Bahá'í Faith and science

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A fundamental principle of the Bahá'í Faith is the harmony of religion and science. Bahá'í scripture asserts that true science and true religion can never be in conflict.[1] `Abdu'l-Bahá, the son of the founder of the religion, stated that religion without science leads to superstition and that science without religion leads to materialism.[2] He also admonished that true religion must conform to the conclusions of science.[3][4]

This latter aspect of the principle seems to suggest that the religion must always accept current scientific knowledge as authoritative, but some Bahá'í scholars have suggested that this is not always the case.[5] On some issues, the Bahá'í Faith subordinates the conclusions of current scientific thought to its own teachings, which the religion takes as fundamentally true.[6] This is because, in the Bahá'í understanding the present scientific view is not always correct, neither is truth only limited to what science can explain.[4] Instead, in the Bahá'í view, knowledge must be obtained through the interaction of the insights obtained from revelation from God and through scientific investigation.[7]

Harmony between science and religion[edit]

The harmony of science and religion is a central tenet of the Bahá'í teachings. The principle states that truth is one, and therefore true science and true religion must be in harmony, thus rejecting the view that science and religion are in conflict. `Abdu'l-Bahá, the son of the founder of the religion, asserted that science and religion cannot be opposed because they are aspects of the same truth; he also affirmed that reasoning powers are required to understand the truths of religion. Shoghi Effendi, the head of the Bahá'í Faith in the first half of the 20th century, described science and religion as "the two most potent forces in human life".[8]

The teachings state that whenever conflict arises between religion and science it is due to human error; either through misinterpretation of religious scriptures or the lack of a more complete understanding of science. `Abdu'l-Bahá explained that religious teachings which are at variance with science should not be accepted; he explained that religion has to be reasonable since God endowed humankind with reason so that they can discover truth.[3] Science and religion, in the Bahá'í writings, are compared to the two wings of a bird upon which a person's intelligence can increase, and upon which a person's soul can progress. Furthermore, the Bahá'í writings state that science without religion would lead to a person becoming totally materialistic, and religion without science would lead to a person falling into superstitious practices. `Abdu'l-Bahá in one of his public talks said:

"If religion were contrary to logical reason then it would cease to be a religion and be merely a tradition. Religion and science are the two wings upon which man's intelligence can soar into the heights, with which the human soul can progress. It is not possible to fly with one wing alone! Should a man try to fly with the wing of religion alone he would quickly fall into the quagmire of superstition, whilst on the other hand, with the wing of science alone he would also make no progress, but fall into the despairing slough of materialism. All religions of the present day have fallen into superstitious practices, out of harmony alike with the true principles of the teaching they represent and with the scientific discoveries of the time."[9]

The Bahá'í writings state that religion must always stand the analysis of reason, and agree with scientific statements of fact. Another teaching of the Bahá'í Faith, Independent investigation of truth, also uses the harmony of science and religion by stating that each individual should free themselves from all prejudices from learned belief, and then individually search for the truth.

Scholarship[edit]

Scientific and academic pursuits are encouraged in Bahá'í Scripture, and excellence is promoted. For a look into the Bahá'í view of scholarship this link is a compilation by the Research Department of the Universal House of Justice on the topic.

Science in Bahá'í scriptures[edit]

The Bahá'í writings for the most part are silent on specific scientific issues, explaining that most of this is the work of future scientists. `Abdu'l-Bahá explains that science is a progressive field which will continually progress in further and further ways.

"Mathematicians, astronomers, chemical scientists continually disprove and reject the conclusions of the ancients; nothing is fixed, nothing final; everything is continually changing because human reason is progressing along new roads of investigation and arriving at new conclusions every day. In the future much that is announced and accepted as true now will be rejected and disproved. And so it will continue ad infinitum."[10]

There are a few specific references about scientific issues that are mentioned below.

Medicine in Bahá'í scriptures[edit]

Without mentioning any particular school of medicine, or any particular form of science, the Bahá'í writings simply encourage its study and emphasize the important contributions that it will bring to society. A few certain guidelines and principles were laid down in the writings, such as that when ill, people should always seek medical advice and follow the doctor's instructions, and that in the future nutrition through certain foods will help increase the general wellness of humankind:

"At whatever time highly skilled physicians shall have developed the healing of illnesses by means of foods, and shall make provision for simple foods, and shall prohibit humankind from living as slaves to their lustful appetites, it is certain that the incidence of chronic and diversified illnesses will abate, and the general health of all mankind will be much improved. This is destined to come about. In the same way, in the character, the conduct and the manners of men, universal modifications will be made."
"According to the explicit decree of Bahá'u'lláh one must not turn aside from the advice of a competent doctor. It is imperative to consult one even if the patient himself be a well-known and eminent physician. In short, the point is that you should maintain your health by consulting a highly skilled physician."
"It is incumbent upon everyone to seek medical treatment and to follow the doctor's instructions, for this is in compliance with the divine ordinance, but, in reality, He Who giveth healing is God."[11]

Scientific statements by the founders[edit]

The founders of the Bahá'í Faith commented on issues such as evolution that were seen as a dispute between science and religion at the time. Most science-related statements are in harmony with current scientific conclusions, but some are considered questionable. Statements by Bahá'u'lláh of a cosmological nature remain unconfirmed, but given the relative absence of material cosmological assertions, and the prevalence of writings that direct the believers to science to resolve such questions, these issues are far less controversial in the Bahá'í community than in many other faiths.

Creation[edit]

Bahá’u’lláh taught that the universe has "neither beginning nor ending",[12] and that the component elements of the material world have always existed and will continue to exist.[13] Bahá'ís believe that the story of creation in Genesis is a rudimentary account that conveys the broad essential spiritual truths of existence without a level of detail and accuracy that was unnecessary and incomprehensible at the time.[13] Likewise, `Abdu'l-Bahá said that literal story of Adam and Eve cannot be accepted, affirmed, or imagined, and that it "must be thought of simply as a symbol".[14] And rather than accepting the idea of a Young Earth, Bahá'í theology accepts that the Earth is ancient.[15]

Evolution[edit]

Charles Darwin, the famous 19th-century English naturalist who proposed a naturalistic mechanism for evolution.

In regards to evolution and the origin of man, `Abdu'l-Bahá gave extensive comments on the subject when he addressed western audiences in the beginning of the 20th century. Transcripts of these talks can be found in Some Answered Questions, Paris Talks and the Promulgation of Universal Peace. `Abdu'l-Bahá describes the human species as evolving from a primitive form to modern man, but that the capacity to form human intelligence was always in existence.

`Abdu'l-Bahá's comments seem to differ from the standard evolutionary picture of human development, where Homo sapiens as one species along with the great apes evolved from a common ancestor living in Africa millions of years ago. He describes mankind as evolving over many millions of years from a primitive form.[citation needed]

`Abdu'l-Bahá also stresses the importance of interdependence and diversity on evolution; he states that all things are connected like a chain and it is through interaction that development and growth is achieved.[16] `Abdu'l-Bahá states that humankind has progressed through stages; he states that humans did not appear all at once but instead developed gradually. He once again compares human evolution to the growth of an embryo into an adult:

"[I]t is evident and confirmed that the development and growth of man on this earth, until he reached his present perfection, resembled the growth and development of the embryo in the womb of the mother: by degrees it passed from condition to condition, from form to form, from one shape to another."[17]

While `Abdu'l-Bahá states that man progressed through many stages before reaching this present form, `Abdu'l-Bahá states that humans are a distinct species, and not an animal, and that in every stage of evolution through which humans progressed, they were potentially humans.

"But at all times, even when the embryo resembled a worm, it was human in potentiality and character, not animal. The forms assumed by the human embryo in its successive changes do not prove that it is animal in its essential character. Throughout this progression there has been transference of type, a conservation of species or kind. Realizing this we may acknowledge the fact that at one time man was an inmate of the sea, at another period an invertebrate, then a vertebrate and finally a human being standing erect. Though we admit these changes, we cannot say man is an animal. In each one of these stages are signs and evidences of his human existence and destination."[18]

Mehanian and Friberg wrote a 2003 article describing their belief that `Abdu'l-Bahá's statements can be entirely reconciled with modern science. `Abdu'l-Bahá used the word "species" with the implication of "kind" or "category" and not in the modern biological sense; thus Mehanian and Friberg state that `Abdu'l-Bahá's departures from the conventional interpretation of evolution are likely due "to disagreements with the metaphysical, philosophical, and ideological aspects of those interpretations, not with scientific findings."[4] And to this end `Abdu'l-Bahá suggested that a missing link between human and apes would not be found.[19] The idea of a missing link per se was abandoned by science in favor of the idea of evolutionary transitions.[20][21]

There are, however, some differences between `Abdu'l-Bahá's statements and current scientific thought. The Bahá’í perspective that religion must be in accordance with science seems to suggest that religion must accept current scientific knowledge as authoritative; but this is not necessarily always the case as the present scientific point of view is not always correct, nor truth only limited to what science can explain.[4]

Oskooi chose the subject of evolution and Bahá'í belief for his 2009 thesis, and in doing so reviewed other Bahá'í authors' works on the subject. He concluded that, "The problem of disharmony between scripture and science is rooted in an unwarranted misattribution of scriptural inerrancy."[22] In other words, he believes that `Abdu'l-Bahá made statements about biology that were later proved wrong, and that `Abdu'l-Bahá's infallibility should not be applied to scientific matters.

Several authors have written on the subject of evolution and Bahá'í belief.

Existence of ether[edit]

Aether, or ether, was a substance postulated in the late 19th century to be the medium for the propagation of light. The Michelson-Morley experiment of 1887 made an effort to find the aether, but its failure to detect it led Einstein to devise his Special theory of Relativity. Further developments in modern physics, including General Relativity, Quantum Field Theory, and String Theory all incorporate the non-existence of the aether, and today the concept is considered obsolete scientific theory.

The luminiferous aether: it was hypothesised that the Earth moves through a "medium" of aether that carries light

`Abdu'l-Bahá's use of the aether concept in one of his talks - his audience including scientists of the time - has been the source of some controversy. The chapter in `Abdu'l-Bahá's Some Answered Questions which mentions aether differentiates between things that are "perceptible to the senses" and those which are "realities of the intellect" and not perceptible to the senses.[23] `Abdu'l-Bahá includes "ethereal matter" (also translated as "etheric matter"), heat, light and electricity among other things, in the second group of things which are not perceptible to the senses, and are concepts which are arrived at intellectually to explain certain phenomena.[23] The Universal House of Justice referring to `Abdu'l-Bahá's use of the word state that, "in due course, when scientists failed to confirm the physical existence of the 'ether' by delicate experiments, they constructed other intellectual concepts to explain the same phenomena" which is consistent with `Abdu'l-Bahá's categorization of aether.[23]

Robin Mishrahi in his published paper on the issue titled "Ether, Quantum Physics and the Bahá'í Writings" wrote,

"As a final observation it should be noted that because many of the scientific discoveries and theories referred to in the Bahá'í Writings were yet unknown to the contemporaries of Bahá'u'lláh and `Abdu'l-Bahá, They obviously could not have used the technical terms applied for their description nowadays. Instead, They had to make use of and sometimes redefine already existing concepts and terms (e.g. the ether concept or the idea of the four elements of ancient Greek philosophy) in a way that they would accurately explain what They had in mind. On a superficial level, this might give the impression that the Central Figures of the Faith did not actually formulate any new ideas about physical reality. When we study Their Writings more closely, however, we come to realise that this only seems to be the case because Their references to such topics were purposely made in such a way that they would neither offend Their addressees who believed in certain (erroneous) contemporary scientific concepts, nor make use of a terminology that had not yet been developed by contemporary scientists."[24]

Nuclear power[edit]

Bahá'u'lláh wrote:

"Strange and astonishing things exist in the earth but they are hidden from the minds and the understanding of men. These things are capable of changing the whole atmosphere of the earth and their contamination would prove lethal."[25]

Bahá'ís later pointed to this as a statement about the discovery of nuclear energy and the use of nuclear weapons.[26]

Transmutation of elements[edit]

In 1873 Bahá'u'lláh wrote in the Kitáb-i-Aqdas about the signs for the coming of age of the human race. The second sign refers to the emergence of a "divine philosophy" which will include the discovery of a radical approach to the transmutation of elements:

Life on other planets[edit]

Kepler Space Telescope - a NASA telescope that is capable of detecting extrasolar terrestrial planets.

Bahá'u'lláh stated:

The idea of each star having planets is not very controversial.[29] "Planet" was defined at the time as: "a celestial body which revolves about the sun in an orbit of a moderate degree of eccentricity."[30] The Nebular Theory suggests that every star forms with orbiting material.

Taken superficially — reading creatures as living things — this statement would be contradicted by the current understanding of astrobiology. Life, as currently known, would not evolve on any world lacking liquid water;[31][32] and, although there exist some supportive theories of divergent and durable life forms[33] or alternative biochemistry, they are unlikely. The term "creature",[34] however, is used elsewhere in Bahá'í scripture by `Abdu'l-Bahá to also include minerals, in addition to plants, animals, and humans.[35]

Very few Bahá'í sources deal with this idea in detail. Shoghi Effendi wrote in a letter,

On the same subject, the Universal House of Justice wrote,

'Abdu'l-Bahá writes in the Tablet of the Universe ("Lawh-i-Aflákiyyih") that there are infinite Manifestations of God (messengers) in the infinite worlds of God.[38]

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Various (December 1995) [1912]. Letter written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice. Research Department of the Universal House of Justice, Bahá’í World Centre. Retrieved 2007-12-01. 
  2. ^ `Abdu'l-Bahá 1912, pp. 141–146
  3. ^ a b Effendi 1912
  4. ^ a b c d Mehanian 2003
  5. ^ "It also requires us not to limit science to any particular school of thought or methodological approach postulated in the course of its development." in Universal House of Justice (1997-08-13). "19 May 1995 letter, written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice to an individual believer (published in Memorandum on Quotations on Science and Religion". Retrieved 2007-12-02. 
  6. ^ Effendi 1946
  7. ^ Universal House of Justice (1997-08-13). "19 May 1995 letter, written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice to an individual believer (published in Memorandum on Quotations on Science and Religion". Retrieved 2007-12-02. 
  8. ^ Effendi 1938
  9. ^ `Abdu'l-Bahá 1912, p. 143
  10. ^ Effendi 1912, p. 21
  11. ^ `Abdu'l-Bahá 1978, page 156
  12. ^ Effendi 1912, p. 220
  13. ^ a b Esslemont 1980, pp. 204–205
  14. ^ `Abdu'l-Bahá 1912, p. 140
  15. ^ Brown, Keven; Von Kitzing, Eberhard, eds. (2001). Evolution and Bahá'í belief: ʻAbduʾl-Bahá's response to nineteenth-century Darwinism; Volume 12 of Studies in the Bábí and Bahá'í religions. Kalimat Press. pp. 6, 17, 117, etc. ISBN 978-1-890688-08-0. 
  16. ^ `Abdu'l-Bahá 1908
  17. ^ `Abdu'l-Bahá 1908, p. 183
  18. ^ Effendi 1912, p. 358
  19. ^ Matthews, Gary L. (2005). The Challenge of Baha'u'llah. US Baha'i Publishing Trust. pp. 90–5. ISBN 978-1-931847-16-2. 
  20. ^ Prothero, D (2008-02-27). "Evolution: What missing link?" (2645). New Scientist. pp. 35–40. 
  21. ^ "When Science and Religion Merge". Bahai-library.com. Retrieved 2012-08-15. 
  22. ^ a b c Letter to an individual by the Universal House of Justice
  23. ^ Mihrshahi, Robin (2002/2003). "Ether, Quantum Physics and the Bahá'í Writings". Australian Bahá'í Studies Journal 4: 3–20.  Check date values in: |date= (help)
  24. ^ Bahá'u'lláh 1994, p. 69
  25. ^ Smith, Peter (2000). "nuclear power". A concise encyclopedia of the Bahá'í Faith. Oxford: Oneworld Publications. pp. 260–261. ISBN 1-85168-184-1. 
  26. ^ Bahá'u'lláh, Gleanings from the Writing of, Section XCVII
  27. ^ Bahá'u'lláh 1990, pp. 162–163
  28. ^ Reuters: Are we alone? We may soon find out (January 26, 2010).
  29. ^ Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary (1913 + 1828). "Planet". The ARTFL Project. Retrieved 2006-05-20. 
  30. ^ BBC. "The Ingredients, The Recipe for Life, Did Life Arrive on a Comet?". bbc.co.uk. Archived from the original on 13 June 2006. Retrieved 2006-05-20. 
  31. ^ National Science Foundation (2004-11-16). "Are we alone?". National Science Foundation. Archived from the original on 7 May 2006. Retrieved 2006-05-20. 
  32. ^ The Encyclopedia of Astrobiology Astronomy and Spaceflight. "Alternative forms of life". The Encyclopedia of Astrobiology Astronomy and Spaceflight. Archived from the original on 24 May 2006. Retrieved 2006-05-20. 
  33. ^ Creature is defined as: "Anything created; anything not self-existent; especially, any being created with life; an animal; a man." Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary (1913 + 1828). "Creature". The ARTFL Project. Retrieved 2006-07-21. 
  34. ^ `Abdu'l-Bahá 1908, p. 130
  35. ^ Hornby 1994, p. 478
  36. ^ Universal House of Justice (1996-08-06). "Sabeans, UFOs, Alien Abduction and Genetic Engineering". Retrieved 2006-05-20. 
  37. ^ Hatcher 2005, p. 150-151

References[edit]

External links[edit]