Perspective: Religion, the modern age, and the coming global society

In Brief: 

While the world’s great religions of the past have proved capable of building cohesive and unified communities within their respective regions or epochs, it seems unlikely that they are capable of supplying the kind of common values needed for the unique challenges of the global age. There is, however, another model — one that arises from the experience of the worldwide Bahá’í community.

There can no longer be much doubt that the next phase in human society is the emergence of a world civilization.

The processes by which such a new planetary life is being constructed are collectively known as “globalization.” And while the debate continues over whether globalization is a good thing or a bad thing, few doubt its inexorable advance.

Globalization is driven by forces like increased cross-border migration, the ever-expanding reach of the information media, and the accelerating integration of national economies. Such trends are unlikely to be reversed.

The real need for humanity today, then, is to agree on a set of common values by which to guide these new processes. Without a set of common values, the prospects for building a cohesive — and peaceful — global community are remote.

Throughout history, the most important source of common values in the process of community building has been religion.

“The fundamental purpose animating the Faith of God and His Religion is to safeguard the interests and promote the unity of the human race, and to foster the spirit of love and fellowship amongst men,” said Bahá’u’lláh.

Indeed, religion, with its emphasis on moral conduct, obedience to law, selflessness, and other virtues, has been the cohesive power behind the creation of the world’s great civilizations.

Judaism, with its emphasis on monotheism and divine law, has held together its community of believers despite some 6,000 years of tribulations, exile, and prejudice.

On the Indian subcontinent, Hinduism’s emphasis on tolerance and pluralism has helped to knit together diverse ethnic and social groups, creating the rich spritual life and cultural fabric its followers enjoy today.

Buddhist teachings on right living and conduct are intimately associated with the concept of the “sangha” or “community” and have lent the underlying impulse to Buddhist civilization.

Christianity finds its foundation for community building in Christ’s commandment to “love thy neighbor as thyself.” That ideal, among others, has led some two billion people to call themselves Christians today.

Islam, from its earliest days, has sought to establish an integrated spiritual, social and political community, the “ummah,” in which religion and religious law and values would be the guiding force in society. During the Middle Ages, the resulting Islamic civilization was responsible for dramatic advances in mathematics, astronomy, and medicine.

Yet, while the world’s great religions of the past have proved capable of building cohesive communities within their respective regions or epochs, it seems unlikely that they are capable of supplying the kind of common values needed for the unique challenges of the global age.

For one thing, none of the world’s major pre-modern religious systems has been able to sustain unity within its own community. Christian ecumenism remains a distant goal, for example, while the Sunni-Shiite split within Islam is only growing wider. Indeed, such sectarianism can be traced back to each great religion’s earliest days.

Another issue today is the rift that has opened within each of the world’s traditional religious communities over how to confront the modern world. While some have embraced the ideas that constitute the modern ideal — such as the equality of women and men and the need to pursue the scientific method — other individuals and groups have clung so tightly to archaic or literalist interpretations as to have become fanatical or extreme in their viewpoints.

The result has been a backlash against modern values within some religious communities that has at times expressed itself in violence. This phenomenon has led a number of people to reject religion altogether.

At the same time, recent history suggests that no secular ideology alone will be able to promote the kind of unity and commitment that will be necessary to meet the challenges posed by globalization and the inevitable coming together of humanity.

Despite the advances of secularism in this century, the majority of humanity remains deeply religious, and there is little to suggest the religious impulse will fade away. Religious belief and the transcendental experience that comes with it are simply too much a part of human nature to be ignored.

Moreover, the relativistic values that are inherently derived from a strictly materialistic view of the world will, in any event, never be capable of providing the necessary framework on which to build a cohesive and sustainable global society. If anything, the failed ideological experiments of the last century prove this point, leaving in their wake destroyed societies and millions of dead.

There is, however, another model — one that arises from the experience of the worldwide Bahá’í community. That model is for a system of religious belief and values that is fully consonant with the modern ideal and that embodies within it an outlook that is truly global in nature — and that is also able to tap into the power of religion in the process of community building.

Representing a cross section of humanity, Bahá’ís come from virtually every nation, ethnic group, culture, profession, and social or economic class. More than 2,100 different ethnic groups are represented, a demonstration of global “unity in diversity.” Yet, despite this diversity, the Bahá’í community is virtually free of schism or factions. Indeed, among the greatest accomplishments of the Bahá’í Faith has been its ability to resist the impulse to divide into sects and subgroups that has plagued every other religion.

Moreover, the social principles of the Bahá’í Faith stand uniquely in harmony with the emerging global value system that has already been identified in places like the UN Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and in the series of global United Nations conferences in the 1990s that culminated in the 2000 Millennium Summit.

These principles include the elimination of all forms of prejudice, equality between the sexes, the elimination of extremes of poverty and wealth, universal education, and a sustainable balance between nature and technology. The Faith also recognizes the essential oneness of the world’s great religions, promotes the harmony of science and religion, and advocates the establishment of a world federal system, based on collective security and the oneness of humanity.

At the same time, the spiritual teachings of the Bahá’í Faith have a proven capacity to touch the deepest yearnings for spiritual meaning and purpose — as evidenced by the fact that the Bahá’í community is composed of people from virtually every religious background, including Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jain, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, Zoroastrian, and even animist. Many formerly nonreligious individuals have become Bahá’ís as well.

The Bahá’í Faith is able to unite people from such diverse backgrounds because it teaches that there is only one God, Who has throughout history revealed Himself through a series of divine Messengers — including Abraham, Krishna, Zoroaster, Moses, Buddha, Jesus, and Muhammad. This succession of divine Teachers reflects a single historic “plan of God” for educating humanity about the Creator and for cultivating the spiritual, intellectual, and moral capacities of the human race.

The goal has been to prepare the way for a single, continually progressing global society. “Religion is verily the chief instrument for the establishment of order in the world and of tranquillity amongst its peoples,” said Bahá’u’lláh. “All men have been created to carry forward an ever-advancing civilization.”

The Bahá’í Faith also elevates the ideal of creating global community to the highest level. “Blessed and happy is he that ariseth to promote the best interests of the peoples and kindreds of the earth,” said Bahá’u’lláh. “It is not for him to pride himself who loveth his own country, but rather for him who loveth the whole world. The earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens.”

As humanity moves forward towards the inevitable and historic embrace of its oneness, searching for a path that can give purpose, meaning, and motivational impulse to this process, the experience of the worldwide Bahá’í community offers a unique example for consideration.

EDITOR’S NOTE: With this issue, we are changing the dating system for ONE COUNTRY. Instead of reflecting the period of time during which most stories in it occurred, the cover date will indicate the time period for which the issue is generally available (and therefore current for readers), as is the general practice for most periodicals. The volume and issue numbers remain in sequence.