Essay: Faith vs Religion: My Personal Exploration of Spirituality and the Baha'i Faith.

During my recent residency at Vermont College, a friend told me a metaphor for religion that bears repeating: “Religion is like a supermarket. We enter with needs and wants, and we go through filling our basket with these things. But we do not have to buy everything in the store.” I found this anecdote particularly relevant to my own search for spirituality. It sums up my philosophy on organized religion remarkably well.

I was born and raised as a Baha’i. In fact, my namesake was a writer who chronicled the early days of the Baha’i Faith (a hefty tome called The Dawnbreakers). The basis of the religion is that Baha’u’llah is the most recent messenger of God, one of a long line that includes Abraham, Moses, Buddha, Zoroaster, Christ, and Muhammad. The Baha’i Faith’s core beliefs revolve around the concept of world unity and equality.

All in all, those seem to be a pretty solid groundwork to base a religion on. It stands to reason that since humanity continues to grow and mature, the Word of God must be updated from time to time. This is further obviated by man’s fallible nature: considering the known level of corruption that has existed in the seat of power of various religions in the past, it is not outside the realm of possibility that the original message is not nearly as pure as it once was. And as for the principles for a religion to teach, compassion and equality are really rather high on the list of ideals I’d like to see encouraged.

I was one of four Baha’i children in my school district (two families: my brother and I, and the other family had two girls). Growing up, I always looked forward to Baha’i holy days, because it meant that I had an excused absence from school on those days, which our community would often do interesting things for (one holy day that happens in October, we would hike a mountain each year and say prayers at the top, things like that). Really, it was a rather nice religion to be raised a part of. That said, at this point in my life, I am really more of a “lapsed Baha’i” than anything else.

There are reasons for this. At the surface, there is the frustration in being part of a minority, and regularly having to explain what the religion is about. Also, there was the frustration of school functions which were largely christian in nature (and let’s not forget the mandatory “non-denominational” services with the Boy Scouts). These frustrations weren’t exactly conducive to following your own beliefs.

On a more personal level, the religion itself pushed me away. While I like what the Faith teaches, the great majority of Baha’is I’ve met were well meaning, very nice, intelligent, and FLUFFY, for lack of a better term. When I say “fluffy”, I mean that it feels like they are “born-again”, and are trying to be EXTRA loving and religious in order to make up for lost time. I don’t think this make them bad people, but it does make me uncomfortable at some fundamental level. I feel that while we should always strive for excellence, we must also balance that with moderation: anything taken to an extreme, including religion, isn’t healthy. Please also note that I am making a distinction between religion, and faith. It is an important distinction, and really the crux of what I’m talking about.

I believe in Baha’u’llah. I believe in God or at least some sort of higher power that may as well be called such. Also, I like what the Baha’i Faith teaches as a basis for religion, but it is the religion (and really all others I’ve run into) that I am bothered with. I am an introvert and a generally private individual (this paper, itself, has taken a great deal of tooth-pulling to even write), and find myself somewhat irritated that others try to foist their take on what is at its core a personal relationship with one’s connection to the universe, for the sake of organization. We as a society busy ourselves by meddling in the personal lives of our neighbors rather than realizing that it is not our place to judge the actions of others. This is the difference between faith and religion: faith is by its nature private, it is the communion between god and yourself. Faith is the contemplation and belief in certain things (whether it is the nature of the universe, or guidelines for better living in the here and now). Religion is taking faith and making it a spectacle. It compartmentalizes and socializes belief, so that instead of gleaning your own conclusions (going back to the supermarket metaphor, buying the things on YOUR list), you are told what you should believe (everyone receives the same “rations”).

And instead of realizing this and doing my own thing and not worrying about the rest, thus living a fuller, richer spiritual life, I get worked up about it. I spend my energy railing about how frustrating and disillusioning organized religion is in an age of distributed communication and knowledge, where it is easy to find the holes and flaws in any religion. Of course there are flaws in religion. They’re made by man. We’re not perfect. That doesn’t mean the principles of and the basis for the religion is wrong.

What I’m saying is that there should be more effort made to separate the religion (the structure) from the faith (the content). Let people make decisions for themselves, give them the material to make educated choices, and see what happens. If someone decides that they want to combine aspects of Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, and Baha’i, then so be it, more power to them. That doesn’t mean that the next person won’t decide that a combination of Judaism and Hinduism is a better fit for themselves. Let us as a race awaken into a Collective Conscious (vs unconscious), and bring it all back to what really matters: the individual’s relationship with God.