avoiding contention: don’t get trolled

MoonlightingFrom time to time, as we exchange comments with people online on topics related to the Bahá’í Faith and its principles, we may find that we encounter opposition. Sometimes, people will simply disagree, and that’s fine, of course—everyone’s got an opinion, and as long as we show tact, wisdom, forbearance and love for each other, there’s a good chance we can uncover a greater truth from these kinds of exchanges.

But sometimes, the opposition we encounter can be a little more serious. I’m not talking about honest disagreements, but rather, people straight-up attacking the Bahá’í Faith and everything that Bahá’ís believe in. This can include attacks on Bahá’u’lláh, His Covenant, and the other Central Figures of the Bahá’í Faith, such as the Báb, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi; the Universal House of Justice; the actions of individual Bahá’ís or particular Bahá’í institutions or communities; the relation between the Bahá’í Faith and other religions, such as Islam, Judaism, and Christianity; the Bahá’í stance on homosexuality and other highly politicized issues; and so on. Like I said, everyone has their own opinions, and that’s fine, as long as those opinions are well-founded. But when those opinions are based on misunderstandings, ignorance, or worse, when people start engaging in willful, reckless slander and calumny—misrepresenting what Bahá’ís believe and do, and accusing them of monstrosities that are patently false—that’s when there’s a problem.

As we know, Bahá’u’lláh calls upon us “to refute the arguments of those that have attacked the Faith of God”. We may also have also read the advice of the Universal House of Justice about the approach we should take towards correcting the misconceptions brought forth by those who attack the Cause:

“In correcting misrepresentations of the Faith made by those who are hostile to it, our obligation is to set forth Bahá’u’lláh’s teachings cogently and courteously, but firmly, supporting them with rational proofs. Once this has been done, the challenge rests with our hearers, whatever their interests or motivations, to consider our responses in this same spirit of courtesy and objectivity. …

In the same piece of advice, the Universal House of Justice draws our attention to something we must absolutely avoid, which is contention:

“For Bahá’ís to go further than this, by engaging in acrimonious debate, much less by reflecting on the character of others, would be to cross the line that separates legitimate defense of the Faith from contention.

As a follow-up to an earlier post about what Baha’is do when people attack the Faith, I thought I’d share the following quote, from a piece of guidance from the World Centre on the topic of avoiding contention when addressing misconceptions about the Bahá’í Faith.

In emphasizing the importance of harmony in human relationships, Bahá’u’lláh declares that “conflict and contention are categorically forbidden in His Book.” He further exhorts all people to “utter that which is meet and seemly,” to “refrain from slander, abuse and whatever causeth sadness in men,” and to recognize that the “religion of God is for love and unity” and not to be made the “cause of enmity or dissension.”

Clearly, any tendency toward argumentation or confrontation is to be eschewed by Bahá’ís while opportunities to clarify or defend the Faith’s basic precepts and goals should be carried out “in a restrained and unprovocative language.” In some cases, it may be appropriate to directly address topics raised by critics, but in other situations, it may be more constructive to simply present the authoritative Bahá’í perspective on a matter. Confusion or erroneous understandings surrounding Bahá’í belief can best be dispelled through a reasoned focus on issues, and the principles underlying issues, without reference to the motivations or identity of individuals raising the criticisms. Regardless of the approach taken, “in our presentations and relationships we should always try to build bridges so that our beautiful Teachings can be understood and accepted, and the power which they have to establish unity amongst men will be exemplified.” In the end, though, if critics are not receptive to clarifications or explanations offered, it is preferable to respectfully leave them to themselves.

On a practical level, to argue directly or indirectly with those critical of the Faith can be counterproductive. Disputatious interactions can provide opponents with platforms to disseminate their views and agendas, and repel the wider audience observing such interactions. In addition, as the House of Justice notes, “Under most circumstances, it would seem worse than futile for a Bahá’í to attempt to defend the institutions or members of the Faith from the kind of reckless slander that has become an all too common feature of the moral deterioration of contemporary society, and that tends to characterize much of the language of the Faith’s current critics.”

It is apparent that some opponents seek to draw Bahá’ís into exchanges with the intent of demonstrating that Bahá’ís are either naïve, dogmatic, or intolerant. In particular, adherence to the provisions of the Covenant of Bahá’u’lláh is sometimes cast in these terms, while for believers such adherence expresses faith in a power “which quickeneth and promoteth the development of all created things on earth.” Bahá’u’lláh affirms that it is indeed possible to both tread the path of religious faith and to be tolerant: “…observe tolerance and righteousness, which are two lights amidst the darkness of the world and two educators for the edification of mankind.”

TrollfaceIf you’ve spent a decent of time on the Internet, then “trolls” and “trolling” are part of your vocabulary. I’ve seen my share of trolls online, and in the case of trolls who attack the Bahá’í Faith, picking them out is pretty easy. Most of the time their arguments don’t make much sense, and even people who don’t know much about Bahá’í can tell that what they’re saying isn’t legit.

In some cases, ignoring trolls is enough. But sometimes it is necessary to speak up; for instance, when they respond to people who have a genuine interest in the Bahá’í Faith. I mean, imagine asking a question about a really neat new message from God that seems to be the answer to the ills of mankind, and in response, getting nothing but a bunch of nonsense telling you how Bahá’ís are The Devil 666™ and in league with every evil group under the sun. That’s why it is necessary for us to speak up and say hey, if you want a legit answer, here it is, feel free to investigate further. Of course, haters are gonna hate and trolls are gonna troll, so it’s inevitable that we’ll get flak for speaking up. That’s why we need to know how to establish the truth without feeding the trolls nor engaging in contention. And in my opinion, the guidance above is a great way to describe this balancing act.

It’s all about getting attention. Trolls thrive on attention, and they try to get it by provoking conflict, drawing people into arguments. That’s exactly why, when seeking to correct misinformation that’s shared about the Faith online, it’s important to practice moderation, detachment, wisdom and restraint. “For Bahá’ís to go further than this, by engaging in acrimonious debate, much less by reflecting on the character of others, would be to cross the line that separates legitimate defense of the Faith from contention.”

Photos: Moonlighting by dawolf-, and Trollface by Paul VanDerWerf.

heaven, hell, and why all paths are good

Today, I thought I’d share something that I wrote as an answer to a question on the Bahá’í AMA that a few of us from Reddit’s Baha’i group hosted on /r/religion last year. The question was: “Why do [Bahá’ís] believe that there is no Heaven or Hell and believe that other religious groups are acceptable to follow?

“Heaven” and “hell”, for Bahá’ís, refer to states of nearness to and distance from God, respectively. So when you’re living your life in a way that is in line with divine teachings, you’re in heaven.

Let’s give a few specifics here about the nature of the soul. Bahá’u’lláh teaches that human beings have a material self (the body) and a spiritual self (the soul). The body acts as a sort of vehicle that allows us to develop our souls throughout our time in the material world, before progressing into purely spiritual worlds at the time of physical death. And although the exact state of the soul after we die is unknowable for us at this time, Bahá’u’lláh does state that our souls live on eternally and continue on their journey through the spiritual worlds. Notably, He states that we retain our consciousness after physical death, we are able to recognize the souls of those who we were close to, and so on.

If, throughout our life in this physical world, our souls have grown in their ability to show forth spiritual qualities such as selflessness, love, justice, generosity, kindness, truthfulness, trustworthiness, wisdom, and service, we will be close to God, and we will experience that as a “heaven” of joy, gratitude and gladness. If, on the other hand, we spent our lives showing selfishness, hatred, enmity, injustice, avarice, deceit, and so forth, we will find ourselves far from God, and we will experience that as a “hell” of regret and sorrow.

Hopefully that answers the first part of the question. As for the second part, here’s my take.

Golden ruleFirst off, Baha’is believe that there really is just one religion—the “changeless Faith of God, eternal in the past, eternal in the future”, which has been revealed progressively throughout history to different peoples and nations, as that same God manifested Himself to them. The differences between all of the world’s great religions, then, are simply a matter of differences in context: The religion of God was revealed to them in a way that was best suited for them in that place and at that time. Bahá’u’lláh does say that there will be further Manifestations of God in the future, so the Bahá’í Faith isn’t the end of the line. We refer to all of this as God’s Eternal Covenant—God never leaves us without guidance when we need it, and to be fair, looking at the state of the world around us, we certainly seem to be in need of guidance.

Bahá’ís believe that Bahá’u’lláh is the Manifestation of God for today, who has brought the message of unity and oneness that applies to humanity’s needs in the present day. Whenever God sends a new Manifestation to teach humanity and renew His religion, it becomes the duty of all the people of the world to accept the new Manifestation and to follow His teachings, so it is important for everyone to investigate His claims and accept His teachings if the world is to progress.

As to whether people of different religions can achieve that state of “heaven” I described above, here’s my thought: If you live a good life ploughing rice fields as an Indian farmer and you die as a Hindu devotee without ever learning that God had renewed His message, could you be blamed for not accepting God’s religion? Not at all, because as far as you knew, yours was still God’s religion. But if God had renewed His message in the meantime, and somebody came by and told you about it, and you refused to accept it, then your soul would have to live through the rest of its eternal existence with that knowledge.

All of that said, of course, there is no way to get around the fact that people of different genders, races, nations, orientations, beliefs, and religions are part of the same human family. Furthermore, Bahá’ís are specifically exhorted to “consort with the followers of all religions in a spirit of friendliness and fellowship”, so no matter where your religion is on that continuum, you’re still a member of the human family and we’re gonna love you, respect you and value you. Nobody’s going to throw anyone into a lake of fire for our sake, but at the end of the day, there are some serious truths that Bahá’u’lláh presents that everyone should investigate, because they are well-suited for today’s world and can help humanity to progress.

Photo: Golden rule, by Phil Squires.

websites = life

The life of a web developer is basically just websites. Unless, you know, you like to go outside or something. But going outside’s beside the point of this post. This post is all about websites. Pretty little websites, all in a row. Big ones, small ones, wikis, social networks, coffee pot webcams, and more.

So, yeah, I spend a lot of my time on websites. Some of them you’ve probably heard of, and some you probably haven’t. Take, for instance, Wikipedia. You haven’t heard of that one, right? It’s a homework help free content farm online encyclopedia that has lots of cool stuff on it about small villages in England and bizarrely named dog breeds and stuff. I’ve been editing Wikipedia since about 2006, and, oddly enough, I feel like it’s actually helped me improve my writing skills. I’ve worked on a bunch of articles about Vietnam, and a few Bahá’í-related articles too.

Speaking of Bahá’í-related Wikipedia articles, Bahaikipedia is a thing too. It was created around the same time as I started writing on Wikipedia; I even blogged about it way back when I first started contributing there. It’s quietly but steadily grown over the years, to the point where there are now over 4,000 articles. Take a look through it when you get the chance, and if wikis are your thing (or even if they’re not), why not create an account and start contributing yourself?

Speaking of places where you should create an account and contribute, did you know that there’s a Baha’i Reddit group (aka “subreddit”)? It’s an interesting place to have conversations on all kinds of topics related to the Bahá’í Faith, and it’s pretty legit—well, at least legit enough to be featured on Bahá’í Blog, in an article marking its 9th anniversary. There are also related subreddits about Bahá’í history, photography, web/software projects, newsquotes, so there’s something for everyone. Over the past month there’ve been some pretty good threads on a variety of topics, including Light to the World, the new documentary on the life of Bahá’u’lláh; how one goes about becoming a Bahá’í; backbiting; the purpose of life; favourite recipes for 19-day Feasts; and more. Conversations can get challenging sometimes because it’s a forum that’s open to everyone, but the group is (ahem) pretty well moderated and, as a result, the cream tends to rise to the top.

Speaking of Reddit and having conversations, some Reddit users got together and created a Baha’i chat server on a platform ironically called “Discord”, which is popular with gamers and offers text, audio and video chat. It’s a fairly new server, but there are usually a few people online to chat with, for those who’d like the chance to talk to Bahá’ís and their friends in real time. They’ve created a new front page for the server with the amazing domain name bahai.fyi (don’t you just wish you had registered that one).

Speaking of amazing domain names… uh… well, I have one. Right? (That’s all for now, but don’t worry, there’ll be more talk about nerdy Internet stuff later on. For now, just go click on some links and have a great time.)

the baha’i stance on homosexuality

One of the hot-button topics that tends to pop up a lot on Reddit’s Baha’i group is that of homosexuality, and Baha’i reactions and beliefs about it. That makes sense, because Baha’i beliefs about homosexuality are nuanced, rather than being black-and-white like much of the discourse that goes on in society today. So when a user asked recently about the Baha’i stance on homosexuality, I went ahead and offered the following reply.

First of all, another user posted a link to the most recent guidance from the Universal House of Justice on homosexuality; you can take it as the official Bahá’í perspective.

In general, you’ll find that Bahá’í belief is based on its written texts, in which the Writings of the Báb and Bahá’u’lláh have been authoritatively interpreted by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and by the Guardian, Shoghi Effendi. The Universal House of Justice has the power to legislate on things that aren’t covered by these Writings, but not to change the Writings themselves.

The important thing to remember is that we can say whatever we want on /r/bahai, but belief isn’t based on the judgements of individual Bahá’ís. When in doubt, we turn towards the Writings, and towards guidance of the Universal House of Justice, and we use that guidance to help us advance our understanding of the issue in question.

I would say that the Bahá’í view of homosexuality is nuanced and doesn’t lend itself well to being condensed into the short, pithy, categorical statements that we often expect to hear in public discourse these days. It doesn’t make the Bahá’í view any less valid, of course; it just means that it bears reflection.

For me, the principal takeaways from the May 2014 letter include: 1) certain facts, including the prohibition of homosexual acts and the definition of marriage as occurring between a man and a woman, are authoritative and are not subject to change, not even by the Universal House of Justice; 2) that Bahá’í laws apply to Bahá’ís, and that we cannot, and do not, seek to force others to conform to those laws; 3) that Bahá’ís must strive to show love, kindness and fellowship to every human being, no matter their beliefs or their physical, emotional, or mental particularities, and that shunning someone simply based on sexual orientation is unjust.

One more thing is that I wouldn’t say that the West should be “ignored”, as you put it. One of the great advances that the West has helped to bring to light in the world is the formal, secular definition of human rights, and the concept that you can’t just squash someone just because they’re different from you. My understanding is that this is a concept that’s reflected in Divine teachings, as well: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

I also believe that there are no contradictions in Divine teachings; contradictions only arise when we fail to comprehend the purport of the Divine teachings, or how they relate to one another. As we strive to carry forward an ever-advancing civilization, we’re going to need to rise above all of our differences and explore reality together in the light of these Divine teachings, to see what they mean for us—what a Divine civilization will look like in real, concrete terms.

the role of sex and sexuality

So I was looking back at the very first Baha’i AMA we hosted a while back, with the help of a bunch of users from Reddit’s Baha’i group. One of the questions had to do with the Baha’i view of the role of sexuality and gender identity. It was answered quite well, but I decided to offer my own perspective on the role of sexuality in Bahá’í life.

The sex impulse is a natural bestowal, and Baha’u’llah says it should be regulated in its expression to just with our marriage partner. […]

Just a bit of digression on this: Sexuality, in and of itself, is a part of the human experience. The Bahá’í teachings emphasize the dual nature of human life: we have a higher, spiritual, divine nature, and a lower, material, animal nature. Both are necessary for us to progress in this physical world, but our spiritual self—our soul—is all that we bring with us into the spiritual worlds of God. The laws and precepts revealed by Bahá’u’lláh constitute the means for us to refine and prepare our spiritual self for its eternal journey, which has its beginnings in the womb of the mother, continues through this physical world and into the hereafter.

The Universal House of Justice explains: “Just as there are laws governing our physical lives, requiring that we must supply our bodies with certain foods, maintain them within a certain range of temperatures, and so forth, if we wish to avoid physical disabilities, so also there are laws governing our spiritual lives. These laws are revealed to mankind in each age by the Manifestation of God, and obedience to them is of vital importance if each human being, and mankind in general, is to develop properly and harmoniously.”

The law of chastity revealed by Bahá’u’lláh, then, is basically a way for us to remain in control of our sexual impulses, which enables us to develop true, profound and lasting friendships and relationships with members of both sexes, freed from the constraints of an excessive focus on sexuality. The law of marriage, which, as /u/finnerpeace noted, is defined as being between a man and a woman, was revealed to give those impulses their highest and most constructive expression.

From the Universal House of Justice again: “…the Bahá’í Faith recognizes the value of the sex impulse and holds that the institution of marriage has been established as the channel of its rightful expression. Bahá’ís do not believe that the sex impulse should be suppressed but that it should be regulated and controlled. Chastity in no way implies withdrawal from human relationships. It liberates people from the tyranny of the ubiquity of sex. A person who is in control of his sexual impulses is enabled to have profound and enduring friendships with many people, both men and women, without ever sullying that unique and priceless bond that should unite man and wife.”

All this being said, the application of these laws, as with many Bahá’í laws, is left to the discretion of the believers. Except in cases where people are somehow hurting or otherwise negatively affecting themselves or others, it’s not something that people get upset over. Everyone has his or her own path to follow and his or her own spiritual row to hoe. Confession of sins to others is forbidden for Bahá’ís, as is fault-finding—in fact, Bahá’u’lláh regards fault-finding and backbiting as the worst possible sin. Every Bahá’í, then, is directly responsible before God for his or her own actions, inactions, and overall spiritual growth.

One last quote from the Universal House of Justice: “It is neither possible nor desirable for the Universal House of Justice to set forth a set of rules covering every situation. Rather is it the task of the individual believer to determine, according to his own prayerful understanding of the Writings, precisely what his course of conduct should be in relation to situations which he encounters in his daily life. If he is to fulfil his true mission in life as a follower of the Blessed Perfection, he will pattern his life according to the Teachings. The believer cannot attain this objective merely by living according to a set of rigid regulations. When his life is oriented toward service to Bahá’u’lláh, and when every conscious act is performed within this frame of reference, he will not fail to achieve the true purpose of his life.”

do baha’is believe in ghosts?

Another older question here from the Reddit Baha’i group, /r/bahai. This time, someone (presumably a Baha’i) asked the question: “Do we believe in ghosts?” Here’s the answer I gave.

This is a good question, and to me, there are a few different ways of looking at it. One is, is there an afterlife that follows our physical death? The answer is, yes, there is, most definitely. A quick look through Ruhi Book 1 will reveal a number of insightful quotes from the Writings on this subject, including this one, which tells us that this physical world is, in fact, a way of preparing us for the life beyond:

“In the beginning of his human life man was embryonic in the world of the matrix. There he received capacity and endowment for the reality of human existence. The forces and powers necessary for this world were bestowed upon him in that limited condition. In this world he needed eyes; he received them potentially in the other. He needed ears; he obtained them there in readiness and preparation for his new existence. The powers requisite in this world were conferred upon him in the world of the matrix …

“Therefore, in this world he must prepare himself for the life beyond. That which he needs in the world of the Kingdom must be obtained here. Just as he prepared himself in the world of the matrix by acquiring forces necessary in this sphere of existence, so, likewise, the indispensable forces of the divine existence must be potentially attained in this world.”

(‘Abdu’l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace)

Another way of looking at the question is: Are there “spirits”, or souls, who are bound to the material world? The answer to this question, according to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, is no:

“There are no earth-bound souls. When the souls that are not good die they go entirely away from this earth and so cannot influence anyone. They are spiritually dead. Their thoughts can have influence only when they are alive on the earth… But the good souls are given eternal life and sometimes God permits their thoughts to reach the earth to help the people.”

(Questions answered by Abdu’l-Bahá in Akka: Daily Lessons, Received at Akka, 1979 ed., pp. 35-36)

Yet another way of looking at the question is: Have people who report seeing “visions” or apparitions of people who have passed away, or somehow communicating with those people, actually seen or heard those souls? The answer, according to Shoghi Effendi, is “probably not, but possibly, in very rare circumstances”:

“Regarding your question: In His chapter on ‘Visions and Communications with Spirits’ in ‘Some Answered Questions’, the Master evidently desires to point out that there can be, under certain rare circumstances, such as those experienced by the Prophets, communion with some soul gone before into the invisible world, but that most of this type of experience which people often claim to have with departed souls is nothing but the product of their own imaginations–however real it may seem to them to be. […]

“Truly mystical experiences based on reality are very rare, and we can readily see how dangerous it is for people to go groping about in the darkness of their imagination after the true thing. That is why, as you point out, we are warned against all psychical practices by the Master.

“If we are going to have some deeply spiritual experience we can rest assured God will vouchsafe it to us without our having to look for it.”

(From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi, dated October 25, 1942, to an individual believer)

It’s also worth noting that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi both recommend against trying to tamper with or even to give undue consideration to supernatural or psychic forces, as mentioned in the quote above, as doing so can actually be harmful to us spiritually and retard our soul’s progress.

For a good treatment of the subject of everything supernatural in the Bahá’í Faith, you might want to take a look at the book Miracles in Religion: A Study of the miraculous in religion in context of the Bahá’í Faith by Anil Sarwal.