Do Something New: Attend A Baha’í Service

I can’t really remember the last time that I went to any kind of church service. It may have been May 2012, at my cousin’s wedding. It was shortly after that that I started my path down the atheist rabbit hole, studying the art of Felix Gonzalez-Torres and, eventually, falling out of my faith.

I’ve wondered what I’m missing out on. I grew up in the Catholic Church, but stopped trying in earnest to be a member of it before confirmation. I dabbled in paganism as a teenager, got a few steps into the process of converting to Judaism in my early adulthood, and eventually wound up getting confirmed in the Episcopal Church. And I yearn for that sense of support, sometimes, for the idea that there’s some unknowable force that’s got my back. I won’t lie, I’ve prayed and crossed myself just in case a few times, knowing that it was an empty gesture for me to make, whether or not God exists. It just feels good to go through the ritual.

I’m not one of those atheists who thinks that there is absolutely no possibility that I could be wrong. That would be in opposition to the spirit of scientific inquiry and in opposition to what history’s told us, which is that things we believe are impossible are not necessarily impossible. So I try to keep an open mind.

I decided to try going to a Baha’í service. The Baha’í faith believes that God has sent a line of divine educators to Earth, i.e. Abraham, Moses, Krishna, Buddha, Zoroaster, Christ, and Muhammad – and then, lastly, in the 19th century, Bahá’u’lláh, who founded the Baha’í faith. They believe that all religions worship the same god, and that is pretty dope, because it drives home their message of the unity and equality of all people. Some of their core tenets are that we should all be free of prejudice, that men and women are equal, and that faith, reason, and science are compatible.

And I decided to try attending a Baha’í service for a few reasons.  First, all of the above theology sounds pretty sympathetic and forward-thinking. Second, the Baha’í faith in America is centered at the (absolutely gorgeous) Baha’í House of Worship in Wilmette, Illinois, just a Purple Line ride away from me. I’ve been hearing that it’s worth the trip if only to go and see the structure itself, designed by Louis Bourgeois and dedicated in 1953, and the gardens and grounds. And it is beautiful. I probably could’ve just chilled out in the gardens and watched the waves coming in on Lake Michigan all morning – it’s right on the lakefront – and had as good a time or better.

I walked around the building first, and followed the architecture and the inscriptions over the doors. This is where I started to feel conflicted. The problem for me is in the experience of gut-level agreement/disagreement with the successive inscriptions around the outside of the building as well as in the auditorium. “The earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens” I can heartily agree with in my deepest intuition. But something like “I have made death a messenger of joy to thee. Wherefore dost thou grieve?” – that’s hard for me to stomach, because one of my biggest problems with religion is that major religions tend to be very death-oriented, taking our attention away from the world at hand and the things we can do to make it a better place and putting that attention toward what motions we individually need to go through to be saved when we die. And while I don’t think that was the intention of scripture – most of the religious texts I’ve studied have gone pretty hard on the topic of making the world better and acting right toward other people, and focused less intently on the topic of death – it leads to a lot of human judgment and pettiness, because despite our best intentions, human beings are very, very scared of dying.

Then there was the service, which was pleasant, although I couldn’t help but note that I was the only person there (the Baha’í faith only numbers 155,000 in America, and 5 million worldwide). It took about fifteen or twenty minutes, which felt good to someone who had to sit through ninety-minute-plus masses as a kid. It’s structured loosely; there are just a few prayers recited, and practitioners and visitors are welcome to come and pray or meditate in the auditorium whenever they wish.

But oh, the prayers. I had forgotten about what prayers sound like: “Pitiful are we,” “forgive thy servants,” “My God, my Master, the Goal of my desire,” “Thou, truly, art the Ever-Forgiving, the Most Compassionate,” “Thou hast created me to know Thee and to worship Thee.” I forgot about the supplication, the constant self-belittlement and the constant lavish praise given to the god. Despite the fact that there’s a lot about the Baha’í faith that makes it stand apart from the religious traditions from which it grew, there’s a lot of those religious traditions left, and, in my experience anyway, the Baha’í services aren’t tremendously dissimilar to Christian and Jewish services in terms of content.

I respect people who find purpose in that kind of supplication, but for me, my life turned around when I sloughed off my notions of what I owe to a higher power in the form of obligation, duty, and uncritical, leap-of-faith-type faith and I started respecting both myself and other people more fully. When I didn’t feel like I had to keep my promises or I’d burn in hell, I was able to go on and get a divorce from a man who was abusive and awful. When I didn’t feel like I had to be cis and straight in order to be a worthwhile human being, I was able to extend empathy toward myself and toward everyone else. When I wasn’t focused on the constant lavish praise I needed to give my god so that I could get saved when I die, I was able to start spending my life trying to think critically about solutions for the here and now.

I know that other people have a different experience of faith than I did. And ultimately, I think most people, regardless of their faith or lack thereof, are trying to be good, aiming for the same universal goals and values that make society stick together and falling more or less short of them. There is something really powerful about the Baha’í conviction that all gods are the same god inasmuch as everyone who decides on a set of basic principles by which to live their lives and earnestly makes an attempt to be “good” are pretty much doing the same thing. And that, at least, I can take away from the experience.
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