I’ve wanted to post about this topic for a while now, but haven’t had a chance. I apologize in advance if these ideas seem a little random and incoherent. My procrastination forced me to throw this together last minute out of frustration. Please share your thoughts!
The recent news about a strain of bacteria that uses Arsenic in its DNA structure has gained in public interest over the past week. Particularly, as it is a NASA-funded study, much of the excitement has been around the possibility of life forms structurally distinct from the oxygen-breathing organisms found on our planet.
Their findings inspire and arouse the curiosity, and evoke many questions. How different are organisms on other planets? Are we alone in the universe? Does God have a vested interest in Earth and its inhabitants? Traditionally, regarding this last question, theologians have argued for an Earth/Man centered universe based on rather desperate interpretations of scripture. However, in the early 1900s, ‘Abdu’l-Bahà proposed the following:
The earth has its inhabitants, the water and the air contain many living beings and all the elements have their nature spirits, then how is it possible to conceive that these stupendous stellar bodies are not inhabited? Verily, they are peopled, but let it be known that the dwellers accord with the elements of their respective spheres. These living beings do not have states of consciousness like unto those who live on the surface of this globe: the power of adaptation and environment moulds their bodies and states of consciousness, just as our bodies and minds are suited to our planet.
The above quotation is just one example of how ‘Abdu’l-Bahà was able to use logic and scientific reasoning to investigate even the most obtuse questions. What impresses me the most is how willingly the Master entertained our curiosities, and how effectively he could channel the discussion back to spiritual principles. Perhaps it was his openness to exploring the truth in all matters that attracted so many to him.
The vision of cooperative advancement by way of consultative decision-making and scientific experimentation encouraged by the Bahá’í Writings is a vision that I strongly subscribe to. It is in this light that I see the scientific investigation of truth as a spiritual and religious obligation, and it is for this reason that I often find myself at odds with people who allow their sociocultural practices and beliefs to interfere with their investigation of truth. For example, I think that the Bahá’í view on alien life is one that surprises many because of a tendency towards anthropocentrism, which is all too often encouraged by theologians schooled in the Abrahamic traditions. Hence, I’d like to explore the idea of independent investigation by first deconstructing anthropocentrism using a religious interpretation that differs from that of Galileo’s contemporaries.
In a letter dated January 11th 1982, written to an individual believer regarding (believe it or not) the Bahá’í position on Alien life and Alien abductions, the House of Justice wrote the following:
As you rightly state, Bahá’u’llàh affirms that every fixed star has its planets, and every planet its own creatures. The House of Justice states however, that it has not discovered anything in the Bahá’í Writings which would indicate the degree of progress such creatures may have attained. Obviously, as creatures of earth have managed to construct space probes and send them into outer space, it can be believed that creatures on other planets may have succeeded in doing likewise. Regarding the attitude Bahá’ís should take toward unidentified flying objects, the House of Justice points out that they fall in the category of subjects open to scientific investigation, and as such, may be of interest to some, but not necessarily to everyone. In any case, Baha’is have a fundamental obligation at this stage of the development of the earth’s people, that is, the responsibility of spreading the unifying Message of Bahá’u’llàh.
Notice how the House of Justice does not rule out ideas that have yet to be investigated by science. Recall that, in the previous quotation, ‘Abdu’l-Bahà says “how is it possible to conceive that these stupendous stellar bodies are not inhabited? Verily, they are peopled.” Then we have the House of Justice clearly stating “as creatures of earth have managed to construct space probes and send them into outer space, it can be believed that creatures on other planets may have succeeded in doing likewise.” In a related passage, ‘Abdu’l-Bahà describes the cyclical and eternal nature of God’s revelation, and its purpose:
Briefly, there were many universal cycles preceding this one in which we are living. They were consummated, completed and their traces obliterated. The divine and creative purpose in them was the evolution of spiritual man, just as it is in this cycle. The circle of existence is the same circle; it returns. The tree of life has ever borne the same heavenly fruit.
The above writing is from a talk given by ‘Abdu’l-Bahà at 309West Seventy-eighth Street, New York on July 5th, 1912. At the same talk he also states that “divine sovereignty is an ancient sovereignty, not an accidental sovereignty,” and “If we imagine this world of existence has a beginning, we can say the divine sovereignty is accidental—that is, there was a time when it did not exist.” Also, in the Hidden Words Baha’u’llah reveals:
O Son of Man! Wert thou to speed through the immensity of space and traverse the expanse of heaven, yet thou wouldst find no rest save in submission to Our command and humbleness before Our Face.
Finally, if we can assume that alien planets are peopled and that these people are also aware of an Eternal Creator, then what form do those “people” have? What defines “man”? Is the religious definition of “man” different from its lexiconic definition? If a species on planet X walked on all fours and metabolized energy via photosynthesis in its skin, would they qualify as beings created in the image of God? Well, here’s what ‘Abdu’l-Bahà had to say:
Let us now discover more specifically how he is the image and likeness of God and what is the standard or criterion by which he can be measured and estimated. This standard can be no other than the divine virtues, which are revealed in him. Therefore, every man imbued with divine qualities, who reflects heavenly moralities and perfections, who is the expression of ideal and praiseworthy attributes, is, verily, in the image and likeness of God. If a man possesses wealth, can we call him an image and likeness of God? Or is human honor and notoriety the criterion of divine nearness? Can we apply the test of racial color and say that man of a certain hue—white, black, brown, yellow, red—is the true image of his Creator? We must conclude that color is not the standard and estimate of judgment and that it is of no importance, for color is accidental in nature. The spirit and intelligence of man is essential, and that is the manifestation of divine virtues, the merciful bestowals of God, the eternal life and baptism through the Holy Spirit. Therefore, be it known that color or race is of no importance. He who is the image and likeness of God, who is the manifestation of the bestowals of God, is acceptable at the threshold of God—whether his color be white, black or brown; it matters not. Man is not man simply because of bodily attributes. The standard of divine measure and judgment is his intelligence and spirit.
As a scientist, I have this urge to form theories based on the facts before me. So here it goes: There are an infinite number of planets in the universe all of which host some form of life, which come in a variety of forms and levels of consciousness. Many of these planets are peopled by creatures that have attained a level of consciousness that supports complex intellectual capacity and spiritual awareness. These creatures (known as “man” in our lexicon) are capable of receiving God’s revelation, which is revealed progressively throughout the universe according to the capacity and social/spiritual needs of the civilization to which it is being revealed. The purpose of this interaction between the Divine Creator and creation is the evolution of spiritual man towards attaining the presence of its Creator (what the term “presence” means is beyond the scope of Science; rather, it is a matter of individual interpretation).
WARNING! This is not an official position of the Bahá’í Faith. This is merely my personal interpretation based on a given sample of Bahá’í scripture. Its accuracy will be determined with the passage of time, and further scientific exploration.
So, where am I going with all of this?
I’m trying to demonstrate that the Word of God encourages the scientific investigation of truth; specifically, I’m attempting to illustrate the importance of exploring the Writings with an open and unhindered mind. I’m reminded of two passages from ‘Abdu’l-Bahà:
I say unto you: weigh carefully in the balance of reason and science everything that is presented to you as religion. If it passes this test, then accept it, for it is truth! If, however, it does not so conform, then reject it, for it is ignorance! (Paris Talks, p. 144.)
God has endowed man with intelligence and reason whereby he is required to determine the verity of questions and propositions. If religious beliefs and opinions are found contrary to the standards of science, they are mere superstitions and imaginations; for the antithesis of knowledge is ignorance, and the child of ignorance is superstition. Unquestionably there must be agreement between true religion and science. If a question be found contrary to reason, faith and belief in it are impossible, and there is no outcome but wavering and vacillation. (‘Abdu’l-Bahà, Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 176-182).
For those of you who are wondering, “True religion” in the above paragraph is that which “is thesource of love and agreement amongst men, the cause of thedevelopment of praiseworthy qualities.”
By the way, one of the best explorations regarding the Baha’i position on science and religion is Paul Lample’s Revelation& Social Reality, which is available in .pdf here.
For our current discussion, my sole concern is with the tendency to stray from scientific investigation on matters of absolute truth and spiritual reality. The Bahá’í Writings are very clear on the importance of investigating truth independent of our sociocultural influences, and I’ve quoted only a few examples below. You may choose to only read some of these passages, however I recommend that you meditate on all of them for a more balanced understanding of what is being conveyed. Independent investigation is, by far, one of the most frequently discussed principles in the Bahá’í Writings.
Firstly: He lays stress on the search for Truth. This is most important, because the people are too easily led by tradition. It is because of this that they are often antagonistic to each other, and dispute with one another. (Abdu’l-Bahà, Abdu’l-Bahà in London, p. 27)
The causes of dispute among different nations are always due to one of the following classes of prejudice: racial, lingual, theological, personal, and prejudices of custom and tradition. (‘Abdu’l-Bahà, Abdu’l-Bahà in London, p. 59)
There are three kinds of Faith: first, that which is from tradition and birth. For example: a child is born of Muhammadan parents, he is a Muhammadan. This faith is weak traditional faith: second, that which comes from Knowledge, and is the faith of understanding. This is good, but there is a better, the faith of practice. This is real faith. (‘Abdu’l-Bahà, Abdu’l-Bahà in London, p. 64)
Baha’u’llah continually urges man to free himself from the superstitions and traditions of the past and become an investigator of reality, for it will then be seen that God has revealed his light many times in order to illumine mankind in the path of evolution, in various countries and through many different prophets, masters and sages. – Abdu’l-Bahà, Divine Philosophy, p. 8
Those who are uninformed of the world of reality, who do not comprehend existing things, who are without perception of the inner truth of creation, who do not penetrate the real mysteries of material and spiritual phenomena and who possess only a superficial idea of universal life and being are but embodiments of pure ignorance. They believe only that which they have heard from their fathers and ancestors. Of themselves they have no hearing, no sight, no reason, no intellect; they rely solely upon tradition. Such persons imagine that the dominion of God is an accidental dominion or kingdom. (Abdu’l-Bahà, Foundations of World Unity, p. 107)
When word of this spread throughout Tihran, the Government hunted for her high and low; nevertheless, the friends kept arriving to see her, in a steady stream, and Tahirih, seated behind a curtain, would converse with them. One day the great Siyyid Yahya, surnamed Vahid, was present there. As he sat without, Tahirih listened to him from behind the veil. I was then a child, and was sitting on her lap. With eloquence and fervor, Vahid was discoursing on the signs and verses that bore witness to the advent of the new Manifestation. She suddenly interrupted him and, raising her voice, vehemently declared: “O Yahya! Let deeds, not words, testify to thy faith, if thou art a man of true learning. Cease idly repeating the traditions of the past, for the day of service, of steadfast action, is come. Now is the time to show forth the true signs of God, to rend asunder the veils of idle fancy, to promote the Word of God, and to sacrifice ourselves in His path. Let deeds, not words, be our adorning!” (Abdu’l-Bahà, Memorials of the Faithful, p. 200)
What a blessing that will be — when all shall come together, even as once separate torrents, rivers and streams, running brooks and single drops, when collected together in one place will form a mighty sea. And to such a degree will the inherent unity of all prevail, that the traditions, rules, customs and distinctions in the fanciful life of these populations will be effaced and vanish away like isolated drops, once the great sea of oneness doth leap and surge and roll. (Abdu’l-Bahà, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Bahà, p. 260)
I do not wish to mention the miracles of Bahá’u’llàh, for it may perhaps be said that these are traditions, liable both to truth and to error, like the accounts of the miracles of Christ in the Gospel, which come to us from the apostles, and not from anyone else, and are denied by the Jews. (Abdu’l-Bahà, Some Answered Questions, p. 37)
In divine questions we must not depend entirely upon the heritage of tradition and former human experience; nay, rather, we must exercise reason, analyze and logically examine the facts presented so that confidence will be inspired and faith attained. Then and then only the reality of things will be revealed to us. (Abdu’l-Bahà, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 327)
First of all, let us determine whether these Prophets were valid or not by using rational proofs and shining arguments, not simply by quoting traditionary evidences, because traditions are divergent and the source of dissension. (Abdu’l-Bahà, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 345)
The meaning is that every individual member of humankind is exhorted and commanded to set aside superstitious beliefs, traditions and blind imitation of ancestral forms in religion and investigate reality for himself. (Abdu’l-Bahà, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 433)
In the same way laws outside of science have evolved and arts and even morals have changes. We can no longer live according to the laws and customs of former times. (Abdu’l-Bahà, Divine Philosophy, p. 67)
It is incumbent upon you to strip yourselves of every old garment (i. e., old beliefs and past customs). It is incumbent upon you to be severed from this contemptible earthly world. It is incumbent upon you (to seek after) the Kingdom, in this great Day! (Abdu’l-Bahà, Tablets of Abdu’l-Bahà v1, p. 144)
Finally, I’d like to briefly touch upon the issue of application and purpose. Recall the passage from the House of Justice, which I quoted earlier: “In any case, Bahá’ís have a fundamental obligation at this stage of the development of the earth’s people, that is, the responsibility of spreading the unifying Message of Baha’u’llah.” Whereas science is interested in the investigation of all aspects of physical reality, Bahá’ís are more involved with those areas of research that are concerned with the advancement of civilization and the betterment of humanity.
In the third Tajallí (effulgence) of the Book of Tajallíyát (Book of Effulgences) We have mentioned: “Arts, crafts and sciences uplift the world of being, and are conducive to its exaltation. Knowledge is as wings to man’s life, and a ladder for his ascent. Its acquisition is incumbent upon everyone. The knowledge of such sciences, however, should be acquired as can profit the peoples of the earth, and not those which begin with words and end with words. Great indeed is the claim of scientists and craftsmen on the peoples of the world.
This is also the reason why, when the individual wrote to Shoghi Effendi to ask about Alien Abductions, the response he got was, “There is nothing in the Teachings about spaceships; and the Guardian does not feel this is a subject on which he can offer the friends any advice whatsoever. Indeed, to be frank, he is so busy with the work of the Cause that he seldom has time to devote much thought to speculation of this nature, however fascinating it may be.” Therefore, what distinguishes the scientific pursuit of Bahá’ís and any scientist with a belief in God is purpose. Purpose is one of the major contributions of religion that modern science has largely disassociated itself from, and which I would like to see the scientific community reacquaint itself with. On that point, I’m going to end with a quotation from Mohandes Ghandi originally intended for religion, which I think is just as appropriate for science:
A religion that takes no account of practical affairs and does not help to solve them is no religion.