Religion and Social Progress: Beyond the Clash of Extremes

Posted by on Oct 24, 2013

Religion and Social Progress: Beyond the Clash of Extremes

It is fairly safe to suggest that, over the past century, hardly any issue has been as controversial as the role of religion in public life. It is also a  historic fact that over the period, a mix of scientific, technological, and social developments have made socio-economic life far more complex, intellectually exciting, yet systemically unstable and with rising vulnerability to socio-political volatility. It is equally true that in the process our human conducts, both personal and collective, have drifted away from largely spiritual to manifestly functional utilitarian objectives. The rapid pace of globalization has compounded the complexities and accelerated the move towards a utilitarian human and social functioning.


Experts may differ as to the root causes of these developments, yet there is little disagreement that the upshot of them all is the prevailing unstable and troublesome socio-political system the world over. Widespread human suffering, abuse of political power, misuse of financial and economic resources, the spread of corruption, the rise of malfunctioning of public administrations, and the scarcity of inspired leadership are the common phenomena in both developing and developed countries, in established and emerging democracies, in democratic and totalitarian states, in traditional tribal settings and in modern unified societies, in poor as well as in resourceful territories. In short, our sophisticated socio-economic system is facing a crisis of sustainability, legitimacy, and integrity.


The evolution of social progress, propelled by unprecedented advancements in technology, communication, transportation, and fostering of ideas, has systemically reduced the role of morality and ethics in various spheres of human civilization. Perspectives have shifted away from essential and long term considerations to functional and short term preoccupations. As such, this paper argues, a systemic issue has emerged which needs a systemic solution. Partial measures driven by opportunistic exigencies would at best deal with symptoms, leaving the root causes intact. This paper maintains that the systemic fault-line is largely due to the rise of materialistic secularism in the name of modernity and near neglect of religion and spirituality[1]. The working premise of this paper is that science (as the engine of secularism) and religion (as the propagator of spirituality) are the two forces of social advancement. This is one of the central tenets of the Bahá’í Faith. The challenge facing us is, thus, not to sacrifice one on the alter of the other. To this end, Section I will review the rise of materialistic secularism and its aftermath. Section II will focus on social governance and the notion of development as pervades public policy. This will be followed, in Section III, by a discussion of the spiritual nature of humankind and the need for a paradigm change in unlocking human potential towards social progress. Section Four will offer some concluding remarks.


I- The Rise of Secularism and Its Aftermath

The general notions of “free thought” have existed throughout history. Whilst the term “secularism” was first coined by the British writer George Holyoake in 1851, early secular ideas involving the separation of philosophy and religion can be traced back to Muslim polymath, Ibn Rushd (1126-1198) and the Averroism school of philosophy. Holyoake’s used the term secularism to describe his views of promoting a social order separate from religion, without actively dismissing or criticizing religious belief. However the term secularism itself has evolved over time. Karl Marx’s famous phrase; “religion as the opiate of the masses”, helped shift the connotation of secularism into a materialistic domain. The subsequent emergence of socialist and communist states in 20th century expressed a vast and prominent social experimentation inspired by the materialistic notions of secularism.


Interestingly, the Western capitalist societies followed a similar materialistic secular path, albeit with more reliance on market mechanisms, and with less systematic oppression of religion and its institutions.


The philosophical and intellectual rebellion against religion and religious abuse was understandable. The undeniable historic truth is that religions have been manipulated and used for the accomplishment of narrow ends. Not only in bygone ages, but also at present in many parts of the world religions are used as an instrument of oppression, social abuse of women in particular, human rights violations in general, and political domination. Many wars have been fought in the name of religion and/or against the resurgence of religious sentiments. Much socio-economic destruction and widespread disillusionment against religion and institutionalized religious establishments have emerged accordingly and justifiably.

Secularism over time has evolved and led to social experimentations that continue to have widespread undesirable social, economic and environmental consequences. These have resulted in reactionary backlash on the part of religious groupings and institutions as well as non-religious social activists all over the world. The moral and intellectual outrage against the secular state practices, both in the East and in the West, has led to a wide range of protestations, even terrorism. It may be argued that the aftermath of materialistic secularism in its diverse manifestations is no less or more undesirable than the reign of static and institutionalized suppressive religious regimes.

For social progress, prosperity and development the role of religion and secularism needs a far more nuanced and scientific approach. As noted by the Bahá’í International Community, on the Occasion of the 60th Anniversary of the United Nations: “The debate about religion in the public sphere, however, has been driven by the voices and actions of extreme proponents on both sides — those who impose their religious ideology by force, whose most visible expression is terrorism — and those who deny any place for expressions of faith or belief in the public sphere. Yet neither extreme is representative of the majority of humankind and neither promotes a sustainable peace”.


II- Social Governance and Developmental Goals


The rise of secularism and its rapid transmutation into materialism has had deep systemic consequences.  As mentioned earlier, all modalities of social governance, ie capitalism, socialism and communism, defined progress and the ultimate goals of socio-economic development in terms of materialistic indicators alone. These systems of governance differed only in terms of the means of delivery; that is some relied on the machinery of the state to achieve the developmental goals whilst others propagated a mixed economy made of both the state and the market structures.  In effect, “development defined in terms of certain patterns of “modernization,” however, seems to refer exactly to those processes, which promote the domination of people’s material ambitions over their spiritual goals. While the search of a scientific and technologically modern society is a central goal of human development, it must base its educational, economic, political, and cultural structures on the concept of the spiritual nature of the human being and not only on his or her material needs.”[2]


However the sidelining of religion in the definition of developmental objectives and the predominance of the materialistic paradigm reduced the developmental challenge to a purely materialistic enterprise. This, in turn, has led to a gradual but systemic dilution of ethical conduct over the period.

In almost all countries, including South Africa, over the past while, a gradual but tangible rift has emerged between the country’s socio-economic and political ‘formal (professed)’ as opposed to ‘informal (practiced)’ ethics. For example, in the business sector business executives and corporations formally subscribe to the ‘codes of good corporate governance’. Their annual ‘glossy’ reports are decorated with “impressive evidences” of their socially responsible citizenship. Yet operationally they do not hesitate to collude and/or abuse their market powers. Evidences of price fixing amongst pharmaceutical companies, bread producers and steel manufacturers have been high profile cases over the past year or so in South Africa. Sasol, South Africa’s most celebrated petrochemical corporation, has been heavily fined, both locally and internationally in EU, for its extensive anti-competitive practices. The country’s banking sector is also accused of malpractices and a report in this regard is yet to be made public by the Competition Commission. The banking sector is alleged to be exerting every pressure to halt its publication. The cellphone companies are likewise accused of collusion to fleece the consumers in South Africa.

The gap between the formal and informal ethics within the government sector is even more pervasive. Frequently, government ministers and departmental executives espouse ‘global best practices’, and yet operationally in their organizational and managerial conduct there is little evidence of the values, standards, or practices that conform to their formal statements. Duality of the values is equally prevalent in labour unions, the media sector and other social structures. Most poignantly, religious organizations have not been spared the scourge of the duality of values either.

So, the world over, there is an evident, however disturbing, prevalence of the systemic consistency of ethical conduct. This, I submit, is the bitter fruit of the promotion of a materialistic enterprise over the past century. This is best captured in the modern theory of the firm. The firm, within the finance paradigm, is seen as a complex network of contractual relations, mostly implicit, between various interest groups. “Within this finance paradigm,” Dobson observes, “a rational agent is simply one who pursues personal material advantage ad infinitum. In essence, to be rational in finance is to be individualistic, materialistic, and competitive. Business is a game played by individuals, as with all games the object is to win, and winning is measured in terms solely of material wealth. Within the discipline this rationality concept is never questioned, and has indeed become the theory-of-the-firm’s sine qua non[3].

The same paradigm is by and large replicated in the competitive democratic governance regimes. As Dr Michael Karlberg, in his assessment of Western Liberal Democracy notes: “The breakdown in civility, the rise of mean-spiritedness, the problem of gridlock, and the spread of political corruption- assuming these things have indeed deteriorated over time- are not abuses or corruption of the partisan system. Such developments are the culmination- the “perfection”- of a system that political scientist Jane Mansbridge refers to as “adversary democracy”. [4] Furthermore, Karlberg argues that political competition undermines the ability of the state to correct mark distortions and failures. He maintains: “The reasons for this are not difficult to understand. Political competition is an expensive activity- and growing more expensive with every generation. Successful campaigns are wages by those who have the financial support, both direct and indirect, of the most affluent market actors (i.e. those who have profited the most from market excesses and deficiencies)…This problem is a primary cause of the growing disparities of wealth and poverty that are now witnessed throughout the world, including within the Western world”.[5]

The prevalence of materialistic secularism has yet another critical adverse socio-economic consequence. Complex social, economic and environmental problems inherently require long-term planning and continued commitment. Yet, individualistic competitive political leaders seek short-term remedies, often at the expense of exacerbating the problems. Karlberg underscores the point that “in order to gain and maintain power, political entrepreneurs must cater to the immediate interests of their constituents so that visible results can be realized within relatively frequent election cycles. Even when long-term political commitments are made out of principle by one candidate or party, continuity is often compromised by succeeding candidates or parties who dismantle or fail to enforce the programmes of their predecessors in order to distance themselves from policies they were previously compelled to oppose on campaign trail or as the voice of opposition. The focus of campaigns and political parties on constituencies-in-the-present therefore undermines commitment to the interests of future generations.[6]

In brief, nearly in all spheres of human activity the dominance of materialistic secularism has caused systemic distortions with deep social, political and economic impact. The most fundamental of these distortions is about the concept of human nature. Underlying all these practices is the assumption that human nature is essentially selfish, competitive and exclusionary. This basic assumption needs to be challenged. The Universal House of Justice, the governing body of the international Bahá’í community, observes that “it is in the glorification of material pursuits, at once the progenitor and common feature of all such ideologies, that we find the roots which nourish the falsehood that human beings are incorrigibly selfish and aggressive. It is here that the ground must be cleared for the building of a new world fit for our descendants.”[7]

III- Changing the Paradigm: Engaging with the Spiritual Essence of Human Nature


In line with all major divine religions, the Bahá’í Faith emphasizes the spiritual essence of human nature. It acknowledges human’s inherent potential for both egoism and altruism, and in this context it underscores the significance of education, social environment, and the promotion of a balanced material and spiritual advancement. Education, the Bahá’í Faith further underscores, has both a divine and a secular source. The former is infused through religion, via divine Teachers or Messengers, whereas the latter originates from scientific research and intellectual inquiry.


The spiritual essence of human nature necessitates continuous nurturing via Progressive Revelation[8],- a process which is conducive to the spiritual evolution of mankind. Spiritual growth itself is a key requirement for social cohesion, the promotion of social harmony and the creation of reciprocity within a socially complex environment. The process of an ever-advancing civilization generates continuous change and social complexity, and as such spiritual education is needed to ensure matching human spiritual maturity to engender social harmony and peace. “Bahá’u’lláh (the Prophet-Founder of the Faith) taught, that Religion is the chief foundation of love and unity and the cause of oneness. If a religion become the cause of hatred and disharmony, it would be better that it should not exist. To be without such a religion is better than to be with it.”[9]


Critically, science and religion are seen as “inter-twined with each other and cannot be separated. These are the two wings with which humanity must fly. One wing is not enough. …God has endowed man with intelligence and reason whereby he is required to determine the verity of questions and propositions. If religious beliefs and opinions are found contrary to the standards of science they are mere superstitions and imaginations; for the antithesis of knowledge is ignorance, and the child of ignorance is superstition. Unquestionably there must be agreement between true religion and science”.[10]


Critical for humanity’s spiritual progress and social advancement is the rendering of service to the community. The Bahá’í Holy Writings state that: “…all effort and exertion put forth by man from the fullness of his heart is worship, if it is prompted by the highest motives and the will to do service to humanity. This is worship: to serve mankind and to minister to the needs of the people. Service is prayer.”[11]


In fact the combination of learning and service, as part of an integrated framework, constitutes an important process of dynamic and collective empowerment. The world over the Bahá’í communities, in thousands of localities, are engaged in the promotion of concurrent learning and service rendering to the immediate communities and social environments. This is central to the global spiritual enterprise promoted and sustained by the worldwide Bahá’í community. The emphasis is, further, placed on the children, pre-youth and the youth. The working premise of this process is that each human being is endowed with a latent capability, with a spiritual awareness and a consciousness that if enhanced can lead to both “self” and “group” empowerment. Contrary to the aforementioned ideologies, and in a vivid contrast to the assumptions of the materialistic secularism, this spiritual enterprise promotes an alternative approach of people learning by advancing together, as opposed to the teacher-student format, and combining learning with doing, especially with a strong service orientation. Even more so when it is initiated beginning with relatively young people of the junior youth age.


The experience of the SA Bahá’í community in this regard is encouraging and indeed inspiring. More often than not, the youth and pre-youth groups- the very groups who are expected to be rebellious and selfish- demonstrate considerable propensity to collaborate, cooperate and be constructive. Their willingness to render selfless service to the community and their energy to sustain creative initiatives for social good is immense.


The failure of materialistic secularism, and its resultant systemic malaise the world over,   has necessitated the development and promotion of alternative approaches. Critical for such alternatives is the recognition of the spiritual essence of human nature. One such approach is the current worldwide spiritual enterprise promoted by the International Bahá’í Community.