Religious Definitions and Religious Polemics:
Baha'i in Popular Handbooks of Religion

By Margit Warburg

First presented at the Irfan Colloquia Session #8
Newcastle, England
December 8–10, 1995
(see list of papers from #8)

    For the general public popular handbooks are important sources of information on the various religious groups in contemporary Western society, including Baha'i. These books reach a wide circle of readers, and it is of interest to study how Baha'i is presented in such literature. I have systematically surveyed about fifty such handbooks; most of them are intended to be neutral and fact-oriented while some are distinctly polemic against Baha'i and other new religions, new religious movements, sects, cults, or whatever terms are used.

    Baha'i authors--both scholars and non-scholars--always call Baha'i a religion or a faith, and the official Baha'i position is against the use of the word "sect." A comparison of handbooks written by Baha'i scholars with anti-Baha'i polemic handbooks shows, however, no convincing pattern of whether Baha'i is called a religion or a sect, neither among scholars nor among non-Baha'i antagonists. The use of the word "sect" is therefore not necessarily a token of anti-Baha'i polemics.

    The presentations of Baha'i in the polemic handbooks are, with few exceptions, characterized by diffuse and general anti-cult attitudes, such as accusations of "youth-napping," rather than by specific anti-Baha'i statements. A few polemic statements directed against Baha'i are, however, interesting to analyze in greater depth

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