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Science, Religion, and the Bahá'í Faith

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It wasn't long ago that a lot of people, especially people on college campuses, viewed religion as a musty artifact from the Bronze Age. Naturally, they thought of it as inherently unscientific. Times have changed, and a new generation has discovered how strongly science and religion are intertwined. But old views persist -- they often do -- and many people still hold science and religion to be in conflict, so it can come as a shock to learn that the youngest of the world religions, the Bahá'í Faith, founded in 1844, holds the agreement of science and religion as a core principle. And Bahá'ís don't see the agreement of science and religion as a theological debate but a plan of action.

Two Wings of One Bird

The view that science and religion agree has a distinguished heritage. It prevailed in Athens during the axial age, in Islam at its peak, and in Europe during the scientific revolution. Modern society is likely to soon embrace it again, in no small part because it is increasingly clear that secularism and science by themselves cannot answer the challenges of a global society.

The Bahá'í view is that true science and true religion are completely compatible:

Any religious belief which is not conformable with scientific proof and investigation is superstition, for true science is reason and reality, and religion is essentially reality and pure reason; therefore, the two must correspond... If we say religion is opposed to science, we lack knowledge of either true science or true religion, for both are founded upon the premises and conclusions of reason, and both must bear its test. (Excerpt from a 1912 talk given by `Abdu'l-Bahá, son of the Founder of the Bahá'í Faith, while visiting America)

Science and religion are the two wings of one bird. Both must be equally strong for the bird to fly: "Religion and science are the two wings upon which man's intelligence can soar into the heights, with which the human soul can progress. It is not possible to fly with one wing alone!" (`Abdu'l-Bahá, Paris Talks, pg. 143).

Weakening, sidelining, ridiculing, or disparaging science or religion in favor of the other has very real consequences: "Should a man try to fly with the wing of religion alone he would quickly fall into the quagmire of superstition, whilst on the other hand, with the wing of science alone he would also make no progress, but fall into the despairing slough of materialism" (`Abdu'l-Bahá, Paris Talks, pg. 143).

Science is essential if we are to understand and work with reality. But by itself it is not enough, nor does it tell the whole story. The needed fuller understanding requires not only rational methods, facts, and scientific concepts but benevolence, intuition, moral values, spiritual perception, and goals. It is in this light that Bahá'ís believe that "faith in God and confidence in social progress are in every sense reconcilable; that science and religion are the two inseparable, reciprocal systems of knowledge impelling the advancement of civilization" (from a November 2003 letter written by the Universal House of Justice, the international governing body of the Bahá'í Faith).

Four Ways for Science and Religion to Work Together

What are some of the ways that science and religion can work together? Below, we describe four possible ways inspired by the Bahá'í teachings of the unity of science and religion:

  1. Reduce or eliminate conflicts over evolution
  2. Develop moral and ethical principles for global progress
  3. Provide universal education in scientific literacy
  4. Renew and transform religion

1. Reduce or Eliminate Conflicts Over Evolution

The United States is torn apart by rancor and a distrust of science and secularism caused by conflicts over evolution. The distrust is growing and now spreading to the rest of the world. Not only does it block progress toward addressing serious environmental problems (global warming and the need for a sustainable energy policy, for example), but it drives much of the deep-seated polarization underlying the current paralysis in public discourse.

Clearly, the view that religion overrides science is part of the problem. As the Bahá'í writings put it:

Between scientists and the followers of religion there has always been controversy and strife for the reason that the latter have proclaimed religion superior in authority to science and considered scientific announcement opposed to the teachings of religion...



...If religious belief and doctrine is at variance with reason, it proceeds from the limited mind of man and not from God... (From a talk given by `Abdu'l-Bahá July 14, 1912 in New York)

But also consider the other side of the story. Modern secularism (enlightenment thought, individualism, and materialism) has frequently deployed interpretations of evolution as a creation narrative, using it both to bash religion and to buttress all sorts of social movements, some distinctly unsavory (e.g., eugenics, "scientific" European racism, and communism). The resulting conflicts with religion are deep-seated, continuing, politically exploitable, and the major source of the growing distrust.

Much can be done to eliminate these conflicts over evolution and the havoc and destruction they create. From the secular side, a first step would be to start to recognize that there is indeed a problem, that it is not just ignorance or bad behavior on the part of the religious. A second step would be to own up to the unsavory legacies of 19th-century secularism. This, and reciprocal steps from the religious side, would go a long way toward healing the wounds of this distrust. (Common Ground explores this in posts like "Your Faith Is a Joke" by Maya Bohnhoff.)

2. Develop Moral and Ethical Principles for Global Progress

Solutions to the world's mounting problems require the willingness of large numbers of people to act together. Clear moral and ethical principles are needed, principles that can be embraced by large numbers of people. And it requires the sustained willingness of those large numbers of people to act together for long times. In short, it requires religion, humanity's age-old way of acting on moral and ethical values in a sustainable way.

Further, it is likely that only religion can generate the willingness to act together for the time needed to create a global society. Historically, it is religion that has created the moral commitment -- and the loyalties that transcend tribal, regional, ethnic and linguistic affiliations -- that have made large-scale social progress possible.

The Bahá'í International Community puts it this way: "It is -- or by now should be -- a truism that, in every sphere of human activity and at every level, the insights and skills that represent scientific accomplishment must look to the force of spiritual commitment and moral principle to ensure their appropriate application" (The Prosperity of Humankind, section IV).

Science and religion, working together, offer extraordinary potential as a mechanism for enabling us to address and solve our problems. Those preaching -- and inciting -- continued conflict between science and religion should reconsider their stance. They are blocking progress.

3. Provide Universal Education in Scientific Literacy

Science is not only for rich, industrialized societies with advanced militaries, high-tech industries, and state-of-the-art medical infrastructures. It is also for farmers, fishermen, villagers, craftsmen, town dwellers, and indigenous people. The Bahá'í Prosperity of Humankind statement puts it this way: "Instruments of social and economic change so powerful must cease to be the patrimony of advantaged segments of society, and must be so organized as to permit people everywhere to participate in such activity on the basis of capacity."

Science for the few tilts the playing field away from most of the peoples of the earth. At best, they receive trickle-down benefits from the rich and the powerful. At worst, they are forced from their homes and lands when science, technological change, or market forces make their land exploitable.

Universal scientific literacy, similar to universal reading and writing literacy, is the direction we must head if we are to be true to the promise of science. Religion is needed to make scientific literacy universal.

4. Renew and Transform Religion

For religion to play the roles suggested in the paragraphs above, it must advance and develop. For this to happen, according to the Bahá'í teachings, religion must be brought into harmony with science. The results will be spectacular:

When religion, shorn of its superstitions, traditions, and unintelligent dogmas, shows its conformity with science, then will there be a great unifying, cleansing force in the world which will sweep before it all wars, disagreements, discords and struggles -- and then will mankind be united in the power of the Love of God. (Bahá'u'lláh and the New Era, pg. 10)

One way to see this starting to happen is to look at the Bahá'í experience with a culture of learning that includes a continuous process of consultation, action, and reflection, being carried out in Bahá'í communities around the world. This process, which mirrors the process of generating and testing hypotheses in science, allows individuals, families, communities, and other organizations to continually learn and grow. There is no clergy or priesthood in the Bahá'í Faith, so the responsibilities -- and the benefits -- of this accrue to everybody.

When this process is applied to the Creative Word -- the revealed teachings of the divine religions -- it makes possible powerful ways to develop and test new understandings of those teachings, not by sectarian conflict but by application and evaluation. When such means of testing and improving understanding is taken as a fundamental part of religion, then progress, and the fruits of that progress, can continue indefinitely.