5 December 2007
San Jose, California
Having recently read Moojan Momen’s paper “Marginality and Apostasy in the Bahá’í Community” in the journal “Religion”, I believe that I see a general flaw in the paper. It appears that the cases that Dr. Momen cites to support his thesis are by and large unsupportive of that thesis. This observation is based principally upon the information that Momen provides, though my own experience does enter into it.
In the interest of fair—if not full—disclosure, I was a Bahá’í until 1988, retained my membership for another decade, and have been a somewhat outspoken—though less than outstanding—apostate over the decade since. I have visited the Internet forums to which Dr. Momen refers irregularly since April 1996, and I moderate the Yahoo! ex-bahai discussion group, so I have had some contact with most of the characters to which Dr. Momen refers, but I have never met any of them in person.
Dr. Momen specifies a particular, rather unorthodox working definition for the term “apostate” in his paper: apostates are the subset of the group of people who would typically be called apostates who are
- Involved in contested exits, and
- Affiliated with an oppositional coalition.
I ask that the reader consider this definition while reviewing Momen’s accounts of “apostates”, though the definition itself may be somewhat ambiguous.
Dr. Momen enumerates his conclusion in six points, though one of the six appears to be twofold. Following are those points that will not be addressed herein (some have been trimmed or summarized for brevity):
- The majority of Bahá’í apostates have characterized the Bahá’í Faith as a cult, and have been partially successful in doing so.
- What apostates and dissidents see as bad can be seen by mainstream Bahá’ís as good. For example, what apostates see as authoritarianism in the Bahá’í Faith can be seen by “core members” as guidance.
- The Internet has enabled apostates and dissidents to form a community, and to a degree, to organize.
- Although in fact only one of the apostates currently holds an academic post, apostates have been very successful in their use of the academic media to present their views. Several have published books and articles in respectable venues.
- If religious movements want to avoid apostasy, they must act at an early stage in this process.
I do not wish to address these specific assertions. I do not intend to discuss whether the Bahá’í Faith is a cult or not, or to debate the extent to which the Bahá’í Faith is exclusivist, authoritarian, or paternalistic. I do acknowledge that a number of Bahá’í apostates and dissidents have enjoyed some success in their efforts, often enabled by the Internet, but I don’t see the point in evaluating the extent of their success.
As for the last point (5) it seems as reasonable as saying “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” though it appears that Dr. Momen is going further and advocating early and active resistance to marginal believers and apostates. If that is the case, he is not concise enough for his assertion to be addressed in a serious manner.
Those points aside, we are left with two points which attempt to characterize the phenomena of dissidence and apostasy as they pertain to the contemporary Bahá’í community:
- The apostates have created an apostate mythology, with its own heroes and anti-heroes. This mythology, when combined with the apostate issues, which form something of a creed that is regularly recited; the ‘captivity narratives’ are the equivalent of salvation or conversion stories; and the medium of the Internet, creating a community, amounts almost to the creation of a religion of its own. One could call it an ‘implicit religion’. But since this ‘religion’ has no independent life and exists only to oppose, it would perhaps be more accurate to call it an anti-religion.
- … the road that leads to apostasy is usually a long one. Clashes with the central authorities in the religion over positions, actions or strategies lead to the build up of ressentiment, which is expressed in ways that, in the Bahá’í community at least, leads to further clashes. Frustration leads to marginality and in turn to rejection of the religion. The accumulated hostility can then lead to apostasy…
These assertions are not obviously representative of real Bahá’í apostate communities, and must be tested against real world observations.
The Twelve Apostates
Dr. Momen mentions 17 individuals in various degrees of variance from the mainstream Bahá’í community, one of which is an enrolled but marginal Bahá’í. Twelve to fourteen are considered apostates by Momen. A number of these, however, claim to be Bahá’ís, but are probably willing to accept the “marginal” label.
Here I review the primary examples that Dr. Momen provides, and attempt to determine the extent to which each conforms to Momen’s thesis.
1. K Paul Johnson
I begin chronologically with K Paul Johnson, a young Bahá’í who resigns his membership at age 20. Twenty years later he becomes a well-known author on theosophy, known for his critical but non-antagonistic research on Madame Blavastsky.
After he became established as a theosophical historian, Mr. Johnson introduced himself to the online academic Bahá’í community in the mid-1990s, seeking assistance for a forthcoming book addressing Bahá’í history. Dr. Momen accuses Mr. Johnson of “attacking core Bahá’í beliefs”, but provides no example nor even a specific reference wherewith to validate this accusation. Still, we may allow that Mr. Johnson has criticized Bahá’í beliefs: would this information support Momen’s thesis? Would it establish that Johnson is a case of ressentiment, or someone who conforms to a community myth? No, it would only establish that Johnson has criticized Bahá’í beliefs.
Mr. Johnson has not made himself known as an outspoken antagonist of the Bahá’í Faith, but thanks to Dr. Momen, Mr. Johnson may very well have that reputation from now on.
Having myself interacted with Mr. Johnson in recent years, I have found him notably disinclined to debate with Bahá’ís. He is far from an object example of Dr. Momen’s thesis. There is no known period of marginalization, and no visible expression of hatred or envy that might be born of ressentiment. Given what I have seen, I am inclined to believe that Momen did not do adequate research on Johnson. For example, Momen’s assertion that Johnson “could be called a serial apostate” seems to have no basis whatsoever.
2. Francesco Ficcicchia
Dr. Momen credits this Swiss apostate with giving the Bahá’í Faith the reputation of a cult in Germany. Dr. Momen claims that Mr. Ficcicchia was marginalized before his apostasy, but Momen does not support this assertion. He states that Ficcicchia “had been a Bahá’í from 1971 to 1974, when he declared to his former fellow Bahá’ís that ‘you will from now on have me as an embittered enemy who will fight you with all possible means at every opportunity’”. This sudden, angry opposition does not represent a pattern of apostasy emerging from marginality. It appears more like an epiphany. As for whether any apostate community or associated myth applies to Ficcicchia’s case, Momen admits that it does not. Ficcicchia was not a member of any marginal community or coalition.
3. Denis MacEoin
I remember hearing of Mr. MacEoin as a young Bahá’í. He was the only apostate that I was aware of, other than yours truly. I remember wondering whether I had acquired a “MacEoin syndrome”.
Dr. Momen states that Dr. MacEoin “departed after clashes with the Bahá’í administration.” This tells us that MacEoin may have become unhappy with the Bahá’í administration, and even the religion itself, before he disavowed it. But was his exit contested?
MacEoin was a professor of Islamic studies, and his disagreements with the Bahá’í leadership were not, however, a typical matter of personal marginalization, but rather a matter of academic controversy. Momen admits that MacEoin, like Ficcicchia, was not part of a group of dissidents or an oppositional coalition. Though both of these men are apostates, they are not apostates by Momen’s formal definition, and certainly do not fit his model.
Dr. Momen submits no argument that either Mr. Ficcicchia nor Dr. MacEoin supported a myth of lost innocence or administrative usurpation. Their criticism of the Bahá’í Faith appears all too fundamental, comprehensive, and personally conceived to fit any such mythology. Perhaps the next generation of dissidents and apostates will better fit Momen’s model.
4. Juan Cole
Yet another respected scholar and author, Dr. Cole “voiced concerns about certain aspects of Bahá’í administration”, and upon being confronted by the Bahá’í leadership, resigned his membership amid much debate and controversy, but before long turned his attention to world affairs. I see him often on TV, discussing the Iraq war as an expert-for-hire. Again, this is not a picture of all-consuming ressentiment. This man, hardly a marginal sponge for community myths, has moved on. It seems to me that Dr. Momen ought to have recognized this, and left Professor Cole out of the picture.
5. William Garlington
Mr. Garlington is an Ex-Bahá’í author who, as far as I am aware, is not associated with a community of apostates, and Dr. Momen does not indicate anything to the contrary. Momen asserts than Garlington presented a biased weighting of the issues of the American Bahá’í community in his book The Bahá’í Faith in America, but he makes no claim that Garlington ever made any false statements or exibited any envy, hatred, or any other behavior that might be born of ressentiment.
6. Eric Stetson
Mr. Stetson was a Bahá’í for several years as a young man, then became known for supporting ex-Bahá’ís and uncertain Bahá’ís and promoting Christianity. Though his web site has a good deal of content that is critical of the Bahá’í Faith, it is not written in a hateful or a vengeful way. Furthermore, Mr. Stetson is not an active critic of the Bahá’í Faith, but has put his efforts into promoting Christian Universalism, which, contrary to Dr. Momen’s assertions, is not Mr. Stetson’s creation. Momen is apparently unaware that Christian Universalism is a significant part of the American religious tradition that lives on, to a degree, in Unitarian Universalism, and has begun to regain support among some liberal Christians today.
Dr. Momen also indicates that Mr. Stetson once claimed to be a prophet. That may be a fact, but it has no bearing on Momen’s thesis. Upon reflection, such a detail would appear to contradict the thesis, as it would show that Stetson was capable of moving in his own direction. Mr. Stetson may have once been confused about his self-image, and he may yet again, but any assertion that Stetson is obsessed with opposing the Bahá’í Faith is baseless.
As a moderator of Mr. Stetson’s ex-bahai discussion group, I have become acquainted with Stetson over the last couple years, and have found that he has become uninterested in Bahá’í controversies. He is all but absent from the discussions, and leaves daily operations to the moderators.
This angry, self-described Bayani is idiosyncratic to say the least. I think it is safe to say that he is not about to conform to any community myth, whether apostate or otherwise. My personal experience has been that he is just as inclined to hurl accusations at apostates as he is inclined to denounce the Bahá’í authorities. Though he may be subject to some ressentiment, and who isn’t?, this individual appears to have positive interests in a variety of cosmic pursuits. I have interacted with him online (partly as a group moderator), and I find him, as volatile and angry as he can be, quite the antithesis of Momen’s communal apostate.
Dr. Momen points out that this man, who was only very briefly a Bahá’í, is a conservative who doesn’t fit well at all into any supposed apostate community or myth thereof. Again, not a very good match for Momen’s full thesis.
9. Frederick Glaysher
This benign but paranoid man exists on the fringe of the dissident fringe. As Dr. Momen points out, he is typically regarded as little more than a spammer. He is more an erratic lone wolf than a community member, though many of his liberal stances are not objectionable to many dissidents. Like ‘BB’, he is no conformist.
Mr. Glaysher is too erratic to represent Momen’s proposed model. Momen presents little to indicate that ressentiment is a factor in Galysher’s behavior, rather, Momen presents yet another thesis for Glaysher’s case; not one of social conformity, but one of personal fantasy in isolation.
Though I may have unknowingly interacted with ‘DD’ at some point in the past, I am not familiar with him, so I will have to base my response on what little data Dr. Momen provides. Momen briefly describes ‘DD’ as follows:
- He exhibited a marginality phase on talk.religion.bahai previous to his resignation.
- He has grown “ever more extreme” on talk.religion.bahai since his resignation.
We might call into question whether ‘DD’ is even an apostate according to Momen’s definition, considering that:
- Momen says nothing about a contested exit.
- Momen says little to give the impression that ‘DD’ is a member of an oppositional coalition, or that ‘DD’ conforms to a community myth.
Dr. Momen implies that ‘DD’ is a member of an oppositional coalition by pointing to the presence of ‘DD’ on talk.religion.bahai. I am unsure that this Usenet group represents a community due to its chaotic, unmoderated nature. I have typically avoided talk.religion.bahai for this very reason. Still, some individuals may have formed a kind of niche community in that chaotic space.
Dr. Momen provides nothing to support the notion that ‘DD’ is a case of pronounced ressentiment or that he conforms to an apostate community myth. Momen is notably brief in his coverage of this apostate’s behavior, telling us only that ‘DD’ is “extreme in his attacks on the Bahá’í faith.” Does this broad stroke say anything useful?
11. Alison Marshall
Is Alison Marshall an apostate? Let us review Dr. Momen’s definition. An apostate is:
- involved in contested exits, and
- affiliated with an oppositional coalition
According to this convoluted definition, Mrs. Marshall is the ultimate apostate because she really wanted to remain a Bahá’í and still stubbornly considers herself a mainstream Baha’i. It is certain that few Baha’i exits have been so contested as the expulsion of Marshall.
Mrs. Marshall still appears to be orthodox in most respects. I will concede that she speaks her mind, and that she does not appear to be happy with being cast out of the Bahá’í Faith organization, but she does not appear to be interested in vilifying the Bahá’í authorities. Though some mainstream Bahá’ís that I know often express opinions that appear flagrantly antagonistic to the Bahá’í authorities and even the Baha’i Faith itself, this is not my experience with Marshall.
Where I must question Mrs. Marshall’s credentials is with respect to the second criterion. She may have contested her expulsion, but is she affiliated with an oppositional coalition? My experience has been that she shuns all such things. Admittedly, my experience with her has been limited.
Dr. Momen identifies Mrs. Marshall as a cause célèbre among dissidents and apostates. This is perhaps true among the dissidents, but not so true among the ex-Bahá’ís. To a dissident Bahá’í, Marshall may be a heroic figure in that she still appears to love Bahá’u’lláh yet she has been expelled from the body of believers, which is much more than a social club; it would be more accurate to call it the New Jerusalem. An ex-Bahá’í, as someone who does not follow Bahá’u’lláh in the first place, is more likely to see Marshall as one of a myriad would-be religious reformers who is an unfortunate casualty in an internal squabble. An ex-Bahá’í is likely to be sympathetic to Marshall as a tragic figure, but less likely to see her as a hero.
Mrs. Marshall may be a hero to some, but she can hardly be seen one who has conformed to any anti-institutional community myth. She has clearly resisted association with the wide variety of criticisms of the Bahá’í authorities and the Bahá’í religion that are commonly expressed on the Internet today.
12. Karen Bacquet
Dr. Momen concedes that Ms. Bacquet is not known to have undergone a marginal phase, so she is also a mismatch with respect to Momen’s thesis. She simply leaped from Bahá’í to enemy of the Faith, though she appears to have been quite inactive over the last year or two, albeit she does continue to maintain her web site and discussion group, as can be seen in her reappearance to respond to Momen’s statements about her.
This concludes Dr. Momen’s list of apostates; his twelve apostles of the Anti-Faith. He goes on to mention several others, but does not attempt to show how any of them conform to his model.
The list of “apostates” Dr. Momen has provided is not a satisfactory representation of his model. There may be angry apostates, bitter apostates, obsessive apostates, and even insane apostates, and there may even be apostates who conform to Momen’s model, but until this latter group can be identified, we cannot apply the model to the population as a whole.