02/04/2014 12:09 pm ET | Updated Apr 06, 2014

A Baha'i Take on the Creation/Evolution Debate

The conflict over evolution and the origins of humanity once again comes to the fore with the debate between Bill Nye -- the Science Guy -- and Ken Ham -- the young earth creationist. Tickets for the debate were sold out in minutes, putting it into the rarefied air of a Super Bowl or a Rolling Stones tour. Clearly, people are interested.

Of course, there is opposition. Dan Arel, writing for the Richard Dawkins Foundation, protests that "scientists should not debate creationists." The noted astrophysicist and science television show host Neil deGrasse Tyson tells Bill Moyers in a television interview that faith and reason are unlikely to be reconciled.

But not everybody is opposed to such debates or pessimistic about the future of the relationship of these two influential aspects of our organized life. Many, including members of the Baha'i Faith, look forward to a future when science and religion -- and faith and reason -- are reconciled and no longer opposed.

The Baha'i Faith holds the unity of science and religion as a core teaching and emphasizes that religion must be in accord with science. `Abdu'l-Bahá (1844 - 1921), son and appointed expounder of the teachings of Bahá'u'lláh (1817 - 1892), spoke and wrote repeatedly on the topic in his visits to the capitals of Europe and in numerous cities across the width and breadth of North America.

For example, `Abdu'l-Bahá told a Philadelphia audience in 1912 that:

God has endowed man with intelligence and reason whereby he is required to determine the verity of questions and propositions. If religious beliefs and opinions are found contrary to the standards of science, they are mere superstitions and imaginations; for the antithesis of knowledge is ignorance, and the child of ignorance is superstition.

What then does the Baha'i Faith say about evolution and creation?

According to the Baha'i teachings, God is "the Maker, the Creator". Nature and all created things are the embodiment of God's will:

Nature in its essence is the embodiment of My Name, the Maker, the Creator ... . Nature is God's Will and is its expression in and through the contingent world. ... It is endowed with a power whose reality men of learning fail to grasp. Indeed a man of insight can perceive naught therein save the effulgent splendour of Our Name, the Creator. (Bahá'u'lláh, Tablets of Bahá'u'lláh p. 142)

Nature, according to the Baha'i teachings, "is entirely subject to the rule and control of natural law" and these natural laws provide "a complete order and a finished design, from which [nature] will never depart." All created things "were created perfect and complete from the first." But this perfection is not manifest in the beginning, but only appears by degrees. (NOTE: The terms "man" and "human" are used interchangeably below in their non-gender specific sense.)

Similarly, 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. For the supreme organization of God, and the universal natural system, surround all beings, and all are subject to this rule. When you consider this universal system, you see that 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. (`Abdu'l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions, p. 199)

The Baha'i teachings compare this process of development to growth of an embryo into an adult or the growth of a seed into a mature tree. Humans did not appear all at once, but developed through degrees and stages:

In the world of existence man has traversed successive degrees until he has attained the human kingdom. In each degree of his progression he has developed capacity for advancement to the next station and condition. While in the kingdom of the mineral he was attaining the capacity for promotion into the degree of the vegetable. In the kingdom of the vegetable he underwent preparation for the world of the animal, and from thence he has come onward to the human degree, or kingdom. Throughout this journey of progression he has ever and always been potentially man. (`Abdu'l-Bahá, Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 225)

Man is much more than an animal, according to the Baha'i writings. Man has a threefold reality:

Man is endowed with an outer or physical reality. It belongs to the material realm, the animal kingdom, because it has sprung from the material world. This animalistic reality of man he shares in common with the animals. The human body is like animals subject to nature's laws. But man is endowed with a second reality, the rational or intellectual reality; and the intellectual reality of man predominates over nature. . . . Yet there is a third reality in man, the spiritual reality. (`Abdu'l-Bahá, Foundations of World Unity, 51)

In short, the Baha'i writings describe evolution as having proceeded stage by stage from the world of inanimate matter to the world of humanity. In this process, there is no departure from the evolutionary sciences (for a more detailed description, see C. Mehanian and S. Friberg, Religion and Evolution Reconciled, The Journal of Baha'i Studies 2003 13 (1-4): 55 - 93.)

At the same time, the Baha'i writings describe humanity as God's creation, say that humans have always existed potentially, and characterize human reality as distinct and different than animal reality.

Here there is indeed a departure from some well-known points of view, but it is not a departure from the facts and details of evolutionary science. Rather, the departure is from certain of the perspectives and interpretations -- what are perhaps best called the evolutionary narratives -- that have developed around the evolutionary sciences.

And this Baha'i perspective is not widely different from that of "evolutionary creation" as espoused by such Christian organizations as Biologos (started by Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institute of Health, arguably the world's leading biologist), by scholarly Catholicism, or indeed, by a wide cross-section of informed religious belief throughout the world.

Why then is there so much fuss, thunder, and lighting over scientific issues like evolution that are readily reconciled with religious belief -- and have been widely perceived as such for centuries, indeed millennia? Part of the reason must certainly lie in the conflict over evolutionary science that will occupy Bill Nye and Ken Ham in their Feb. 4th debate. The impression such conflict creates -- the unfortunate resistance to well-established science that creationism inculcates -- certainly strengthens any predilections among those of a scientific persuasion to view religion as a kind of primitive pre-science that got its answers wrong.

Undoubtedly there is much more to it than that. Much of creationism is clearly a response to denunciations of religion in the name of science, as well as a reaction against populist movements like social Darwinism that proclaimed their supposed truths as facts derived from the evolutionary sciences. And the conflict is darn good drama, marvelous for motivating the troops, or the congregation, or the donors, and for grabbing headlines and commentary.

But ultimately, it is a conflict that should just be peacefully resolved. Men and women of goodwill should work together to lay the issue to rest where it belong -- along with other dead or dying 19th-century ideological battles. It is just diversion and a side-show to our main task, which is to work together towards that necessary and long-hoped for goal of peace and prosperity for all the countries and peoples of the world, regardless of their beliefs -- or lack thereof.

Let's hope and pray that Bill Nye -- the Science Guy -- and Ken Ham -- the Creationist Man -- see it this way in their debate.