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What is religion?
That question, posed by a reader of David Langness’ recent BahaiTeachings.org essay, How to Decide if a Religion is True, and addressed to “all contributors,” challenged me to pursue it.
Here’s the dictionary definition of religion in its outward, or material, aspects:
re·li·gion n. a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs. – Dictionary.com
But where does spirituality come in? Here’s a definition from the Baha’i teachings:
The outward, material aspects of religion are organizational. Religion as a whole, combining the material and the spiritual, is a blueprint from the Heavenly Architect to help us fulfill our spiritual purpose.
We can also look at religion as the road we travel in order to accomplish that spiritual purpose. According to Abdu’l-Baha, religion is:
…the road of the divine Kingdom. It involves the acquisition of praiseworthy attributes, heavenly illumination and righteous actions in the world of humanity. This pathway is conducive to the progress and uplift of the world. It is the source of human enlightenment, training and ethical improvement; the magnet which attracts the love of God because of the knowledge of God it bestows. This is the road of the holy Manifestations of God for they are in reality the foundation of the divine religion of oneness. There is no change or transformation in this pathway. It is the cause of human betterment, the acquisition of heavenly virtues and the illumination of mankind. – Ibid., p. 71.
Individuals embrace religion, the teachings and laws of God, to keep them on the divine path. It guides their way, and as long as they don’t step off the path, and don’t allow the urges of their lower nature to entice them to stray from that path, they are protected:
In truth, religion is a radiant light and an impregnable stronghold for the protection and welfare of the peoples of the world, for the fear of God impelleth man to hold fast to that which is good, and shun all evil. Should the lamp of religion be obscured, chaos and confusion will ensue, and the lights of fairness and justice, of tranquillity and peace cease to shine. Unto this will bear witness every man of true understanding. – Baha’u’llah, Tablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 125.
Recognizing the essence of religion in its pure sense means understanding the essential teachings brought by the prophets, who explain our Creator’s will for us. Our human comprehension of those pure teachings, unfortunately, often changes and decays over time, as people alter, translate and attempt to adapt them to their own purposes:
But by religion is meant that which is ascertained by investigation and not that which is based on mere imitation, the foundation of Divine Religions and not human imitations. – Abdu’l-Baha, Foundations of World Unity, p. 30.
It is easy to be sidelined by the dogmas and traditions developed by men, who thought they knew just how God wanted us to follow His teachings. This has been a stumbling block on the pathway as each new prophet came along to review and remind us what we’d already learned, and add to our understanding of the eternal spiritual verities while changing social laws. When this differed from what our parents and clergy taught us, or differed from what science and reason had proven, many denied the reality of God’s new messenger:
…the teachings of Baha’u’llah announce that religion must be in conformity with science and reason; otherwise, it is superstition; for science and reason are realities, and religion itself is the Divine Reality unto which true science and reason must conform. God has bestowed the gift of mind upon man in order that he may weigh every fact or truth presented to him and adjudge whether it be reasonable. That which conforms to his reason he may accept as true, while that which reason and science cannot sanction may be discarded as imagination and superstition, as a phantom and not reality. Inasmuch as the blind imitations or dogmatic interpretations current among men do not coincide with the postulates of reason, and the mind and scientific investigation cannot acquiesce thereto, many souls in the human world today shun and deny religion. That is to say, imitations, when weighed in the scales of reason, will not conform to its standard and requirement. Therefore, these souls deny religion and become irreligious, whereas if the reality of the divine religions becomes manifest to them and the foundation of the heavenly teachings is revealed coinciding with facts and evident truths, reconciling with scientific knowledge and reasonable proof, all may acknowledge them, and irreligion will cease to exist. In this way all mankind may be brought to the foundation of religion, for reality is true reason and science, while all that is not conformable thereto is mere superstition. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, pp. 373-374.
So, religion is a system that helps us develop our spiritual muscles—the inner qualities and characteristics that create a truly kind, peaceful and enlightened soul. When we allow the inspiration and influence of pure religion into our hearts and minds, we can develop the spiritual strength to build our own characters, raise strong families, and create fair societies. If enough of us decide to walk that path, it will lead us to a peaceful world—we’ll bring into being the Kingdom of God on earth.