My personal reflections on this blog take inspiration from the Bahá’í teachings.

Friday, 24 August 2007

Secular thinker envisaged universal religion

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Recent posts on this blog have been discussing the idea that religion evolves. An interesting sidelight of the subject appears in Jack Mclean's blog.

Jack notes that Eric Fromm wrote on the development of a new universalistic religion in his 1955 book, The Sane Society. It seems Fromm may have been influenced by a Baha'i he was corresponding with. Fromm is quoted thus:

The most important feature of such a religion will be its universalistic character, corresponding to the unification of mankind which is taking place in this epoch; it would embrace the humanistic teachings common to all the great religions of the East and of the West; its doctrines would not contradict the rational insight of mankind today, and its emphasis would be on the practice of life, rather than on doctrinal beliefs.

See:


Pilgrim's Notes: Eric Fromm and the Bahá'í Faith

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Saturday, 18 August 2007

Humanity's pilgrimage towards unity

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One of the strong objections raised by non-believers towards religion is that it is a "tribalistic" force which is having dangerously divisive effects in the present age of the global village. This objection is worthy of deep consideration by religious believers, given that there is ample evidence in the news every day of religion playing a major part in creating civil and international conflict. Taking into account this terrible and tragic reality of the present world scene, does religion have a future?

My sparring-partner in a fruitful dialogue on whether religion has outlived its usefulness, Dan, puts it this way:

While nationalistic faiths (i.e., those that strongly define "in-group" and "out-group"; see "Tribalism" section of my Religion and Ethnocentrism essay) are probably very adaptive in warring societies, they have decidedly less utility in peaceful societies. Yet, nationalistic faiths (e.g., Christianity and Islam) appear to dominate Western, Near Eastern and Middle Eastern societies still, despite a crowded world with increasingly dangerous (nuclear) weapons in which we would do better to cooperate in.

The above paragraph was part of Dan's response to my assertion that the Muslim pilgrimage is an example of the unifying power of religion, showing that such religious institutions have historically worked to break down barriers of ethnicity and geography. To read the whole exchange, see the post, Pilgrimages and Migrations, on Dan's blog.

Dan's view that religion has become a largely reactionary and disunifying force, reflects an opinion that is obviously popular in humanist / rationalist circles. For instance, in a recent article, "Beyond the New Atheism", published by "The Humanist Online", the writer, Carl Coon, states:

I see a general theory emerging that explains religion in Darwinian terms, as one of the principal features of human culture that has bound groups together throughout the history and prehistory of our species. According to this theory, religion's forms have varied but the common denominator has been to help ensure that the individual cooperates with other members of the group. God emerges as a device that makes it easier for most individuals to understand how they should behave, and offers rewards and punishments to make them conform. In other words, God is a fiction of the human mind that survives because of its efficacy in inducing behavior that adds to the survivability of the group. It does this in part by reinforcing the "us versus them" mentality.

The problem with this evolutionary device is that when problems get global there's no longer room for a "them." We're all in it together and need universal binders, not just ones that thrive on setting select groups of people apart.

Already, in the nineteenth century, the fact that humankind had reached a new stage in its development, a stage when ancient prejudices would have to be put aside for the sake of our very survival, was vigorously proclaimed by Baha'u'llah (1817-1892), and subsequently by His appointed successor, His son 'Abdu'l-Baha (1844-1921). Baha'u'llah's call for world unity continues to be championed by the global Baha'i community, which He founded, down to the present day. Baha'u'llah and 'Abdu'l-Baha were well aware of the divisiveness of traditional religion that Dan and Carl Coon have pointed out. The need for obliterating inherited boundaries of "them and us" was explicitly addressed by 'Abdu'l-Baha:

In every dispensation, there hath been the commandment of fellowship and love, but it was a commandment limited to the community of those in mutual agreement, not to the dissident foe. In this wondrous age, however, praised be God, the commandments of God are not delimited, not restricted to any one group of people, rather have all the friends been commanded to show forth fellowship and love, consideration and generosity and loving-kindness to every community on earth. Now must the lovers of God arise to carry out these instructions of His: let them be kindly fathers to the children of the human race, and compassionate brothers to the youth, and self-denying offspring to those bent with years. The meaning of this is that ye must show forth tenderness and love to every human being, even to your enemies, and welcome them all with unalloyed friendship, good cheer, and loving-kindness.
('Abdu'l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of 'Abdu'l-Baha, p. 20)

Again, 'Abdu'l-Baha wrote, in a letter to the Sixth International Congress of Free and Progressive Christians and Other Religious Liberals, held in Paris, 1913:

Religion, which was meant to be sweet honey, is changed into bitter poison. Religion, the function of which was to illumine humanity, has become the factor of obscuration and gloom. Religion, which was to confer the consciousness of everlasting life, has become the fiendish instrument of death. As long as these superstitions are in the hands and these nets of dissimulation and hypocrisy in the fingers, religion will be the most harmful agency on this planet. These superannuated traditions, which are inherited unto the present day, must be abandoned, and thus free from past superstitions we must investigate the original intention. The basis on which they have fabricated the superstructures will be seen to be one, and that one, absolute reality; and as reality is indivisible, complete unity and amity will be instituted and the true religion of God will become unveiled in all its beauty and sublimity in the assemblage of the world.
(Abdu'l-Baha, Divine Philosophy, p. 161)

It is hard to imagine the most eloquent of atheists expressing a more effective critique of misguided religion, than this religious leader!

In words that are even more pressingly relevant today than they were then, in the nineteenth century, Baha'u'llah wrote:

The fundamental purpose animating the Faith of God and His Religion is to safeguard the interests and promote the unity of the human race... Suffer it not to become a source of dissension and discord, of hate and enmity.... Our hope is that the world's religious leaders and the rulers thereof will unitedly arise for the reformation of this age and the rehabilitation of its fortunes. Let them, after meditating on its needs, take counsel together and, through anxious and full deliberation, administer to a diseased and sorely-afflicted world the remedy it requireth.
(Baha'u'llah, Tablets of Baha'u'llah, p. 168)

In a talk given in New York in 1912, envisioning a transformation of society in the future, 'Abdul-Baha said:

The thoughts of man shall take such upward flight that former accomplishments shall appear as the play of children, for the ideas and beliefs of the past and the prejudices regarding race and religion have ever lowered and been destructive to human evolution. [emphasis added]
('Abdu'l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 125)
The Baha'i teachings agree with evolutionary scientists studying religion, that it is indeed a phenomenon which is closely linked with the evolution of civilization, albeit the Baha'i perspective differs significantly from the strictly materialist concept proposed by Carl Coon, quoted above. The late Guardian of the Baha'i Faith, Shoghi Effendi, wrote:

The fundamental principle enunciated by Bahá'u'lláh, the followers of His Faith firmly believe, is that Religious truth is not absolute but relative, that Divine Revelation is a continuous and progressive process, that all the great religions of the world are divine in origin, that their basic principles are in complete harmony, that their aims and purposes are one and the same, that their teachings are but facets of one truth, that their functions are complementary, that they differ only in the non-essential aspects of their doctrines and that their missions represent successive stages in the spiritual evolution of human society. [Emphasis added.]
(Shoghi Effendi, "Summary Statement to the Special UN Committee on Palestine", 1947)

Shoghi Effendi also wrote:

Just as the organic evolution of mankind has been slow and gradual, and involved successively the unification of the family, the tribe, the city-state, and the nation, so has the light vouchsafed by the Revelation of God, at various stages in the evolution of religion, and reflected in the successive Dispensations of the past, been slow and progressive. Indeed the measure of Divine Revelation, in every age, has been adapted to, and commensurate with, the degree of social progress achieved in that age by a constantly evolving humanity. [emphases added]
(Shoghi Effendi, The Promised Day is Come, p. 118)

It is in seeing religion as an evolving phenomenon that we can see that it has a future. Religion is not locked-in to what it was in the past.

Reflecting on the historical processes that took place when the "great religions" were born and grew, we see that particularly in their early stages, they dramatically pushed forward ahead of their times. For instance, the transformations wrought in the societies of the Middle East and Asia where Islam spread in its golden age, and the powerful social effects of practices like the hajj (pilgrimage), indicate that Islam was an overwhelmingly progressive force relative to the conditions of that age. But an organism that was once vigorous can weaken over time. We should not suppose that the creative essence of religion can be found in such forms of it as have deteriorated until merely the outward shell is left, and from which the animating spirit has departed. Such religion exists where practices established in the past continue of their own momentum, even while their original purpose has been forgotten. Institutions can die. Rituals can lose their meaning. This is not a blanket criticism of any or all religions. There are a great many followers of all the religions for whom religion continues to have a dynamic and outward-looking influence on their lives. Their belief is manifested in a myriad forms of service to humankind, and such individuals are leaders in working for charity, justice, and peace. Many a global network is made up of religious believers; even, in some cases, composed of followers of different religions banded together for some common cause of human betterment.

To my mind, the most powerful example of the renewal of the religious spirit in our own age is the birth and growth of the Baha'i Faith. The very fact that some 150 years ago Baha'u'llah drew attention to all the major issues besetting us now, including religious conflict, shows that religion and religious insight can still forge ahead of the times. Baha'u'llah called upon His followers:

Gird up the loins of your endeavor, O people of Baha, that haply the tumult of religious dissension and strife that agitateth the peoples of the earth may be stilled, that every trace of it may be completely obliterated. For the love of God, and them that serve Him, arise to aid this sublime and momentous Revelation. Religious fanaticism and hatred are a world-devouring fire, whose violence none can quench. The Hand of Divine power can, alone, deliver mankind from this desolating affliction.

(Baha'u'llah, Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, p. 13)

Not only did Baha'u'llah create a body of teachings, he also established an organised worldwide community that now carries on the work that He started. It has spread to every country of the world and comprises members representing innumerable ethnic groups of every social class. The unity of this community in all its diversity gives practical expression to Baha'u'llah's vision.

Religion -- described by Baha'u'llahas "the Hand of Divine power" -- sees deep into reality and far into the future. It can accomplish results far surpassing those devised by any secular philosophy or programme.

No scheme which the calculations of the highest statesmanship may yet devise; no doctrine which the most distinguished exponents of economic theory may hope to advance; no principle which the most ardent of moralists may strive to inculcate, can provide, in the last resort, adequate foundations upon which the future of a distracted world can be built. ... Not even, I venture to assert, would the very act of devising the machinery required for the political and economic unification of the world -- a principle that has been increasingly advocated in recent times -- provide in itself the antidote against the poison that is steadily undermining the vigor of organized peoples and nations. What else, might we not confidently affirm, but the unreserved acceptance of the Divine Program enunciated, with such simplicity and force ... by Bahá'u'lláh, embodying in its essentials God's divinely appointed scheme for the unification of mankind in this age... is eventually capable of withstanding the forces of internal disintegration which, if unchecked, must needs continue to eat into the vitals of a despairing society.

(Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Baha'u'llah, p. 33)

I realise that "God's divinely appointed scheme for the unification of mankind" is a challenging concept to the secular mind. The word "religion" suggests images of rituals performed in temples and scholastic debates between theologians. In this guise, religion seems to be a human construct; something invented by priests, and increasingly irrelevant. But its Divine origin, its emergence out of the same unfathomable realm of pure Being that gives rise to matter and life, is clearly evident in the lives of the Founders of the great religions, including Baha'u'llah. The very appearance of these remarkable individuals at intervals throughout history is an astonishing thing. The originating genius of religion comes from Them. Theirs is an insight that is not of this world. Baha'is call them "Manifestations of God".

Briefly, the supreme Manifestations of God are aware of the reality of the mysteries of beings. Therefore, They establish laws which are suitable and adapted to the state of the world of man, for religion is the essential connection which proceeds from the realities of things. The Manifestation -- that is, the Holy Lawgiver -- unless He is aware of the realities of beings, will not comprehend the essential connection which proceeds from the realities of things, and He will certainly not be able to establish a religion conformable to the facts and suited to the conditions. The Prophets of God, the supreme Manifestations, are like skilled physicians, and the contingent world is like the body of man: the divine laws are the remedy and treatment. Consequently, the doctor must be aware of, and know, all the members and parts, as well as the constitution and state of the patient, so that he can prescribe a medicine which will be beneficial against the violent poison of the disease. In reality the doctor deduces from the disease itself the treatment which is suited to the patient, for he diagnoses the malady, and afterward prescribes the remedy for the illness. Until the malady be discovered, how can the remedy and treatment be prescribed? The doctor then must have a thorough knowledge of the constitution, members, organs and state of the patient, and be acquainted with all diseases and all remedies, in order to prescribe a fitting medicine.
Religion, then, is the necessary connection which emanates from the reality of things; and as the supreme Manifestations of God are aware of the mysteries of beings, therefore, They understand this essential connection, and by this knowledge establish the Law of God.

(Abdu'l-Baha, Some Answered Questions, p. 158)

If religion can demonstrate the ability to meet the needs of our age, will we doubt that it has a future? If God continues to speak us through His Messengers, shall we doubt that He exists?

[This article has been edited since it was first posted earlier today.]

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Saturday, 11 August 2007

Unravelling "The God Delusion"

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I read Richard Dawkins' book "The God Delusion" some time ago and I've had it in mind to write a post commenting on this book. But meanwhile, a brilliant review of it has appeared in"One Country", a newsletter of the Baha'i International Community, and anything I might have written seems redundant.

Steven Phelps, the reviewer, starts off with an outline of the complaints that Dawkins' has about religion, and grants that these complaints are warranted to some degree. Phelps then proceeds to state:

When set against traditional religious understandings of God, Dr. Dawkins’ arguments are quite powerful. But against the Bahá’í understanding of God and nature, the contradictions that he identifies between science and religion simply dissolve.

In the course of explaining this point, he makes these interesting comments:

A number of passages in the Bahá’í writings suggest that God’s action and the laws of nature are folded together — and that the natural laws that, say, guide evolution, are merely an extension of God’s will. “Nature is the expression of God’s will in and through the contingent world,” writes Bahá’u’lláh, explaining that “all the atoms of the earth have celebrated Thy praise,” and yet are “under one law from which they will never depart.”

In this vein, distinct categories of natural and supernatural action blend togetherallowing Bahá’ís to view the physical world in both sacred and secular terms. God’s action in the world looks more like physics than magic.

"The God Delusion" accurately identifies some pressing modern problems. One Country's review suggests solutions which, from a Baha'i perspective, are more viable than those that Richard Dawkins proposes.

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The power of pilgrimage

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Anyone who may have been following my discussion with Dan, mentioned previously, might be interested to read my latest comment on his blog -- putting forward the Muslim pilgrimage as an example of the unifying power of religion.

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Monday, 6 August 2007

Religion a tribalistic force?

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My discussion with biologist Dan Rhoads on his Migrations blog is continuing. Dan feels that religion is an ethnocentric force, rooted in humanity's tribal past. Supplementary to my comments on Dan's blog, here are some Baha'i quotations on the theme of religion's progressively unifying influence on civilization over the course of history.

Unification of the whole of mankind is the hall-mark of the stage which human society is now approaching. Unity of family, of tribe, of city-state, and nation have been successively attempted and fully established. World unity is the goal towards which a harassed humanity is striving. Nation-building has come to an end. The anarchy inherent in state sovereignty is moving towards a climax. A world, growing to maturity, must abandon this fetish, recognize the oneness and wholeness of human relationships, and establish once for all the machinery that can best incarnate this fundamental principle of its life.

(Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Baha'u'llah, p. 202)

Just as the organic evolution of mankind has been slow and gradual, and involved successively the unification of the family, the tribe, the city-state, and the nation, so has the light vouchsafed by the Revelation of God, at various stages in the evolution of religion, and reflected in the successive Dispensations of the past, been slow and progressive. Indeed the measure of Divine Revelation, in every age, has been adapted to, and commensurate with, the degree of social progress achieved in that age by a constantly evolving humanity.


(Shoghi Effendi, The Promised Day is Come, p. 117)


In cycles gone by, though harmony was established, yet, owing to the absence of means, the unity of all mankind could not have been achieved. Continents remained widely divided, nay even among the peoples of one and the same continent association and interchange of thought were wellnigh impossible. Consequently intercourse, understanding and unity amongst all the peoples and kindreds of the earth were unattainable. In this day, however, means of communication have multiplied, and the five continents of the earth have virtually merged into one. And for everyone it is now easy to travel to any land, to associate and exchange views with its peoples, and to become familiar, through publications, with the conditions, the religious beliefs and the thoughts of all men. In like manner all the members of the human family, whether peoples or governments, cities or villages, have become increasingly interdependent. For none is self-sufficiency any longer possible, inasmuch as political ties unite all peoples and nations, and the bonds of trade and industry, of agriculture and education, are being strengthened every day. Hence the unity of all mankind can in this day be achieved.


(Abdu'l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu'l-Baha, p. 31)

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Sunday, 5 August 2007

Response to "Religion and Ethnocentrism: Is Religion Adaptive"

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Dan Rhoads kindly invited my comments on his new post, "Religion and Ethnocentrism: Is Religion Adaptive". My response to his stimulating essay is posted below. It also appears as a comment on Dan's Migrations blog.


Dan,

Thanks for letting me know, via my blog, of your post, and inviting my comments. I'm delighted you did that, taking it as a welcome and encouraging compliment.

The essay you've written after attending Allen MacNeill's class gives an impressively interesting and thoughtful survey of some of the issues arising from the scientific study of religion from an evolutionary biology perspective. Congratulations on the effort you put into it.

The increasing attention evidently being given to religion amongst evolutionary scientists and in other scientific fields is highly a positive development which must lead to gains in understanding of the nature of religion, a phenomenon that plays a central role in civilization and individual psychology. In particular, science is beginning to demonstrate that religion is in essence a single phenomenon, from the viewpoint of its role in human nature, albeit that numerous "religions" and "sects" provide an endless variety of examples of the phenomenon. When this realization takes hold more widely in society, it promises to alleviate the tribalism (as you call it), that bedevils adherence to religion in a globalising world. Such a realization is analogous to the realization resulting from scientific study that biologically there is no such thing as separate races amongst humanity, which dealt a death-blow to racist concepts and ideologies. It has been proven that biologically, regardless of superficial differences, mankind is one. It seems it will soon be demonstrated scientifically that in religious propensities, too, mankind is essentially one. One other contextual point I want to make is that although my perspective is that of a religious believer, I have the utmost respect for science, and consider that its clear findings should be readily accepted.

As your account shows, religion and the dynamics of social life have been closely intertwined from the earliest times down to the present. The story (history) of religion and the story of social evolution go hand in hand. Religious doctrines, practices and institutions have glued societies together. Religions have served to confer legitimacy on kings and rulers, provided a common language and symbolic models whereby the people as a whole could understand their place in belonging to their societies, and offered social occasions, such as collective worship services, where people formed a sense of solidarity with one another beyond groupings of family, occupation and class. As is often noted in this context, the word religion comes from a Latin word which literally means to tie, fasten, or bind. One of the primary functions of religion, then, is to bind people together. (Its other primary function is to strengthen the psycho-spiritual wholeness of the individual.)

It is pretty much a universal law that the survival of individual entities is best ensured by being part of a larger group. The cell can best survive as part of a body. The individual animal can best survive as part of a pack, flock, or troupe, etc. Survival for most human beings is nearly impossible if cut off from society. This factor drives the evolutionary process in the direction of larger and larger agglomerations of entities.

Describing religion as a feature of tribalism is correct insofar as it applies to the tribal stage of social evolution, but religion has also been central to the life of the larger groupings that emerged when tribes banded into city-states, nations and empires. The survival-value of religion is not limited to tribes, but arises from its unifying efficacy in societies of small scale or large. In fact, religion has often taken the lead in promoting larger groupings and wider loyalties. Christianity at its inception was a movement with a mission aimed at overcoming all forms of artificial barriers between people. As St. Paul wrote to his fellow-Christians, "For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit." This expressed a spiritual conception parallel to the multi-tribal material civilization of the Roman Empire. In the end it proved to be a more effective conception than the Roman pantheon, eventually winning an Emperor to its side, and a large proportion of the populace. When Islam appeared on the scene, it went even further in promoting wider loyalties. Muhammad's teachings were very explicit not only in upholding the ideal of all under Islam being "one in spirit", to use St. Paul's term, but also in laying out laws and social structures giving practical effect to this vision. A nation state is a society existing in a particular territory, that is able to maintain its unity while accommodating people of various ethnicities and religions. An archetypal model for such a society was Arabia under Muhammad. This is too big a subject to go into in detail, so I will have to be content with flagging it as an area for investigation.

I have reservations about the statement you made that: "Since the expansion of the Judeo-Christian model of monotheism, not much changed for a while, until notable a shift towards secularization." This statement appears to overlook the huge contribution of Islam to the developments that produced modern civilization. Unfortunately this contribution continues to be under-recognized in the West. Not long ago I read substantial a book by a French historian (whose name escapes me right now), that managed to survey the gamut of cultural developments in Europe since the Renaissance without once mentioning the debt that Europe owes to Islam. I submit that this Euro-centric blind spot of Western scholarship seriously undermines Western understanding of religion. Its no accident that the Renaissance began in Italy, a part of Europe in close contact with the Islamic world through trade and geographic proximity. What has this got to do with the present discussion? Islam fills in an important missing link in the story. Religion consistently has a progressive, boundary-expanding effect, but this fact is obscured when the progression of religion in the West is assumed to be Judaism, to Christianity, to Enlightenment humanism. I suggest that the impulses that lead to the Enlightenment came out of the Islamic world.

Regarding your conclusion, I'm 100% with you in applauding decency, science and the rule of law. Yet the historical experience of humankind that has given us these concepts was thoroughly imbued with religion. The concepts may be termed secular in the sense that they are not bound up with the doctrines of any religion in particular, and in general are subscribed to by any modern sensible person. On the other hand, they are "religious" concepts because they are in the domain of thought that religion has always dealt with, and are an outcome of historical movements that originated in religion. Increasingly it is being seen that humankind has a common religious heritage. The most far reaching proposals and plan of action for overcoming the boundaries of nationalism and all forms of prejudice and discrimination in the world today are those of the Baha'i religion. The core impulse of religion is not towards tribalism, but towards ever-greater unity.

Regrettably I haven't had time to adequately clarify/justify all of my statements above, but I hope that overall my response does not disappoint as initial feedback. I've been taking a break from blogging interactions because of OOS and the need to deal with various challenges. But I'm very glad that such a stimulating correspondent as yourself has prompted me out of hibernation. Thanks for your kind best wishes. My greetings too, for your health, wealth, and happiness!

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