I like atheists. Agnostics, too.

That may sound a tad strange, coming from someone who writes about the Baha’i Faith every day. Bear with me for a minute, and I’ll explain.

First of all, those who question the existence of God have always seemed pretty intelligent, at least to me. They’re usually the independent ones who don’t blindly accept tradition, or naively believe without careful consideration, or unthinkingly become members of a group just to be a member.

Second, I get it when people truly wonder about the mystical concept of a Supreme Being. I do, too, all the time. That mystery—an invisible, loving, creative, omnipotent, all-knowing Creator—really is hard to grasp. I don’t pretend to fully understand what the Baha’i writings say about God:

God in His Essence and in His own Self hath ever been unseen, inaccessible, and unknowable. – Baha’u’llah, Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, p. 118.

Third, in my experience atheists and agnostics have thought about God more than most people. I know, it’s a conundrum, but it’s true. Because they’ve taken the time to weigh the evidence and the arguments, they’ve actually gone on a spiritual search, and decided for themselves, which I find admirable. The writer Terry Pratchett said atheism and belief have a lot in common:

Indeed, a true atheist thinks of the gods constantly, albeit in terms of denial. Therefore, atheism is a form of belief. If the atheist truly did not believe, he or she would not bother to deny. – Feet of Clay.

So I understand when skeptics, especially the group of very publicly vocal philosophers and writers called the New Atheists, say that religion is toxic and deserves to be jettisoned. In case you’re unfamiliar with that group of thinkers, here’s a sampling:

Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens

The problem with religion, because it’s been sheltered from criticism, is that it allows people to believe en masse what only idiots or lunatics could believe in isolation. – Sam Harris

That which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence. – Christopher Hitchens.

The only position that leaves me with no cognitive dissonance is atheism. – Ayaan Hirsi Ali

I cannot know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there. – Richard Dawkins

You don’t get to advertise all the good that your religion does without first scrupulously subtracting all the harm it does and considering seriously the question of whether some other religion, or no religion at all, does better. – Daniel Dennett

You might be surprised to learn that in significant ways, the Baha’i teachings validate the important points some of these atheist thinkers make—and preceded them by a century or more in that thinking.

Baha’is believe in evidence and science; accept and encourage questioning; value the human intellect and urge its education; have no clergy or dogma; try to eradicate superstition and irrationality; and, like Daniel Dennett, believe that no religion is preferable to one that does harm:

Religion should unite all hearts and cause wars and disputes to vanish from the face of the earth, give birth to spirituality, and bring life and light to each heart. If religion becomes a cause of dislike, hatred and division, it were better to be without it, and to withdraw from such a religion would be a truly religious act. For it is clear that the purpose of a remedy is to cure; but if the remedy should only aggravate the complaint it had better be left alone. Any religion which is not a cause of love and unity is no religion. All the holy prophets were as doctors to the soul; they gave prescriptions for the healing of mankind; thus any remedy that causes disease does not come from the great and supreme Physician. – Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 129.

That’s the fourth unique Baha’i idea on this list of five ways to stop religious conflict:

4. If Your Faith Causes Hatred and Bloodshed, Find a More Peaceful Path.

Sound radical? Not from a Baha’i perspective. The Baha’i teachings view religion as a means toward love and unity, as a path to peace and global oneness, not as an end in itself:

A remedy is given to cure a disease, but if it only succeeds in aggravating the complaint, it is better to leave it alone. If religion is only to be a cause of disunion it had better not exist. – Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 122.

The religion of God is the cause of love, but if it is made to be the source of enmity and bloodshed, surely its absence is preferable to its existence; for then it becomes satanic, detrimental and an obstacle to the human world. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 202.

Blind imitations and dogmatic observances are conducive to alienation and disagreement; they lead to bloodshed and destruction of the foundations of humanity. Therefore, the religionists of the world must lay aside these imitations and investigate the essential foundation or reality itself, which is not subject to change or transformation. This is the divine means of agreement and unification. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 339.

Baha’is believe that religion is as religion does, that deeds are more important than words, and that true faith means actually bringing spiritual ideals into practice, both individually and socially.

The opinions and views expressed in this article are those of the author only and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of BahaiTeachings.org or any institution of the Baha’i Faith.

16 Comments

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  • Leahey Pamela
    Aug 20, 2016
    David, I love this article. It is so sane. Thank you for writing and sharing it. I will be sharing it too!
  • Pam Olsen Vaillancourt
    Jun 08, 2016
    You're just trying to sell another religion, frankly. Atheism isn't a belief system any more than OFF is a TV station. You don't get it, but you're trying.
  • Jun 23, 2015
    The Baha'i Faith offers those who dare commit a lifelong challenge. On the one hand, we believe in love and unity. We strive to attain that ideal the best way we know how which often ends up with us using old world order default behaviors to solve new world order problems. The situation gets even stickier since we also believe in the independent investigation of truth, scrupulously respecting the path of another, and the absence of single individuals who lead us and who we must obey. There is no other community, organization, or institution that I know of quite like ...it. The use of consultation to solve our differences, at the core of which is "the clash of differing opinions", is a huge learning curve for us. So, in light of the Writings that state that religion is better left alone if it is a cause of hatred and disunity, and the fact that some of us take that advice and vote with our feet when differences of opinions cause alienation in our communities, I would say that this requires us all to take a very careful look at what it is we need to create to reconcile these very difficult issues. Until we find a new way to solve our differences - a novel, new paradigm way - we will continue to experience the discordance of these two principles - love and unity vs independent thinking. However, I do not think this implies that in this case should all "leave it off". Our Faith is marked by periods alternating between "crisis and victory". During our times of crisis many people have left the Faith because the institution of these new principles can be extremely disconcerting. From Tahirih removing her veil in public, where there was the general fleeing and throat-cutting of men, to the early Feasts in America where Abdu'l-Baha told the Baha'is that their Feasts must be integrated and many white folks fled in fear of their neighbors' wrath for allowing black people into their homes, to the LSA's of India who had to be told to allow women to be elected onto their Assemblies, there have always been challenges set before us that can cause upheaval in the community and which is intolerable to some. The application of all the principles set out by Baha'u'llah have caused many people to leave the Faith, including the application of the principle of unity in diversity. Today, we have a situation that is calling for a far less obvious challenge but one which is the most vital of all - finding a way to apply the great principles of consultation and the elimination of prejudices of all kinds so that we can form and maintain our unity in diversity. The vision is clear, the way forward requires great effort and patience with the process of trial and error this requires but, in my mind, is well worth the struggle. There is a vast difference between a religion that is, at its core, a cause of "dislike, hatred, and division" and one that is the polar opposite but struggling to implement a new vision for humanity. To me that says, keep going, we'll get there.
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    • Jan 26, 2016
      I really appreciate this perspective as well. The metric of "is this harmful or helpful" is not always clear in application and in order to participate in a religion of deeds and words you have to become a spiritual scientist.
  • Mar 09, 2015
    I have.an odd relationship with religion. I am a Christian, I have a brother, his wife, and niece.who.are Baha'i, another brother is an atheist, yet another is either Catholic or Athiest, a sister.who is a low key protestant, and my dad is a right wing Christian. It can get interesting. I see the places in the Bible where Christ says that others will come after him but don't be deceived. This is a really big sticking point for more conservative Christians. There are some Christian faiths that embrace other religions. But there are teaching from Jesus that seem to not ...have loophole. Christ was very insistent that he was God's one and only son. Born to be sacrificed because God knew giving up his only son for all of us down here was the greatest act of love he could commit. I don't think there is anyone I love enough to sacrifice one of my children. Salvation, for a Christian comes by simply laying our sin down before God, repenting, and asking forgiveness. Pretty simple. Our spiritual deeds are a lot like our job description. Once you have been saved you will not perish but have everlasting life. But the day you are called to heaven, you will be judged. How we treat one another takes the number two spot on how to live our lives. "Those last will be first and those first last" Matthew20:16 We also know from the Bible and history that all of the profits were loving made by God and they are all part of his plan. Many people look at the Bible as absolutes. If you can find the page where God said he is giving us the answers to everything, please let me know! So I am rambling. Bottom line for Christians and Baha'i, we are all people who have been called to love. Sometimes it is hard for Christians to have faith not just in their own sake but also for those around them. If we truly study the gospels we can see, repeated in many stories that God has a plan for each and every one of us. We are not going to be made privy to that plan but, in the mean time, we have a job to do. "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your sole and with all your strength and with all your mind,and Love your neighbor as yourself."Luke 20:27
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  • Jan 19, 2015
    I used to fear atheists because we are told to guard against those who would try to change our faith but after listening to some atheists I have come to see their reasons for deciding what they see as a great dichotomy. When talking about the faith, the Baha'i faith, I try to clearly and even emphatically separate the Faith from it's followers. A careful examination of the teachings is needed in order to see where these blessed Manifestations are carrying us and not to where we would have ourselves progress. Keeping the pristine purity of Their mission uppermost in ...our minds and hearts. Thank you for a lovely article.
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