Belief and Tolerance: Lights Amidst the Darkness

The human spirit must be free to know. Apprehending who we are, for what purpose we exist, and how we should live our lives, is a basic impulse of human consciousness. This quest for self-understanding and meaning is the essence of life itself. The innate and fundamental aspiration to investigate reality is thus a right and an obligation of every human being.

To search for truth-to see with one's "own eyes and not through the eyes of others"-is to undertake a process of spiritual discovery with a keen sense of justice and openness. It is by its very nature a process that is creative and transformative; if pursued with sincerity and fairness, it can bestow upon the seeker of knowledge "a new eye, a new ear, a new heart, and a new mind." The rational soul is thereby awakened to the capacities of kindness, forbearance, and compassion that lie within it. Clearly, the human yearning for truth is a power that cannot be shackled, for without the freedom to know, human nature remains the prisoner of instinct, ignorance and desire.

In the midst of an age convulsed by moral crisis and social disintegration, the need for understanding about who we are as human beings is vital to the achievement of lasting peace and well-being. Historically, such insight about human existence and behavior has been provided by religion. Its indispensable function in addressing the universal inclination towards transcendence, and its essential role in civilizing human character throughout the ages, have been central to defining human identity as well as promoting social order. Through its cultivation of humanity's spiritual nature, religion has ennobled the lives of peoples everywhere and has engendered cohesion and unity of purpose within and across societies. Religion, in a very real sense, provides the warp and woof of the social fabric - the shared beliefs and moral vision that unite people into communities and that give tangible direction and meaning to individual and collective life. The right to exercise freedom of conscience in matters of religion and belief is therefore crucial not only to satisfying the spiritual promptings of the aspiring soul, but also to the enterprise of building harmonious and equitable patterns of living.

The right to freedom of thought, conscience and belief now codified in international human rights instruments directly finds its roots in the scriptures of the world's religions. This fact should assure each of us that truth need not be feared, as it has many facets and shelters all of our diverse expressions of faith. If, after all, people of religious faith believe that the Creator is eternal and the center of all existence, then they must also believe that the unfettered and genuine search for truth will lead to truth.

The elimination of all barriers to the free exploration, acceptance and expression of religious belief is critical to the objective of creating a universal culture of human rights. However, to clear the way for a constructive dialogue about the role of religion in establishing social justice, an historical accounting must be taken. That religion has been responsible for immense suffering cannot be denied. Much darkness and confusion can be attributed to those who have appropriated the symbols and instruments of religion for their own selfish purposes. Fanaticism and conflict poison the wells of tolerance and represent corrupt expressions of true religious values. Consequently, vigilance is necessary in safeguarding the transformative power of religion from the forces of extreme orthodoxy on one hand, and irresponsible freedom on the other.

"The purpose of religion," Bahá'u'lláh states " to establish unity and concord amongst the peoples of the world; make it not the cause of dissension and strife." In unity - a unity that embraces and honors the full diversity of humankind - all problems can be solved. The building of a global society based on cooperation, reciprocity, and genuine concern for others is the ultimate expression of unified action. In short, the core spiritual values held in common by the world's religions contain within them the principal means for the reconciliation and advancement of the earth's peoples.

In order to play its part in overcoming the prejudices and suspicions now afflicting the world's faith communities, religious leadership must devote attention to these commonly shared spiritual precepts rather than doctrinal differences or claims of exclusivity. Let each religion demonstrate its capacity to guide the world's inhabitants to peaceful coexistence, moral rectitude and mutual understanding, rather than spreading enmity, fear and intolerance.

For the global Bahá'í community, the protection of human freedoms is part of a larger spiritual undertaking of fostering a set of attitudes and practices that truly release human potential. Genuine social progress, it believes, can flow only from spiritual awareness and the inculcation of virtue. From this perspective, the task of creating a universal ethos of tolerance is intimately bound up with a process of moral and spiritual development.

Education, then, emerges as an indispensable tool - a tool of active moral learning. There is no other way to raise up positive social actors who are builders of amity and agents of service and probity. "Regard man as a mine rich in gems of inestimable value," Bahá'u'lláh urges, "Education can, alone, cause it to reveal its treasures, and enable mankind to benefit therefrom." These "treasures" must be consciously developed because even though nobility, goodness and beauty are innate aspects of our nature, human beings can fall prey to inclinations that corrupt the inner self and quench the light of love.

Educational curricula cannot therefore be solely concerned with the knowledge of physical and social phenomena, but must also be directed toward the goal of moral and spiritual empowerment. As a consequence of the deep connection between individual and social well-being, programs of education need to instill in every child a twofold moral purpose. The first relates to the process of personal transformation - of intellectual, material and spiritual growth. The second concerns the complex challenge of transforming the structures and processes of society itself. To pursue this dual purpose of individual and collective transformation, specific moral capabilities must be developed. The capabilities of a moral person encompass the concepts, values, attitudes and skills that enable the person to make appropriate moral choices and to promote creative and cooperative patterns of human interaction. Underpinning all such capabilities is a commitment to discover and apply truth in every domain of human endeavor.

An integral feature of any educational initiative having a moral and spiritual focus must be the notion of the oneness and interdependence of the human race. Oneness and diversity are complementary and inseparable. That human consciousness necessarily operates through an infinite diversity of individual minds and motivations detracts in no way from its essential unity. Indeed, it is precisely an inhering diversity that distinguishes unity from homogeneity or uniformity. Hence, acceptance of the concept of unity in diversity implies the development of a global consciousness, a sense of world citizenship, and a love for all of humanity.

The rich religious heritage of humankind can also be viewed through the lens of unity. Bahá'u'lláh states: "There can be no doubt whatever that the peoples of the world, of whatever race or religion, derive their inspiration from one heavenly Source, and are the subjects of one God." The world's religions can thus be seen to be one in their nature and purpose with each being a wellspring of knowledge, energy and inspiration. They each have served to unlock a wider range of capacities within human consciousness and society - a process that has impelled the human race toward moral and spiritual maturity.

Accordingly, curricula exploring the history and teachings of religion may wish to highlight the complementary aims and functions of the world's faith systems as well as the theological and moral threads that link them. In this regard, the right to investigate religion and the spiritual roots of human motivation can be understood to be a vital element of an integrating framework of collaboration and conciliation.

It is unfortunately the case that religious prejudice is a particularly virulent influence that continues to block human progress. Overcoming its corrosive effects will require deliberate and sustained effort. Toward this end, innovative and substantive programs of education are essential.

[Editor's note: The following is adapted from a statement, entitled "Belief and Tolerance: Lights Amidst the Darkness," presented by the Bahá'í International Community at the International Consultative Conference on School Education in relation with Freedom of Religion and Belief, Tolerance and Non-discrimination, held in Madrid 23-25 November 2001.]