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Think, just for a minute, about the best person you know.
Now ask yourself these two questions: What makes that person so good? And where does all that goodness actually originate?
You’ve just begun meditating on one of philosophy’s and religion’s oldest questions—where do we get our virtues?
From the beginnings of human civilization, we’ve wondered where moral excellence originates. Some philosophers believed that it only came to the privileged and the elect. Others thought it evolved in the human consciousness as our race became less and less concerned with pure survival. Still others thought that morality came from family cultures.
But many philosophers credit religion for the original development of virtuous thoughts and behaviors. With repeated calls to justice and kindness, love and mercy, the world’s pantheon of great Faiths all urged humanity toward a moral existence.
The Baha’i writings say that:
Universal benefits derive from the grace of the Divine religions, for they lead their true followers to sincerity of intent, to high purpose, to purity and spotless honor, to surpassing kindness and compassion, to the keeping of their covenants when they have covenanted, to concern for the rights of others, to liberality, to justice in every aspect of life, to humanity and philanthropy, to valor and to unflagging efforts in the service of mankind. It is religion, to sum up, which produces all human virtues, and it is these virtues which are the bright candles of civilization. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Secret of Divine Civilization, p. 98.
This does not mean—far from it, actually—that all people who claim a religion are virtuous:
It is true that there are foolish individuals who have never properly examined the fundamentals of the Divine religions, who have taken as their criterion the behavior of a few religious hypocrites and measured all religious persons by that yardstick, and have on this account concluded that religions are an obstacle to progress, a divisive factor and a cause of malevolence and enmity among peoples. They have not even observed this much, that the principles of the Divine religions can hardly be evaluated by the acts of those who only claim to follow them. For every excellent thing, peerless though it may be, can still be diverted to the wrong ends. A lighted lamp in the hands of an ignorant child or of the blind will not dispel the surrounding darkness nor light up the house — it will set both the bearer and the house on fire. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Secret of Divine Civilization, p. 71.
The lamp of virtue, the Baha’i writings say, shines upon those who truly strive to develop the character traits and moral attributes embodied in the core truths of Faith:
…in the spiritual realm of intelligence and idealism there must be a center of illumination, and that center is the everlasting, ever-shining Sun, the Word of God. Its lights are the lights of reality which have shone upon humanity, illumining the realm of thought and morals, conferring the bounties of the divine world upon man. These lights are the cause of the education of souls and the source of the enlightenment of hearts, sending forth in effulgent radiance the message of the glad tidings of the Kingdom of God. In brief, the moral and ethical world and the world of spiritual regeneration are dependent for their progressive being upon that heavenly Center of illumination. It gives forth the light of religion and bestows the life of the spirit, imbues humanity with archetypal virtues and confers eternal splendors. This Sun of Reality, this Center of effulgences, is the Prophet or Manifestation of God. Just as the phenomenal sun shines upon the material world producing life and growth, likewise, the spiritual or prophetic Sun confers illumination upon the human world of thought and intelligence, and unless it rose upon the horizon of human existence, the kingdom of man would become dark and extinguished. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 94.