Ask A Baha’i: What are some misconceptions about your religion?

Do you have a question about the Baha’i faith? Submit it online or fill out the form below. 

By Daniel Pschaida

What are some misconceptions about your religion?

Misconception 1: The Bahá’í Faith is a synthesis or amalgam of different religions

The Bahá’í Faith, as I understand it, is actually the latest stage in God’s revelation to humanity of his (her/its) eternal Faith. As such, it confirms that religions that went before it, as being like chapters of God’s one book of truth. As a new chapter, the Bahá’í Faith has its own Scriptures (lots!), its own laws, its own system of collective organization, its own calendar. 

When we take a look at these distinguishing features of the Bahá’í Faith, we find both originality AND confirmation of other religions.  For example:

Scriptures: While, Bahá’u’lláh—the founder—frequently quoted from the Qur’an of Islam and the Bible (of Judaism and Christianity), his writings are otherwise NOT just a collection of his favorite quotes from other religions or a paraphrase of such teachings, but—what Bahá’ís believe to be—an original revelation from God of both the eternal truths given to humanity in the past as while as those exact new truths humanity really needs to understand and live in our global village of today.

Calendar: The Bahá’í Calendar is 19 months with 19 days. Like the Persian calendar, and the Zoroastrian religion, it begins on the first day of spring (Naw Ruz [literally ‘New Day’]). However, distinctively each month is named after a perfection of God, such as Mercy, Glory, Beauty, Might, or Splendor.

System of collective organization: The Bahá’í Faith does not have clerics, priesthood, or individual pastors or reverends. Decision-making power is allocated to a 9-person collective council, whose members are voted for by secret-ballot, without campaigning, each year in the final ten days of April.  Any Bahá’í, 21-years or older, can be elected. Only the consensus, arrived at through a process of candid and courteous consultation, has authority for Bahá’í communities. Such councils are elected on the local/city, regional (for large countries), national, and global level. Even though Bahá’ís are still learning the ropes themselves, we believe that this system of councils is a pattern and model for the future for all human governance.

Misconception 2: The Bahá’í Faith is a “cult”

In books written by certain segments of Evangelical Christian leaders, this is a pejorative label, and warning, frequently applied to the Bahá’í Faith.  The label “cult” can be meaningful but is typically thrown around so freely that it then only means “I don’t agree with your religion.”  From a religious studies perspective (I have a Ph.D. in the academic study of religion from the University of California—Riverside) all forms of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Bahá’í, including ancient Greek and Roman religions, are all cults because they strive to cultivate relationships with the God(s). From a pop culture perspective, the label “cult” brings anxiety and serves as a warning because some new religious movements (NRMs) are indeed dangerous in that there are a combination of such characteristics as: 1) Tight, enforced, control, of behavior by a single charismatic leader, 2) Sexual and/or financial exploitation of followers; 3) Demand to disassociate from other friends or family members (who aren’t a part of the group), 4) Mandating followers to physically harm themselves through risky behaviors, consumption of drugs, and/or even [mass] suicide.    

As for these four characteristics, they do not apply to the Bahá’í Faith. For example, as to 2) in the Bahá’í community there is a general appeal to collective body of Bahá’ís to give time and money to the Faith but how much is left completely to the conscience of the individual Bahá’í without individual confrontation or pressure. The same goes for Bahá’í laws.

Now if the warning of “cult” applied to the Bahá’í Faith means that the eternal salvation of one’s soul is in danger, we’ll just have to agree to disagree.  I believe Bahá’u’lláh is the Return of Christ “in the glory of the Father” and so not following Bahá’u’lláh, after I know him, is actually also rejecting Jesus as Lord and Savior.  For me, to follow Jesus is to follow Bahá’u’lláh, and to follow Bahá’u’lláh is to follow Jesus.

Misconception 3: ‘Anything goes’ among Bahá’ís

I first heard this one while volunteering at a Bahá’í information table while I was an undergraduate student at San Diego State University. A fellow young man, who had come to follow the Hare Krishna Hindu denomination (formally known as Gaudiya Vaishnavism), told me that he had checked out Bahá’í before but came to understand that Baha’is accept anything, while he knew himself well enough to know that he needed discipline and standards for his behavior.  Actually (as I also told him that day) the Bahá’í Faith, while teaching that the purpose of our lives is to authentically and creatively learn to act with and develop virtues — such as honesty, justice, purity, and loving-kindness — has specific standards of behavior for its followers.  

As mentioned above, Bahá’u’lláh gave followers of this latest stage of God’s Faith laws to abide by which he commends as the “lamps” of God’s “loving providence,” “the highest means for the maintenance of order in the world and the security of its peoples,” and the “sustenance” of our spiritual growth and lives even as the “ocean” is for “fish.” Among these laws are prayer each day, the fasting period (described in a footnote below), giving 19 percent of one’s excess wealth [if one has such] for the well-being of humanity, and refraining from backbiting, slander, stealing, adultery, and alcohol. As to healing in times of sickness (physical and/or mental), Bahá’ís are encouraged to use both prayer and turn to competent physicians (such as medical doctors). 

Misconception 4: Bahá’ís are quite liberal and definitely lean left

Fact: Bahá’ís appreciate both liberal and conservative values and the Bahá’í Faith does not endorse a particular political party. Individual Bahá’ís might lean either way in who they vote for and are typically more concerned with the qualities of character of an individual rather than a checklist of policies a candidate may endorse. 

Stressing the Oneness of Humanity, Oneness of Religions, human rights and social justice and equity, and participating in dialogues for interreligious harmony, racial unity (and against racial prejudice and discrimination), and gender equality, the Bahá’í Faith is quite inclusive in its approach to religious, racial, ethnic, and national “others.” In addition, a Bahá’í (and hopefully, universal) virtue is compassion — and caring — for all people, and the Bahá’í Faith encourages individual volunteering and systematic programs for universal education, feeding the hungry, sheltering the destitute, and healing the sick.   

At the same time, the Bahá’í Faith promotes individual responsibility: “It is incumbent upon each one of you to engage in some occupation — such as a craft, a trade or the like. We have exalted your engagement in such work to the rank of worship of the one true God.” Work, thus, is a type of prayer for Bahá’ís — one of the many ways we have to praise and love God. Begging for handouts is prohibited. Caring for and educating children and a home as a house-husband or house-wife is also meritorious. Communism, as a form of complete equality in financial rewards and material resources, is seen as untenable, even while social programs that assure each person gets the basic resources they need to flourish physically, intellectually, and spiritually are stressed (often couched as the Bahá’í principle of “elimination of extremes of wealth and poverty”). Close partnerships and profit-sharing between owners and labor are also recommended for Bahá’ís—and others—in business. 

In summary, Bahá’ís confirm the divine-inspiration of most other religions while believing the Bahá’í Faith is a unique and long-awaited Revelation from God of the one eternal faith of God, with its own Scriptures, calendar, and system of organization, having high ethical standards and laws fulfilled for the spiritual growth of the individual and well-being of a community, all implemented by individual human choice and conscience, and with a sense of individual responsibility to care for oneself, one’s family, and one’s local and global neighbors.  

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