Baha'i Library Online

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COLLECTIONEssays and short articles
TITLEIs the Bahá'í Faith a "World Religion" or a "New Religious Movement"?
AUTHOR 1Denis MacEoin
AUTHOR 2Robert Stockman
AUTHOR 3Juan Cole
AUTHOR 4Will C. van den Hoonaard
CONTRIB 1Jonah Winters, ed.
ABSTRACTCompilation of emails about the socio-religious classification of the Bahá'í Faith.
TAGSBahá'í Faith, Sect, NRM or World Religion; New religious movements (NRM); World religions
In May 1997 a few people on the internet listserver Irfan, both Bahá'í and non-Bahá'í, discussed the appropriateness of including the Bahá'í Faith in the socio-religious classification of "New Religious Movement," NRM. The ten more useful of those postings, by Denis MacEoin, Seena Fazel, Robert Stockman, Juan Cole, Will C. van den Hoonaard, Stephen Friberg, and Ismael Velasco are included here. I have edited them slightly to remove some comments unrelated to the discussion and to proofread. All authors have approved this compilation.

The first two letters, from Denis MacEoin, discuss the nature of "New Religious Movements" versus "World Religions" and claims that the Bahá'í Faith is being disingenuous in claiming to be a "world religion." The third, from Seena Fazel, offers a contrary interpretation, claiming that by other criteria the Faith is a "world religion." Fourth, MacEoin responds to Fazel's objection. Fifth, Robert Stockman summarizes his own interpretation of the term "New Religious Movement." Following these are some related letters from a later discussion on the listserver H-Bahá'í. [-J.W.]

Letter One

Date: Fri, 9 May 1997
From: Denis MacEoin
Subject: Re: Bahá'í: NRM or World Religion?

Dear All,

Since [another academic] and I have coincidentally just agreed to start a thread on this very subject, let me come in here with a few remarks. As many of you will know, I have been arguing for years that it is more accurate to describe the Bahá'í faith as a New Religious Movement than a World Religion (especially "a world religion on a par with Christianity, Islam, etc."). I'll start the ball rolling with a citation from a recent discussion with [another academic].

[The other academic] said:

As to Stephen Lambden's recommendation that you call the Bahá' i Faith a world religion, at what point will you reconsider? At the centennial Olympic Games in Atlanta, there were 37 chaplains pastoral associates) selected to minister to the spiritual needs of the Olympic athletes. These chaplains were chosen to represent six world religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and the Bahá'í Faith. Over time, your refusal to recognize the Bahá'í Faith as a world religion may, in retrospect, underscore this tendency towards tendentiousness in your work.

To which I replied:

As far as the world religion bit goes, I really won't back down on this. The reason things like the Olympic Games chaplains happen is that the Bahá'ís have done a great PR job in convincing people that they are a world religion. But in what way does Bahá'í fit with Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, and Judaism? Numbers? There are at most 5 million Bahá'ís in the world (and probably a very great deal fewer). That puts them on a par with Jehovah's Witnesses or Mormons, and way out of the league of the rest. Time around? 153 years at most, if you include Babism. Again, not in that league. Influence on civilization? About as insignificant as it gets. Nation states adhering to that belief? Zero. To include Bahá'ísm as one of the world's 6 world religions is nonsense and very special pleading. There are no objective grounds for it. Bahá'ís would like to be members of a world religion, but that doesn't make it so.

End of that correspondence.

Let's take it a little further. Peter [Smith] is right to say that people like Eileen Barker don't treat Bahá'í as a NRM, because it ain't that new. But That doesn't mean I'm wrong to describe it as such. For one thing, I think sociologists have got themselves in something of a twist here, often using 1945 as a cut-off point before which there was nothing called a New Religious Movement. Now, there are reasons for working on that basis: the post-WWII period saw a remarkable burgeoning of NRMs. But that leaves us with the problem of what to do about earlier religious movements which do not comfortably fit the church, sect, denomination, brotherhood, gemeinschaft, or world faith categories. There are anomalies too: why is ISKCON treated as a NRM, when it might be more accurately classified as a sect of Hinduism? And why, for that matter, is Mormonism usually treated as a sect of Christianity, when it might qualify as a NRM? And so on.

I think some sociologists have had their judgement skewed by the cult factor. Books by people like Beckford on Cult Controversies (an excellent book, by the way) have tended to create a situation in which the public at large talk of cults, but sociologists talk of NRMs. In other words, NRM is a posh way of describing a cult. And cults tend to generate controversy. Since Bahá'ísm isn't seen as cultish or controversial, it gets declassified. That's another grave error. Bahá'ísm is extraordinarily controversial in Muslim countries, where it is treated exactly like a cult (sinister, operating through cells, brainwashing young people, etc. etc.). Just because Western sociologists still have a focus on Europe and America doesn't mean that perceptions from further afield can not be illuminating.

Having said all that, the debate about Bahá'í being a NRM or not is one that deserves to be carried on in wider circles. It's not the one I'm concentrating on here. In other words, while I do insist that it is nonsense to call the BF a world religion in any real sense, I don't insist on calling it a NRM. My problem is finding a more useful term. Certainly, it isn't a sect, church, or denomination. Unless somebody can come up with a better classification, NRM will have to serve. In any case, if we compare Bahá'í with some of the movements that are now regularly classed as NRMs, the resemblances are often striking. The Unification Church and Bahá'í have some extraordinary similarities, down to the style of their pamphlets and books, and the themes they express (world brotherhood, oneness of religions, etc.).

And I'm not sure Peter is altogether right when he says Bahá'ísm does not have the same features as other new movements. As I've just said, the resemblances to the Moonies are not minor. Everything depends on what you choose to emphasize and what ignore. There is no single type of NRM. There's a good summary of different typologies in the early pages of Roy Wallis's The Elementary Forms of the New Religious Life. It's not so much a case of fitting Bahá'ísm into one category or another, as seeing common features between it in different phases and other movements. That is particularly true when one brings in some of the other eastern religions that moved to the West in the late 19th C, early 20th C. Of course there are big differences between Bahá'ísm and, say, the Children of God.

I don't mean to push this element too far. I've always stressed that I think Bahá'ísm is the NRM most likely to develop into something more significant in the next fifty years or so (though the time-scale is pure guesswork), and that is because it does have features that make it more genuinely universalist in scope.

Just to reiterate. I'm not being deliberately churlish when I argue against Bahá'ísm being a world religion. There are no formal requirements for entry into the world religion club, but a quick glance at all existing member suggests certain common elements: you should be old (at least 1500 years), you should be the faith of at least one nation state, and preferably a great deal more, you should have created at least one major civilization, you should have a well-developed tradition (scriptures, commentaries, possibly a well-elaborated legal system with books of law, theological schools, philosophical schools, seminaries, etc.), you may be widespread (but need not be), and you should have a well-developed sense of dual tradition (i.e. versions of the 'orthodox' faith existing alongside folk belief in certain regions). The Bahá'í faith doesn't qualify at all. Even the widespread bit does not, frankly, impress me. It has been artificially generated through planned missionary enterprise, something quite common to a lot of modern religions like the UC, Mormonism, and Jehovah's Witnesses. The Brahma Kumaris movement has over 3000 centres worldwide, close links to the United Nations, a world headquarters, a Global Vision peace project backed by the UN, etc. Yet it only has about 250,000 members. Soka Gakkai, on the other hand, has about 16,000,000 members, branches in 115 countries, an international campaign for peace, a consultative role with the UN, and has only been going since 1930 (but really since 1945). Nowadays, becoming global isn't really that difficult.

I have, let me add, never denied that the status of the Bahá'í Faith in the eyes of believers is that of a world faith. But the idea that Bahá'ísm stands on a par with Christianity etc. is a theological formulation based on the idea that Bahá' Allah is the latest of God's prophets, not an academic calculation based on membership numbers or real social significance. It is precisely because Bahá'ís carry out a sort of deception in this respect that I feel compelled to counter the world religion pose. For example, does anyone know what percentage of the participants or audiences at the Olympic Games were Bahá'ís? I should think it was very few indeed. In which case, why should the Bahá'ís need chaplains more than, say, Sikhs or Transcendental Meditators (4,000,000 worldwide) or devotees of Santeria or Vodoun or Candoble, or lots of other groups? Merely, I imagine, because it's a status thing, and can be put in volumes of the Bahá'í World (or in pamphlets etc.) in order to impress people and enable the self-fulfilling prophecy to go a stage further.

To clarify further. For those of you coming very late to me and my controversies, my use of the term Bahá'ísm is an attempt to introduce to the widest possible use what I see as a neutral term. There is no reason to see it as pejorative, since analogues such as Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism, Judaism, or, increasingly, Mormonism are value-free. Bahá'í Faith, particularly with a capital 'F' is the official name for the religion, and should only be used in contexts where this is appropriate. This doesn't prevent use of Bahá'í faith, Bahá'í religion, and so on, but it does help avoid the awkwardness of always one phrase.

That makes me wonder if anyone knows what prompted the UHJ in 1966 to change the official name from Bahá'í World Faith to Bahá'í Faith. I seem to remember that the official explanation was that it avoided any confusion as to whether there was more than one BF: but on reflection that seems a very weak reason. Was something else going on then?

Sorry this has become a bit muddled. But it's an interesting topic and worth getting views on.

    Denis MacEoin

Letter Two

Date: Sun, 11 May 1997
From: Denis MacEoin
Subject: Re: Bahá'í: NRM or World Religion?

To my knowledge, the only NRM with a self-perception similar to that of Bahá'í is the Unification Church. Its followers see Moon's mission as that of establishing the Kingdom of God on earth, they think in terms of the fulfillment of earlier revelations, and so on. In practical terms, they are way behind the Bahá'ís in respect of numbers and influence (except in certain areas), although they are much better known by reason of their controversial reputation. Jehovah's Witnesses are, as is well known, wedded to a millenarian vision, with Jesus coming to transform the world into an earthly paradise which members will inhabit. This inhibits the idea of growth to become a universal faith (nor would the idea appeal in itself).

Just to follow that thought: I recommend reading Cantwell Smith's book, The Meaning and End of Religion. He talks about the growth of self-awareness among religions (Islam being, he argues, the first example of a religion that developed a sense of its self from the beginning, setting itself consciously in a line of revelation from Abraham on. The Bahá'í faith has this characteristic even more strongly, emerging from an Islamic context in its first phase. The later recognition of faiths like Buddhism or American Indian religion takes place in a different context, that of late 19th-Century/early 20th-Century consciousness of the idea of 'world religions'. (Islam thinks of revelations and, typically, of only divinely-revealed religions, with others as false, but modern Western conceptions encourage a wider acceptance of religions because they happen to be international or dominant.) That's why Bahá'ísm is the first religion to consciously see itself as a 'world faith' - it just wouldn't have made much sense before the 18th century, and really before the late 19th. If the BF had emerged in, say, the late Safavid period, it would almost certainly have developed as a small, heterodox group confined to the Middle East (and maybe Iran); appearing when it did (a theologian would say, when God decreed) it was able to transform its vision of prophecy fulfillment and the coming of God's latest prophet into a more pragmatic claim to be the latest and only uncorrupted world faith.

To follow that thought just a touch more. Religions which see themselves as exclusive vehicles for salvation will not see 'world religions' in a positive light. To a fundamentalist Christian (or Mormon, Jehovah's Witnesses, etc.), Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, etc. are all false faiths, the work of Satan, traps for the unwary etc. Given that understanding, it would never be their ambition to become that latest world faith.

This is why Bahá'ísm is interesting, and why I have always felt it has a better chance of long-term success than most other movements.

Brahma Kumaris sees itself as a spiritualizing movement rather than a world faith, although its origins are millenarian, and a millenarian theme runs through its Indian centres. It's always possible that at some point this millenarian strand could catch on in the West and provide an impetus for a wider missionary enterprise.

Mormons have a vision much closer to that of the Bahá'ís. They talk of a new prophet, a new dispensation, the coming of the Kingdom of God, setting up God's Kingdom through the organization of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints, preaching God's Word to all nations, and even becoming a world religion. They quote (interestingly) Tolstoy as saying: 'If Mormonism is able to endure, unmodified, until it reaches the third and fourth generations, it is destined to become the greatest power the world has ever known.' In quoting prophecies, they argue for very similar results to those predicted by the Bahá'ís: "Where then is the kingdom to which Daniel refers? It will not come all at once, but, founded by God and not by man, though it had a small beginning, it is destined to fill the whole earth."

Soka Gakkai is very popular, but it sees itself as a form of Buddhism rather than a new faith. Its influence within Japan is, of course, considerable, mainly through its political wing, Komei to (up to 1970), but that's very nation-specific.

What interests me is the number of groups emphasizing world peace, links with the UN, and so forth. I presume that Bahá'ís would see this as a token of growing peace awareness, building towards the Lesser Peace. I'd be very interested to know whether Bahá'í commitment to these issues has exercised an influence on these groups, or whether the whole thing is a broad expression of a general pattern. There's a research opportunity there!


Letter Three

Date: Mon, 12 May 1997
From: Seena Fazel
Subject: World Religion or NRM

The problem with this debate is that there are no agreed definitions in the sociology of religion of the term 'world religion', and some question the usefulness of the term 'world religion' altogether (the latter is Margit Warburg's view when I spoke to her about precisely this issue).

When I looked into some of the literature (summarised in my brief paper in JBS 6.1.1994), one of the few sociologists that suggested criteria was Peter Clarke:

    1. geographical distribution,
    2. socio-cultural diversity.

According to both these criteria, the label 'world religion' seems appropriate to the Bahá'í Faith today. The first criteria is fulfilled separately when one looks at changes in worldwide distribution of the Bahá'ís (Smith and Momen, 1989), their LSAs (Smith, 1987), and the number of countries in which the Bahá'í Faith has a "significant following" (Barrett, 1993). The second is also pretty convincing. In 1992, there were Bahá'ís from over 2100 tribes, races and ethnic groups, possibly only second to Christianity in its geographical distribution and ethnic diversity.

Thus I would view those religions of wide geographical distribution but confined to a single ethnic group, such as Jainism, Zoroastrianism, and Sikhism, not as world religions but dispersed ethnic religions.

Theological characteristics are also relevant. In an article by Timothy Fitzgerald ("Hinduism and the 'world religion' fallacy" in Religion 1990), he argues that there is "one crucial qualification" for a religion to become a world religion - "it must develop a universal message, a doctrine of salvation that is sufficiently transparent to be potentially available to adherents in a variety of cultural contexts". This ties in with the second criteria above - it is what enables a religion to emancipate itself from its socio-cultural origins.

I am not aware of any sociologists of religion that use chronology, nation states, civilizations, legal systems, or membership as criteria for world religion status.

As for NRMs, Denis MacEoin is right to point out some of the problems with definitions. Beckford in ER clearly states that it refers to a number of separate innovations that appeared in the 1960s in the West. Barker uses the Second World War as a starting point. Clarke also states 1945 for Europe, America and Japan, but earlier in Africa.

However the sociological characteristics of NRMs seem to be agreed by the specialists in the field. There are three necessary conditions:

    1. predominance of first generation believers
    2. presence of a living charismatic leader
    3. narrow socioeconomic (middle and upper middle class) and age (young adults) distribution of members.

As a worldwide phenomenon, the Bahá'í Faith does not fulfil any of these criteria. Added to the fact that it did not appear in the West post-1945, then it does not meet any of the criteria for NRMs.

Thus it is not surprising that none of the prominent sociologists of religion in the field of NRMs (Barker, Beckford, Wilson, Clarke, and Wallis) have included the Bahá'í Faith as an NRM in any of their published work. (And Melton does not call it a cult.)

My own approach is a flexible one - the Bahá'í Faith can be called an NRM in some parts of the world, e.g. Eastern Europe since 1989, but not in others, e.g. Iran, India, Malaysia, Egypt, Western Europe and North America. From living there for a bit, it looked like an NRM in the Gambia from 1950-57, but gradually changed so that when I was there in 1992, it was more like a small world religion (which is how it was treated by the government and church).

    Seena Fazel

Letter Four

Date: Tue, 13 May 1997
From: Denis MacEoin
Subject: Re: World Religion or NRM

Seena is perfectly right to say that a lack of agreed definitions causes problems in this area. Interestingly enough, Peter Clarke, one of the only sociologists/scholars of religion to provide an attempt at definition, would not take up my suggestion to include Bahá'í in his co-edited book The World's Religions (Routledge 1988). That volume (which was later broken into several discrete smaller volumes, published separately) ran to very nearly 1000 pages of solid text, making it probably the largest single work on the subject ever published, and containing some extraordinary refinements that allowed authors to treat in detail some previously obscure areas. As I remember it, Peter [Clarke] simply felt Bahá'í was too insignificant to merit coverage. I happen to think he was wrong in that assessment, but the fact that he (and, presumably, his co-editors) saw it that way is not unimportant.

Seena says:

I am not aware of any sociologists of religion that use chronology, nation states, civilizations, legal systems, or membership as criteria for world religion status.
Let's look at these a different way. They are undoubtedly common features of all the major world faiths. If we restrict ourselves to Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Judaism, then most of those features appear in all of them. If we're being very strict about it, then only Islam, Buddhism, and Christianity have all the features. But Hinduism gets in there because it has for a long time been the faith of a sub-continent, has been a massive influence on Indian (and some near-Indian) civilization, has a defined canon of scripture, schools of thought, etc. Judaism has played an important role in western civilization, is still experiencing a period of expansion (mainly in the form of Haredi movements), and so on. All these religions have a richness and texture that is missing from newer, thinner religions. I include Bahá'ísm in the latter, not because I don't think it stands out (I'll come to that in a moment), but because it really is lacking in the common features and in the richness that characterizes a very developed faith (where are Bahá'í theology, Bahá'í philosophy, literature, art, ritual, music, scholarship, mysticism, etc. ?). It is a thin religion, even if it has important and interesting features. The decision to embark on writing a Bahá'í encyclopaedia was, in my opinion, extremely premature (and the fact that the project was hijacked by fundamentalists is suggestive - that couldn't have happened to the Encyclopaedia Judaica or the Encyclopaedia of Islam, for example, simply because a much wider tradition of scholarship exists).

While we're on thinness: Seena's reference to 'tribes, ethnic groups' and so on is similar to the problem I've previously referred to about membership numbers, or the number of languages receiving Bahá'í literature. There may be high figures, but in most cases we're looking at a very thin range. How many of these tribes etc. are a strong presence within the Bahá'í community? In some cases a whole tribe may belong, in others one or two members. And I have real concerns about multiple allegiance.

All I'm trying to say here is that it's vital to create some sort of clarity in this situation. To say that the Bahá'í religion is a world faith on a par with Islam etc. is, whatever the arguments used to justify it, a nonsense on too many levels. If I could extract an admission of that from a few Bahá'ís I'd feel we were getting somewhere.

To admit that would allow us to look more carefully at where it should go. I've placed it among NRMs because I haven't found a better place. I agree that the Bahá'í faith doesn't fulfill some of the criteria for a NRM, like the three features noted by Seena

  1. predominance of first generation believers
  2. presence of a living charismatic leader
  3. narrow socioeconomic (middle and upper middle class) and age (young adults) distribution of members.)
But there is a problem here. Firstly, I don't think these are, as Seena, says 'necessary' conditions. The Rajneeshi movement remains a NRM despite the death of Bhagwan a few years ago. Scientology is still treated as a NRM although Ron Hubbard is dead. ISCKON is a NRM, but Prabhupada died in 1977. The same thing will be true of the Unification Church, TM and so on and on, in most cases within not many years.

Likewise with first-generation membership. There are already second- and third-generation members for sever al NRMs. And its worth saying that a lot of today's Bahá'ís are first- and second-generation (perhaps Peter Smith has some idea of the percentage). The generational depth of the Bahá'í community is not great, and in a context where there is no developed Bahá'í culture affiliation must be regarded as unstable. (What is the current status of some earlier areas of major growth like Uganda, Vietnam, or the southern United States?)

Finally, the socio-economic and age range isn't valid across all NRMs, and won't be true as they develop.

The mistake here is to see such movements as static, rather than in state of development. I consider Bahá'ísm to be the most developed NRM, and believe that some others will follow it.

Nevertheless, Seena's comments do fit in with some of the things I've said over the past few days. What we seem to need is a better system of classification which allows us to do justice to a sensible number of groups without distorting any one of them too much. I agree that Bahá'ísm isn't entirely happy within the NRM setting. One solution there is to expand the use of NRM to cover a larger range of movements, like Mormonism. Another may be to break down religions into world faiths (Islam, Christianity, Buddhism); major ethnic faiths ( Hinduism, Judaism, Sikhism; Daoism; Confucianism; Shintoism); minor ethnic faiths (Zoroastrianism, Jainism, Vodoun, Candoble, Santeria); minor global religions (Bahá'ísm, Mormonism); Sects; and New Religious Movements.

I'm not sure if that works very well, but it looks a bit better than anything looser.

Incidentally, the book edited by Clarke et al. referred to above is far from being the only book on world religions that does not include Bahá'í. I'd guess a good majority of general studies either don't include Bahá'í or mention it in passing. The few that do give it prominence are anomalies. Is that itself an indication that Bahá'í self-perception is out of step with wider perceptions, both academic and public?

Just looking over Peter [Smith]'s recent posting, I'd say he is saying something very similar to what I have suggested above, when he typifies Bahá'ísm as a 'small-scale world religion or religious movement.' Perhaps he'd like to comment.

Letter Five

Date: Wed, 14 May 1997
From: Robert Stockman
Subject: Re: World Religion or NRM

I largely agree with Denis about this world religion/new religious movement debate. The category "world religion" I had always assumed had been invented by Bahá'ís, and I am a bit surprised to hear some sociologists have used the term. It's very hard to define usefully. Nowadays almost all large religions are "world" religions in some sense, there being Japanese in Latin America, for example, whose Shinto ideas may be expressed in Spanish. Mass migration has mixed and spread the existing religions greatly.

As for "New Religious Movement," I have seen various chronological definitions offered. While some define a NRM as a religion starting after World War Two, others recognize many 19th century NRMs, like Mormonism. Chronological definitions of the term underline the difficulty of defining "New Religious Movement"; in many ways you can define it as something some people are too polite to call a cult! Considering the global nature of post-World War Two society, many NRMs are also incipient or small world religions as well. Consider the Moonies in the capital cities of Africa. The Unification Church is trying very hard to be a world religion in the same sense the Bahá'í Faith is trying; and while they have many fewer members, they also have more money, and a good number of scholars of their own with PhDs who teach at North American universities.

    -- Rob Stockman

Letter Six

Date: Sat, 21 Mar 1998 01:57:46
From: Juan Cole
Subject: world religions

I have the pleasure of agreeing with my colleagues ... and ... that the Bahá'í faith may be considered a world religion.

It seems to me, however, that such a proposition depends very much upon how the term is defined. There are some in religious studies who would deny the usefulness of the term "world religion" altogether, seeing it as an Orientalist privileging of a few traditions with a strong textual underpinning that slights equally vigorous and important traditions such as African religion, which remained largely oral. I personally think the term is useful, and that objections to it can be met by showing how there are many different types of world religion.

Said Amir Arjomand in his Shadow of God and the Hidden Imam, p. 1, says, "Twelver Shi'ism, as a branch of Islam, can be fruitfully considered a "world religion" as conceptualized by Weber--that is, as an autonomous intellectual patter or belief system, which is embodied in meaningful social action and enfolded in sentiments."

N. Ross Reat and Edmund Perry, A world theology: the central spiritual reality of humankind (Cambridge University Press, 1991) also argue that there are ways of defining the term 'world religion' so as to include phenomena such as the Bahá'í faith, Sikhism, Taoism, and so on. They think that orientation toward a transcendent reality, the existence of particular sacred narrative, myth and symbology, and a missionary sensibility or at least a sense of mission among humankind, are all important factors to the definition. Because they stress a desire to convert others and a universal mission, Reat and Perry include the Bahá'í faith among the world religions, but exclude Hinduism!

It has in fact been argued that the Bahá'í faith is not a world religion in the sense of deserving an objective place among the great world faiths that include Judaism, Christianity, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam. Those following Karl Jaspers have noted that of these traditions all but Islam originated or were classically formulated in the period 600 B.C. to the first century A.D. I suppose from a Jasperian point of view one could talk about the Long Axial Age 600 B.C.-622 A.D. so as to include Islam. During this millennium, the old pagan, polytheistic religious systems gradually began to be supplanted by "prophetic" religions. Obviously, the Bahá'í faith does not fit in with what might be called the Axial world religions, or the Classical Large World Religions. They typically are old, and with the exception of Judaism and Zoroastrianism have hundreds of millions (if not a billion and more) followers. Alongside these large, civilizational phenomena may be set traditions that developed in the Axial Age but which did not garner really large numbers of adherents, for all their importance in world religious history--Jainism, Taoism, Manichaeanism, and so forth. (Zoroastrianism is significant in being now tiny but having once been the major religion of Iran and some neighboring regions such as Armenia).

If we combined Weber and Reat and Perry, and attempted to build on Jaspers, I think we may posit the existence of a new set of small, relatively recent world religions that have emerged in the early modern and modern periods--Sikhism, Mormonism, the Bahá'í faith, the Ahmadiyyah, and some others. Several of these are post-Islamic in the sense of having emerged in a milieu that was Muslim or highly influenced by Islam. Their number of adherents ranges from a few million to about 20 million, and none dates from before the sixteenth century.

Of course, it is the goal of the new, small world religions to become established and large. Sikhism (about 20 mn.), Mormonism (9 mn.), and the Ahmadiyyah (10 mn.) all appear to be doing better numerically than the Bahá'ís, who claim around 5 mn. (a number I personally think inflated). In Western Europe, countries such as Holland, Spain, Belgium and others have Bahá'í communities of only a few hundred or at most thousand. These are just not significant, and in a Western European context it would be absurd to see the Bahá'í faith as somehow having the same standing as Christianity, Judaism or Islam (Indeed, there are almost certainly more Hindus and Buddhists in most Western European countries than Bahá'ís). It remains to be seen which of these new world religions can make the jump to 100 million members in the next century or two.

I think the category of a second axial age and the emergence of a new set of religions in the era of modernity helps make sense of the current situation. It provides a way of talking about world religions that does not attempt to put a small, new faith on exactly the same footing as a huge old one. Note that it also distinguishes the older, 19th century traditions from the New Religious Movements of the '60s, and so accords with my own feeling that the Unification Church, Rajneeshism, the Divine Light Mission, the Society for Krishna Consciousness and other phenomena new on the American scene should be seen as analytically distinct. (On the other hand, I think some of the new world religions reacted to the '60s and '70s in ways analogous to the New Religious Movements).

I don't believe that "recognition" is particularly important in deciding what is a world religion. The Bahá'ís were chosen to consult with the World Bank as part of a long-term process that will also bring in the Sikhs and Taoists (in whose company the World Bank announcement put the Bahá'ís).

Both the latter groups are much larger than the Bahá'ís (and even just in North America claim comparable numbers). I think it is wonderful that the World Bank, which for too long was fixated on per capita income figures, is beginning to take spiritual values more seriously, and obviously the Bahá'í scriptures offer very powerful spiritual insights for modernity and postmodernity. But deciding what is and is not a world religion can't be done on such contingent grounds.

    Juan Cole
    University of Michigan

Letter Seven

Date: Wed, 25 Mar 1998
From: Will C. van den Hoonaard
Subject: Re: Is the Bahá'í faith a world religion?

The discussion on how one goes about defining a "world religion" brings up a variety of important research issues. The social context of the discussion requires some exploration and I would like to present a different angle to this discussion. I find the discussion more revealing about how claim-makers go about constructing their claims than about the nature of this or that religion as a "world religion."

I apologize, in advance, for what seems like a tangential argument.

For one thing, the whole discussion reflects a positivistic approach to the study of religion. Why positivism has such an appeal is in itself quite fascinating. Why is religious studies (as a discipline) so attached to such a model of research? The on-going debate about whether this or that religion is a "world religion" reflects more the perspective of those who engage in the process of definition than the phenomenon being defined. Don't misunderstand me--I am not a postmodernist and I do find the arguments, whether to define or not to define the Bahá'í Faith as a world religion, to contain some intriguing and useful insights.

Second, anyone who engages in the process of defining things, should realize that definitions are about power relationships and social control. Authorities and experts have the means--and have been given those means-- to define or bestow legitimacy on things in their purview. Such agents of social control touch what gets defined as crimes, social problems, some medical problems, and, presumably, what constitutes a world religion. Members of minorities or of groups affected by such definitions will often seek the "best" definition from the highest level of expert or authority to booster their position. In some respects, the discussion about "world religion" parallels the older discussion about whether the Bahá'í Faith is a "sect."

Third, we should remember that attempts at definition do not alter the inherent nature of the thing being defined. The reality of the Bahá'í Faith (or of any other religion, I must assume) does not change for me as a Bahá'í, just because the Brittanica makes a pronouncement about it.

Fourth, even as a sociologist, although I find the discussion on "world religion" interesting insofar it tells me about the hidden agenda that people bring into the discussion, I do not find that discussion really tells me how members of that religion experience the Bahá'í Faith. I guess it is not the "fact" whether or not the Bahá'í Faith is a world religion that interests me, but it is the perspectives of those who do the defining, the hierarchy of credibility, the meanings that people attach to what they say and do, that carries the day, for me. So, in this light, one can glean some sociological significance from what "claim-makers" are saying.
    With my warm regards, Will

Letter Eight

Date: Wed, 25 Mar 1998
From: Stephen R. Friberg
Subject: Is the Bahá'í faith a world religion?

Dear Friends:

Is the Bahá'í faith a world religion? I've been asked for my opinion on this question.

Rather than giving my opinion, I have developed a set of relevant criteria to apply to this question. I then argue that any reasonable use of these or other similar relevant criteria shows the Bahá'í faith to be a world religion.

I draw the criteria from studies of religions, from modern organizational practice, and from studies of complexity. In this day, we are vastly experienced with organization on a global scale: government, military, science, trade, environmental issues, communications, transportation, and media all transcend national and continental borders. Definitions of world religion that will not quickly lose their meaningfulness must be informed by this experience, as well as scientific insight into global phenomena.

I suggest the following criteria as relevant:
  1. Global dispersion. To what extent is there a presence over the globe?

  2. Cultural dispersion. To what extent does a religion transcend cultural, tribal, national, and social boundaries?

  3. Global consciousness. To what extent does a religion consciously view itself as having significance for global issues?

  4. Global expansionism. Is a religion actively seeking to expand globally?

  5. Co-ordination. Are activities in various diverse localities coordinated or not?

  6. Integration. To what extent are various parts aware of and responsive to other parts. (Perhaps this might be combined with co-ordination.)

  7. Religious pluralism. To what extent is a religion exclusivistic, inclusivistic, or pluralistic? (I.e., to what extent does it accept the validity of differing religious traditions?)

  8. Numerical strength. How many adherents are there and at what level of participation?

  9. Vitality. To what extent is a religion growing or shrinking? Are its ideas viewed as regressive or progressive?

  10. Relevance. Does the religion provide viable answers to pressing short term and long term social issues? On individual, community, national, and international levels?

  11. Cultural production. To what extent does the religion contribute to the arts, literature, music, and intellectual endeavors?

    [No doubt there are other relevant criteria I have left out. If so, I would appreciate hearing of them. Also, some of the criteria I have mentioned might be profitably collapsed into each other, and surely they all need more extensive discussion.]
Using these criteria, we can quickly evaluate the Bahá'í faith. I assume broad familiarity with the faith, its teachings, and its global functionings, and so do not go into detail.

For *all* criteria except criteria (h) [numerical strength] and (k) [cultural production], the Bahá'í faith ranks either very high or the highest in relationship to other faiths. For example, the faith is second in global dispersion to Christianity [criterion (a)] and culturally extremely broadly dispersed, probably second only to Christianity [criterion (b)]. As to global - consciousness [criterion (c)], it is clearly first, due in no small part to its recent origins, active pursuit of world unification, and its embrace of modern education, scholarship, and science. For global-expansionism [criterion (d)], it is probably on par with the most active of the other faiths.

From the viewpoint of co-ordination and integration, [criterion (e) and (f)], the Bahá'í Faith maintains a clear advantage both through its unity and [admittedly still nascent] administrative structure. In terms of religious pluralism [criterion (g)], the Bahá'í faith is well ahead of other faiths. The faith is also extremely vital [criterion (i)] both as to growth, (the last 20 years have seen, averaged for quiet periods, exponential growth) and in terms of progressiveness (its embrace of the equality of women and men, democratic grass roots administration, elimination of clergy, the embrace of science, education, and technology, concern for the preservation of local customs, environmental activism, concepts of world citizenship, participation in global UN activities, etc.). Relevance [criterion (j)] is similarly high: the Bahá'í faith has the most clearly defined and enunciated vision for the future of any of the faiths.

As for numerical strength, the Encyclopedia Britannica gives 5.7 million Bahá'ís in its 1994 Yearbook. This is not numerically large. Indeed, it no doubt overestimates the number of Bahá'ís. However, the numbers given for other faiths probably wildly overestimate their numerical strength, as typically they are arrived at by assuming large homogeneous adherence to a traditional faith even when that adherence may have eroded substantially in response to modernization and urbanization. So, the *relative* numerical strength of the faith with respect to other faiths is probably maintained. Both numerical strength [criterion (h)] and cultural production [criterion (k)] are typical of mature, older faiths, whereas the Bahá'í faith is young, immature and weak in these categories.

From the evaluation of the criteria for a world religion outlined above, the Bahá'í Faith is uniformly strong in all categories except numerical strength and cultural production. Therefore, I conclude that calling the Bahá'í Faith a world religion is quite appropriate, although it is not yet a world religion of the stature of Christianity or Islam. This conclusion, because broadly based on a variety of criteria, is probably insensitive to reasonable changes in the choice of criteria or their weighting.
    Yours sincerely,
    Steve Friberg

Letter Nine

Date: Tue, 31 Mar 1998
From: Stephen R. Friberg
Subject: Re: Is the Bahá'í faith a world religion?

Dear Friends:

The discussions on world religion and the Bahá'í faith have been rich, fascinating, and sometimes eloquent. For example, Todd Lawson characterized world religions as
'systems' of motifs, symbols, cognitive strategies, [and] definitions . . . that manage to be adopted over a widely diverse and variegated linguistic, cultural and geographic domain [that define and represent] distinctive and coherent world[s] or universe[s] of discourse."
Tony Lee described how a world religion
can create a central body of belief which is not tied to a particular cultural expression. [It can] translate itself into widely different cultural contexts without losing a distinguishing identity.
This, he writes, is what differentiates world religions from local cults, ethnic religions, and tribal religions.

Both comments, to my mind, capture some of the essence of what makes the study of world religions, and the Bahá'í Faith, so compelling and interesting.

Two important criteria for defining a world religion were clearly in many people's minds and missing from my list: historical significance (or historical rootedness) and temporal persistence.

Methodological concerns played a prominent role in many comments. On one hand, there was concern whether or not the correct criteria were being deployed, on the other hand there was concern whether or not the deployment of criteria was useful.

My approach with regards to methodological issues is that recommended by the pluralistic Bahá'í scholarly paradigm: we should be cognizant of the need for and the appropriateness of many diverse methodological approaches.

Exclusivistic claims that one particular methodological approach, be it that of organizational studies, physics, demographics, critical theory, religious studies, history of religion, or sociology of religion, provides the one correct approach to understanding religion are, in my opinion, unwarrantable. Similarly, inclusivistic claims that privilege one particular methodological approach, fail, in my opinion, to grasp the manifold dimensionality of religion, essentially caricaturizing it by portraying it in a severely restricted depth. A wholehearted, open embrace of a fully pluralistic intellectuality, I am convinced, is necessary to the task of understanding religion and its significance.

This, to my mind, implies that the criteria for the definition of what is meant by a world religion are best drawn from many disciplines.

Is the use of criteria useful? positivistic? essentialistic? These are fascinating question, and I could happily spend several weeks arguing the pros and cons.

Briefly, I find several arguments convincing. First, I think that consciously or not, everyone use criteria and engages in judging, even postmodernists. The important thing is to be aware of what those and other criteria are, and then to *consciously* use them in an intelligent way. Second, I accept the intellectual pluralist argument: rejection of the use of criteria is an exclusivistic strategy, essentially dismissing as invalid or corrupt those approaches that employ them.


Below, I briefly outline some of the responses to the criteria I suggested as relevant:
    (a) Global dispersion. To what extent is there a presence over the globe?

    There was general but not universal agreement that this was an appropriate criterion.

    (b) Cultural dispersion. To what extent does a religion transcend cultural, tribal, national, and social boundaries?

    This was quite often thought to be the relevant criterion for defining what is meant by world religion, but sometimes was contrasted to the idea that world religions were what the religious studies community designated as world religions.

    (c) Global consciousness. To what extent does a religion consciously view itself as having significance for global issues?

    This received very little comment, apparently being viewed as being too current (of the last two hundred years) to be relevant. This in turn seems to be a reflection of a strongly historical interest in religion for many members of H-Bahá'í.

    (d) Global expansionism. Is a religion actively seeking to expand globally?

    This criterion met with mixed reviews. On one hand, it was viewed as being valid [evidently with criteria (a) and (b)], but it was also thought to go against the obvious fact that Judaism and Hinduism were world religions, despite not being expansionistic.

    (e) Co-ordination. Are activities in various diverse localities coordinated or not?

    This [and criterion (f)] did not feature prominently in the replies. One person noted that it seems to be characteristic of "bureaucratic" traditions.

    (f) Integration. To what extent are various parts aware of and responsive to other parts. (Perhaps this might be combined with co-ordination.)

    This and criterion (e) are commonplace in modern organizational thought and are closely related to what is meant by "global" phenomena in the physical sciences (for example, when water freezes, motions and fluctuations become "global" in nature, rather than local) or by phenomena such as the global circulatory system characteristic of biological entities.

    (g) Religious pluralism. To what extent is a religion exclusivistic, inclusivistic, or pluralistic? (I.e., to what extent does it accept the validity of differing religious traditions?)

    The religious pluralism criteria seemed to be implicit in most of the comments (folded into the concept of embracing diverse practices, for example) as opposed to being explicit.

    (h) Numerical strength. How many adherents are there and at what level of participation?

    There was general agreement that the first part of this criterion was valid, whereas the second part was generally not commented on.

    (i) Vitality. To what extent is a religion growing or shrinking? Are its ideas viewed as regressive or progressive?

    These quantifiable concepts were generally not commented on.

    (j) Relevance. Does the religion provide viable answers to pressing short term and long term social issues? On individual, community, national, and international levels?

    Little or no comment. [Relevance appears, in general, to be viewed as irrelevant. :>) ]

    (k) Cultural production. To what extent does the religion contribute to the arts, literature, music, and intellectual endeavors?
Seemed to be implicit in many people's historical definitions of world religion.


For more discussion on this topic, I suggest Seena Fazel's excellent article in the Journal of Bahá'í Studies 6.1, page 1.
    Yours sincerely,
    Stephen R. Friberg

Letter Ten

Date: Tue, 31 Mar 1998
From: Ismael Velasco
Subject: Re: Defining world religions

Dear all,

I have not had a chance to read all messages on this thread, but would like to offer a tentative model for defining world religions.

First, it is to note that the concept may be used at three levels:
    1) Phenomenologically: That is how the believers themselves understand their concept and its applicability to themselves. Thus, Bahá'ís have been saying they are am independent or major world religion for a very long time, chiefly on theological grounds. A distinction could in this connection perhaps be made between what sociologists call official and non-official religion. The first, conveyed through authoritative texts and institutions seems to endorse, very clearly especially since the time of Shoghi Effendi, the character of the Faith as a major world religion. Whether this motif plays such an important part, or is even present at all in the consciousness of many believers in mass expansion areas would be an interesting question to research. At any rate, the usage at this level may be said to be more or less fuzzy when trying to compare between religions, as they may each understand the concepts differently.

    2) Politically: This refers to the degree to which recognition of the status 'world religion' is conferred upon a religious community by political institutions, ranging from the local to the global level. At this level a religion is a 'world religion' to the extent to which its status as such has been accepted by the powers that be, leading to certain privileges and positive discrimination in a number of areas, including the law, visibility and access to information and the mechanisms of power.

    Levels 1 and 2 are relatively fuzzy, the concept world religion being merely one of many in use (recognised religion, independent religion, or on the other side cult, sect, new religion, etc.) Comparability and objective estimates are thus likely to remain highly approximate and unclear in many cases.

    3) Sociologically: This seems to be the area we are primarily focusing on. It is clear that at this level there is a plurality of available models, and the models chosen often reflect criteria properly belonging to the previous two levels. Thus, believers who consider themselves, a priori or on theological grounds, a world religion, however defined, will often favour sociological models that validate their perception, leading to increased recognition at the political level. On the opposite side, non-believers hostile to the idea of oplitical recognition being granted to a given religious group will be likely to favour sociological models that undermine the phenomenological status of a Faith as a world religion. In between may be found a spectrum of responses.
At this third level, and in the light of this and previous discussions of the subject, I would like to suggest an approach that might have some good descriptive potential. The approach is based on the following polarities:
    Global (world)-Ethnic (regional)
    Religion-Religious Section

1) Religion-Religious Section

The criterion for this polarity is primarily self-understanding. A religion is a religious grouping which perceives itself as co-extensive with the religious community and, where applicable, sees itself as a religion in contrast to a religious section. The Bahá'í Religion is co-extensive with the Bahá'í Community, and although theologically there might be room for seeing Bahá'ís outside the community, or the Bahá'í Faith as a section of the Changeless Faith of God, or as the vanguard of a broader God-propelled movement towards the maturation of humanity, at most levels, and for heuristic purposes the description may be said to apply. A religious section is a religious grouping which sees itself primarily as part of a wider movement or religious community of which it may perhaps be the vanguard or harbinger, but not the terminus. Many groups usually included in "New Age", as well as a lot of neo-paganists, etc. would fall into this bracket, as would denomination or sects of Religions, such as Catholicism, Ahmadiyya, etc. Needless to say, the notion of two poles implies a range of possibilities between them, and the critaria may apply more clearly to some groups than to others, with some being reasonably placed in the middle, such as perhaps the Unification Church, which has a less pronounced sense of discontinuity with Christianity than, for instance the Bahá'í faith from Islam or Christianity from Judaism, but which nevertheless remains self-consciously distinct enough to suggest a break with the past.

2) Global (world)-Ethnic (regional)

The criteria for this polarity are dispersion and representativeness. A religion is global which is spread around a majority of the countries in the world, and which includes in its membership a high (over 50% approx.) proportion of the ethnic and national diversity of the planet. A religion is Ethnic (regional) when its spread is in a minority of the countries of the world and its composition is more or less homogenous compared to the world's ethnic and national diversity. In this light the Bahá'í Faith would be a world religion, being quite close to the Global pole and understanding itself as a religion. Jainism would be an ethnic religion, being neither widely spread nor diverse, but understanding itself as a religion. Sikkhism and Judaism might be somewhere near the middle of the spectrum but still on the Ethnic half of it.

3) Major-Minor

The criteria for this pole consist of numerical strength and age. A religious community which is very old (over 1000 years old) and very numerous (counting its membership in tens of millions) is Major, whereas a relatively young and numerically weak community is Minor. Islam and Christianity would in this light rank as Major World Religions, Judaism as a Major Ethnic Religion, the Bahá'í Faith as a Minor World Religion, Zoroastrianism as a Minor Ethnic Religion. Sikhism, again would probably be somewhere intermediate, possibly on the Minor half of the spectrum, but close nevertheless to the Major side.

The purpose of this model is primarily analytical, to enable meanigful comparisons between the various religious groupings, and is not a direct measure of levels 1 (phenomenological) and 2 (political), although sometimes there may be an overlap.

According to this model the Bahá'í Faith is phenomenologically a world religion (whatever that may mean at this level), politically perhaps a budding but not established world religion , and sociologically a minor world religion.
    With love,
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