The terrestrial globe from the beginning was created with all its elements, substances, minerals, atoms and organisms; but these only appeared by degrees …
August 27, 2012. We’ve covered many things in our discussions of evolution, science, and religion, but we have yet to discuss the Bahá’í perspective on the topic. We remedy that deficiency starting below.
Extensive discussions about evolution and related topics are found in the Bahá’í writings.These include discussions on creation, on nature, on human origins, on the relationship between humans and animals, on materialism, and on many other topics current today. Most of these discussions are found in the voluminous remarks that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’ addressed to westerners on pilgrimage to visit the Bahá’í Holy Places in Palestine and to audiences in his extensive journeys throughout Europe and North America before World War I.
‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s discussions of evolution offer a vibrant and powerful illustration of the principle of the unity of science and religion, one of the basic teachings of the Bahá’í Faith. I view them as reconciling two viewpoints – evolution and divine creation – that many have thought to be irremediably in conflict. And they do so – once their depth is understood – in ways that are scientifically sound, compelling, informative, and irrefutable.
For an overview and summary of those discussions, see Religion and Evolution Reconciled: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Comments on Evolution (also included on the Common Ground website here).
‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Overview of Evolution and Creation
A succinct overview of the Bahá’í perspective on evolution can be found in Some Answered Questions. It is found in a response to a question put to `Abdu’l-Bahá by Laura Dreyfuss Barney. Sitting with him at his dining room table in Acre in a room overlooking the sea, she asked:
He answered as follows:
Though in infancy the signs of the mind and spirit appear in man, they do not reach the degree of perfection; they are imperfect. Only when man attains maturity do the mind and the spirit appear and become evident in utmost perfection.
Then, he elaborated:
All beings, whether large or small, were created perfect and complete from the first, but their perfections appear in them by degrees. … from the beginning of its existence all these things are in the seed, potentially, though not apparently.
Then he summarized the Bahá’í view on evolution and creation:
… the terrestrial globe from the beginning was created with all its elements, substances, minerals, atoms and organisms; but these only appeared by degrees: first the mineral, then the plant, afterward the animal, and finally man. But from the first these kinds and species existed, but were undeveloped in the terrestrial globe, and then appeared only gradually
… there is not one of the beings which at its coming into existence has reached the limit of perfection. No, they gradually grow and develop, and then attain the degree of perfection. (Some Answered Questions 199)
Creation and Evolution
In essence, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s summarizes the situation as follows:
- From the beginning, the world was created “with all its elements, substances, minerals, atoms and organisms.”
- The perfections of these appear only gradually “first the mineral, then the plant, afterward the animal, and finally man.”
All Things Are Created
The first point – that all things are created – is the ancient and never-changing view of world’s great religions (excepting perhaps Buddhism, at least in some of its interpretations). The monotheistic religions – Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and now the Bahá’í Faith – teach that God is the creator of all things.
All Things Evolve
The second point – and the one where misunderstandings sometimes crop up – is that all things evolve. The concept of evolving – the process of maturation, of growth, of development – is a core and irreducibly-central aspect of the Bahá’í teachings.
According to Baha’u'llah, God’s purpose in sending the Prophets to humanity is twofold:
The first is to liberate the children of men from the darkness of ignorance, and guide them to the light of true understanding. The second is to ensure the peace and tranquillity of mankind, and provide all the means by which they can be established.
The same is true of all created things. When they are created, they are perfect. But that perfection is – in the words quoted above – only “potentially, though not apparently” visible in the beginning. It is only in the fullness of time that the perfections inherent in things become apparent, much as it is only in the fullness of time that potentialities in a seed or an egg become apparent.
(We will see later how this first part of this point of view was incorporated into early modern scientific concepts of natural law, whereas the latter part – the development part – was dropped. It has been reintroduced – but still imperfectly – by evolutionary studies.)
This comprehensive and complete embrace of the concepts of maturing, developing, and evolving that is a central to the teachings of the Bahá’í Faith – it turns out – is completely in keeping with both the time sequence of events described in evolution and the scientific mechanisms that evolution describes as being at play.
Amazingly, the straightforward perspective described here either resolves the major debates of evolution vs. religion, or clarifies them so that their contentiousness is clearly seen as such.
Are there divergences between the Bahá’í perspective and that of modern science? I don’t know of any, and it is very hard to think of reasons why any should be. The scientific record – in astrophysics, stellar and planetary evolution, geology, biology, and evolutionary studies – is all a detailing-out of the mechanisms by which the things that we see around us have come into being, have grown, have developed, and have evolved.
Where there is a disagreement, it is not in the science. Rather, the disagreements are in metaphysical interpretations of what the science means for larger, nonscientific questions.
What differs is in the descriptions of the origins of things. From the Bahá’í point of view, all things, including man, are created by God. From a standpoint that denies the existence of God, this can’t be. All things must have emerged from nature or purely natural processes.
Most interestingly, it appears that an embrace of a standpoint that denies the existence of God – something rather frequent in the 19th and 20th centuries – leads away from a view that all of reality is a consequence of the laws of nature.
We will explore this topic next week, along with other aspects of the Bahá’í perspective on evolution.
This is the 23rd in a series of blogs on evolution and religion. The author, Stephen Friberg, is a Bahá’í living in Mountain View, California. A research physicist by training, he wrote Religion and Evolution Reconciled: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Comments on Evolution with Courosh Mehanian. He worked at NTT in Japan before joining the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley.