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Religion can be and often has been corrupted by ideology and superstition. That’s made religion an easy target for critics, and sometimes left even the faithful themselves wondering.
But every spiritual journey comes with the capacity for insight. As a Baha’i, I’ve learned that when the “obscuring dust” is cleared away; two primary things lie at the heart of religion: selfless love and rational understanding.
Many people have widely expounded upon the topic of selfless love. But too often, I think, we ignore rational understanding, which altogether escapes the consideration of the faithful and the critics alike. I’m increasingly convinced that, while certainly all-loving, our Creator is also essentially a rational being. Perhaps that’s what scripture means when it says we’re created in God’s image.
Bearing that in mind, do we approach religion for what it really is, or according to what we’ve been conditioned to think? If one considers the problems facing humanity, on both the microcosmic individual and macrocosmic societal levels, they’re almost all rooted in selfishness, lack of love, and irrationality. Again, I think that latter problem gets overlooked – and yet, it’s probably the most urgent.
We can wish and pray for love and selflessness to soothe our troubled minds and chaotic world. But altruism, serenity, and lasting peace can’t happen without reason. If we remain fundamentally irrational, perhaps simply following tradition and cultural conditioning without question, what we long for will continue to escape us.
Abdu’l-Baha, one of the central figures of the Baha’i Faith, frequently spoke and wrote eloquently and bluntly of the vital place reason holds in religion. In a speech he gave in New York in 1912, he said:
… religion is in harmony with science. The fundamental principles of the Prophets are scientific, but the forms and imitations which have appeared are opposed to science. If religion does not agree with science, it is superstition and ignorance; for God has endowed man with reason in order that he may perceive reality. The foundations of religion are reasonable. God has created us with intelligence to perceive them. If they are opposed to science and reason, how could they be believed and followed?
Furthermore, I don’t think that concept is unique to any particular faith. In reading the sacred text of various faiths, I’ve found many gems of reason. Perhaps one of my favorite examples from Christianity is Christ’s teaching that “By their fruits, ye shall know them.” That’s Christ giving us a nutshell lesson in critical thinking, asking us to look to the ultimate ends, the “fruits” of intentions or ideas. Practically anything can be made to seem appealing, if it’s pitched cleverly enough. Indeed, the divisive pontification upon virtually any subject in our current society often rests in zero-sum rhetoric, appeals to emotion or other fallacies.
The crucible of reason requires we refrain from getting bogged down in the process of argument or caught up in the glittery distraction of rhetoric, but rather step back and take a detached, rational look at the ultimate ends, or “fruits” of any particular idea or intention, as in this passage from another talk Abdu’l-Baha gave in Denver:
What are the fruits of the human world? They are the spiritual attributes which appear in man. If man is bereft of those attributes, he is like a fruitless tree. One whose aspiration is lofty and who has developed self-reliance will not be content with a mere animal existence. He will seek the divine Kingdom; he will long to be in heaven although he still walks the earth in his material body, and though his outer visage be physical, his face of inner reflection will become spiritual and heavenly. Until this station is attained by man, his life will be utterly devoid of real outcomes. The span of his existence will pass away in eating, drinking and sleeping, without eternal fruits, heavenly traces or illumination – without spiritual potency, everlasting life or the lofty attainments intended for him during his pilgrimage through the human world.
Try using that simple, yet effective dichotomy to separate the healthy fruit of useful ideas from the rotten fruit of ideology. A good application of that principle just calls for thoughtful consideration of your own ideas and intentions.
Our minds use the tools of ideas to serve humanity, not the other way around. Reason is our Creator’s most precious gift. Refusing to cultivate it and put it to good use clearly constitutes a terrible display of ingratitude.