial of the Seven Baha’i Leaders”

The Baha’i World News Service has published a Special Report which includes articles and background information about the seven Iranian Baha’i leaders – their lives, their imprisonment, trial and sentencing – and the allegations made against them. It also offers further resources about the persecution of Iran’s Baha’i community.

The International Reaction page of the Baha’i World News service is regularly updated with responses from governments, nongovernmental organizations, and prominent individuals. The Media Reports page presents a digest of media coverage from around the world.