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

Saturday, 18 August 2007

Humanity's pilgrimage towards unity

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.]

technorati tags:, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


Dan said...

Sorry for the delay in responding! I think that your explanation of Baha'i is profoundly hopeful, and really answers some of my main concerns.

I'm still unhappy, of course, that such unifying concepts (like those of Baha'i) are not more widely embraced. That, and I'm not at all sure that our apparently mutual interest in unity and common human decency are actually going to one day be the dominating force in human affairs.

But, here's to an optimistic and more peaceful future for humanity! :-)

Anonymous said...

A most thoughtful posting! Thank you. That religious identity is central to human purpose and action cannot be denied. Given the gift of free will, human beings will distort and misuse the power of faith, but the sustained spiritual identity of the masses of humankind who yearn for a world of peace and tranquility must be a source of confidence that this yearning will one day be actualized.

For more on the question of identity see the World Watch essay in the most recent Baha'i World volume.

John Bryden said...

Dan - Your gracious response is most definitely appreciated. I share your concern that progress towards a more peaceful world is dreadfully slow. As the poet Robert Hayden wrote, "O dreadfully / Our humanness must be achieved". Sooner or later it is inevitable that humanity will have to put nationalistic conflict behind. The trend of globalisation is unstoppable and demands that we change our collective thinking and behaviour. But how long will it take? And how much suffering must humankind endure on the way there? Everyone who has caught a glimpse of the vision of a world without war and poverty needs to stand shoulder to shoulder in efforts to bring about a significant improvement sooner, even if it cannot happen in our own lifetime, or even our children's lifetime. Somehow participating in the effort makes a difference even right now.

Anonymous - Thank you for your kind words, and thanks for the suggestion on further material to read. You make an important point, that the hope of peace in human hearts is a clear sign it will one day become a reality.

Dan said...

I'm not so certain that it is inevitable that we will be able to put nationalistic conflict behind - I hope so, I really do, but only time will tell, as you say. Globalization really DOES force us to consider these issues though.

Farhan said...

Hi Dan,

There are things we do out of wisdom, and others we do when we are forced into them when it is too late.
Time will tell for sure, but we might want to prevent catastrophe by being wise.
We can wait to see if a child without education will become a good citizen or a scoundrel, but I am sure no parent would take a chance of educating one child and leaving the other without education so as to be able to have a scientific proof of the usefulness of education.

We might look and history and say that there is enoough historical evidence that an appropriate education can reduce the risk of criminality in youth, and act in consequence.
We can sit back and wait for time to tell if global warming is a risk or not, or we might want to be on the safe side and do our best to aleviate that risk before it is too late.

To my understanding, history has shown that spiritual education improves social coherence and promotes peace, but when religion neglected or is used as a means of creating conflict instead of creating love and unity, things go wrong.

I have made a choice to offer some of my time to advance the ideal of using spirituality for love and peace before it is too late.
Time will tell if my choice was right or wrong. It is personal bet that my life would be wasted if I did not invest some of my time in this ideal.
What is your prediction, or will you wait for scientific proof?



Stephen Webster said...

Time. As a geoscientist I know of huge time spans that geologic processes took just to give us a grain of sand on the beach. In comparison our history and lifespan is a blink of an eye. When I read aspects of history, its takes me seconds to read something that took years or lifetimes to achieve. It's human nature to expect and want things instantly. We also want to see instant results from our efforts.

When I deal with my teenage son, I have to appreciate he inevitably will grow out of certain behaviours on his own. A family plagued by the dynamics and behaviour that goes with alcoholism will take at least three sober generations to adapt new behaviours. Despite the very best intentions and actions to make a better world, I am beginning to appreciate similarly that it might take time, even several generations, to achieve world peace. It may seem we are not making progress but in the big picture we are.

For me I would satisfy a craving for gratification by seeing some instant results. The more I reflect on this the more I believe the world will change inevitably but with time beyond my years. In the meantime I must strive for the three requisites as mentioned in Advent of Divine Justice: moral rectitude, chasity and elimination of prejudice. I recommend reading that to appreciate that some of the aspects mentioned are a long way off still as that was written in 1938.

As well as affecting global change as best as I can in the outward sense, by working on my inner being and character I hope to be part of that inevitable peace just as the orderly sorting of sand grains on the beach.

Stephen Webster

Dan said...

Hi Farhan,
My apologies for not having checked back, for follow-up comments. You said however:
"I have made a choice to offer some of my time to advance the ideal of using spirituality for love and peace before it is too late.
Time will tell if my choice was right or wrong. It is personal bet that my life would be wasted if I did not invest some of my time in this ideal.
What is your prediction, or will you wait for scientific proof?"
Well, to be honest I take little issue with spirituality, being more in dispute with the notion of deities, or at least the Christian God.

But let me answer your question on spirituality this way: I think that spirituality is a universal part of the human condition, and even the most secular among us finds spiritual solace in some sort of transcendence - I imagine that even Richard Dawkins finds something spiritual in nature and science (I know I do, and this fits with Spinoza's God).

Now the problem is that I usually take issue with at least some of the details of every religion that I've come across, and prefer to not practice any faith (particularly the idea of a personal God). Instead, I prefer to find spirituality and meaning in the things that I value for very personal reasons.

I also imagine that you'd be surprised that an atheist would believe in such a version of spirituality. ;-) Well, I also think there's a difference between spirituality and mysticism - the former merely being anything which moves me emotionally as an individual, while the latter relies on the world containing inexplicable and impossible miracles, among other things. One can find meaning and purpose in their own lives even without supernaturalism and mysticism.


Farhan said...

Note from John. Farhan emailed this to me as he could not post it himself, for the reason he mentions.

Dear John,
For some reason my computer at work is blocked for cookies, and perhaps this is why I cannot participate directly before I have my new personnel E Mail address. Please share my reply:

Dan said...

"Well, to be honest I take little issue with spirituality, being more in dispute with the notion of deities, or at least the Christian God.

I guess as Abdu'l-Baha once said, the concept of God you reject I also reject. God is not Father Xmas to me ;-)

"I think that spirituality is a universal part of the human condition, and even the most secular among us finds spiritual solace in some sort of transcendence -"

i agree, but i also believe that our faculty for spirituality needs to be educated otherwise we fall into superstitions and vain imaginings.

"Instead, I prefer to find spirituality and meaning in the things that I value for very personal reasons."

i understand that.

"Well, I also think there's a difference between spirituality and mysticism -- the former merely being anything which moves me emotionally as an individual"

i agree. We all believe in aesthetics, but each person might have a different taste, considering such as aesthetic and such other as inaesthetic. So when we say "spiritual" we presume "positive spirituality" and at the same time some might have "spiritual problems". We can understand the "Natural Law" of Marxism being a form of spiritual education which unfortunately did not succeed in making the masses naturally generous.

"One can find meaning and purpose in their own lives even without supernaturalism and mysticism."

The Baha'i concept is that every now and again we have an intervention from the invisible realm into our visible realm bringing us an inkling of the invisible spiritual world. In the same way as a grain brings information from the vegetable world that is beyond the mineral's capacity of understanding, and this information is capable of organising the mineral world into a plant. Hence, intervention from the spiritual sources beyond our understanding, in the same way, intervene and organise us spiritually into a human society...