Thursday, June 28, 2007

Evident and Confirmed Confusion

Two unconscious assumptions underlie most Bahá’í declarations of the harmony of science and religion. One is that other religions would have to change their beliefs to accept this principle, and the other is that the Bahá’í Faith does not, because it is by definition in harmony with science. Yet, without knowing it, the happy souls that habitually deliver to their interlocutors the sloganized wisdom that religion without science is superstition are skipping through life believing something completely incompatible with science's understanding of evolution.

They know everything ‘Abdu’l-Bahá said is true. They know science and true religion are compatible. And they, like most people who believe in evolution, do not know much of anything specific about it.

If someone comes along to challenge this cozy smugness with a few details of natural selection and common descent they may, as one friend has recently done to me, say “I don’t want to talk with you about the Bahá’í Faith any more.” Of course they might also rise to the occasion and say that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was infallible in guiding the Faith, not in speaking on science subjects. This is probably the best that can be done with the situation.

Still, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá did not seem to see himself this way, and he swatted away evolution like a flea in his panties or a fly in his turban:

We have now come to the question of the modification of species and organic development— that is to say to the point of inquiring whether man’s descent is from the animal. This theory has found credence in the minds of some European philosophers and it is now very difficult to make its falseness understood. But in the future it will become evident and clear and the European philosophers will themselves realize its untruth, for verily it is an evident error.
Some Answered Questions, page 177.

He goes on to say that the world and specifically man are perfect as they are; therefore if they were different from how they are now they would not be perfect. And since existence must have the quality of perfection, it must always have been like this. This kind of merry-go-round logic takes you for a ride but gets you nowhere. And as if he realizes this, he contradicts himself later when he says,
Then it is clear that original matter, which is in the embryonic state, and the mingled and composed elements which were its earliest forms, gradually grew and developed during many ages and cycles, passing from one shape and form to another, until they appeared in this perfection, this system, this organization and this establishment, through the supreme wisdom of God.

Some Answered Questions, page 183.
That sounds a little promising, like there might be grounds for the Bahá’í claim to accept evolution. But ‘Abdu’l Bahá reiterates his rejection of the evolution of species in a letter:
Some of the philosophers of Europe think that one species evolves into another species. For example, that the animal evolved until it became a human being. But the prophets teach that this theory is erroneous, as we have explained already in the book Some Answered Questions.

Má’idiy-i Asmáni 2: 69; quoted in Keven Brown, “Are ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Views on Evolution Original?”, Bahá’í Studies Review 7 (1997), available at
Dance around with ‘Abdu’l Bahá’s other words and a grab bag of philosophical and scientific ideas all you want (as some writers have done), but to reject the evolution of novel species from other species is to reject evolution; that is what evolution is.

‘Abdu’l Bahá confuses the matter by employing human gestation as an analogy to describe the development of the human species, which he says changed without becoming a new species.
[M]an, in the beginning of his existence and in the womb of the earth, like the embryo in the womb of the mother, gradually grew and developed, and passed from one form to another, from one shape to another, until he appeared with this beauty and perfection . . . Thus it is evident and confirmed that the development and growth of man on this earth, until he reached his present perfection, resembled the growth and development of the embryo in the womb of the mother. . . . [M]an’s existence on this earth, from the beginning until it reaches this state, form, and condition, necessarily lasts a long time, and goes through many degrees until it reaches this condition. But from the beginning of man’s existence he is a distinct species.

Some Answered Questions, page 184.
In a blurry sort of way this analogy has been adopted as what most Bahá’ís seem to know as the Bahá’í position on human evolution. We evolved through many forms, but all those forms were in essence already human, like an embryo in a womb starts off as a single cell and ends up a baby, but is never a species other than human. But it is hard to say exactly what ‘Abdu’l Bahá was talking about. What was the original human form? How did it originate? What were the mechanisms of change?

‘Abdu’l Bahá made confused, ungrounded assertions. Evolutionary theory, by contrast, defines specific mechanisms of change that explain the concrete evidence of current life and the fossil record—and it leads to conclusions in conflict with ‘Abdu’l Bahá’s assertions. All species, including ours, descend from other species with modification primarily by natural selection acting on random variation.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá was a wonderful man, handsome as hell, funny, generous to the point of giving away the pants off his own body. He established a high-water mark for men’s hairdos as well as for flexibility, steadiness and compassion in guiding a neurotic and disorganized band of zealous converts. I’m sorry Shoghi Effendi has become the standard in the Bahá’í world for both men’s hair and administrative and compositional style.

But when it came to the subject of evolution, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was trying to walk with his sneakers tied together. The man didn't know what he was talking about and was very certain that he did. It is not possible to uphold his complete infallibility while accepting the validity of evolutionary biology. But trying to may make you a practiced intellectual contortionist.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Sing, Sing a Song

I once won a prize in an Indonesian beauty contest. Yes, I walked the catwalk with my face caked up beyond recognition and my hair sprayed and gelled to a smooth, crisp absurdity. The wide band around my waist, which rose to a sharp point between my breasts, was the sole fashion innovation of my get-up; my gratitude for that additional indignity goes to the host sister for whom I agreed to play pet person when I consented to participate.

The contest was the Pemilihan Puteri Sutera, or “selection of the princess of silk.” The event was kitschy and conventional, but the tradition of silk weaving in the city of Makassar (then Ujung Pandang) which it honored is exquisite. I was the only Westerner competing, to which I attribute my capture of the title “Favorite,” though I doubt a black American would have been so readily cherished. I’m glad I signed up; it makes a great memory—one of those things one gets into early in life due to an over-developed desire to give others what they want and an under-developed self-respect, resulting in infrequent use of the word “no.”

I had my revenge, though I didn’t really intend it that way. I was just trying to survive and be a sport at the same time. There is a tradition in Indonesia of asking people to sing for large groups impromptu. Especially guests. Especially important people. It is assumed that everybody can sing, has a song ready to go on short notice, and will oblige. Someone informed me backstage that I was expected to sing before the announcement of the winners. I am not a singer. I did not think I knew all the words to any single song that I could sing . . . except maybe one:

Down on the banks of the Hanky Panks,
Where the leap frogs jump from bank to bank,
With an eep, op, oop, op,
Eesophagilley and a
[Dramatic slurping noise]

A great American song. I had the words down solid and the tune to match, and I could sing it with confidence and gusto. So after being introduced with the gratuitous misinformation that I was very happy about the recent election of George Bush (senior) as my new president, I took the microphone in hand and, before a crowd of several hundred, did just that. A friend in the audience said my two host sisters were so mortified one almost left the room and the other looked ready to crawl under her chair. I loved them and felt a teeny weenie bit sorry for them. But, hey, my humiliation as a large, light-skinned toy had been on stage and very well lit. Maybe I did have a slight revenge pleasure in my song selection. It was just a hiccup in the contented lockdown of conventionality, a small intrusion of health and personhood. But sometimes a little disruption is appropriate.

I’m glad I signed up for the Baha’i Faith too. It saved my life by giving me much-needed personal structure at eighteen (about a year after the above story). And it continued a process, begun in Indonesia when I was living with a Muslim family, of getting over my atheism and reckoning with my own God-desire. But ultimately the Faith was party to my own near destruction, and getting out was one of the best decisions I ever made.

I don’t think my blog will have much effect on the pageant of the Baha’i Faith, but I’m gonna sing my little song anyway—even if it makes some people I love uncomfortable. There is too much control, certainty, delusion, and group-think in the Baha’i Faith, not enough reality-sense, play, open thought, and transparency. Individuals are too often used as the means to the triumph of the Faith, not cherished enough as the necessary, quirky, and particular revelations of God’s love that we are. Sometimes a little disruption is appropriate.