Perspective: Science, Religion and Development: Some Initial Considerations

Over the past several decades workers in the development field have gradually become aware of the many interrelated factors underlying social and economic advancement. Yet, despite this growing understanding, it is apparent that a complex but vital set of issues concerning human nature needs to be incorporated into development thinking.

The international development agenda has for the most part ignored the fact that the great majority of the world's peoples do not view themselves simply as material beings responding to material exigencies and circumstances, but rather as moral beings concerned with spiritual awareness and purpose. It has thus become evident that the mainly economic and material criteria now guiding development activity must be broadened to include those spiritual aspirations that animate human nature.

Civilization itself does not arise merely from material progress, but rather is defined by and founded upon the ideals and shared beliefs that weld society together. What uniquely defines the human experience is the transcendent component of life. It is this dimension of existence that enriches, ennobles and provides direction to human beings. It unlocks the creative capacities within human consciousness and safeguards human dignity.

While pragmatic approaches to problem solving must obviously play a central role in development initiatives, tapping the spiritual roots of human motivation provides the essential impulse that ensures genuine social advancement. When spiritual principles are fully integrated into community development activities, the ideas, insights, and practical measures that emerge are likely to be those that promote self-reliance and preserve human honor, thereby avoiding habits of dependency and progressively eliminating conditions of gross economic disparity. An approach to development that incorporates moral and spiritual imperatives will more likely lead to enduring changes in both individual and collective behavior.

In essence, the development process is ultimately concerned with both the transformation of individuals and the social structures that the members of society create. The emergence of peaceful and progressive modes of living requires both an internal and external reordering, and such a reordering can only occur when the human heart is transformed. Hence, to be effective, development activity must directly address the inner life and character of human beings as well as the organization of society. Its purpose must be to promote a process of social change that engenders cooperation, compassion, rectitude of conduct and justice - a transformation that permeates every aspect of the relationships that govern human activity.

Recognition of the vital link between the practical and spiritual aspects of human life leads inevitably to a reframing of what constitutes well-being and of the possible mechanisms for attaining such well-being. This realization underlines the need for a systematic exploration of the roles that science and religion play in the development process.

A first step is to understand the essential functions of science and religion in human society. Throughout history, civilization has depended upon science and religion as the two principal systems of knowledge that have guided its development and channeled its intellectual and moral powers. The methods of science have allowed humanity to construct a coherent understanding of the laws and processes governing physical reality, and, to a certain degree, the workings of society itself. The insights of religion have provided understanding on the deepest questions of human purpose and initiative.

Science and religion have often been regarded as inherently conflictual, even mutually exclusive spheres of human endeavor. That the vitalizing agency of religion has frequently succumbed to the forces of dogmatism, superstition, and theological factionalism is a conspicuous fact of history. The Enlightenment, in fact, marked a crucial turning point in releasing human consciousness from the shackles of religious orthodoxy and fanaticism. But in its rejection of religion, the Enlightenment also rejected the moral center that religion provided, creating a deep and still existing dichotomy between the rational and the sacred. The results of this artificial split between reason and faith can be seen in the skepticism, alienation and corrosive materialism that so pervades contemporary life.

For the vast majority of humankind, the proposition that human nature has a spiritual dimension is a self-evident truth that finds expression in all spheres of life. The spiritual impulses set in motion by the world's religious systems have been the chief influence in the civilizing of human character. Through the teachings of religion, great segments of humanity have learned to discipline their baser propensities and to develop qualities - such as compassion, trustworthiness, generosity, humility, courage and willingness to sacrifice for the common good - that conduce to social order and cultural advancement.

Reason and faith are complementary faculties of human nature that both engage in the process of discovering and understanding reality; they are both tools that enable society to apprehend truth. This perspective is reinforced by recent scientific developments that suggest strong epistemological convergence with various religious worldviews.

Taken together, science and religion provide the fundamental organizing principles by which individuals, communities and institutions function and evolve. Utilizing the methods of science allows people to become more objective and systematic in their approach to problem solving and in their understanding of social processes, while drawing on the spiritual inclinations of individuals provides the motivational impetus that begets and sustains positive action.

The enterprise of building human capacity, of fostering constructive personal, community and institutional change, is increasingly being recognized as the fundamental purpose of development. When viewed as capacity building, development is concerned principally with the generation, application, and diffusion of knowledge. If it is accepted that knowledge is both spiritual and material in nature, the methodologies of science and the insights of religion can, when working together in a synergistic manner, provide the essential tools for erecting harmonious and equitable patterns of living. Placing the generation and application of knowledge at the center of development planning and activity makes it possible to study the practical implications of religious values, particularly the role that such values have in generating a unified approach toward social change at the grassroots level.

It is generally accepted that the materially poor must participate directly in efforts to improve their own well-being. Participation must be substantive and creative; it must allow the people themselves access to knowledge and encourage them to apply it. Specifically, it is not sufficient for the world's inhabitants to be engaged in projects as mere beneficiaries of the products of knowledge, even if they have a voice in certain decisions. They must be engaged in applying knowledge to create well-being, thereby generating new knowledge and contributing in a substantial and meaningful way to human progress. If, in fact, a community controls the means of knowledge, and is guided by spiritual principles, it will be able to develop material resources and technologies that serve and match its real needs.

A discourse on the complementary roles of science and religion, we suggest, could start in some of the key issue areas that have already been identified as critical to promoting development, but in each case by taking a more holistic view.

Education for example, should strive to develop an integrated set of capabilities - technical, artistic, social, moral and spiritual - so that individuals can lead lives with meaning and become agents of positive social change. Economic arrangements should serve people's needs; societies should not be expected to shape themselves to fit specific economic models - particularly those that embrace habits of unbridled acquisition and consumption. Technological decision-making should be directly guided by local value systems to ensure that superfluous uses of technology are avoided. Lastly, truly enlightened institutions of governance - institutions that are devoid of corruption and that engender public trust - will emerge only when processes of collective decision-making and collective action are guided by spiritual principles.

At this moment in history, development activity must be a global enterprise whose purpose is to bring both material and spiritual well-being to all the planet's inhabitants. To acknowledge that humanity is a single people with a common destiny is to understand that development must cease to be something one does for others. The task of erecting a peaceful and just global society must involve all members of the human family.

If the capacities of the world's peoples are to reach the levels needed to address the complex requirements of the present hour, the resources of both reason and faith will have to be tapped. While science can offer the methods and tools for promoting social and economic advancement, it alone cannot set direction; the goal of development cannot come from within the process itself. A vision is needed, and the proper vision will never take shape if the spiritual heritage of the human race continues to be regarded as tangential to development policy and programs.

[Editor's note: The following is based on a paper of the same title, prepared by Bahá'í International Community's newly created Institute for Studies in Global Prosperity and presented at the Science, Religion and Development Colloquium held 21-24 November 2000 in New Delhi. The entire paper can be read at]