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In our rush to build our modern cultures, we’ve forgotten how to sustain them.
Many people today—particularly among intellectuals, the young, and those from cultures that retain a sense of collective purpose—still hold to altruistic and spiritual values, and despair at the destructive forces swirling around them. But the faltering or failure of many of the more liberal movements of the left shows that an intellectual attachment to human rights, solidarity, concern for the excluded and marginalized, and redistribution of wealth is not sufficient. Movements of the left are just as riven by ego, ambition and the struggle for power as those on the right.
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The Role of Religion in Ethics
What is missing is the level of spiritual education and transformation in each individual. Human potential comes to fruition when cultivated in a spirit of selfless service, without pride, with no desire to be seen as superior to anyone else, ready to accompany others in their own acts of service and thus to become part of an organically-evolving learning community. It is this dimension of education that is largely absent today in societies around the world. This sort of spiritual education empowers every individual to refine their character and to contribute to an ever-advancing civilization. At this level, effective personal responsibility and accountability can be built into the institutions of society.
This leads us to the great absence in efforts to address the crises in today’s world: religion. Traditionally religion has provided the multitudes with basic moral and ethical values. Religion has taught about good and evil, saints and sinners, and the altruistic values that build lasting cultures—versus the greed, lust, indolence, pride, and violence so valued in today’s market-based societies. Yet today, even in societies that claim to be religious, those ethical values are largely lacking, or are given lip service while the great majority pursue self-centered materialistic objectives. Where religion has been replaced by a secular ideology, the results are no better, and fear often enforces common values rather than the positive internal motivation that religion can provide.
Interestingly, a new study of civilization-building by avowed atheist Peter Turchin, called Ultrasociety: How 10,000 Years of War Made Humans the Greatest Cooperators on Earth, identifies religion as the main explanation for the rise of complex large-scale civilizations. In an earlier study in the journal Nature, Turchin warned of the impending collapse of our own civilization because of the increasing concentration of wealth, loss of social cohesion and abandonment of the young.
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The Role of Religion in an Ethical Society According to the Baha’i Faith
However, religion in most of its expressions today is not up to the task. In its statement to the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in 2002, the Baha’i International Community provided a detailed analysis of the challenge facing religions with respect to international efforts at the United Nations to address world problems. It highlighted “both the constructive role that religion can play in creating a peaceful and prosperous global order, and the destructive impact that religious fanaticism can have on the stability and progress of the world,” and referred to the UN failure “to address religious bigotry as a major obstacle to peace and well-being:”
It is becoming increasingly clear that passage to the culminating stage in the millennia long process of the organization of the planet as one home for the entire human family cannot be accomplished in a spiritual vacuum. Religion, the Baha’i scriptures aver, “is the source of illumination, the cause of development and the animating impulse of all human advancement” and “has been the basis of all civilization and progress in the history of mankind.”
It is the source of meaning and hope for the vast majority of the planet’s inhabitants, and it has a limitless power to inspire sacrifice, change and long-term commitment in its followers. It is, therefore, inconceivable that a peaceful and prosperous global society—a society which nourishes a spectacular diversity of cultures and nations—can be established and sustained without directly and substantively involving the world’s great religions in its design and support. – Religion and Development at the Crossroads: Convergence or Divergence? The Baha’i International Community, 2002.
The Baha’i teachings have long held that religion holds the key for achieving the cohesion and unity the world so badly needs. As far back as 1875, Abdu’l-Baha wrote that religion alone could engender true fellowship and union among humanity:
It is certain that the greatest of instrumentalities for achieving the advancement and the glory of man, the supreme agency for the enlightenment and the redemption of the world, is love and fellowship and unity among all the members of the human race. Nothing can be effected in the world, not even conceivably, without unity and agreement, and the perfect means for engendering fellowship and union is true religion. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Secret of Divine Civilization, p. 73.
Religion is the light of the world, and the progress, achievement, and happiness of man result from obedience to the laws set down in the holy Books. Briefly, it is demonstrable that in this life, both outwardly and inwardly the mightiest of structures, the most solidly established, the most enduring, standing guard over the world, assuring both the spiritual and the material perfections of mankind, and protecting the happiness and the civilization of society — is religion. – Ibid., pp. 71-72.