Miércoles, 30 Enero 2013 13:08

E. The Social Role of Religion

Written by
Rate this item
(1 Vote)

This paper was originally prepared as the Bahá'í contribution to a World Religion Day panel on “Religion as a Source of Social Change” at the Library of World Religions in the UUtopia region of Second Life. It addresses the essential nature of religion as a faculty of human nature and how it promotes both individual or psychocultural and collective or sociostructural change. It addresses the historical dynamics of religion as a society-unifying and civilization-building force, and how that same power can be used either to build or to destroy. It ends with a plea to religious authorities and followers alike to redirect religion to achieve its true purpose as a source of positive social change.



1. What is Religion?

Before discussing religion as a source of social change, we should clarify some terms. Bahá'ís define religion, in its essence, not as an organizational arrangement, not as a community of faith, not even as a system of beliefs, but rather as a relationship of love between humanity and God, albeit understood and practiced in different ways at different times and places, and the resulting love towards God’s creatures. 'Abdu'l-Bahá says: “In short, by religion we mean those necessary bonds which have power to unify. This has ever been the essence of the religion of God.”[1]

This mystical bond is formalized through an Eternal Covenant by which God promises never to leave us without guidance, and we agree to accept that guidance when it comes. God is not the anthropomorphic grandfather of Michelangelo’s Sistine painting, but rather the essence of essences, unknowable yet all-knowing, unencompassed but all-encompassing, uncreated but all-creating.

Since there can be no tie of direct intercourse between God and humanity, in every age He has sent His Divine Messengers, called Avatars, Illumined Ones, Prophets, or ‘Manifestations’ in different religions, to educate humanity in an ongoing civilizing process that Bahá'ís call ‘Progressive Revelation’. Religion, then, is the consummation of this Eternal Covenant –– a confluence of God’s periodic revelation to humankind through his Chosen Ones, and humanity’s ongoing acceptance and implementation of that guidance.

To the extent that each society has recognized the Divine Messenger of its time and obeyed His Teachings, it has progressed both spiritually and materially, and achieved happiness and prosperity. However, to the degree that the people have rejected these Manifestations of God’s supreme will and turned their backs on their Teachings –– even while paying lip service to them––, society has sunk into degradation, injustice, disunity, strife, suffering, and loss. “Had humanity seen the Educators of its collective childhood in their true character, as agents of one civilizing process,” says the Universal House of Justice, “it would no doubt have reaped incalculably greater benefits from the cumulative effects of their successive missions. This, alas, it failed to do.”[2]


2. A Faculty of Human Nature

In view of this definition, I will not be referring to “religions” in plural, but of “religion” in singular. God is one and, behind all the diversity of cultural expression and human interpretation, religion is also one. It is a universal phenomenon which, while appearing in diverse forms, places and times is, as historian Arnold Toynbee called it, “an intrinsic faculty of human nature.” “That the perversion of this faculty [religion] has contributed to much of the confusion in society and the conflicts in and between individuals can hardly be denied,” says a Bahá'í statement, “But neither can any fair-minded observer discount the preponderating influence exerted by religion on the vital expressions of civilization. Its indispensability to social order has repeatedly been demonstrated by its direct effect on laws and morality.”[3]

Writing of religion as a force for social change, Bahá’u’lláh said: "Religion is the greatest of all means for the establishment of order in the world and for the peaceful contentment of all that dwell therein." “It is the source of meaning and hope for the vast majority of the planet's inhabitants”, states a Bahá'í document, “and it has a limitless power to inspire sacrifice, change and long-term commitment in its followers.”[4]

Referring to the eclipse or corruption of religion, Bahá’u’lláh wrote: "Should the lamp of religion be obscured, chaos and confusion will ensue, and the lights of fairness, of justice, of tranquility and peace cease to shine."[5] In an enumeration of such consequences, the Bahá’í writings point out that the "perversion of human nature, the degradation of human conduct, the corruption and dissolution of human institutions, reveal themselves, under such circumstances, in their worst and most revolting aspects. Human character is debased, confidence is shaken, the nerves of discipline are relaxed, the voice of human conscience is stilled, the sense of decency and shame is obscured, conceptions of duty, of solidarity, of reciprocity and loyalty are distorted, and the very feeling of peacefulness, of joy and of hope is gradually extinguished."[6]

Therefore, “religion must be the source of fellowship, the cause of unity and the nearness of God to man,” says ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, for “if it rouses hatred and strife, it is evident that absence of religion is preferable and an irreligious man is better than one who professes it.”[7]


3. Individual and Structural Change

Many assume that the role of religion in promoting social change is limited to transforming individual hearts and lives, but history shows the world religions creating new legal systems, more just forms of government, solid economic standards, and other socio-structural impacts. Centering solely on personal change, in the hope that its cumulative effect will transform society, has not produced the anticipated outcomes, but neither has concentrating solely on the structures of society, assuming that this would transform its individual members, been successful. The false dichotomy between social and individual determinism should give way to a recognition of the inseparable dynamics between the two.

As Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the Bahá'í Faith, explained: “We cannot segregate the human heart from the environment outside us and say that once one of these is reformed everything will be improved. Man is organic with the world. His inner life moulds the environment and is itself deeply affected by it. The one acts upon the other and every abiding change in the life of man is the result of these mutual reactions.”[8] Beyond any tendency to promote a purely personal salvation, religion must emphasize that the individual's spiritual fulfillment and well-being are tied up with the collective progress of the entire world community. Through service and an active commitment to justice and unity, religion can bring an enormous, positive force to bear on the issues of social development.[9]


4. A Civilizing Influence

This view of the social role of religion is supported by research. In his twelve-volume “Study of History”,[10] Arnold Toynbee reviewed 21 civilizations seeking common causes for their rise and fall, and found religion to be a regenerative force with a consistently clear role in their birth and growth. As an old civilization decays, the difficulties this brings drive people to search for new alternatives. It is in the “fallow fields” of these “devastated souls” that the seed of a new religion is sown, inspiring a new vision for society, a radically different way of life, renewing hope for the future, and revitalizing the universal spiritual principles of tolerance, compassion, love, justice, humility, sacrifice, trustworthiness, dedication to the well-being of others, and unity, which lie at the heart of all religions and are the foundations of progressive civilization.[11]

This nascent faith initially attracts a small group that Toynbee calls a “creative minority”, which arises to spread this new ethos among the masses. During the early ‘heroic age’, this is often done at great personal sacrifice, even of life itself, as they initially face dire opposition and persecution from the status quo. However, as the downfall of the old civilization becomes more evident and the suffering it brings more intense, the people become increasingly disenchanted with the old ways and unresponsive to those who would force them into blind conformity, and ever more receptive to and inspired by the new message.

This growth and consolidation of a nascent community around a new faith gives rise to a new civilization in its ‘formative age’, giving credence to the words of anthropologist Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”[12] This confirms why ‘Abdu’l-Bahá describes religion as “the source of illumination, the cause of development and the animating impulse of all human advancement,” which “has been the basis of all civilization and progress in the history of mankind.”[13]

“Religion… reaches to the roots of motivation,” wrote the Universal House of Justice to the world’s religious leaders. “When it has been faithful to the spirit and example of the transcendent Figures who gave the world its great belief systems, it has awakened in whole populations capacities to love, to forgive, to create, to dare greatly, to overcome prejudice, to sacrifice for the common good… Unquestionably, the seminal force in the civilizing of human nature has been the influence of the succession of these Manifestations of the Divine that extends back to the dawn of recorded history.”[14]


5. A Twofold Process

Shoghi Effendi describes this spiritual revolution as a “twofold process”: on the one hand a “constructive” and “essentially integrating process”, and on the other a “fundamentally disruptive” or “destructive” one. The former steadily evolves into a pattern for a new society, while the latter, “as its disintegrating influence deepens, tends to tear down… the antiquated barriers that seek to block humanity’s progress.” As a “result of these opposing tendencies,” a “titanic, spiritual struggle” is waged in the “age of transition” through which the new religion and society as a whole pass.[15] Bahá'ís perceive that this is the process through which humanity is struggling today.

As the old civilization gives way to the new, a 'golden age’ is born during which its greatest achievements are attained. Peace and order prevail, arts and sciences flourish, and the people enjoy the fruits of the sacrifices made during the heroic and formative ages. However, with this newfound prosperity and ease, the masses tend to forget the essentials of their religion, abandon the discipline that it taught, and sink into self-centered complacency and negligence. Toynbee concludes that the once the “creative minority” becomes crystallized in its ways and enamored of its “position of inherited privilege”, it loses its capacity to innovate and inspire, and lapses into a merely “dominant minority” that imposes an obsolete status quo. This leads to a “withdrawal of the allegiance and loss of the imitative capacity of the majority”, and a consequent “decay of social unity in society as a whole”. So begins the breakdown of the civilization, caused by the moral failure and decline of religion, which robs society’s outward, material existence of its inner, essential spirit. Only then is a decadent society fully exposed to the ravages of external forces. As Toynbee concludes: "Civilizations die from suicide, not by murder."[16]


6. A Tool to Build or Destroy

A hammer can be used to build a house for a homeless family, or to kill its provider and leave the family homeless. So too religion, the most powerful instrument for social change, can be used to build civilizations or destroy them. It can foster human solidarity or intensify societal fragmentation; it can encourage collective thought in service to humanity, or stifle the life of the mind through blind superstition, thereby robbing it of its capacity to help shape world affairs. The Bahá'í UN office states: “Traditionally, religion has been one of the most powerful sources of both vision and values. Every religion, particularly in its early stages, has evoked a new vision for society, articulated values consonant with that vision, and inspired both personal and institutional transformation. At the same time… religion has also been a source of division and social fragmentation.”[17]

Confused by this double potential, humanity has failed to grasp “the constructive role that religion can play in creating a peaceful and prosperous global order.” Many perceive religion only from the standpoint of its ability to divide, create conflict and stifle thought, and so they reject religion’s historical society-uniting, civilization-building role, despite the research supporting it. However, Bahá'ís believe that this is “less an indictment of organized religion than a reminder of the unique power it represents”, and that most negative uses of its power have been due to the “corruption and misuse of religious authority.”[18]

Baha'is call upon religious leaders and followers to show that they are worthy partners in the mission of building a sustainable world civilization by working conscientiously and untiringly to exorcise religious bigotry and superstition from within their midst, embracing freedom of conscience for all, and renouncing claims to exclusivity and finality, for until they do so, peace and prosperity will prove chimerical. They must raise their voices to end the hatred, exclusivity, oppression of conscience, violations of human rights, denial of equality, opposition to science, and glorification of materialism and violence, which are perpetrated in the name of religious truth. They must transform their own lives and take up the mantle of sacrifice for and service to the well-being of others, and thus contribute to the realization of the long-promised reign of peace and justice on earth.[19]


7. A Call to Action

Finally, Bahá'ís maintain that reorganizing the planet as one home for the entire human family cannot be achieved in a spiritual vacuum. It is inconceivable that a peaceful, prosperous and diverse global society can be attained without involving the world's great religions in its design and support. The longer we delay the meaningful involvement of religion in social change efforts, the longer will humanity suffer the ravages of injustice and disunity. We can no longer afford to ignore the immeasurable good that religions have done and continue to do, or the salubrious, far-reaching contributions that they can make to creating a peaceful, prosperous and sustainable world. We will only succeed in establishing such a world society to the extent that we tap into the power and vision of religion. The desperate needs of the human family make further delay in addressing the role of religion as a source of social change unacceptable.[20]




1. 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Divine Philosophy. Boston: The Tudor Press1918, p. 160. URL: http://bahai-library.org/books/div.phil/divine.philosophy.09.html.
2. The Universal House of Justice, “The Promise of World Peace,” 1985.
3. Ibid.
4. “Religion and Development at the Crossroads: Convergence or Divergence?” A statement to the World Summit on Sustainable Development by the Baha'i International Community, 26 August 2002, Johannesburg, South Africa.
5. Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Bahá'u'lláh. Wilmette, IL: US Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1991, p. 186-7.
6. The Universal House of Justice, “The Promise of World Peace,” 1985.
7. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, “Bahá’í World Faith. Wilmette, IL: US Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1976 edition, pp. 239-240.
8. Shoghi Effendi, from a letter to an individual dated February 17, 1933, cited in “Compilation of Compilations”, Vol. I, p. 84.
9. Bahá'í International Community, “The Role of Religion in Social Development,” Comments presented at the second session of the Preparatory Committee for the World Summit for Social Development, 24 August 1994, New York.
10. Arnold J. Toynbee, “A Study of History” in twelve volumes published from 1934 to 1961.
11. Op. cit.
12. For a discussion of the probable original source for this famous quote, please see: http://au.answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20071122082636AA50JA9.
13. 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Promulgation of Universal Peace, Baha'i Publishing Trust, Wilmette, IL, 1982, p. 361.
14. Universal House of Justice, “Statement to the World’s Religious Leaders”, April 2002.
15. World Order of Bahá'u'lláh. p. 170.
16. “A Study of History”.
17. “The Role of Religion in Promoting the Advancement of Women,” a statement to the UN Fourth World Conference on Women, 13 September 1995, Beijing, China.
18. Universal House of Justice, “Statement to the World’s Religious Leaders”, April 2002.
19. “Religion and Development at the Crossroads: Convergence or Divergence?” A statement to the World Summit on Sustainable Development by the Baha'i International Community, 26 August 2002, Johannesburg, South Africa.
20. Baha'i International Community, 2002.



Read 33154 times Last modified on Lunes, 14 Julio 2014 14:44
Login to post comments