My peers and I spend a lot of time discussing how we teach library patrons to find, evaluate, and use information. We all agree it’s increasingly challenging to discern truth in the face of widespread manipulation, political polarization, social media algorithms, and other disintegrative forces in our society. But there’s one more force my classmates mentioned the other day that caught me by surprise. “How do you handle it,” my classmate asked, “when you have a very religious patron?”
I was confused at first. Why would that change anything about our approach? But as I had that thought, my other classmates began to chime in, saying things like, “I’ve been wanting to ask that same question!” and “It’s so hard to talk to them!”
Most of us have encountered library patrons who cling to religious dogma and reject information. But I find it truly unfortunate that all religious individuals are painted with the same brush because of the attitudes of a few. Especially because for me, religion is exactly the force in my life that I feel protects me from ignorance.It“is a radiant light and an impregnable stronghold for the protection and welfare of the peoples of the world.”
Baha’u’llah’s teachings include counsels for me to seek truth, to investigate independently, and to consult with others. Striving to live up to these ideals helps to protect me from falling into many traps of ignorance. Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s easy in the face of the many disintegrative societal forces prevalent today.
For example, phrases are thrown around like “live your truth” and “everyone’s truth is valid.” The idea of “speak your truth” can be powerful as a tool for helping the oppressed be heard, but some have co-opted it as a slogan of relativism, the idea that there is no one absolute capital-T Truth to be found.
My understanding of the Baha’i Writings tells me that there is a singular truth to be sought.
Put all your beliefs into harmony with science; there can be no opposition, for truth is one.
Simply the knowledge that there is a singular truth to be uncovered can be a protection against relativism. On the other hand, if I lose sight of my humility, I might assume my current understanding is the absolute truth, and refuse to let it go. This pitfall would lead me into exactly the dogmatic attitude my classmates lamented.
They must in every matter search out the truth and not insist upon their own opinion, for stubbornness and persistence in one’s views will lead ultimately to discord and wrangling and the truth will remain hidden.
I feel very fortunate, then, to have further guidance to “settle all things, both great and small by consultation.” The principles of Baha’i consultation remind me not to cling to my current understanding or opinion.
Unfortunately, staying open or detached is not enough, because what I’m exposed is filtered to cater to my particular beliefs or biases. Data algorithms and the people I choose to surround myself with can all contribute to an echo chamber in which I’m only exposed to ideas I already agree with. This is particularly dangerous because it can create false perceptions of unity of thought. It seems as though everyone must feel the same way because I am not being exposed to other perspectives.
For example, my husband and I recently discussed a news headline over dinner. His take on it was so vastly different than mine, and we were both a little shocked. When we compared information sources, we realized that his news filters and social media algorithms were filling his feeds with one perspective on the story, while mine were only showing me a totally different perspective.
Here again, consultation helped us investigate and remain open, and we came to what we thought was a more accurate and nuanced understanding. If we had not consulted, we might have continued none the wiser, or doubled down on our immature understandings.
Another barrier that I feel pulling me towards dogma rather than truth is social pressure. I don’t want my friends and colleagues to think that I don’t support them because I don’t accept their perspectives without hesitation. I try to remind myself that if I give in to the desire to simply accept another’s opinion, I might contribute to increasing polarization. In social circles that become uncritical echo chambers, extreme ideas may be reinforced and nuance and complexity ignored. At the same time, the method of “debate” I often see in my American culture and elsewhere makes it equally hard to engage in true consultation and this is a challenge I am continually striving to overcome as I elevate conversations and insert principles of consultation in my everyday discussions.
Sometimes the pull towards dogmatic belief comes from my emotional reactions to the information I receive. Whether I’m aware of it or not, my emotions are sometimes purposefully being manipulated by social media, public figures, news outlets, and advertising. Surely I’m not the only person to get choked up by ads, as an example. I find it helpful in moments of high emotion to recall the idea that humanity has two aspects to our being: the lower, or animalistic, and the higher.
The reality of man is his thought, not his material body. The thought force and the animal force are partners. Although man is part of the animal creation, he possesses a power of thought superior to all other created beings.
I find it’s a daily struggle to check my emotional reactions. But if I don’t, I’ll accept or reject information simply because of how it makes me feel. Taking a moment to stop and remind myself to think, investigate, and consult, helps me evaluate those instinctive reactions.
Religion truly can be a positive force that helps each of us seek truth more effectively. Because of the Baha’i teachings, I strive to remain open to new information, stay detached from prior understandings and personal biases, and practice true consultation. We are surrounded by disintegrative forces that can cloud the truth, but by relying on Baha’u’llah’s guidance, I feel greatly protected. For that I am thankful.
Maia is a new mom, graduate student, and public librarian in the United States with a passion for community building. You’ll often find her writing in coffee shops, reading with her lap cat, and exploring backroads with her husband.