Religious prejudice in the Letter to the World’s Religious Leaders

In the past two posts on the Letter to the World’s Religious Leaders, I looked closely at sentences from the first two paragraphs. Now I’d like to consider one of the larger themes of the document.

Seat of the Universal House of Justice, Haifa (Israel)In paragraphs 3-6, the Universal House of Justice notes that society has made great progress in overcoming prejudice based on gender, nation, race and ethnicity. It goes on to put religious prejudice in the same category as these other prejudices. At first glance this seems reasonable. After all, there’s no justification in bearing prejudice against someone just because they follow a religion.

But look at how the Universal House of Justice defines religious prejudice. It doesn’t spell it out, but you can see it in the overall thrust of the document. In paragraph 9, the UHJ suggests that to have religious prejudice is to deny “that all of the world’s great religions are equally valid in nature and origin.” In paragraph 10, the UHJ says that most organized religion is holding up progress in achieving the oneness of mankind because it is gripped by “dogmas and claims of privileged access to truth.” In other words, the faithful believers in the world’s religions are obtructing progress because they believe their own religions’ truth claims.

In paragraphs 11-16, the Universal House of Justice’s argument goes like this: Claims that one religion is more true than another have caused horrific warfare and have stifled the life of the mind. Note (the UHJ says), we’re not saying religion causes these things. Religion has inspired people to love and forgive, and has been the impetus for every advance in civilization. Rather, what causes these things is the belief that one religion is more true than another. Thus, the way to solve this problem is for everyone to concede that one religion is just as good as another. When people do that, then followers of different religions will finally get along, and spiritual life can finally flourish unhindered.

This is not reasonable. The Universal House of Justice is making a number of assumptions in this line of reasoning that it is not justifying. It doesn’t justify them, and there’s no reason why we should take these assumptions for granted.

1. It assumes that religious wars occurred because people made exclusive truth claims. Is that really true?

2. It assumes that claims to exclusive truth hinder intellectual activity. Should we take this idea for granted? There’s also a double standard here, because to assert that all religions come from God is an exclusive truth claim, excluding all possible interpretations of a religion that don’t allow for this dogma.

3. The UHJ says religion “has awakened in whole populations capacities to love, to forgive, to create, to dare greatly, to overcome prejudice, to sacrifice for the common good and to discipline the impulses of animal instinct” (paragraph 13). What is religion? What is this common thing we call religion, that is doing all this motivating among the various religious adherents of the world? The UHJ doesn’t say. I’m left wondering if religion is supposed to be nothing more than a vague spirituality. How a vague spirituality could motivate someone to make sacrifices and discipline their animal impulses is beyond me.

4. It goes on to say, “it would be difficult to think of any fundamental advance in civilization that did not derive its moral thrust from” religion (paragraph 14). What does the House of Justice mean by “civilization”? What does it mean by “advance”? And how exactly has religion done the thrusting? It might seem like I’m being nit-picky, but we need to think about these things. This is a seductive argument. If religion has advanced civilization throughout the world, then there must be some common denominator underlying all religions. This argument is seductive, that is, until you realize there’s no substance to it. The words “advance” and “civilization” are not referring to anything real.

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2 Responses

  1. When a person asserts that there should be moderation in all things, that statement cannot logically be termed immoderate. Likewise, an assertion that the religions are one and that God progressively revealed them cannot logically be considered an exclusivity.

    If you wish to understand what the Universal House of Justice means by “advance” and “civilization,” read its commissioned book “Century of Light” to understand why the Baha’is think the twentieth century brought human progress. You might also read ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s book “The Secret of Divine Civilization.”

  2. If you wish to understand what the Universal House of Justice means by “advance” and “civilization,” read its commissioned book “Century of Light” to understand why the Baha’is think the twentieth century brought human progress. You might also read ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s book “The Secret of Divine Civilization.”

    Thank you for the suggestion. I will read Century of Light when I finish going over the Letter to the World’s Religious Leaders. In the meantime, I will refrain from questioning the validity of the terms “advance” and “civilization”.

    I read The Secret of Divine Civilization when I was a Baha’i, but back then of course I took the concept of the advance of civilization for granted, so I didn’t question `Abdu’l-Baha’s assumptions. That’s another book, God willing, I could also look at in the future on this blog.

    UPDATE: By the way, I respond to Bill’s other comment in this post: When inclusiveness is exclusive

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