If religion, as the Baha’i teachings say, is “the light of the world,” then why has it produced so much darkness?
A remarkable 2002 statement from the Baha’i International Community highlights the destabilizing religious animosities the world now faces, and concludes that fostering a global pattern of sustainable development will never be accomplished without religions playing a more central role:
…it cannot be denied that the power of religion has also been perverted to turn neighbor against neighbor. The Baha’i scriptures state that:
Religion must be the source of fellowship, the cause of unity and the nearness of God to man. 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. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 181.
So long as religious animosities are allowed to destabilize the world, it will be impossible to foster a global pattern of sustainable development… – Religion and Development at the Crossroads: Convergence or Divergence? The Baha’i International Community, 2002.
What role, the Baha’i International Community asks, could the United Nations play in stabilizing the world by inviting the various world religions into its deliberations? The BIC concludes that we must tear down the wall between global governance and the world’s religions:
Given the record of religious fanaticism, it is understandable that the United Nations has been hesitant to invite religion into its negotiations. However, the UN can no longer afford to ignore the immeasurable good that religions have done and continue to do in the world, or the salubrious, far-reaching contributions that they can make to the establishment of a peaceful, prosperous and sustainable global order. Indeed, the United Nations will only succeed in establishing such a global order to the extent that it taps into the power and vision of religion. To do so will require accepting religion not merely as a vehicle for the delivery and execution of development initiatives, but as an active partner in the conceptualization, design, implementation and evaluation of global policies and programs. The historically justified wall separating the United Nations and religions must fall to the imperatives of a world struggling toward unity and justice. – Ibid.
But how can that happen? Only, the Baha’i teachings conclude, if and when religions jettison their historically burdensome superstitions and prejudices, and their claims to exclusivity and finality:
The real onus, however, is on the religions themselves. Religious followers and, more important, religious leaders must show that they are worthy partners in the great mission of building a sustainable world civilization. To do so will require that religious leaders work conscientiously and untiringly to exorcise religious bigotry and superstition from within their faith traditions. It will necessitate that they embrace freedom of conscience for all people, including their own followers, and renounce claims to religious exclusivity and finality.
…until the religions of the world renounce fanaticism and work whole-heartedly to eliminate it from within their own ranks, peace and prosperity will prove chimerical. Indeed, the responsibility for the plight of humanity rests, in large part, with the world’s religious leaders. It is they who 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, violence and terrorism, which are perpetrated in the name of religious truth. Moreover, it is the followers of all religions who 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. – Ibid.
Already the world’s great Faiths have taken a few steps in that direction—such as the 2015 encyclical of Pope Francis called Laudato Si, Care for Our Common Home—but most of the world is still not listening, especially among those who have long since rejected religion as having any relevance to modern life.
In its 2002 message to leaders of the world’s religions, the Universal House of Justice warned us all about corruption within religions and its deleterious impact on all humanity:
Among the many temptations the world offers, the test that has, not surprisingly, preoccupied religious leaders is that of exercising power in matters of belief. No one who has dedicated long years to earnest meditation and study of the scriptures of one or another of the great religions requires any further reminder of the oft-repeated axiom regarding the potentiality of power to corrupt and to do so increasingly as such power grows. The unheralded inner victories won in this respect by unnumbered clerics all down the ages have no doubt been one of the chief sources of organized religion’s creative strength and must rank as one of its highest distinctions. To the same degree, surrender to the lure of worldly power and advantage, on the part of other religious leaders, has cultivated a fertile breeding ground for cynicism, corruption and despair among all who observe it. The implications for the ability of religious leadership to fulfil its social responsibility at this point in history need no elaboration. – The Universal House of Justice, To The World’s Religious Leaders, April 2002.
Baha’is believe, the Universal House of Justice explained, that a continued pattern of religious fanaticism, bigotry and hatred could lead to a “worldwide conflagration:”
With every day that passes, danger grows that the rising fires of religious prejudice will ignite a worldwide conflagration the consequences of which are unthinkable. Such a danger civil government, unaided, cannot overcome. Nor should we delude ourselves that appeals for mutual tolerance can alone hope to extinguish animosities that claim to possess Divine sanction. The crisis calls on religious leadership for a break with the past as decisive as those that opened the way for society to address equally corrosive prejudices of race, gender and nation. Whatever justification exists for exercising influence in matters of conscience lies in serving the well-being of humankind. At this greatest turning point in the history of civilization, the demands of such service could not be more clear.
“The well-being of mankind, its peace and security, are unattainable,” Baha’u’llah urges, “unless and until its unity is firmly established.” – Ibid.
It seems clear that the only solution to the multiple challenges threatening us today is to reinforce the spiritual foundations of society, to help every willing individual to begin the process of internal transformation, and assist each community to launch itself on a collective process of renewed responsibility and dedication to the greater good. Only in this way can we rebuild, from the bottom up, the solid ethical foundations our world society so sorely needs to ultimately emerge from this age of frustration and transition.