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Letter to Worlds's Religous Leaders

Baha'i World Centre
April 2002

The enduring legacy of the twentieth century is that it compelled the peoples of the world
to begin seeing themselves as the members of a single human race, and the earth as that race's
common homeland. Despite the continuing conflict and violence that darken the horizon,
prejudices that once seemed inherent in the nature of the human species are everywhere giving
way. Down with them come barriers that long divided the family of man into a Babel of
incoherent identities of cultural, ethnic or national origin. That so fundamental a change could
occur in so brief a period --- virtually overnight in the perspective of historical time --- suggests
the magnitude of the possibilities for the future.

Tragically, organized religion, whose very reason for being entails service to the cause of
brotherhood and peace, behaves all too frequently as one of the most formidable obstacles in
the path; to cite a particular painful fact, it has long lent its credibility to fanaticism. We feel a
responsibility, as the governing council of one of the world religions, to urge earnest
consideration of the challenge this poses for religious leadership. Both the issue and the
circumstances to which it gives rise require that we speak frankly. We trust that common
service to the Divine will ensure that what we say will be received in the same spirit of
goodwill as it is put forward.

The issue comes sharply into focus when one considers what has been achieved
elsewhere. In the past, apart from isolated exceptions, women were regarded as an inferior
breed, their nature hedged about by superstitions, denied the opportunity to express the
potentialities of the human spirit and relegated to the role of serving the needs of men. Clearly,
ther e are many societies where such conditions persist and are even fanatically defended. At
the level of global discourse, however, the concept of the equality of the sexes has, for all
practical purposes, now assumed the force of universally accepted principle. It enjoys similar
authority in most of the academic community and information media. So basic has been the
revisioning that exponents of male supremacy must look for support on the margins of
responsible opinion.

The beleaguered battalions of nationalism face a similar fate. With each passing crisis in
world affairs, it becomes easier for the citizen to distinguish between a love of country that
enriches one's life, and submission to inflammatory rhetoric designed to provoke hatred and
fear of others. Even where it is expedient to participate in the familiar nationalistic rites, public
response is as often marked by feelings of awkwardness as it is by the strong convictions and
ready enthusiasm of earlier times. The effect has been reinforced by the restructuring steadily
taking place in the international order. Whatever the shortcomings of the United Nations
system in its present form, and however handicapped its ability to take collective military action
against aggression, no one can mistake the fact that the fetish of absolute national sovereignty is
on its way to extinction.

Racial and ethnic prejudices have been subjected to equally summary treatment by
historical processes that have little patience left for such pretensions. Here, rejectio n of the past
has been especially decisive. Racism is now tainted by its association with the horrors of the
twentieth century to the degree that it has taken on something of the character of a spiritual
disease. While surviving as a social attitude in many parts of the world --- and as a blight on the
lives of a significant segment of humankind --- racial prejudice has become so universally
condemned in principle that no body of people can any longer safely allow themselves to be
identified with it.

It is not that a dark past has been erased and a new world of light has suddenly been
born. Vast numbers of people continue to endure the effects of ingrained prejudices of
ethnicity, gender, nation, caste and class. All the evidence indicates that such injustices will
long persist as the institutions and standards that humanity is devising only slowly become
empowered to construct a new order of relationships and to bring relief to the oppressed. The
point, rather, is that a threshold has been crossed from which there is no credible possibility of
return. Fundamental principles have been identified, articulated, accorded broad publicity and
are becoming progressively incarnated in institutions capable of imposing them on public
behaviour. There is no doubt that, however protracted and painful the struggle, the outcome
will be to revolutionize relationships among all peoples, at the grassroots level.
As the twentieth century opened, the prejudice that seemed more likely than any other
to succumb to the forces of change was that of religion. In the West, scientific advances had
already dealt rudely with some of the central pillars of sectarian exclusivity. In the context of
the transformation taking place in the human race's conception of itself, the most promising
new religious development seemed to be the interfaith movement. In 1893, the World's
Columbian Exposition surprised even its ambitious organizers by giving birth to the famed
"Parliament of Religions", a vision of spiritual and moral consensus that captured the popular
imagination on all continents and managed to eclipse even the scientific, technological and
commercial wonders that the Exposition celebrated.

Briefly, it appeared that ancient walls had fallen. For influential thinkers in the field of
religion, the gathering stood unique, "unprecedented in the history of the world". The
Parliament had, its distinguished principal organizer said, "emancipated the world from
bigotry". An imaginative leadership, it was confidently predicted, would seize the opportunity
and awaken in the earth's long-divided religious communities a spirit of brotherhood that could
provide the needed moral underpinnings for the new world of prosperity and progress. Thus
encouraged, interfaith movements of every kind took root and flourished. A vast literature,
available in many languages, introduced an ever wider public, believers and non-believers
alike, to the teachings of all the major faiths, an interest picked up in due course by radio,
television, film and eventually the Internet. Institutions of higher learning launched degree
programmes in the study of comparative religion. By the time the century ended, interfaith
worship services, unthinkable only a few decades earlier, were becoming commonplace.

Alas, it is clear that these initiatives lack both intellectual coherence and spiritual
commitment. In contrast to the processes of unification that are transforming the rest of
humanity's social relationships, the suggestion that all of the world's great religio ns are equally
valid in nature and origin is stubbornly resisted by entrenched patterns of sectarian thought.
The progress of racial integration is a development that is not merely an expression of
sentimentality or strategy but arises from the recognitio n that the earth's peoples constitute a
single species whose many variations do not themselves confer any advantage or impose any
handicap on individual members of the race. The emancipation of women, likewise, has
entailed the willingness of both society's institutions and popular opinion to acknowledge that
there are no acceptable grounds --- biological, social or moral ---- to justify denying women full
equality with men, and girls equal educational opportunities with boys. Nor does appreciation
of the contributions that some nations are making to the shaping of an evolving global
civilization support the inherited illusion that other nations have little or nothing to bring to the

So fundamental a reorientation religious leadership appears, for the most part, unable to
undertake. Other segments of society embrace the implications of the oneness of humankind,
not only as the inevitable next step in the advancement of civilization, but as the fulfilment of
lesser identities of every kind that our race brings to this critical moment in our collective
history. Yet, the greater part of organized religion stands paralyzed at the threshold of the
future, gripped in those very dogmas and claims of privileged access to truth that have been
responsible for creating some of the most bitter conflicts dividing the earth's inhabitants.
The consequences, in terms of human well-being, have been ruinous. It is surely
unnecessary to cite in detail the horrors being visited upon hapless populations today by
outbursts of fanaticism that shame the name of religion. Nor is the phenomenon a recent one.
To take only one of many examples, Europe's sixteenth century wars of religion cost that
continent the lives of some thirty percent of its entire population. One must wonder what has
been the longer term harvest of the seeds planted in popular consciousness by the blind forces
of sectarian dogmatism that inspired such conflicts.

To this accounting must be added a betrayal of the life of the mind which, more than
any other factor, has robbed religion of the capacity it inherently possesses to play a decisive
role in the shaping of world affairs. Locked into preoccupation with agendas that disperse and
vitiate human energies, religious institutions have too often been the chief agents in
discouraging exploration of reality and the exercise of those intellectual faculties that
distinguish humankind. Denunciations of materialism or terrorism are of no real assistance in
coping with the contemporary moral crisis if they do not begin by addressing candidly the
failure of responsibility that has left believing masses exposed and vulnerable to these

Such reflections, however painful, are less an indictment of organized religion than a
reminder of the unique power it represents. Religion, as we are all aware, reaches to the roots
of motivation. When it has been faithful to the spirit and example of the transcendent Figures
who gave the world its great belief systems, it has awakened in whole populations capacities to
love, to forgive, to create, to dare greatly, to overcome prejudice, to sacrifice for the common
good and to discipline the impulses of animal instinct. Unquestionably, the seminal force in the
civilizing of human nature has been the influence of the succession of these Manifestations of
the Divine that extends back to the dawn of recorded history.

This same force, that operated with such effect in ages past, remains an inextinguishable
feature of human consciousness. Against all odds, and with little in the way of meaningful
encouragement, it continues to sustain the struggle for survival of uncounted millions, and to
raise up in all lands heroes and saints whose lives are the most persuasive vindication of the
principles contained in the scriptures of their respective faiths. As the course of civilization
demonstrates, religion is also capable of profoundly influencing the structure of social
relationships. Indeed, it would be difficult to think of any fundamental advance in civilization
that did not derive its moral thrust from this perennial source. Is it conceivable, then, that
passage to the culminating stage in the millennia-long process of the organization of the planet
can be accomplished in a spiritual vacuum? If the perverse ideologies let loose on our world
during the century just past contributed nothing else, they demonstrated conclusively that the
need cannot be met by alternatives that lie within the power of human invention.
The implications for today are summed up by Baha'u'llah in words written over a
century ago and widely disseminated in the intervening decades:
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 difference between the ordinances under which they abide should be
attributed to the varying requirements and exigencies of the age in which they were
revealed. All of them, except a few which are the outcome of human perversity, were
ordained of God, and are a reflection of His Will and Purpose. Arise and, armed with
the power of faith, shatter to pieces the gods of your vain imaginings, the sowers of
dissension amongst you. Cleave unto that which draweth you together and uniteth you.
Such an appeal does not call for abandonment of faith in the fundamental verities of any
of the world's great belief systems. Far otherwise. Faith has its own imperative and is its own
justification. What others believe --- or do not believe --- cannot be the authority in any individual
conscience worthy of the name. What the above words do unequivocally urge is renunciation
of all those claims to exclusivity or finality that, in winding their roots around the life of the
spirit, have been the greatest single factor in suffocating impulses to unity and in promoting
hatred and violence.

It is to this historic challenge that we believe leaders of religion must respond if
religious leadership is to have meaning in the global society emerging from the transformative
experiences of the twentieth century. It is evident that growing numbers of people are coming
to realize that the truth underlying all religions is in its essence one. This recognition arises not
through a resolution of theological disputes, but as an intuitive awareness born from the ever
widening experience of others and from a dawning acceptance of the oneness of the human
family itself. Out of the welter of religious doctrines, rituals and legal codes inherited from
vanished worlds, there is emerging a sense that spiritual life, like the oneness manifest in
diverse nationalities, races and cultures, constitutes one unbounded reality equally accessible
to everyone. In order for this diffuse and still tentative perception to consolidate itself and
contribute effectively to the building of a peaceful world, it must have the wholehearted
confirmation of those to whom, even at this late hour, masses of the earth's population look for

There are certainly wide differences among the world's major religious traditions with
respect to social ordinances and forms of worship. Given the thousands of years during which
successive revelations of the Divine have addressed the changing needs of a constantly
evolving civilization, it could hardly be otherwis e. Indeed, an inherent feature of the scriptures
of most of the major faiths would appear to be the expression, in some form or other, of the
principle of religion's evolutionary nature. What cannot be morally justified is the
manipulation of cultural legacies that were intended to enrich spiritual experience, as a means
to arouse prejudice and alienation. The primary task of the soul will always be to investigate
reality, to live in accordance with the truths of which it becomes persuaded and to accord full
respect to the efforts of others to do the same.

It may be objected that, if all the great religions are to be recognized as equally Divine
in origin, the effect will be to encourage, or at least to facilitate, the conversion of numbers of
people fr om one religion to another. Whether or not this is true, it is surely of peripheral
importance when set against the opportunity that history has at last opened to those who are
conscious of a world that transcends this terrestrial one --- and against the responsibility that this
awareness imposes. Each of the great faiths can adduce impressive and credible testimony to
its efficacy in nurturing moral character. Similarly, no one could convincingly argue that
doctrines attached to one particular belief system have been either more or less prolific in
generating bigotry and superstition than those attached to any other. In an integrating world, it
is natural that patterns of response and association will undergo a continuous process of
shifting, and the role of institutions, of whatever kind, is surely to consider how these
developments can be managed in a way that promotes unity. The guarantee that the outcome
will ultimately be sound --- spiritually, morally and socially --- lies in the abiding faith of the
unconsulted masses of the earth's inhabitants that the universe is ruled not by human caprice,
but by a loving and unfailing Providence.

Together with the crumbling of barriers separating peoples, our age is witnessing the
dissolution of the once insuperable wall that the past assumed would forever separate the life of
Heaven from the life of Earth. The scriptures of all religions have always taught the believer to
see in service to others not only a moral duty, but an avenue for the soul's own approach to
God. Today, the progressive restructuring of society gives this familiar teaching new
dimensions of meaning. As the age-old promise of a world animated by principles of justice
slowly takes on the character of a realistic goal, meeting the needs of the soul and those of
society will increasingly be seen as reciprocal aspects of a mature spiritual life.

If religious leadership is to rise to the challenge that this latter perception represents,
such response must begin by acknowledging that religion and science are the two indispensable
knowledge systems through which the potentialities of consciousness develop. Far from being
in conflict with one another, these fundamental modes of the mind's exploration of reality are
mutually dependent and have been most productive in those rare but happy periods of history
when their complementary nature has been recognized and they have been able to work
together. The insights and skills generated by scientific advance will have always to look to the
guidance of spiritual and moral commitment to ensure their appropriate application; religious
convictions, no matter how cherished they may be, must submit, willingly and gratefully, to
impartial testing by scientific methods.

We come finally to an issue that we approach with s ome diffidence as it touches most
directly on conscience. Among the many temptations the world offers, the test that has, not
surprisingly, preoccupied religious leaders is that of exercising power in matters of belief. No
one who has dedicated long years to earnest meditation and study of the scriptures of one or
another of the great religions requires any further reminder of the oft-repeated axiom regarding
the potentiality of power to corrupt and to do so increasingly as such power grows. The
unheralded inner victories won in this respect by unnumbered clerics all down the ages have no
doubt been one of the chief sources of organized religion's creative strength and must rank as
one of its highest distinctions. To the same degree, surrender to the lur e of worldly power and
advantage, on the part of other religious leaders, has cultivated a fertile breeding ground for
cynicism, corruption and despair among all who observe it. The implications for the ability of
religious leadership to fulfil its social responsibility at this point in history need no elaboration.
Because it is concerned with the ennobling of character and the harmonizing of
relationships, religion has served throughout history as the ultimate authority in giving meaning
to life. In every age, it has cultivated the good, reproved the wrong and held up, to the gaze of
all those willing to see, a vision of potentialities as yet unrealized. From its counsels the
rational soul has derived encouragement in overcoming limits imposed by the world and in
fulfilling itself. As the name implies, religion has simultaneously been the chief force binding
diverse peoples together in ever larger and more complex societies through which the
individual capacities thus released can find expression. The great advantage of the present age
is the perspective that makes it possible for the entire human race to see this civilizing process
as a single phenomenon, the ever -recurring encounters of our world with the world of God.
Inspired by this perspective, the Baha'i community has been a vigorous promoter of
interfaith activities from the time of their inception. Apart from cherished associations that
these activities create, Baha'is see in the struggle of diverse religions to draw closer together a
response to the Divine Will for a human race that is entering on its collective maturity. The
members of our community will continue to assist in every way we can. We owe it to our
partners in this common effort, however, to state clearly our conviction that interfaith discourse,
if it is to contribute meaningfully to healing the ills that afflict a desperate humanity, must now
address honestly and without further evasion the implications of the over -arching truth that
called the movement into being: that God is one and that, beyond all diversity of cultural
expression and human interpretation, religion is likewise one.

With every day that passes, danger grows that the rising fires of religious prejudice will
ignite a worldwide conflagration the consequences of which are unthinkable. Such a danger
civil government, unaided, cannot overcome. Nor should we delude ourselves that appeals for
mutual tolerance can alone hope to extinguish animosities that claim to possess Divine
sanction. The crisis calls on religious leadership for a break with the past as decisive as those
that opened the way for society to address equally corrosive prejudices of race, gender and
nation. Whatever justification exists for exercising influence in matters of conscience lies in
serving the well-being of humankind. At this greatest turning point in the history of
civilization, the demands of such service could not be more clear. "The well-being of mankind,
its peace and security, are unattainable", Baha'u'llah urges, "unless and until its unity is firmly

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