LA Study Class Newsletter [#28]

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My Notes:

This newsletter is quite interesting as it contains a lot of statistical data on the Baha’i community of the United States. It has a summary of the 59th National Convention with data on the number of Baha’is, assemblies, as well as information on the Baha’i budget and funds for that year. It may be enlightening to compare these with the most recent National Convention.

Here are some highlights: back then there were 71,189 Baha’is (of those, 1,844 without administrative rights). With 2,242 enrollments during the year (down appx. 1,000 from the previous Baha’i year) and 605 withdrawals of membership. Comparing these numbers to the most recent data, we see a massively negative picture both in absolute and relative numbers.

In the most recent Baha’i year, enrollments were 872 with 369 withdrawals of membership. This not only represents a two thirds reduction from 1978 but also an increase in relative withdrawals (compared to enrollments) from 27% to 42%. That is back then 27% of enrollments withdrew while today 42% did so – keep in mind that this is just a statistical measure and not indicative that the percentage of people that left were necessarily the same as those that entered the community.

In this Convention it was also reported that the NSA would purchase what has become its permanent seat in Evanston. Also, don’t miss the report about the Hand of the Cause of God, Mr. William Sears at the Convention.

If this is your first newsletter, you might also want to read the introduction to the LA study class, here.

On with the 70′s class . . .

[START DOCUMENT]

[private home address]
Los Angeles, California
July 15th, 1978

Dear Baha’i Friends:

The study class (which still has no official name) met again on June 4th at the home of Tony Lee, whose address appears above. Since Robert Ballenger was not able to be present, Tony took a few random notes on the proceedings. The official topic of the class was to be a critical discussion of Robert Hatcher’s essay The Metaphorical Nature of Physical Reality which has been published in Etudes Baha’i Studies and in a recent issue of World Order. However, the actual discussion ranged far and wide.

We first discussed the present state of the class itself and its prospects for the future (which, unfortunately, do not look very good). Several of the key members of the class are leaving the Los Angeles area and are leaving the country also. Mehrdad Amanat is in Iran for the summer. Chris and Jon Hendershot are planning to move to Venezuela next month. Tony Lee hopes to go to Kenya in the fall. Et cetera. On top of that, we have been having great difficulty obtaining topics for more classes. We have relied heavily on guest speakers recently adn we are simply running out of them. The time and effort required for class members to present well-researched classes seems to be just too much for most of us. So, dear readers, we may be nearing the end of the line. Watch out for signs up ahead warning of a dead end.

METAPHORS AND REALITY

The class found difficulty sticking to the topic of the metaphorical nature of physical reality or the lack of same. Our discussion was free and we talked about everything from abortion and unwed motherhood to capital punishment. But, when we were discussing Dr. Hatcher’s essay we approached it with some caution. Everyone agreed that it is a brilliant piece of work. It is extremely provocative and original in concept and can only be a joy to read. It opens new areas of discussion on the Baha’i approach to reality and life and is a welcome relief from the same old rehash of ideas whcih is so common.

Our caution stemmed from wondering just how seriously we should take Dr. Hatcher’s arguments about the intent of God in bringing into being this created world. His perspective is, to say the least, broad. Should we literally think of the world as a metaphor? Or, is that itself just a metaphor, an instructive tool for thinking about things — not to be taken literally? And, isn’t the whole argument rather circular?

Well, our discussions really didn’t get very far and so there is little more to say. The subject is still open and could easily form the topic of another class.

A REPORT FROM THE AMERICAN NATIONAL CONVENTION

The 59th annual National Baha’i Convention took place in Wilmette and Evanston, Illinois, from May 25 to 28. Class member Bob Ballenger attended the soiree, representing the Hermosa Beach Baha’i Community. Here is his summation of the proceeding:

At Ridvan, a nationwide telephone check tallied the existence of 1,004 local assemblies in the continental United States. However, the final election reports showed the lost assemblies (60) lead advances (new: 23; restored:24), and we wound up with about 993 LSA’s. In his reading of the annual report to the delegates at [the] convention, NSA secretary Glenford Mitchell, said there are about 400 Baha’i groups with five or mroe adult members in them. It is on these large groups that efforts will be concentrated as the American Baha’i community strives to attain its goal of 1,400 spiritual assemblies on the homefront by Ridvan 1979.

(One report, from a member of the California Regional Teaching Committee, had it that “a couple of hundred” of these large groups had nine or more members — but had failed to form at Ridvan. Ballenger asked Dr. Firuz Kazemzadeh of the NSA about this. Dr. Kazemzadeh confirmed the existence of some such groups, but said he did not think there were a couple of hundred. He explained that some such large groups were formed as teh result of street teaching campaigns and, in some areas, people came into the Faith who now simply could not be located. He added that the movement of 500-600 Baha’is on the homefront could insure victory for the plan.)

Of the roughly 1,000 assemblies in the states, 201 of them exist in California. At a meeting, during the convention, of the California Baha’is representing local assemblies, it was pointed out that had it not been for out lost assemblies, we would have already made our 1,400 nationwide assembly goal. By the end of the Five Year Plan, California is to have 265 assemblies, an addition of 53 assemblies with no losses. (Illinois has not had a lost assembly in two years.) By way of comparison, it was pointed out that the Faith in California has grown from 30 to 201 local assemblies in only 25 years.

Current statistics: There are (as of March/April figures) 70,055 Baha’is in the continental United States, plus another 1,844 Baha’is who are without administrative rights, for a total of 71,189 on the rolls. During the last year (April 1977 to April 1978) there were 2,242 enrollments, a figure that is down about 1,000 from the previous year. (In addition, 310 American Baha’is died and another 605 withdrew from membership.) There are about 7,000 Baha’i youth in the states, but only 3,000 to 5,000 of these have known addresses. This is down considerably from a few years ago.

BUDGET

Dr. Dorothy Nelson, the national treasurer recommended, and the convention accepted, a new budget of $4 million, up $400,000 from last year’s $3.6 million. With more than 70,000 Baha’is on the rolls, it works out to just over $57 per Baha’i for the year to make that goal. Contributions from the previous year amounted to only $2.94 million, $560,000 short of the annual goal. However, the National Fund received $588,000 in estate bequests. By holding actual expenditures to only 93% of the amount budgeted, and adding in the bequests, the NSA managed to avoid a deficit and end the year about $25,000 ahead.

ELECTION RESULTS

There were 171 delegates eligible to vote in the National Assembly election. Of that amount, 157 did so in person and another 11 by mail, for a total of 168. Three delegates did not vote. As a result of this balloting, (surprise!) the same nine National Assembly members were elected. Here, in order of the votes they received is the membership list: Soo Fouts (153), Dorothy Nelson (150), Dan Jordan (138), Franklin Khan (128), Glenford Mitchell (127), Firuz Kazemzadeh (120), James Nelson (104), Magdalene Carney (102), Richard Betts (89). The election of officers on the assembly produced these results: Chairman: Dan Jordan, Vice Chairman: James Nelson, Treasurer: Dorothy Nelson, Secretary: Glendord Mitchell, Assistant Secretary: Magdalene Carney (who replaced Soo Fouts at this post). And, a new office was created this year and Soo Fouts was elected special assistant secretary for teaching.

The tenor of the convention itself wavered somewhere between a sales meeting and a church revival. Remarks such as those Dan Jordan made when he said “the whole of mankind is at a crossroads and we’re directing traffic” were fairly common. On another occasion, it was said that if the Baha’is are to renew themselves spiritually, “every cell is going to belong to Baha’u’llah and the Five Year Plan.” If you like that kind of talk, you would have loved the convention. While there were a number of spiritual highs, it also ought to be noted that the quality of consultation was ragged. In fact, consultation in the sense of agreement on the facts and ascertainment of the underlying spiritual principles never existed.

An inordinate amount of time was expended, for example, on the relatively minor issue of whether an “official” set of convention notes ought to be kept. This issue arose when one delegate complained that last year’s convention highlights excluded much of what occurred. He wanted access to an official set of convention notes to share as part of his report to the constituency he represented. Dan Jordan, the acting chairman of the convention, responded that the problem with “official” notes was their inaccuracy. Past notes have listed motions as having passed when they did not, and, in general, were of varying quality and accuracy. Delegates discussed the issue, which is to say they argued about it, re-stating the problem and generally got nowhere. The proposal finally went down to defeat.

It was annonced at the convention that the National Assembly is spending $2.5 million to purchase an office building in Evanston to serve as the administrative headquarters of the Faith in the United States. Offices now scattered in six or eight various locations will be consolidated in this building.

In another bit of building news, it was learned, although not announced at the convention, that the bottom steps at the House of Worship were never constructed as a single, integrated unit with the rest of the House of Worship. As a result, the expansion-contraction cycle of summer and winter in Wilmette has meant that a steady round of repair work on the deck of the Temple has to be undertaken. The deck area is constantly buckling and is even hazardous in some areas. One estimated cost to correct the problem: About $2 million, or roughly as much as it cost to erect the entire House of Worship in the first place.

By special request, a portion of the convention was given over to the topic of divorce. Dr. Jeff Marke of the National Center was asked for his views on the topic. He said, although he has no figures comparing Baha’i divorce with that of the national average, there seems to be no significant difference between the two. Marks noted that there seems to be a disproportionate divorce rate among Baha’i couples in their 20′s, which indicates that Baha’i youth have no real understanding of what Baha’i marriage means. Many marriages between Baha’is collapse for shallow reasons of boredom or a feeling that the spark has evaporated from the relationship. Marks said the only valid grounds for Baha’i divorce is deep personal aversion amounting to antipathy, repugnance and loathing. Too often, he noted, local Assemblies function as passive partners in marital breakup, handling Baha’i year of patience cases as routine events, recording them but making no real effort to affect a reconciliation between couples.

The highlight of the convention was the appearance on Saturday night, May 27, of Hand of the Cause of God Mr. William Sears. He spoke at a special outdoor dinner held on the lawn of the National Hazira[tu'l-Quds], across the street from the House of Worship on teh lakefront property owned by the Faith. A huge blue and white tent had been erected for the occasion. And, as the breeze from the lake cooled off the end of a hot, muggy day, Mr. Sears began by reminding his listeners that, when Abdu’l-Baha laid the cornerstone of the House of Worship, that meeting was also held in a tent. Similarly, the cornerstone ceremony for the House of Worship in Kampala, Uganda also was held under a tent. At one point during His life in the Holy Land, Baha’u’llah pitched His tent on the side of Mt. Carmel.

Surveying the audience, Mr. Sears said, “They tell me this is a victory tent, and this is a victory convention. I hope that the spirit of all these tents will rub off on us tonight.” He urged the Baha’is to unite and win the goals because, as Shoghi Effendi said, the Baha’is have to get better as the world turns worse and so far, things are getting worse faster than we are getting better. Noting that the American Baha’i community was seriously lagging in reaching its Five Year Plan homefront goals, Mr. Sears said the situation reminded him of a story he ehard about two Irishmen caught up in the events of the French Revolution. They were arrested and sentenced to die by beheading. They did not discuss their fate with each other until the day of their execution, when both men were laid out, side by side, on twin guillotines. As the blades were released and dropped toward their necks, one Irishman turned to the other and said, “Now here’s my plan…” Mr. Sears paused while the audience roared with laughter and said “And, that’s the status of the homefront.”

IN THE MAIL

We got a letter from Peter Smith of Lancaster, England, commenting on our analysis of his paper The Routinization of Charisma: Some Comments on Peter L. Berger’s ‘Motif Messianique et Processus Social dans le Bahaisme’ (March 1978 Newsletter). He writes:

“I wonder if I might be allowed a couple of comments on the class discussion of my The Routinization of Charisma paper.

Firstly, a correction. The point about the messianic motif is not that it faded in importance in the period after Baha’u’llah (as stated in the class report), but that it became transformed. In the paper I distinguish between two aspects of the ‘messianic motif’: expectation of a messianic figure and expectation of a millenium. There seems every reason to suppose that the early Babis (a similarity here to the early Christians) expected that the coming of the Bab heralded the near advent of the millenium. In contrast, later Baha’is distinguished between the period when their messiah figures came (The Heroic Age) and the future period of the millenium (The Golden Age, The Most Great Peace). The period we are now in (The Formative Age) is seen by Baha’is as linking these two: using the spiritual impetus of the former to establish the latter. The strong emphasis given by Baha’is to the shortcomings of the present age and the need to build a New World Order are a testimony to the continuing importance of the messianic motif. The bulk of the Baha’i teaching endeavour would seem to centre on this concept and much of the rationale for various Baha’i activities (eg establishing LSA’s) is presented in terms of preparing for the future World Order.

Secondly, to defend myself against the charge of ‘Babi bias’ (ie that the analysis is more suggestive for Babi history than it is for Baha’i), as you correclty state the ‘esoteric-gnostic’ motif is no longer of much importance (although there may be certain aspects which might be due for a revivial) which leaves the other three motifs: polar (The Covenant); messianich (work towards a future World Order); and legalistic (the development of Baha’i Law and Administration) as the characteristic features of the Baha’i religion in the modern period. I would argue that this is precisely the case. In contrast to the Heroic Age and the early part of the Formative Age (the establishment of the Administrative Order) when a complex relationship existed between the various motifs and dramatic changes in their development occured, the modern period has been far more stable, the great changes which have occurred in the Faith since the 1930′s can all be more easily conceptualized as changes within these three motifs rather than any actual change in motifs.

Bearing in mind that motifs are only analytical constructs, aids for conceptualizing complex historical processes, you could always run a motif-spotting competition, of course. Say, one free copy of the Hermosa Beach Bulletin for every fresh motif identified in Baha’i history — Second prize: Two copies.”

AND MORE LETTERS

Ron Carrigan of Santa Monica writes:

“… let me make a few observations about the newsletter and the class. I have had a wealth of positive reaction to both over these past several months. Howeer, I must echo the sentiments of a recent correspondent to the Editor who suggested that there seems at times to be an air of cynicism and sarcasm toward the Faith and its institutions. For example, I have had two very negative reactions to two comments made in the newsletter. One was in the last issue, it was mentioned that in the initial days of the Five Year Plan, Baha’is had behaved in a ‘blitzkrieg’-like manner with regard to teaching activities. In additon to the authors poor judgement in these word choices, there is an irony about the thinking invovled. The Faith is so opposed to the use of guns and violence, that linking it to such become a tasteless derision. I am sure the author can do better.”

AND THE NEXT CLASS…

We are lucky enough to have Loni Bramson in town for a few weeks. Ms. Bramson is doing her doctorate in Religious Studies in Belgium where she is also a pioneer. Her dissertation will be on some aspect of the development of the Baha’i Faith under the Guardianship. She has recently completed two weeks of research in the National Baha’i Archives in Wilmette. She will speak to the class about her work and may be able to giv eus some news of the Five Year Plan in Europe.

The class will be held at 2:00 pm at the home of Tony Lee [private address follows] on Sunday, July 23rd. Please try to be there.

[END DOCUMENT]

Related Links:

The original scanned documents can be found here.

  • David

    Hi Baquia,

    As you point out, compared to 1978 enrollement numbers are down (but it looks they had already dropped considerably from 1977) and the interpretation of that is pretty straight-forward. From a statistical point of view, though, your interpretation of the withdrawl numbers doesn’t work. Unless you have good reason to believe the same people who are leaving in a given year are the same ones who entered, dividing enrollments by withdrawls gives you a number that doesn’t have substantive meaning. That’s because people are withdrawing from the whole community, not just the smaller group of people who are newly enrolled. In other words the number that means something is ‘withdraws’/’overall community’. So in 1978 out of 71,189 people, 605 withdrew. That’s clearly the overall number, not the good address number, so the proper comparison would be that this year out of 137,000 or so people 369 withdrew. Clearly the percentage of the community formally withdrawing is much lower now. In 1978 .008% of people withdrew, this year it was less than half of that, around .003%. In other words, the community is roughly twice as big now with roughly half as many withdrawls. In either case, comparing to good addresses would be better but of course the real issue is that most people don’t formally withdraw, they just drift away, which is much harder to track.

    Best,
    David

  • David

    Hi Baquia,

    As you point out, compared to 1978 enrollement numbers are down (but it looks they had already dropped considerably from 1977) and the interpretation of that is pretty straight-forward. From a statistical point of view, though, your interpretation of the withdrawl numbers doesn’t work. Unless you have good reason to believe the same people who are leaving in a given year are the same ones who entered, dividing enrollments by withdrawls gives you a number that doesn’t have substantive meaning. That’s because people are withdrawing from the whole community, not just the smaller group of people who are newly enrolled. In other words the number that means something is ‘withdraws’/’overall community’. So in 1978 out of 71,189 people, 605 withdrew. That’s clearly the overall number, not the good address number, so the proper comparison would be that this year out of 137,000 or so people 369 withdrew. Clearly the percentage of the community formally withdrawing is much lower now. In 1978 .008% of people withdrew, this year it was less than half of that, around .003%. In other words, the community is roughly twice as big now with roughly half as many withdrawls. In either case, comparing to good addresses would be better but of course the real issue is that most people don’t formally withdraw, they just drift away, which is much harder to track.

    Best,
    David

  • http://www.bahairants.com Baquia

    David, you’re right. I point out as much that this is just a statistical make believe number. I still think it is important because two things matter, enrollments and withdrawals. I agree that we should also compare them relative to the total community. But lets say we have a situation where 100 people enter the Faith in a year and in the same year 50 persons withdrawing.

    That is a very different picture than 50 person entering and 100 withdrawing. So the ratio is meaningful.

    In the end though, it is a moot point since as you say the vast majority of people who leave the Faith just drift away and do not inform the NSA or their LSA.

    Any way we slice it, things are dire. The question is are we willing to acknowledge reality? Or do we want to strike the meditation pose that Counsellor Murphy suggests?

  • http://www.bahairants.com Baquia

    David, you’re right. I point out as much that this is just a statistical make believe number. I still think it is important because two things matter, enrollments and withdrawals. I agree that we should also compare them relative to the total community. But lets say we have a situation where 100 people enter the Faith in a year and in the same year 50 persons withdrawing.

    That is a very different picture than 50 person entering and 100 withdrawing. So the ratio is meaningful.

    In the end though, it is a moot point since as you say the vast majority of people who leave the Faith just drift away and do not inform the NSA or their LSA.

    Any way we slice it, things are dire. The question is are we willing to acknowledge reality? Or do we want to strike the meditation pose that Counsellor Murphy suggests?

  • David

    “I agree that we should also compare them relative to the total community. But lets say we have a situation where 100 people enter the Faith in a year and in the same year 50 persons withdrawing.

    That is a very different picture than 50 person entering and 100 withdrawing. So the ratio is meaningful.”

    Thanks for the response Baquia,

    You’re example of 100 to 50 versus 50 to 100 is exactly the sort of thing I’m talking about. I would disagree with you and say that without more information neither is a meaningful ratio First, how big is the organization/group we’re talking about? If its 10 million, than 100-50 or 50-100 doesn’t matter much – in either case you have a remarkable inertia. If, however, the org is only 200 people big, than both cases represent a major upheaval, though the latter number more than the former. Next, what is the trend over time? Is what we see this year representative of a trend? Did something unusual happen that might make us think what we see is an anomaly? In this specific case we’re talking about, it’s misleading to look at it the way you did. Yes, enrollments are declining, but so are withdraws. Less people are joining, but less people are also leaving (at least formally).

    More important than this simple contextualization, however, is coming up with a theory about why we see the numbers we do. Otherwise they’re just a bunch of numbers and we know nothing about cause and effect which is what we ultimately care about (largely b/c we want to know about, and be able to influence, future behavior). One of the vital things to know is whether the important factors are endogenous (have to do with the internal working/decisions of the org) or exogenous (have to do with larger trends that the org is subject to). So, are the numbers we see a reflection of things the org is doing or of the population it resides in? So for instance, we’ve seen enrollment numbers in America declining, but that’s within the context of a society that is in general becoming less religious and less likely to be members of organized religions in general (and, its worth adding, the groups most in decline are mainline Christian groups, the ones most like the Faith in America in terms of being educated, middle-class and focused on social justice issues). So how much does this slowing of growth reflect what Baha’is are doing and how much reflects the overall decline of similar socially liberal religious groups in general (or, more specifically, the interest of people in socially liberal religious groups)? Maybe lots, maybe little, but the numbers by themselves don’t help us figure that out. Again, the 100-50, 50-100 only makes sense if we know the larger context.

    I’m not suggesting that if you just look at the numbers the right way all of sudden things look great. What I am suggesting, however, is that trying to make meaningful inferences from numbers requires a fair amount of work – and trying to understand what’s happening in the Baha’i community simply can’t be done only referencing internal numbers. It has to be placed within the context of larger cultural and social trends. And I will say this – when we look at what religions are growing in North America and which aren’t and then look at what the defining features of growing groups are according to those who study them, I think the core activities and the Five Year Plan start to make a whole lot more sense.

    Best,
    David

  • David

    “I agree that we should also compare them relative to the total community. But lets say we have a situation where 100 people enter the Faith in a year and in the same year 50 persons withdrawing.

    That is a very different picture than 50 person entering and 100 withdrawing. So the ratio is meaningful.”

    Thanks for the response Baquia,

    You’re example of 100 to 50 versus 50 to 100 is exactly the sort of thing I’m talking about. I would disagree with you and say that without more information neither is a meaningful ratio First, how big is the organization/group we’re talking about? If its 10 million, than 100-50 or 50-100 doesn’t matter much – in either case you have a remarkable inertia. If, however, the org is only 200 people big, than both cases represent a major upheaval, though the latter number more than the former. Next, what is the trend over time? Is what we see this year representative of a trend? Did something unusual happen that might make us think what we see is an anomaly? In this specific case we’re talking about, it’s misleading to look at it the way you did. Yes, enrollments are declining, but so are withdraws. Less people are joining, but less people are also leaving (at least formally).

    More important than this simple contextualization, however, is coming up with a theory about why we see the numbers we do. Otherwise they’re just a bunch of numbers and we know nothing about cause and effect which is what we ultimately care about (largely b/c we want to know about, and be able to influence, future behavior). One of the vital things to know is whether the important factors are endogenous (have to do with the internal working/decisions of the org) or exogenous (have to do with larger trends that the org is subject to). So, are the numbers we see a reflection of things the org is doing or of the population it resides in? So for instance, we’ve seen enrollment numbers in America declining, but that’s within the context of a society that is in general becoming less religious and less likely to be members of organized religions in general (and, its worth adding, the groups most in decline are mainline Christian groups, the ones most like the Faith in America in terms of being educated, middle-class and focused on social justice issues). So how much does this slowing of growth reflect what Baha’is are doing and how much reflects the overall decline of similar socially liberal religious groups in general (or, more specifically, the interest of people in socially liberal religious groups)? Maybe lots, maybe little, but the numbers by themselves don’t help us figure that out. Again, the 100-50, 50-100 only makes sense if we know the larger context.

    I’m not suggesting that if you just look at the numbers the right way all of sudden things look great. What I am suggesting, however, is that trying to make meaningful inferences from numbers requires a fair amount of work – and trying to understand what’s happening in the Baha’i community simply can’t be done only referencing internal numbers. It has to be placed within the context of larger cultural and social trends. And I will say this – when we look at what religions are growing in North America and which aren’t and then look at what the defining features of growing groups are according to those who study them, I think the core activities and the Five Year Plan start to make a whole lot more sense.

    Best,
    David

  • Sincere Friend

    You point out some very interesting causative factors. Has anyone ever made a survey of why people leave the Faith or stop coming? Something that is somewhat scientific or systematic.

    I recall that Shoghi Effendi observed that what people want in religious faith is love and a shining ideal. From my own experience I would agree. Those are two factors that have attracted and held my involvement over a long period of time.

    Also it might be interesting to look at other Faiths and churches and see what they do for their members as an organization and what they expect of their members in balance. It might yield some useful lessons and perhaps then we can borrow something like the year of service adapted apparently from the LDS church.

    Anyone wish to comment? Thank you.

  • Sincere Friend

    You point out some very interesting causative factors. Has anyone ever made a survey of why people leave the Faith or stop coming? Something that is somewhat scientific or systematic.

    I recall that Shoghi Effendi observed that what people want in religious faith is love and a shining ideal. From my own experience I would agree. Those are two factors that have attracted and held my involvement over a long period of time.

    Also it might be interesting to look at other Faiths and churches and see what they do for their members as an organization and what they expect of their members in balance. It might yield some useful lessons and perhaps then we can borrow something like the year of service adapted apparently from the LDS church.

    Anyone wish to comment? Thank you.