August 12, 2013: Our innate religious tendencies – including our built-in need to believe – can lead to both good and bad.
Without a doubt, much of what is good in the world today – the arts (architecture, painting, sculpture, poetry, and music), the sciences (cosmology, mathematics, the origins of life, linguistics, philology), philosophies, morals, ethics, even our great cultures – is due to religion.
But when religion becomes old and divided – as is the case for the major religions of the world today – religious sentiment can be easily exploited by political factions, can be readily turned into dogma, superstition and ignorance, and can be made to act as a brake on – and an impediment to – progress.
Conversely, when religion is ignored, or made socially unacceptable, or suppressed, our religious urges come to the fore in other ways, sometime very destructively. Marxist-Leninism, with its apocalyptic visions of a soon-to-be utopia (to be achieved when we get rid of the unbelievers) is one of those ways. Scientism – with its vision of popular science as the source of revealed truth – may not seem nearly as bad. But knowledge of the roles played by social Darwinism, eugenics, and scientific racism, all of which are recent manifestations of scientism, should be enough to give anyone pause, as should the modern willingness to paint scientists as the arbiter of all that is true or good (see comments on Steven Pinker in a recent blog in the New York Times).
Some of the Basic Teachings of the Baha’i Faith
The basic teachings of the Baha’i Faith are now reasonably well known:
Bahá’u’lláh taught that there is one God whose successive revelations of His will to humanity have been the chief civilizing force in history. The agents of this process have been the Divine Messengers whom people have seen chiefly as the founders of separate religious systems but whose common purpose has been to bring the human race to spiritual and moral maturity.
Humanity is now coming of age. It is this that makes possible the unification of the human family and the building of a peaceful, global society.
Many of the basic principles of the Bahá’í Faith (from the basic teachings of the Baha’i Faith) are widely embraced as core aspects of modernity:
- The abandonment of all forms of prejudice
- Assurance to women of full equality of opportunity with men
- The elimination of extremes of poverty and wealth
- The realization of universal education, and
- The responsibility of each person to independently search for truth.
Others basic principles of the Baha’i Faith are more challenging:
- The establishment of a global commonwealth of nations
- Recognition that true religion is in harmony with reason and the pursuit of scientific knowledge
- Recognition of the unity and relativity of religious truth
- The establishment of a global commonwealth of nations, and
- Recognition that true religion is in harmony with reason and the pursuit of scientific knowledge.
In the following, we start to look at these principles in light of what we know about our innate religious tendencies and our need to believe.
The Abandonment of all Forms of Prejudice
O CHILDREN OF MEN! Know ye not why We created you all from the same dust? That no one should exalt himself over the other. … it is incumbent on you to be even as one soul, to walk with the same feet, eat with the same mouth and dwell in the same land.
If we endeavor to abandon all forms of prejudice – prejudices for or against people of a different race, or for or against a different religion, or for or against different education and income levels, or for or against any of a multitude of other prejudices – then we must fight and win against a basic innate instinct to identify with and favor our own group.
Group identification is widely observed in animals, including primates, and is widely thought to have been necessary to human survival in primitive times. Human beings are social beings and it is impossible to survive without others and without tight social bonding. Prejudices towards others are a natural result of such innate survival needs, and to fight against such natural needs as the Baha’i teachings demand requires concerted effort.
So, one might conclude that this Baha’i teaching requires us to go against our own nature. But that this is not so is evident when you consider what is gained – a sense of belonging to the whole of the human race and identifying and empathize with all of the people on the planet. It hardly needs saying that if we are to build a better world for all of humanity, such a sense of identification with everyone – and further to all living things – is a necessary prerequisite.
This example, in part because it is so clear and so simple, illustrates the way that a powerful religious teaching engages with our innate instincts. On one hand, it addresses what has now became a major source of conflict and barrier to progress in our modern age – our innate tendency to identify with our own group and look down on, or to scorn, or to exploit and maltreat members of other groups. On the other hand, it redirects and elevates that instinct towards the highest good – the progress of the human race.
We look at more basic principles next time (or perhaps, we will report on the Association for Baha’i Studies Annual Conference to be held August 15th to August 19th in Irvine, CA.)
This is the 11th in a series of blogs on Reason, Religion, and Divine Revelation. 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.