Sen McGlinn's blog

                                  Reflections on the Bahai teachings

Enrolment and not

There seems to be a shift in the American Bahai community, towards increasing numbers of Bahais not choosing to enroll and take up the duties and privileges of enrolled membership. This posting touches on the evidence for this, and criticises an explanation put forward by Moojan Momen in a recent paper in Religion [in pdf format].

A list member had asked:

> 1. What in your opinion may be going on besides “obsessive
> hatred…” 2. How do you arrive at the conlusion that “…people are
> leaving or not erolling is quite large numbers, for such a small
> community.”

My answer on Tarikh, 9 December 2007:

To answer the second question first: in its Ridvan 2007 Annual
Message [here in pdf format] the USA NSA observes and compares:

“From 1980 to 1997, the Baha’i community nearly doubled in size
(77,000 to 137,000, excluding Iranian immigrants), with significant
increases in the rate of retention. The 50 percent drop in
enrolments since 1997 means that enrolments are now at the same
level they were in the 1960s, when the Baha’i community was a small
fraction of its current size. The number of enrolments to date for
this year is 872.”

And further:

“This year, withdrawals (369) from Baha’i membership have risen 30

The latter figure has to be treated with caution, it could be a one-
time spike due, for instance, to efforts to update the address lists. The
discussion list “unenrolled Bahai” has 235 members today, and averages 160
messages per month, a significant minority of the Bahai discussion volume.
As an exit support group, posters on the list will tend to be members who
have recently withdrawn or been unenrolled, so I suppose that posting
volume today reflects the volume of exits a few months previously: it
is a current rather than cumulative indicator. If I compare the message
volume per month in 2007 and 2002, January to November, I see that in 7
months the volume in 2007 is more than it was in the corresponing month in
2002, and in 4 months less. That does not necessarily indicate a growing
volume of people unenrolling, it could be largely explained by greater
internet connection rates, and a relatively constant number of people
unenrolling. But the evidence in any case is against any decline in the
number of official withdrawals, and an increase is more likely. At the
same time, enrolments have fallen, so of those who do enroll, more must
be leaving again.

The more significant figure from the NSAs report is a 50% drop in
enrolments from 1998 to 2006. Now this could be because the message of
Baha’u’llah is no longer reaching people, that teaching activity has
declined, that effective proclamation methods have been underfunded etc..,
leading to fewer conversion. Or it could be because the message is
reaching people as before, but they are less likely to make their
committment formal by enrolling in the community. Or, most likely, it is a
compound of both lower conversion and lower willingness of converts to
join, in some ratio. There may be less conversions because fewer people are
hearing the message: perhaps population aging is having an effect as XX
says: when people grow older their concerns are different, and if the
presentation of the message is not adjusted accordingly, less people will
get to hear it. Of the conversions, less may enroll. As XX suggests, the
climate in the US is not favouring religious enrolments in general. (For
this reason, a third explanation, competition from a more successful
religion, seem unlikely).

I think that the message of Baha’u’llah is sufficiently broad, and is
presented in a sufficient variety of ways, for us to suppose that the number
of people “hearing” and converting has not declined enormously. The
intensity of teaching work has probably not declined very much over the
past 10 years, the absolute number of active members in the US Bahai
community has not declined much, if at all, the means available for
transmitting the message have increased. When I put that together with the
similar phenomenon of formal withdrawal from the US Bahai community (rise
in formal unenrolments despite falling enrolments, rising volume of
discussion in unenrolled- Bahai), I have to conclude that more people in
the US must be hearing the message and accepting it, but not enrolling,
than was the case 10 years ago, or 20.

I have no expertise to say why this might be, but the NSA of the USA has
an informed analysis which might explain both falling conversions and more
converts who do not enroll.

In its 2007 Ridvan message again, it points first to the LSAs being
sidelined: “feelings of disempowerment and mixed signals regarding
roles and responsibilities are robbing the current Plan of the
spiritual benefits that flow from the wholehearted participation of
these divine institutions, and the many significant contributions
these highly capable Assemblies could make ..” (page 6)

The presentation of the Bahai community as having egalitarian,
participatory and democratic ruling institutions has been one of its
attractions, and a reason to enroll. As the unelected teaching institutes
and their regional and national coordinators take over the roles of the
local and national Assemblies, and as membership in these and the actual
implementation of the work is increasingly reserved for people who have
qualified by passing through the Ruhi books, the Bahai community looks
increasingly like a traditional church structure, with experts appointed
by higher experts, telling the congregation how it is. So if someone is a
joiner and participant by nature, the Bahai message as embodied in the
community has become less attractive, and for the “converts” as a whole,
there is less reason to go on to become a member formally, since
membership, with the assemblies, has lost some of its central

Second, the NSA points to a narrower focus of activities, with Ruhi
classes replacing firesides, neighbourhood classes replacing
children’s classes. This will presumably decrease how effectively the
message is being communicated, but it might also reduce the proportion of
converts who join the organisation. Some converts will find the new and
narrower focus an attraction to membership, others will not see in the
community those activities and social groups that would prompt them to

Third, “we have learned from experience that the proper use of media and
other forms of proclamation can be invaluable tools for generating
seekers.” If media proclamation was indeed effective in communicating
the message in the past, less proclamation would mean less people hearing
the message – but not less converts enrolling.

Fourth, the NSA suggests that the presentation of the message is not being
adapted to the audience: “hardly a word is spoken about who seekers are,
what they want, or how they experienced their contact with the Baha’i
community. There is little institutional discussion about the many seekers
who start one of the institute courses and do not return, … cause us to
miss important opportunities for learning how to meet the wide diversity
of seekers’ needs.” (page 8) A little further on the NSA says there is a
“need for flexibility and innovation” (page 10). “… receptive
populations… cannot be expected to come to the Faith entirely on our
terms.” This would affect both aspects: less people will hear the
message, but also, if seekers’ needs are not known, the community will not
be the kind of organisation which converts want to take the additional
step of joining.

Fifth, the US community has been less engaged with “issues of broad
social concern” and there has been less emphasis on ” the Baha’i
vision for social transformation ” as compared to the engagement in
“the period from 1980 to 1997, during which the Baha’i community
nearly doubled in size.” This would primarily affect the likelihood that
converts become members: for an activist convert, if membership is not
membership in an activist movement, what is its added value?

Your second question is

> 1. What in your opinion may be going on besides “obsessive
> hatred…”

Momen’s paper [in pdf format] supposes that some people become marginal (or become
“apostates,” but that is a judgement which is inappropriate and
divisive, and which neither Momen or I am qualified to make, so I
won’t use it) for reasons that are to do with themselves. He simply
overlooks the possibility that, in this two-way relationship, the
majority (or “core”) have any role in actively marginalising the
people who become marginal. He doesn’t mention the factor of a change of
culture in the community, which is odd considering his other recent
writing: instead the community is treated as a constant and the marginals
are supposed to have moved away from it. He hardly mentions internal
factions and political manoeuvring within the community which, while we
may all agree that they *should* not exist, should nevertheless be
included as a factor in objectively describing what has actually happened.
In short, the analysis is based on an a priori moral judgement that puts
the agency and fault all on one side, and the presentation of facts is
accordingly selective. A fuller and more just picture of what was going on
would have to start from an objective stance, and be conducted by someone
qualified in the sociology and psychology of religion (which I am not)
and familiar with US religious culture (which I am not), and would have to
include not just some exit narratives but also interviews with various
participants. It’s beyond me


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