A new version of the Bahá’í Reference Library is now available. This ‘old version’ of the Bahá’í Reference Library will be replaced at a later date.

The new version of the Bahá’i Reference Library can be accessed here »

One Common Faith

  • Author:
  • Bahá’í World Centre

  • Source:
  • Bahá’í World Centre, 2005 edition
  • Pages:
  • 56
Go to printed page GO
Pages 34-38

“Confusion about the role of religion in cultivating moral…”

Confusion about the role of religion in cultivating moral consciousness is equally apparent in popular understanding of its contribution to the shaping of society. Perhaps the most obvious example is the inferior social status most sacred texts assign to women. While the resulting benefits enjoyed by men were no doubt a major factor in consolidating such a conception, moral justification was unquestionably supplied by people’s understanding of the intent 35 of the scriptures themselves. With few exceptions, these texts address themselves to men, assigning to women a supportive and subordinate role in the life of both religion and society. Sadly, such understanding made it deplorably easy to attach primary blame to women for failure in the disciplining of the sexual impulse, a vital feature of moral advancement. In a modern frame of reference, attitudes of this kind are readily recognized as prejudiced and unjust. At the stages of social development at which all of the major faiths came into existence, scriptural guidance sought primarily to civilize, to the extent possible, relationships resulting from intractable historical circumstances. It needs little insight to appreciate that clinging to primitive norms in the present day would defeat the very purpose of religion’s patient cultivation of moral sense.
Comparable considerations have pertained in relations between societies. The long and arduous preparation of the Hebrew people for the mission required of them is an illustration of the complexity and stubborn character of the moral challenges involved. In order that the spiritual capacities appealed to by the prophets might awaken and flourish, the inducements offered by neighbouring idolatrous cultures had, at all costs, to be resisted. Scriptural accounts of the condign punishments that befell both rulers and subjects who violated the principle illustrated the importance attached to it by the Divine purpose. A somewhat comparable issue arose in the struggle of the newborn community founded by Muḥammad to survive attempts by pagan Arab tribes to extinguish it—and in the barbaric cruelty and relentless spirit of 36 vendetta animating the attackers. No one familiar with the historical details will have difficulty in understanding the severity of the Qur’án’s injunctions on the subject. While the monotheistic beliefs of Jews and Christians were to be accorded respect, no compromise with idolatry was permitted. In a relatively brief space of time, this draconian rule had succeeded in unifying the tribes of the Arabian Peninsula and launching the newly forged community on well over five centuries of moral, intellectual, cultural and economic achievement, unmatched before or since in the speed and scope of its expansion. History tends to be a stern judge. Ultimately, in its uncompromising perspective, the consequences to those who would have blindly strangled such enterprises in the cradle will always be set off against the benefits accruing to the world as a whole from the triumph of the Bible’s vision of human possibilities and the advances made possible by the genius of Islamic civilization.
Among the most contentious of such issues in understanding society’s evolution towards spiritual maturity has been that of crime and punishment. While different in detail and degree, the penalties prescribed by most sacred texts for acts of violence against either the commonweal or the rights of other individuals tended to be harsh. Moreover, they frequently extended to permitting retaliation against the offenders by the injured parties or by members of their families. In the perspective of history, however, one may reasonably ask what practical alternatives existed. In the absence not merely of present-day programmes of behavioural modification, but even of 37 recourse to such coercive options as prisons and policing agencies, religion’s concern was to impress indelibly on general consciousness the moral unacceptability—and practical costs—of conduct whose effect would otherwise have been to demoralize efforts at social progress. The whole of civilization has since been the beneficiary, and it would be less than honest not to acknowledge the fact.
So it has been throughout all of the religious dispensations whose origins have survived in written records. Mendicancy, slavery, autocracy, conquest, ethnic prejudices and other undesirable features of social interaction have gone unchallenged—or been explicitly indulged—as religion sought to achieve reformations of behaviour that were considered more immediately essential at given stages in the advance of civilization. To condemn religion because any one of its successive dispensations failed to address the whole range of social wrongs would be to ignore everything that has been learned about the nature of human development. Inevitably, anachronistic thinking of this kind must also create severe psychological handicaps in appreciating and facing the requirements of one’s own time.
The issue is not the past, but the implications for the present. Problems arise where followers of one of the world’s faiths prove unable to distinguish between its eternal and transitory features, and attempt to impose on society rules of behaviour that have long since accomplished their purpose. The principle is fundamental to an understanding of religion’s social role: “The remedy the world needeth in its present-day afflictions can never be 38 the same as that which a subsequent age may require”, Bahá’u’lláh points out. “Be anxiously concerned with the needs of the age ye live in, and centre your deliberations on its exigencies and requirements.” 1
1. Gleanings, section CVI.   [ Back To Reference]