Thornton Chase, the First Western Baha'i, in his Study
Copyright © 2010 Baha'i National Archives, Wilmete, Used With Permission

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Homosexuality, The Baha'i Faith, and Science



(This posting is in response to a friend's question.)

You have pointed out that the Baha’i Faith teaches that science and religion agree, and that science today has said that homosexuality is normal – how can the Faith forbid it?

Let’s look at what the Master actually said.  Abdu’l-Baha said that if science and religion are not in agreement, either science is not yet “true science,” or the religious teaching is “superstition”:

“The third principle or teaching of Bahá'u'lláh is the oneness of religion and science. Any religious belief which is not conformable with scientific proof and investigation is superstition, for true science is reason and reality, and religion is essentially reality and pure reason; therefore, the two must correspond. Religious teaching which is at variance with science and reason is human invention and imagination unworthy of acceptance, for the antithesis and opposite of knowledge is superstition born of the ignorance of man. If we say religion is opposed to science, we lack knowledge of either true science or true religion, for both are founded upon the premises and conclusions of reason, and both must bear its test.” (Abdu'l-Baha, 7 May 1912, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 107)


And yet one of the laws of our Faith – the prohibition, in the Most Holy Book, of homosexual acts and same-sex marriage - appears to be in conflict with the science of today. But Abdu’l-Baha never says that the words revealed by the Manifestations of God must be superstition if they don’t agree with science. He says that “religious beliefs” which are outcomes of people’s “imagination” and conflict with science are superstitious. For example:

“Among other principles of Bahá'u'lláh's teachings was the harmony of science and religion. Religion must stand the analysis of reason. It must agree with scientific fact and proof so that science will sanction religion and religion fortify science. Both are indissolubly welded and joined in reality. If statements and teachings of religion are found to be unreasonable and contrary to science, they are outcomes of superstition and imagination. Innumerable  doctrines and beliefs of this character have arisen in the past ages. Consider the superstitions and mythology of the Romans, Greeks and Egyptians; all were contrary to religion and science. It is now evident that the beliefs of these nations were superstitions, but in those times they held to them most tenaciously. For example, one of the many Egyptian idols was to those people an authenticated miracle, whereas in reality it was a piece of stone. As science could not sanction the miraculous origin and nature of a piece of rock, the belief in it must have been superstition. It is now evident that it was superstition.” (Abdu'l-Baha, 9 June 1912, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 175)


So the first point is that it is my view that Abdu’l-Baha never intended that any teaching of Baha’u’llah would ever, ever, be declared to be superstition.  The whole ministry of the Master and the Guardian upholds every verse from Baha’u’llah. Can you ever imagine the Master or the Guardian or the House saying “This divine verse in such-and-such a tablet is imagination, and we are declaring these words of Baha’u’llah to be false.”  Of course, such a thing never has, and never will happen.

A recent example will be very helpful. In Some Answered Questions, Abdu'l-Baha has commented on evolution. Some Baha'is have assumed that this meant a kind of "parallel evolution." A statement approved by the House of Justice has said this understanding is incorrect:

"A notable case in point is the treatment of the subject of the evolution of species, which is taken up explicitly in Part 4, and which must be understood in light of several Bahá’í teachings, especially the principle of the harmony of science and religion. Religious belief should not contradict science and reason. A certain reading of some of the passages found in Chapters 46–51 may lead some believers to personal conclusions that contradict modern science. Yet the Universal House of Justice has explained that Bahá’ís strive to reconcile their understanding of the statements of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá with established scientific perspectives, and therefore it is not necessary to conclude that these passages describe conceptions rejected by science, for example, a kind of “parallel” evolution that proposes a separate line of biological evolution for the human species parallel to the animal kingdom since the beginning of life on earth....His essential argument, then, is not directed towards scientific findings but towards the materialist assertions that are built upon them. For Bahá’ís, the science of evolution is accepted, but the conclusion that humanity is merely an accidental branch of the animal kingdom—with all its attendant social implications—is not."
("Some Answered Questions" Foreword, some discussion omitted)

Since this appears in a volume of Baha'i literature published at the Baha'i World Center, this may be taken as an important policy statement about the Baha'i teaching on science and religion.

What's the difference? If a Baha'i view of evolution should give way to science, why shouldn't a Baha'i view of same-sex relations? One difference is that the prohibition on same-sex relations is an explicit teaching of the Faith, clarified by the interpretations of Shoghi Effendi. On the other hand, the notion of parallel evolution is an *understanding* of the Baha'i teachings - not a teaching itself. Please note that the statement above on science and religion is that "
personal conclusions" should not contradict modern science," that Bahá’ís strive to reconcile "their understanding" with "established scientific perspectives." So we can expect that our understandings of the Baha'i teachings will continue to be modified by "established scientific perspective."
When there is a conflict between Baha’u’llah and a scientific authority, here is an example of how the Guardian resolves it. The subject is transmutation of elements. Baha’u’llah states that every element can be transmuted into Gold – a physical symbol in the outer world, of the spiritual transformation of humanity:

"Considering that a century ago, nobody knew the nature of matter, and couldn't split any kind of atom, it should not surprise the scientist that 'Abdu'l-Bahá states that copper can be transmuted into gold. There may come a time, for all we know, when the mass of many atoms can be changed by scientists. We have no way of proving, or disproving at present the statement of 'Abdu'l-Bahá. Just because we cannot demonstrate a contention in the Bahá'í Teachings, does not mean the contention is not true. The same holds true of the statement of Bahá'u'lláh in the Íqán, regarding transmutation of copper into gold after seventy years, under certain conditions. We as Bahá'ís must assume that, as He had access to all knowledge, He was referring to a definite physical condition which theoretically might exist. Because we don't know what this condition is in scientific terms, does not refute Bahá'u'lláh's statement at all. . . The principle of Faith is to accept anything the Manifestation of God says, once you have accepted Him as being the Manifestation. That is really the crux of the whole matter. It is a question of confidence." (From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to an individual believer, March 14, 1955, Lights of Guidance, p. 478, #1580)


When people’s beliefs are in conflict with science, their beliefs must give way to science. However, when the Manifestation of God’s statements conflict with science, science must give way to the Revelation.
Here is another example.  Abdu’l-Baha gives the example of a statement in divine Revelation which took a thousand years for science to recognize:

“…Muhammad appeared in the desert of Hijaz in the Arabian Peninsula, which was a desolate, sterile wilderness, sandy and uninhabited. Some parts, like Mecca and Medina, are extremely hot; the people are nomads with the manners and customs of the dwellers in the desert, and are entirely destitute of education and science.  .  .  In such a country, and amidst such barbarous tribes, an illiterate Man produced a book in which, in a perfect and eloquent style, He explained the divine attributes and  perfections, the prophethood of the Messengers of God, the divine laws, and some scientific facts.
         “Thus, you know that before the observations of modern times -- that is to say, during the first centuries and down to the fifteenth century of the Christian era -- all the mathematicians of the world agreed that the earth was the center of the universe, and that the sun moved. The famous astronomer who was the protagonist of the new theory discovered the movement of the earth and the immobility of the sun.[Copernicus] Until his time all the astronomers and philosophers of the world followed the Ptolemaic system, and whoever said anything against it was considered ignorant. Though Pythagoras, and Plato during the latter part of his life, adopted the theory that the annual movement of the sun around the zodiac does not proceed from the sun, but rather from the movement of the earth around the sun, this theory had been entirely forgotten, and the Ptolemaic system was accepted by all mathematicians. But there are some verses revealed in the Qur'án contrary to the theory of the Ptolemaic system. One of them is "The sun moves in a fixed place," which shows the fixity of the sun, and its movement around an axis.[ Cf. Qur'án 36:37] Again, in another verse, "And each star moves in its own heaven."[ Cf. Qur'án 36:38.] Thus is explained the movement of the sun, of the moon, of the earth, and of other bodies. When the Qur'án appeared, all the mathematicians ridiculed these statements and attributed the theory to ignorance. Even the doctors of Islam, when they saw that these verses were contrary to the accepted Ptolemaic system, were obliged to explain them away.
        “It was not until after the fifteenth century of the Christian era, nearly nine hundred years after Muhammad, that a famous astronomer made new observations and important discoveries by the aid of the telescope, which he had invented. [Galileo] The rotation of the earth, the fixity of the sun, and also its movement around an axis, were discovered. It became evident that the verses of the Qur'án agreed with existing facts, and that the Ptolemaic system was imaginary.
      “In short, many Oriental peoples have been reared for thirteen centuries under the shadow of the religion of Muhammad. During the Middle Ages, while Europe was in the lowest depths of barbarism, the Arab peoples were superior to the other nations of the earth in learning, in the arts, mathematics, civilization, government and other sciences. The Enlightener and Educator of these Arab tribes, and the Founder of the civilization and perfections of humanity among these different races, was an illiterate Man, Muhammad.” (Abdu'l-Baha, Some Answered Questions, Chapter 7, pp. 22-24)


And this, it is my personal understanding, is the situation with the law prohibiting same-sex sexual relations and marriage.  Science has yet to catch up with Baha’u’llah. It will, eventually. Shoghi Effendi reportedly told a pilgrim, after recounting this same point about astronomy, that if, as was the case with astronomers catching  up with what Muhammad had revealed about astronomy in the Text, it takes a thousand years for science to uphold Baha'u'llah's laws, we will cling to them for that thousand years. I don’t know where that pilgrim note is now; and it’s just a pilgrim note.  But the point is that the Baha’i Writings do not say that if science has a different understanding of reality than religion does, then the revelation must give way. In fact, if the revelation itself, and not our understanding of it, is directly in conflict with science, it is science which will change in the long run.

The Universal House of Justice wrote a letter about sexual matters including homosexuality to a Baha'i
doctor assisting people with sexual problems. In the course of this letter to a Baha'i educated in, and working in the field of science, the House of Justice wrote about how revelation changes a Baha'is understanding of science:

"In all this we have been speaking about the attitude that Bahá’ís should have towards the law of Bahá’u’lláh. You, however, as a doctor working mainly as a counsellor in family and sexual problems, will mostly be concerned with advising non-Bahá’ís, who do not accept, and see no reason to follow, the laws of Bahá’u’lláh. You are already a qualified practitioner in your field, and no doubt you give advice on the basis of what you have learned from study and experience―a whole fabric of concepts about the human mind, its growth, development and proper functioning, which you have learned and evolved, without reference to the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh. Now, as a Bahá’í, you know that what Bahá’u’lláh teaches about the purpose of human life, the nature of the human being and the proper conduct of human lives, is divinely revealed and therefore true. However, it will inevitably take time for you not only to study the Bahá’í teachings so that you clearly understand them, but also to work out how they modify your professional concepts. This is, of course, not an unusual predicament for a scientist. How often in the course of research is a factor discovered which requires a revolution in thinking over a wide field of human endeavor. You must be guided in each case by your own professional knowledge and judgement as illuminated by your growing knowledge of the Bahá’í teachings; undoubtedly you will find that your own understanding of the human problems dealt with in your work will change and develop and you will see new and improved ways of helping the people who come to you."
("Obeying the Law of God in One's Personal Life," a letter from the Universal House of Justice dated 6 February 1973 addressed to all National Spiritual Assemblies; "Messages from the Universal House of Justice 1963-1986, paragraph 126.10)

16 comments:

  1. Thoughtful response. I, in particular, agree that the science is not yet in. We have a long ways to go before we understand sexuality and its development.

    I am not sure, however that our religion's position is based on science, but is, rather, built on a value choice. People behave in all sorts of ways that may be rewarded in a particular society or not rewarded. Greed, dishonest, unfaithfulness in marriage, murder and other violence are all examples of behavior which a society may either discourage, tolerate, or encourage. Scientists may argue rightfully that each of these behaviors is seen to exist across cultures and throughout time, and therefore is a part of being human, at least to some. It does not mean that society should embrace or encourage any of these behaviors.

    I have never liked the religiously conservative position that homosexual behavior should be personally condemned and actively suppressed. But I respect that societal institutions can and must make value-laden choices on this. It is not a trendy choice in these days, but I doubt it was one based on faulty science.

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    1. Fundamentalist Christians also hold that position on evolution: "the science is not yet in".

      The Flat Earth society also proclaim "the science is not yet in".

      The evidence and scientific consensus (from geneticists, biologists, psychologists) that homosexuality is not a pathology and is as normal as dark skin or being left handed is overwhelming.

      I've got to be honest, as a Baha'i this is shattering my faith.

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    2. CyusP:
      I ask myself: Am I more compassionate than Baha'u'llah? Do I know more about human nature than He does? Do I know more about how to help human beings attain true happiness, true fulfillment, or does Baha'u'llah? When you answer that question you will know what course to take.

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    3. Hi Brent,

      This is a late response but I thought I might make it anyway.

      Thanks for your message. I prayed and meditated on the writings and on your message and those of others for almost 6 months.

      I have since decided to resign from the Baha'i faith. The cognitive dissonance was too much to bear. The NSA were really nice about it - a credit to them.

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  2. Sorry, but this is not "wonderful." It's a way to condone prejudice against gay people. The Baha'is are simply blind to this because it is inculcated into their fabric that the prejudice is the will of God. It is no different than the fundamentalist Christians and Muslims. It is to say to gay people: "live a sad, lonely, isolated life, without any family and pray hard and then you will learn all the wisdom in the next world." It is like telling a person afflicted with a neuro-muscular disease: "We have a means for you to walk, but you must sit in this wheel chair because God says it's wrong for you to walk." No, this is not wonderful. It is a license to discriminate and punish, and, in fact, to symbolically enslave or to metaphorically exterminate (as in the Holocaust) fellow human beings. Is there no Baha'i who can offer anything compassionate and even slightly non-fundamentalist on this matter?

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    1. I would have become Bahai decades ago if not for this. And it is a direct contradiction of the teaching that religion and science should not be in conflict. If anyone thinks the science isn't in on this issue, I would assume this person also continues to believe that the world is flat, global warming is a myth, and race and intelligence are intimately related - after all, that is what the best science told us not too long ago. By the Bahai Faith continuing to ignore the very well-documented scientific facts about this issue, it shows that it is no better than any other bigoted faith. Science used to also say that women were inferior - hmm, I wonder why that one is ok in the faith and others aren't... On this one major issue Bahai Faith chooses to ignore the science, in violation of what their own scripture says to do. FFS!

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  3. In His book of Laws, The Kitab-i-Aqdas, in which this divine law is revealed, Baha'u'llah writes:

    "Indeed, the laws of God are like unto the ocean and the
    children of men as fish, did they but know it. However, in
    observing them one must exercise tact and wisdom... Since most people are feeble and far-removed from the purpose of God, therefore one must observe tact and prudence under all conditions, so that nothing might happen that could cause disturbance and dissension . . . . One must guide mankind to the ocean of true
    understanding in a spirit of love and tolerance. The Kitáb-i-Aqdas itself beareth eloquent testimony to the loving
    providence of God."

    The human race is far removed from the purpose and will of God. As people reconsider their ways, as they seek true and complete fulfillment, as they obey these laws, only then will they taste "the sweetness of rest within the pale of His vast and mighty Revelation." This is what we Baha'is seek for our brothers and sisters, and for ourselves. We seek to throw off the shackles of mediocrity, and know in its fullness what life is about. We promote these laws because they make sense. We put up with the verbal bludgeons that come our way, the deafening chorus of voices falsely accusing us of being motivated by prejudice when we are solely motivated by love and by the desire of our hearts that everyone tastes the joy of knowing God and His ways. We do not seek to impose our views; only to have the freedom to express them. Whether you like what we say or not we will say it, with moderation and conviction and force - because we love you, and because we are leaves in the wind of the Will of God.

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  4. Brent, That's an enlightening quote from the Aqdas, worth deepening on. We all need guidance on this complicated issue, and one would hope, within the framework of that passage, the Faith could provide necessary guidance for humanity regarding the application of prohibitions on homosexuality, and, even more importantly, insight for gay people on exactly how they are to function, given the restrictions on their ability to marry, and to raise (or be part of) a nuclear family. Is it the will of God for gays to live alone, to face discrimination from early childhood until death, and to live as an oddity amongst others who are taught to thrive on matters of which gay people are not permitted to participate? I can only hope (please forgive me for the characterization that is about to follow) that a group of mostly old heterosexual men (The UHJ) have the wisdom to provide this real world guidance? Is the UHJ even capable of understanding (yet alone empathizing) the depth to which gay people really DO suffer, facing mental anguish, bullying, and even potential suicide, not because they have an affliction, but due to a "condition" which is socially constructed? The very least the AO can do is engage in serious consultation, and then issue real world guidance devoid of the familiar platitudes about the sexual impulse, and about how science "will catch up to religion." Thanks for allowing me to participate on this blog.

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    1. I have been thinking for a few days about what you wrote, particularly what you wrote about empathy.
      And while I don’t think that the individual personalities of the men who make up the membership of the Universal House of Justice matters – their decisions are not dependent on the makeup of these individuals – I will tell you that if you have not met them you might be surprised at their open-mindedness, their understanding of life, their liberality of mind, their love and compassion. They are developed people.

      As to how the House of Justice will apply the divine law, it cannot weaken the position of the laws. The House of Justice has limitations. Among them is this statement from Shoghi Effendi through his secretary, written to to a National Spiritual Assembly in 1935, and printed in the Preface to the Most Holy Book:

      "The laws revealed by Bahá'u'lláh in the Aqdas are, whenever practicable and not in direct conflict with the Civil Law of the land, absolutely binding on every believer or Bahá'í institution whether in the East or in the West. Certain ... laws should be regarded by all believers as universally and vitally applicable at the present time. Others have been formulated in anticipation of a state of society destined to emerge from the chaotic conditions that prevail today... What has not been formulated in the Aqdas, in addition to matters of detail and of secondary importance arising out of the application of the laws already formulated by Bahá'u'lláh, will have to be enacted by the Universal House of Justice. This body can supplement but never invalidate or modify in the least degree what has already been formulated by Bahá'u'lláh. Nor has the Guardian any right whatsoever to lessen the binding effect much less to abrogate the provisions of so fundamental and sacred a Book."

      Do I have compassion for people whose desires are contrary to the Laws of God? Sure. I think *everybodys* desires are contrary to the Law of God, to some degree, and in different areas of the divine laws. These are powerful laws, and human beings far more spiritually advanced than us will be carrying them out for centuries to come. Being a Baha'i is not easy.

      Here’s what I think. I have, for most of my adult life, reflected on life, and on this world. I have not found anyone who holds a candle to Baha’u’llah’s interpretation of life, or His plan for upliftment of the world.

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    2. There is a story recounted on page 134 of “God Passes By”:

      "The room of the Most Great House," [Nabil] has recorded, "set apart for the reception of Bahá'u'lláh's visitors, though dilapidated, and having long since outgrown its usefulness, vied, through having been trodden by the blessed footsteps of the Well Beloved, with the Most Exalted Paradise. Low-roofed, it yet seemed to reach to the stars, and though it boasted but a single couch, fashioned from the branches of palms, whereon He Who is the King of Names was wont to sit, it drew to itself, even as a lodestone, the hearts of the princes." It was this same reception room which, in spite of its rude simplicity, had so charmed [a prince] that he had expressed to his fellow-princes his intention of building a duplicate of it in his home in Kazimayn. "He may well succeed," Bahá'u'lláh is reported to have smilingly remarked when apprized of this intention, "in reproducing outwardly the exact counterpart of this low-roofed room made of mud and straw with its diminutive garden. What of his ability to open onto it the spiritual doors leading to the hidden worlds of God?"

      And that’s the point. That’s what sets Baha’u’llah apart from everyone else: He can lead souls to God, and He says so, squarely and repeatedly. In the opening verse of Gems of Divine Mysteries He writes that it was “set forth for those who long to draw nigh unto God”.

      In one of His marriage prayers, He explains the social purpose of His revealed laws: “And when He desired to manifest grace and beneficence to men, and to set the world in order, He revealed observances and created laws”.

      So if I am an athlete I do what my coach says. And if I want to draw near to God, I listen to Baha’u’llah. If I want to establish world peace -- to “set the world in order,” I do things His way. - Unless I think I know better. And I concluded decades ago that I don’t have a better way of helping people attain the fullness of their potential, or of establishing a just and peaceful world society, than doing it Baha’u’llah’s way.

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    3. Baha’u’llah says in the Gleanings, p. 67, that the Manifestations of God “are commissioned to use the inspiration of Their words, the effusions of Their infallible grace and the sanctifying breeze of Their Revelation for the cleansing of every longing heart and receptive spirit from the dross and dust of earthly cares and limitations. Then, and only then, will the Trust of God, latent in the reality of man, emerge, as resplendent as the rising Orb of Divine Revelation, from behind the veil of concealment, and implant the ensign of its revealed glory upon the summits of men's hearts.”

      And that’s what I want out of life, for myself and for everyone else – that the “trust of God” latent in my reality, emerges; that I become fully, what a human being can become.

      So, to me the most compassionate thing I can do is to lead someone, help someone to embrace the divine law – not to weaken or dilute it, or to find an excuse for them to turn away from it:

      “Gird up the loins of thine endeavor, that haply thou mayest guide thy neighbor to the law of God, the Most Merciful. Such an act, verily, excelleth all other acts in the sight of God, the All-Possessing, the Most High. Such must be thy steadfastness in the Cause of God, that no earthly thing whatsoever will have the power to deter thee from thy duty. Though the powers of earth be leagued against thee, though all men dispute with thee, thou must remain unshaken.” (Gleanings, p. 338)

      In The Advent of Divine Justice Shoghi Effendi writes about the “double crusade” facing the believers – to first live by the Teachings in our own lives and communities, and then to help our friends in the wider community to do so, to cleanse our nation as a whole.

      “In the conduct of this twofold crusade the valiant warriors struggling in the name and for the Cause of Bahá'u'lláh must, of necessity, encounter stiff resistance, and suffer many a setback. Their own instincts, no less than the fury of conservative forces, the opposition of vested interests, and the objections of a corrupt and pleasure-seeking generation, must be reckoned with, resolutely resisted, and completely overcome.” (Shoghi Effendi, The Advent of Divine Justice, p. 41)

      This is a big deal. This is important work, and I want to do it the way He wants me to. This is not life the way the world is used to living, or life based on limited human conceptions of what life can mean. This is the way of God.

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  5. (I had to post my remarks in 3 sections)

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  6. Whew, Brent, do you know any gay people? Your words (quoted after the colon), honestly, show such an immense disconnect from the real world that it suggests to me a total lack of knowledge and empathy and an almost inhumane understanding of homosexuality: "So, to me the most compassionate thing I can do is to lead someone, help someone to embrace the divine law – not to weaken or dilute it, or to find an excuse for them to turn away from it...." How is it that I can read the sacred texts of the Abrahamic religions and come to see the major teachings of God as love, yet so many of the believers of those faiths have decided to focus, not on true compassion and love on a human level, but on the "laws." Honestly, Brent, do you simply believe that gays choose to be such, and just need to pray and meditate and go through reparative therapy and all will be well? Just be honest, please. What are gays supposed to do? What is their fortress for well being?

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  7. Dear Brent,

    Trying to add my two cents, but having trouble... Test?

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  8. First: the science and religion argument brings no clarity to this topic because science changes and has changed on this issue. In the early 1970's my grad school courses still explained homosexuality as a deviancy, a misdevelopment in psychological growth or even in Freudian terms of failure to leave the anal stage of growth. Genetic explanations were rejected as unscientific and even 'fascist'. Now the APA - after a contentious vote - has taken homosexuality out of the DSM's. So who knows what science will say tomorrow? There is no way the Bahai Faith or any religion can 'keep up' with science and the naive and simplistic view that harmony between religion and science means 'keeping up' with science through every twist and turn is a non-starter.

    We should also ask ourselves a question that rarely if ever comes up on this issue: why is that the overwhelming majority of societies see homosexuality in negative terms. Even in ancient Greece it was not practiced as popular gay mythology suggests. In fact, at one time the Athenian constitution denied office to any man who been with another man as with a woman. The fact that such a large majority of cultures reject it, indicates they sense something that makes them uncomfortable and arouses concerns. Why was/is this prejudice so widespread in time and space?

    Second, compassion and love are not the same things as agreement about behavior. Everyone deserves compassion as a fellow human being, but that does not mean we have to agree with them about their behavior.

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