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Unsurprisingly, Christianity is the largest religion in all 50 states. Surprisingly, Bahá’í is the second largest religion in my home state of South Carolina. This news inspired two local papers, the Charleston Post and Courier and the Charleston City Paper, to write articles about Bahá’ís. It also inspired me, an atheist, to attend a local Bahá’í meeting.
There are more Bahá’ís in South Carolina than Jews, Muslims, and Hindus combined; however, Bahá’ís do not outnumber atheists and agnostics. “Nones” (those with no religious affiliation) have grown to 15 percent nationally and 10 percent in South Carolina. And in a 2013 national survey of “nones,” atheists and agnostics were 50 percent of online respondents and 36 percent of those interviewed by telephone. Taking the lower percentage, more than 100,000 atheists and agnostics live in South Carolina compared with about 18,000 Bahá’ís.
The Bahá’í Faith likely became popular in South Carolina because of Louis Gregory, who was born in 1874, was raised in Charleston, and was one of the founders of the Bahá’í Faith in America. After this grandson of a slave became a Bahá’í in 1909, he travelled the country promoting racial equality. Gregory married a white Bahá’í woman in 1912, an act that was considered a crime at the time in parts of the country. The Louis G. Gregory Baha’i Museum is located in downtown Charleston.
Bahá’ís and atheists have not been very public about their views because they’ve been demonized within their surrounding cultures. The Bahá’í Faith began in Iran in 1844 when a young man now known as the “Bab” (meaning “gate” or “door” in Arabic) claimed to be the promised redeemer of Islam. The Bab also said that a second divine messenger would usher in the age of peace and justice promised in Islam. The Bab alienated Islamic clergy and was executed by a firing squad in 1850 at the age of 30. One of the Bab’s followers, Bahá’u’lláh, revealed in 1863 that he was the messenger foretold by the Bab. The teachings of Bahá’u’lláh are the foundation of the Bahá’í Faith.
I recently attended a Bahá’í meeting in Charleston with 15 participants at the home of Dave and Bonnie Springer. I assumed they were local leaders, but they told me there are no Bahá’í leaders. Members periodically open their homes for Bahá’í meetings like the one I attended. We sat in a circle and the service began with Dave playing a plaintive melody on a recorder. Attendees then read aloud from a pamphlet called “Reflections on the Spirit of Unity.” Dave told us to think about how the writings might apply to ourselves, not about what others should do. He encouraged us to comment on this theme.
The reflections from Bahá’u’lláh described the unity of God, religion, and humanity. They focused on respect for and equality of all human beings. Diversity of race and culture were praised; racism, nationalism, social class, and gender-based hierarchy were seen as artificial impediments to unity. And, indeed, the participants at our service were white and black, male and female, young and old, rich and poor. I agreed with just about all the messages, except for the God parts.
After the reflections, we enjoyed a healthful potluck dinner, and although I’m not used to feeling comfortable in a room full of people I don’t know, this was an exception. Everyone seemed to like everyone else. Nobody but me even appeared to notice the diversity of race and color.
Over dinner I discussed Bahá’í theology with Dave, Bonnie, and others. I enjoy asking and being asked pointed questions about belief or nonbelief, though I sometimes back off when others react too emotionally. Even if I had tried, I don’t think I could have said anything to upset these Bahá’ís. My favorite religions are human centered without any gods, like Humanist Unitarians, Humanistic Judaism, and Ethical Culture. Since the Bahá’í Faith seems to be a human-centered religion with God, it might be my favorite theistic religion.
I often measure religions by whether they place more value on behavior or belief. I was told unequivocally that the Bahá’í faith is about deeds, not belief. That was quite a contrast to a church I had previously visited and wrote about. Bahá’ís believe (metaphorically) in heaven and hell, which represent “spiritual” states of nearness or distance from God, not physical places of reward and punishment. I asked Dave if he believed that people could move closer or farther from God after they die, and he thought so. Dave laughed when I said I’d believe in God if I met him or her after I died, since I’m evidence based. The Bahá’í God is one of love, not wrath.
I asked about the Bahá’í belief that God has revealed himself through a series of divine messengers, including Abraham, Krishna, Zoroaster, Moses, Buddha, Jesus, and Muhammad. Dave gave an evolutionary justification: God sends different messages as cultures evolve and are more capable of understanding and accepting them. This also fits with their belief in the importance of unity and the goal of achieving world peace when there is unity among world religions.
I asked about gay marriage, and was told that sexual intercourse is only permitted between a husband and a wife, and that premarital, extramarital, and homosexual intercourse is forbidden. The good news is that Bahá’ís strive to treat everyone with respect and dignity. They do not treat gays as outcasts, nor do they expect people who are not Bahá’í to follow Bahá’í rules. In fact, Bahá’ís are required to abstain from partisan politics. They can’t endorse candidates or run for political office. Too bad, because I could envision voting for some Bahá’í candidates — especially in South Carolina.
(Thought experiment: How would our country change if Christians imposed for themselves a 10-year moratorium on running for public office?)
This was not my first encounter with Bahá’ís. While travelling in India in 1997, I visited the Bahá’í House of Worship in New Delhi, where I first learned that Bahá’í priorities are to work for world peace, and to eliminate racism and poverty. As I left and offered a small donation, I heard something I never expected to hear from any religious (or secular) organization: “I’m sorry. But we can’t accept money from you. We consider it an honor to contribute, and only members of the faith are afforded this privilege.”
No wonder Bahá’ís stay out of politics.
Image courtesy of Sean M. Scully.