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Current attitudes toward religion increasingly seem to range between disinterest and disdain.
We often associate religion with superstition, dogma, violence and polarization, with many good people jumping on the ‘thumbs down’ bandwagon.
But bandwagons, meant to carry musical bands in parades and political rallies, don’t work well in complex territory. Finding the best route to a still-unmapped future requires a longer view than just three houses down the road. So what’s the view from 30,000 feet on religion?
During the 6000 years of recorded history, religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and most recently the Baha’i Faith, have demonstrated their ability to bring enormous progress to humanity—particularly in the centuries of their first flourishing. The world over, these belief systems have consistently and successfully united people around common ideals, first in smaller groups, then regionally, then across the boundaries of many nations.
Our modern-day dilemma is that religion has too often become a vehicle for behaviour that directly contradicts its original meaning and purpose. Vices that pre-date civilization, such as sexual abuse, tribalism and warmongering, have emerged cleverly disguised in virtuous garb, the proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing.
So, for those who would completely discard this long-standing institution, let’s engage in some honest reflection. For example: without religion, by what means will we promote the values and virtues needed to create a future in which we all thrive, such as compassion, justice and understanding? Aren’t these civilizing and spiritualizing influences needed today more than ever before?
The Baha’i teachings say those values and virtues are not only necessary, but vital to our human progress:
Man must now become imbued with new virtues and powers, new moral standards, new capacities… The gifts and blessings of the period of youth, although timely and sufficient during the adolescence of mankind, are now incapable of meeting the requirements of its maturity…
This is the cycle of maturity and reformation in religion as well. Dogmatic imitations of ancestral beliefs are passing…
Heavenly teachings applicable to the advancement in human conditions have been revealed in this merciful age. This reformation and renewal of the fundamental reality of religion constitute the true and outworking spirit of modernism, the unmistakable light of the world, the manifest effulgence of the Word of God, the divine remedy for all human ailment and the bounty of eternal life to all mankind. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 439.
Despite any air of imperviousness to change, religion has always been capable of reinventing itself, by shedding those “dogmatic imitations of ancestral beliefs” and moving forward with new revelatory power. Taken as a whole, religion remains the source of the values that form the common ground of the world’s diverse cultures. Those values form the basis of our legal and ethical systems, inspiring such key advances as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
In these days of inflamed rhetoric and a supposed clash of civilizations, religion’s most important task involves quietly and confidently affirming our fundamental unity. A belief in our essential oneness allows us to appreciate our cultural differences, and see them as a source of joy and strength.
One of the ways to increase unity is to look for common ground between the various faiths and actively develop bonds of understanding and support. Baha’is the world over have been at the forefront of this unifying endeavor. In 2002, in a letter addressed “To the World’s Religious Leaders”, the Universal House of Justice wrote:
…Baha’is see in the struggle of diverse religions to draw closer together a response to the Divine Will for a human race that is entering on its collective maturity. The members of our community will continue to assist in every way we can. We owe it to our partners in this common effort, however, to state clearly our conviction that interfaith discourse, if it is to contribute meaningfully to healing the ills that afflict a desperate humanity, must now address honestly and without further evasion the implications of the over-arching truth that called the movement into being: that God is one and that, beyond all diversity of cultural expression and human interpretation, religion is likewise one.
Support for interfaith activities has become increasingly widespread. On October 20th, 2010, the United Nations unanimously voted to institute World Interfaith Harmony Week, now held during the first week of February each year.
This year, during the week of February 1-7, we can all support interfaith harmony by reaching out to those of other Faiths and recognizing the oneness of God and the essential unity of all religions.
As religion re-invents itself, with communities quietly and constantly evolving ever-fuller concepts of God and truth and love, healing will take place. Eventually discord will dissolve as the strong medicine of understanding and cooperation is allowed to do its work. Meanwhile, we need to take the long view, and “assist in every way we can.”