Society and the individual – a Bahai viewMarch 24, 2014
Recently I came across this Letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi:
“The Bahá’í conception of social life is essentially based on the subordination of the individual will to that of society. It neither suppresses the individual nor does it exalt him to the point of making him an anti-social creature, a menace to society. As in everything, it follows the ‘golden mean’. The only way that society can function is for the minority to follow the will of the majority.”
Letter on behalf of Shoghi Effendi, 21 November, 1935. Printed in 1973 in Directives from the Guardian.
This made me sit up because it is the individual, not the collective, that is “created in the image of God,” (See Genesis 1:27 or Some Answered Questions, pp. 195-197) and because the protection and priority given to minorities is characteristic of the form of democracy intended for a Bahai society. And that the spiritual priority of the individual, over all the structures that are created by and consist of various individuals, underlies many other Bahai teachings. For example:
Independent search after truth: “the faith of no man can be conditioned by any one except himself.” – Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 143 (click to view the source online)
No “original sin”: “Know thou that every soul is fashioned after the nature of God, each being pure and holy at his birth.” – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 189 (click to view the source online)
The law is a means to an end, not an end in itself: “The primary purpose, the basic objective, in laying down powerful laws and setting up great principles and institutions dealing with every aspect of civilization, is human happiness; and human happiness consists only in drawing closer to the Threshold of Almighty God, and in securing the peace and well-being of every individual” – Abdu’l-Baha, The Secret of Divine Civilization, p. 60 (click to view the source online)
While the priority of the individual is a strong principle, we also have the principle of majority rule in decision-making, when consultation has failed to form a consensus and the group needs to make a decision:
“unquestionably accepted by the entire body of the believers, not necessarily because they represent the voice of truth or the will of Bahá’u’lláh, but for the supreme purpose of maintaining unity and harmony in the Community. Besides, the acceptance of majority vote is the only effective and practical way of settling deadlocks in elections. No other solution is indeed possible.” From a letter written on behalf of the Guardian to an individual believer, July 10, 1939 (Published in Lights of Guidance in 1983)
“There is only one principle on which to conduct the work of an Assembly, and that is the supremacy of the will of the majority. The majority decisions must be courageously adopted and carried out by the Assembly, quite regardless of the opinionated adherence to their own views which any minority may cling to.” From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to an individual believer, November 20, 1941 (Published in Lights of Guidance, 1983)
But against this, there is the Bahai principle of positive discrimination:
“Since the Guardian’s instruction on this point is unequivocal where it is obvious that one of the persons involved represents a minority, that person should be accorded the priority without question. Where there is doubt further balloting will allow every voter present to participate.
“With reference to the provision in Article V of the National By-laws governing the situation where two or more members have received the same highest number of votes, if one of those members represents a minority that individual should be given priority as if selected by lot.” – Universal House of Justice addressed to the National Spiritual Assembly of the United States, January 25, 1967. (Published in Lights of Guidance, 1983)
You might notice that all the quotations concerning majority rule are from letters written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi, which the Universal House of Justice may take into consideration when it makes its own rulings, in line with Bahai Scripture, concerning Bahai policy. The role of the Bahai administration is to rule on new situations as much as to give structure to the worldwide Bahai community. So it could be that in some situations an LSA decides it is best to listen to the views from a minority in their midst, or to minority views and then to act accordingly, and this would not contradict Bahai teachings because Letters written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi do not form part of unchangeable Bahai Scripture.
Back to the initial phrase on this blog “to follow the will of the majority.” This implies that we cannot have a huge diversity of lifestyles or ways of perceiving the world. As Bahais we obey the authority of the institutions but that doesn’t mean we are not free to think or to take action. However this directive “to follow the will of the majority” refers to society in general and not the Bahai administration, and so implies that a ‘majority rules’ attitude is how Baha’is are expected to behave. The subordination of the individual will to that of society is akin to how communism evolved. Individuals were subordinate to the state and so the importance of individual conscience, responsibility and action was forgotten or suppressed. Baha’u’llah in contrast wrote: “Man is the supreme Talisman” (Gleanings From the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh, p. 346 (click to view the source)) – It is not the society or any group that is the supreme talisman.
Rather than treating the individual as subordinate to larger social groups, the Bahai teachings, as I see them, regard the individual as the root, and larger groups, from the family upwards, as the branches and fruit.
The Persian notes of a talk given by Abdu’l-Baha say “a family is composed of individuals, and a nation likewise is formed of individual persons.” (Khitabát-i-`Abdu´l-Bahá, Reprint Hofheim; Bahá´í-Verlag  p. 402. This translation here is by Sen McGlinn). So the freedom and development of the individual is the condition for the progress of the family, the nation and the world, and their first duty is to foster the freedom and development of the individual. Shoghi Effendi wrote:
“The unity of the human race, as envisaged by Bahá’u’lláh, implies the establishment of a world commonwealth in which all nations, races, creeds and classes are closely and permanently united, and in which the autonomy of its state members and the personal freedom and initiative of the individuals that compose them are definitely and completely safeguarded.”
(Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Baha’u’llah, p. 203)
It is the individual, not the collective, that is “created in the image of God.” The spiritual priority of the individual over all the structures that are created by and consist of various individuals is illustrated in many places in the Bahai writings. Some of these have been quoted above. I will close with two more:
The third candle is unity in freedom which will surely come to pass.
(Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 32)
So the unity that Abdul’-Baha refers to above implies that each of us exercises individual spiritual responsibility.
“Every age hath its own problem, and every soul its particular aspiration.”
– Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 213
Further reading: Sen McGlinn’s 2010 blog, Evolving to individualism which explains two different ways in which the Enlightenment and its fruits in Western societies can be viewed, in relation to the goal of building a Bahai society.