Bahá'í Faith and science
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A fundamental principle of the Bahá'í Faith is the stated harmony of religion and science. Whilst Bahá'í scripture asserts that true science and true religion can never be in conflict, critics argue that statements by the founders clearly contradict current scientific understanding. `Abdu'l-Bahá, the son of the founder of the religion, stated that "when a religion is opposed to science it becomes mere superstition". He also said that true religion must conform to the conclusions of science.
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. 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. This is because, in the Bahá'í understanding the present scientific view is not always correct, neither is truth said to be only limited to what science can explain. 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.
Harmony between science and religion
`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".
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. 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.
Attitude toward science
`Abdu'l-Bahá is quoted as saying this:
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.
Scientific claims by the founders
Bahá’u’lláh taught that the universe has "neither beginning nor ending", and that the component elements of the material world have always existed and will continue to exist. In the Tablet of Wisdom ("Lawh-i-Hikmat", written 1873-1874). Bahá'u'lláh states: "That which hath been in existence had existed before, but not in the form thou seest today. The world of existence came into being through the heat generated from the interaction between the active force and that which is its recipient. These two are the same, yet they are different." The terminology used here refers to ancient Greek and Islamic philosophy. Jean-Marc Lepain, Robin Mihrshahi, Dale E. Lehman and Julio Savi suggest a possible relation of this statement with the Big Bang theory.
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. 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". And rather than accepting the idea of a Young Earth, Bahá'í theology accepts that the Earth is ancient.
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.
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.
Mehanian and Friberg wrote a 2003 article describing their belief that `Abdu'l-Bahá's statements can be entirely reconciled with modern science. 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." And to this end `Abdu'l-Bahá suggested that a missing link between human and apes would not be found. The idea of a missing link per se was abandoned by science in favor of the idea of evolutionary transitions.
There are 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, according to Mehanian and Friberg, this is not necessarily always the case as in their view the present scientific point of view is not always correct, nor truth only limited to what science can explain.
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." 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.
- Craig Loehle (1990), On Human Origins: A Bahá’í Perspective
- Eberhard von Kitzing (1997), Is the Bahá'í view of evolution compatible with modern science?
- Courosh Mehanian and Stephan Friberg (2003), Religion and Evolution Reconciled: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Comments on Evolution
- Bahman Nadimi, Do the Baha’i Writings on evolution allow for mutation of species within kingdoms but not across kingdoms?
- Keven Brown (2001), Evolution and Bahá'í Belief: 'Abdu'l-Bahá's Response to Nineteenth-Century Darwinism
- Fariborz Alan Davoodi, MD, Human Evolution: Directed?
- Salman Oskooi (2009), When Science and Religion Merge: A Modern Case Study
Existence of ether
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.
`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. `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. 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.
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."
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."
Transmutation of elements
In 1873 Bahá'u'lláh wrote:
Consider the doubts which they who have joined partners with God have instilled into the hearts of the people of this land. "Is it ever possible," they ask, "for copper to be transmuted into gold?" Say, Yes, by my Lord, it is possible. Its secret, however, lieth hidden in Our Knowledge. We will reveal it unto whom We will. Whoso doubteth Our power, let him ask the Lord his God, that He may disclose unto him the secret, and assure him of its truth. That copper can be turned into gold is in itself sufficient proof that gold can, in like manner, be transmuted into copper, if they be of them that can apprehend this truth. Every mineral can be made to acquire the density, form, and substance of each and every other mineral. The knowledge thereof is with Us in the Hidden Book.
Life on other planets
The learned men, [divines] that have fixed at several thousand years the life of this earth, have failed, throughout the long period of their observation, to consider either the number or the age of the other planets. Consider, moreover, the manifold divergencies that have resulted from the theories propounded by these men. Know thou that every fixed star hath its own planets, and every planet its own creatures, whose number no man can compute. [Emphasis added]
The idea that every planet has "its own creatures" is controversial. While no direct evidence has been found of extraterrestrial life, theories range from the Rare Earth hypothesis, that the earth may be unique in hosting life, to the more common idea that it would be improbable for life not to exist somewhere other than Earth.
Very few Bahá'í sources deal with this idea in detail. Shoghi Effendi wrote in a letter,
...the creatures which Bahá'u'lláh states to be found in every planet cannot be considered to be necessarily similar or different from human beings on this earth. Bahá'u'lláh does not specifically state whether such creatures are like or unlike us. He simply refers to the fact that there are creatures in every planet. It remains for science to discover one day the exact nature of these creatures.
On the same subject, the Universal House of Justice wrote,
As you rightly state, Bahá'u'lláh affirms that every fixed star has its planets, and every planet its own creatures. The House of Justice states however, that it has not discovered anything in the Bahá'í Writings which would indicate the degree of progress such creatures may have attained.
- Creation-evolution controversy
- Religion and science
- Bahá'í cosmology
- Bahá'í prophecies
- Islam and science
- Theosophy and science
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