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Does Humanity Have a Collective Conscience?

David Langness | Nov 21, 2015

PART 13 IN SERIES The Sacred Sanctity of the Human Conscience

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.

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David Langness | Nov 21, 2015

PART 13 IN SERIES The Sacred Sanctity of the Human Conscience

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.

Conscience is God present in man. – Victor Hugo.

The totality of beliefs and sentiments common to the average members of a society forms a determinate system with a life of its own. – Emile Durkheim.

Wisdom and beauty are the twin arches of that invisible bridge which leads from the individual conscience—ever rebellious against its destiny—to man’s collective conscience, ever in search of general progress. – Jaime Torres Bodet

Nothing is more powerful than an individual acting out of his conscience, thus helping to bring the collective conscience to life. – Norman Cousins.

In 1893, the pioneering French sociologist Emile Durkheim, writing in his book Division of Labour in Society, coined the term “collective conscience.” Basically, to Durkheim, the term meant the shared ideals and moral standards that operate as a society’s unifying force, the beliefs that bind and hold any group together.

Initially Durkheim used the term to indicate a level of shared consciousness in the members of traditional clan- and tribe-based cultures. Since then, though, people have begun to expand the concept, using other terms to describe the phenomena: group brain, hive mind, mass mind, the oversoul. The idea has broadened and deepened, applying now to a bigger sense of shared conscience among all human beings. Some have even suggested that our new global linkage through the Web has created a virtual collective consciousness:

In terms of the Internet, it’s like humanity acquiring a collective nervous system. Whereas previously we were more like a collection of cells that communicated by diffusion. With the advent of the Internet, it was suddenly like we got a nervous system. – Elon Musk

What do you think? Is humanity, as a whole, beginning to develop a collective conscience? Are we gradually moving toward a more unified, connected world, a world that has some basic shared moral values in common?

The other day I saw a new documentary film called Unity, which suggests that might be the case. The film makes its points using some hard-to-watch footage of cruelty to animals and humans, but they’re contrasted with images that suggest an increasing drive toward a unity of conscience. The film asks an important question: could an evolving collective conscience solve our toughest issues? Unity isn’t a Baha’i film, although it mentions the Baha’i Faith briefly, but it definitely reflects several of the global Baha’i principles:

The only authority that can truly establish a law is the conscience of a people. The outer authorities cannot watch all the multitudes every moment. The secret, hidden infractions of a law they can never prevent. But if the conscience of a people recognizes an ordinance as the will of God, they will obey it. For God is Almighty, Ever-Present. He sees the inmost heart. – Abdu’l-Baha, Star of the West, Volume 8, pp. 146-147.

But the wise souls who are aware of the essential relationships emanating from the realities of things consider that one single matter cannot, by itself, influence the human reality as it ought and should, for until the minds of men become united, no important matter can be accomplished. At present universal peace is a matter of great importance, but unity of conscience is essential, so that the foundation of this matter may become secure, its establishment firm and its edifice strong. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 297.

As everyone knows, we can individually overcome our baser animal instincts when we listen to the inner voice of our own conscience. In the same way, a community with a collective conscience can conceivably overcome the old instincts that push us toward nationalistic supremacy, racial privilege or warmongering. We see many examples of that kind of collective conscience in our world today, making violence, religious hatred, racism and sexism more visible and less tolerable than ever before.

The first and most difficult step toward the establishment of a spiritual renewal of society always comes with a change in the individual hearts and minds of humanity—in our collective conscience.

To make this change in conscience possible, the Baha’is, united by the fire of the love of God into a world-wide spiritual brotherhood, are attempting to forge a new, unified world, led by a justice-driven global government and illumined by the spirit of God’s new teachings for this age:

It is my aim that thou mayst advance to such an extent in the perfections in the realm of man, in the divine manifestations and the susceptibilities of the conscience as to become an angel of heaven and a manifestation of the favours of the Merciful. – Abdu’l-Baha, Star of the West, Volume 4, p. 152.

The most effective power for the promotion and dissemination of this influence is just government.

The other is the divine influence, the holy and spiritual revelations which insure eternal glory, everlasting happiness, the illumination of the world, the appearance of merciful phenomena in the world of humanity and perpetual life. The fundamental basis thereof is the teachings and the precepts of the Prophets, the dictates and attraction of the conscience which belong to the realm of morality. Like unto the lamp they illuminate and brighten the depths and recesses of human realities. – Abdu’l-Baha, Star of the West, Volume 9, p. 132.

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