Unsurprisingly, Christianity is the largest religion in all 50 states. Surprisingly, Bahá’í is the second largest religion in my home state of South Carolina. This news inspired two local papers, the Charleston Post and Courier and the Charleston City Paper, to write articles about Bahá’ís. It also inspired me, an atheist, to attend a local Bahá’í meeting.
There are more Bahá’ís in South Carolina than Jews, Muslims, and Hindus combined; however, Bahá’ís do not outnumber atheists and agnostics. “Nones” (those with no religious affiliation) have grown to 15 percent nationally and 10 percent in South Carolina. And in a 2013 national survey of “nones,” atheists and agnostics were 50 percent of online respondents and 36 percent of those interviewed by telephone. Taking the lower percentage, more than 100,000 atheists and agnostics live in South Carolina compared with about 18,000 Bahá’ís.
The Bahá’í Faith likely became popular in South Carolina because of Louis Gregory, who was born in 1874, was raised in Charleston, and was one of the founders of the Bahá’í Faith in America. After this grandson of a slave became a Bahá’í in 1909, he travelled the country promoting racial equality. Gregory married a white Bahá’í woman in 1912, an act that was considered a crime at the time in parts of the country. The Louis G. Gregory Baha’i Museum is located in downtown Charleston.
Bahá’ís and atheists have not been very public about their views because they’ve been demonized within their surrounding cultures. The Bahá’í Faith began in Iran in 1844 when a young man now known as the “Bab” (meaning “gate” or “door” in Arabic) claimed to be the promised redeemer of Islam. The Bab also said that a second divine messenger would usher in the age of peace and justice promised in Islam. The Bab alienated Islamic clergy and was executed by a firing squad in 1850 at the age of 30. One of the Bab’s followers, Bahá’u’lláh, revealed in 1863 that he was the messenger foretold by the Bab. The teachings of Bahá’u’lláh are the foundation of the Bahá’í Faith.