Religion in the Contemporary World: A Sociological Introduction

Religion in the Contemporary World: A Sociological Introduction, p. 177-8:

The Baha'i faith, which arose in an Islamic context, shows some similarities to these two Christian movements [Quakers and Unitarians]. Baha'is profess that women and men are equal. They embrace science and education. They lack a professional priesthood and formal rituals. They are pacifists. Like Muslims, they are averse to other-worldly asceticism, and specifically forbid the monastic life. They give responsibility to local congregations within a worldwide administrative framework. They are opposed to racism, prejudice and superstition, and claim to be undogmatic.

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Despite their progressive credentials, it is even less clear than in the case of Quakers and Unitarians that Baha'is can respond to all the challenges brought by feminism. Although the Baha'i faith presents itself as non-doctrinaire, it is shaped by divine revelation and divinely inspired authoritative scriptures. For example, despite the movement's commitment to gender equality, women are not permitted to stand for election to the Universal House of Justice, the faith's nine-man supreme governing body. Baha'u'llah's successor, Abdu'l-Baha, issued a definitive ruling on the exclusion of women, while promising that its rationale would be revealed when the time was ripe. That time is yet to come.

The Baha'i faith is, at root, conversionist. It engages in rationally planned missionary programmes in pursuit of its vision of a universalist religion uniting all humanity. It does not tolerate plural membership, and does not take part in rainbow alliances with campaigning pressure groups. Its scriptures prescribe premarital chastity and monogamous heterosexual marriage, and proclaim the sacred duty to bear children. Baha'i couples require the consent of all their living natural parents before they can marry. Baha'is are supposedly not prejudiced against homosexuals, because Baha'i teachings 'take account of human frailty and call for tolerance and understanding in regard to human failings' (vvww.bahai.org). The faith opposes divorce, and takes a conservative stance on abortion and euthanasia. Crucially, the movement has little warrant to amend any of these principles, since the role of the Universal House of Justice is to promote the faith, not to modify it. As society changes, the Baha'is risk being left behind in a posture that will seem less and less progressive. In this respect it is probably not gender roles, but sexuality, that poses the sharper challenge to Baha'i culture.

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