Knowledge and Civilization: Implications for the Community and the Individual
The following is a portion of an article from bahaiworld.bahai.org. © 2020 Bahá’í International Community
Photo by Nabil Sami
Originally published in The Bahá’í World 1997–98, this article, the revised text of a presentation given by Farzam Arbab, explores the relationship between science and religion as two great systems of knowledge that have a vital social role to play in the building of a world civilization.
Throughout history, humanity has depended upon science and religion as the two principal knowledge systems that have propelled the advancement of civilization, 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, while the insights of religion have provided understanding relating to the deepest questions of human purpose and action.
The social role of knowledge as it relates to the building of a world civilization is of immense importance. In this context, the relation between science and religion, the two great systems of knowledge, assumes vital significance, as do issues surrounding the acquisition of knowledge by the individual, since according to the Bahá’í viewpoint, the highest goal of the individual is to be a source of social good.
Material and Spiritual Civilization
According to the Bahá’í teachings, there are two facets to civilization: material and spiritual. Bahá’ís believe that for humanity to prosper these must be balanced. Adherence to a strictly materialistic viewpoint requires trying to understand civilization in terms of material complexity in the collective existence of the human species. In this paradigm, the complex structures of atoms and molecules and their interactions that constitute a human being and create in it the potentialities of the mind are seen as preludes to, or building blocks of, more complex entities such as the family, the group, the community, and society. When these higher collective structures come into being, they are viewed as having the potential of certain patterns of behavior associated with civilization.
The materialistic line of thinking, regardless of how many humanistic concepts are introduced into it, dictates acceptance of the idea that the force that pushes humanity towards these higher levels of organization—and, therefore, towards civilization—is the imperative to survive. Somehow the genetic code of every human being (itself the product of physical evolution) contains instructions that oblige the individual to work for the survival of humanity as a species. Thus, the various manifestations of civilization are explained in terms of their intrinsic value for survival, whether now or at some time in the distant past during some stage of evolution. The fact that human beings are attracted, for example, to beautiful works of art—indeed, the very fact that the concept of beauty exists in human thought—is the result of its utility somewhere in the process of physical evolution. In other words, being able to think the concept of beauty and react to it in certain ways must have given some members of the species advantages in the struggle for survival over others who were not able to do so.
Within a worldview of this kind, it would be hard to grant knowledge a transcendental value that would not finally be reducible to some kind of material utility. It is not surprising, then, that as society becomes more and more materialistic, knowledge is increasingly regarded essentially as a commodity. While receiving the highest praise in an age proudly associated with its expansion, knowledge is more and more identified with information, and its generation and application are increasingly ruled by the exigencies of economic growth. This process of production and consumption of goods and services is considered central to humanity’s collective existence and progress.
The Bahá’í view of civilization is very different. Just as the individual has both a spiritual and a material nature, civilization is seen as having two similar aspects. It is an expression of humanity’s collective existence, the spiritual dimension of which is greater than and gives purpose to its material dimension. The Bahá’í writings state that both the life of the individual and that of humanity as a species have a purpose beyond mere existence and survival. The purpose of the individual’s life is to know and worship God, and the purpose of humanity’s collective life is to carry forward an ever-advancing civilization.
It is reasonable to believe that the generation and application of knowledge is the central process that propels the advancement of spiritual and material civilization. Furthermore, it can be affirmed that this knowledge is basically organized in two great systems: religion and science. Neither is static; one progresses through revelation and the other through scientific investigation. The writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá shed light on this subject, as seen in the following passage:
Religion is the light of the world, and the progress, achievement, and happiness of man result from obedience to the laws set down in the holy Books. Briefly, it is demonstrable that in this life, both outwardly and inwardly the mightiest of structures, the most solidly established, the most enduring, standing guard over the world, assuring both the spiritual and the material perfections of mankind, and protecting the happiness and the civilization of society is religion.
Further, He says:
Creation is the expression of motion. Motion is life. A moving object is a living object, whereas that which is motionless and inert is as dead. All created forms are progressive in their planes, or kingdoms of existence, under the stimulus of the power or spirit of life. The universal energy is dynamic. Nothing is stationary in the material world of outer phenomena or in the inner world of intellect and consciousness.
Religion is the outer expression of the divine reality. Therefore, it must be living, vitalized, moving and progressive. If it be without motion and nonprogressive, it is without the divine life; it is dead.
About science, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá states:
All the powers and attributes of man are human and hereditary in origin—outcomes of nature’s processes—except the intellect, which is supernatural. Through intellectual and intelligent inquiry science is the discoverer of all things. It unites present and past, reveals the history of bygone nations and events, and confers upon man today the essence of all human knowledge and attainment throughout the ages. By intellectual processes and logical deductions of reason, this superpower in man can penetrate the mysteries of the future and anticipate its happenings.
Science is the first emanation from God toward man. All created beings embody the potentiality of material perfection, but the power of intellectual investigation and scientific acquisition is a higher virtue specialized to man alone. Other beings and organisms are deprived of this potentiality and attainment. God has created or deposited this love of reality in man. The development and progress of a nation is according to the measure and degree of that nation’s scientific attainments. Through this means its greatness is continually increased, and day by day the welfare and prosperity of its people are assured.
In sum, religion and science are the two knowledge systems that hold together the foundations of civilization. They are two forces that propel the advancement of civilization. They are two sets of practices that draw upon the higher powers of the human soul and must be in harmony. Understanding the nature of this harmony is essential if humanity is to generate and apply the kind of knowledge that will advance civilization in both its material and spiritual dimensions.