16 September 2009

Does Religion Contribute to Material Well Being?

Bryan posted a great piece analyzing conservatism in America. I can't link to it because it is on facebook. Anyway, an interesting discussion evolved in the comments section between Bryan and myself, who are Baha'i's, and Mavaddat Javid, who is an ex-Baha'i. It is generally about the problems in the world and the role religion (specifically the Baha'i Faith) will or will not play in solving them. I have decided to bring the conversation over here to get more people involved and to get more room for commenting. The comments so far are reposted below.

Please feel free to contribute to the discussion in the comments section.

Mavaddat Javid
Bryan, your description of "conservative" American mania is precisely accurate. But with all due respect, I find the etiology and solution you suggest incredible.

Institutionalized partisanship as a cause for the problem, sure. But you also blame "the excesses of liberty and civilization" as somehow responsible. What could this possibly mean? The source of political mania in the United States is too much of liberty? Surely I have not understood you properly.

Your advocacy for "drastic reforms" and world governance is also historically naive. Drastic reforms in social engineering do not work. At least, not in leaps. What is needed is a series of very acute changes of cumulative reform. What are these small changes? is the real question.

Effective world governance is also historically untenable. It would be nice, but there's no practical or theoretical way to keep the most powerful country from manipulating that institution to their interests.
September 12 at 8:10pm

Bryan Donaldson
Adam, yeah I think you're right about oscillations getting more intense.

Mav, I mean liberty in the sense of individualism and a level of selfishness. A typical cry I hear from conservatives is that they want to be left alone, which means they really don't understand the value of public schools, roads, etc. That's what I would call an extreme of liberty. Drastic reforms typically only follow some kind of catastrophe or hardship (e.g. the League of Nations following WWI, UN following WWII, the Federal Reserve Act of 1913 following bank runs of 1907, the New Deal following the Great Depression).

The US created a federal system where each state was autonomous and afraid of central authority, much like countries today. Similar principles could be applied to ensure that powerful countries don't manipulate others for national gain. Currently the world is manipulated to the interest of the US, and it's the lack of world authority, divest of nationalism, that allows it to happen.
Sun at 11:38am

Jason Snyder
A lot of the commotion seems to be the result of certain people who are on the losing end globalization, directing their anger in the wrong place. Most of the people who are protesting are older, white, and poorly educated folks who see their share of the pie dwindling in the face of global competition. Instead of realizing that globalization is inevitable, and that the best thing is to focus on education and embrace diversity, they see it as a threat that must be a conspiracy on the part of everybody not like them. As this population gets smaller and smaller, unfortunately they will probably also get louder and more irrational

Mavaddat Javid
Bryan, thank you for clarifying.However, the ideology you're criticizing is not liberty (excessive or otherwise), but libertarianism. The idea is not selfishness, but self interest. Easily confused, but different. Libertarianism is the philosophy that says the greatest number are benefited when behaviour emerges from individual choices. I tend to believe individuals are usually better off in government coordinated action rather than coordination emerging from individuals' choices. Government, whether socialist and libertarian, is in the business of promoting individuals' interests; the question is merely one of efficacy. So let's not pretend this has anything to do with "excesses of liberty" (a very Bahá'í way of framing the problem).

The United States were able to coalesce precisely because of common geography, language, religion, etc. These are the very factors that make a world government untenable. Working for this goal is distracting us from real solutions.
Sun at 6:23pm

Jason Snyder
Following on Bryan and Mavaddat's thread, In the short term (at least 100 years) I am more in favor of the idea of world governance than world government. World governance implies collective action on a whole range of global issues that cannot be addressed only by nation states. It does not imply that a single governmental body decides upon policy for the whole world. In Baha'i lingo this is the difference between the lesser peace and the greater peace. Clearly we can pragmatically pursue the lesser peace through greater global cooperation and representation. We have to or else we will face distinction as a species. Simultaneously we can pursue spiritual transformation, which will eventually allow for the level of cultural and ideological unity-in-diversity required before world government can even be considered.
Sun at 8:42pm

Mavaddat Javid
Jason, it sounds like world governance has been happening since the beginning of civilization. Nations have been taking collective action on "global" issues since Mesopotamia. Have I misunderstood you? If the Lesser Peace implies any kind of progress since the days of Bah... Read Moreá'u'lláh, this cannot be what Bahá'u'lláh intended. Am I wrong?

Honestly guys, is working to establish spiritual transformation a practical way to solve the world's problems? The plenitude of causes to our woes have nothing to do with how righteous humans have been. For example, lack of knowledge is in the largest part a technological, administrative, and economic problem. No amount of piety has solved human ignorance.

In my opinion, religion is not the answer. It's nice to think one has the answers without intense study of history, group psychology, game theory, etc. But it's not helping. Confidence from faith breeds fighting about what authority to follow instead of what lessons to draw from our actual experience.
Mon at 4:49am

Bryan Donaldson
Mav, each decade of the 20th century saw a declining number of deaths from war. It also saw the first attempt, and later establishment of a weak international structure to establish and maintain peace. While humanity's ability for destruction has increased, its actual use of those powers has declined. So yes, since the days of Baha'u'llah there has been progress towards the lesser peace.

Per the Baha'i writings, the greater peace cannot be established on spirituality alone, but must be in conjunction with institutions. The financial meltdown was a result of a lack of spirituality and an excess of self. The buyers, realtors, brokers, even some investors knew that the housing market was in a bubble and loans being made were bad, but each party was profiting so the game continued. Religion teaches to control and suppress the self. Nothing else is effective at accomplishing that goal, so the economic problems actually are spiritual problems.
Mon at 9:03am

Jason Snyder
Mav, world governance has happened since the beginning of civilization, but it occurs along a continuum. Clearly the world can cooperate on international issues much more effectively than it is doing today, no? Compared to what was happening in the days of Baha'u'llah, clear progress has been made, as Bryan has described

Jason Snyder
Regarding knowledge and virtue, I think they often go hand in hand. As people become more knowledgeable, they also develop the ability to expand their moral imagination on a global scale. There is a high correlation between ignorance and bigotry in my opinion. But on the other hand, there are very intelligent people who have no moral bearing, and cause great harm. One could argue that the correct institutions will harness selfish behavior for the public good, that is the core assumption of classical macro-economics, but their is a high bureaucratic cost to enforcing virtue. I argue that the more inherent virtue individuals have on a global scale, the more affective world governance will be. That is not to say that spiritual transformation is our only plan. The Baha'i community is very involved in social/economic development, conflict resolution, women's and minority rights, and many other very practical endeavors grounded upon spiritual virtues.
Mon at 10:21am

Mavaddat Javid
I agree with you both that *effective* cooperation between nations is good, but the question is how to accomplish it. What I wonder is if there's any reason to believe that spiritual transformation is the way.

Bryan, you suggest that if investors had controlled themselves, the stock crash wouldn't have happened. This is seriously flawed. The problem was in faulty SEC regulations that allowed circular investments. But you want investors to know when they've made "too much money." How, exactly? Investors are paid to turn profit. We like to think they are "greedy," but they were just playing by the rules. It's the rules that need changing, not the people.

Rules must account for human nature. Any ideology that depends for its success on society being more altruistic, less greedy, more kind -- in short, any ideology that depends on humans being superhuman -- is committing itself to failure. All forms of utopianism, including the Bahá'í Faith, fall into this category.
Mon at 9:51pm

Jason Snyder
Mav, you make a good point that better policy can go along way to making improvements. But what guides policy? The problem I have with a lot of economists is that they claim to be value neutral under the guise of utility theory and preference satisfaction. But things are very messy when you try to balance definitions of welfare with ideals of liberty, justice, equity, etc. All theory is built upon certain moral assumptions which come from some conceptual framework of the world. Surely some conceptual frameworks are more advanced than others. I would argue (not here) that principles such as the unity of the human race, equality of men and women, harmony of science and religion, independent investigation of truth, and equality of opportunity are very advanced ideals that can and should be striven for. While in the past these ideals didn't conform to many peoples perceived self interest, today they do in theory. In application it is often hard and requires spiritual work.
Yesterday at 12:38am

Jason Snyder
Mav, you write "All forms of utopianism, including the Bahá'í Faith, fall into this category"

Actually, the Baha'i community is working in the cutting edge of social/economic development around the world. FUNDAEC is a great example of Baha'i inspired development. The focus on building up human and institutional capacity through a feedback loop of theory and experiential learning is a very practical approach to achieving the ideals. The "institute process" which is being implemented in almost every single community throughout the world, is a case study in experiential learning on how to deepen upon, apply Baha'i principles in concrete acts of service, and then reflect upon the learning for the next cycle of activity.

Global ideals are impossible unless they take root on a community level, where the rubber hits the road. In the Baha'i community the rubber IS hitting the road, it is hard but the path forward is clear. There is nothing utopian about it.
Yesterday at 1:14am

Mavaddat Javid
Jason, we've mentioned the Bahá'í vision of a "Most Great Peace." Such a goal is the defining mark of Utopianism. If this organization also engages in practical development (as you point out), that does necessarily not make it less Utopian. The Bahá'í plan (according to Bahá'u'lláh and Shoghi Effendi) is that the world embrace the infallible authority of Bahá'u'lláh so that glorious unity and progress between the nations will herald an age of bliss on Earth. I can mention specific scriptures here, if you like.

The goal is not only Utopian, but the means as well: According to the Universal House of Justice, the development activity of the Bahá'í world is meant to win people over to Bahá'u'lláh. There are no mechanisms for checking if these activities are making a practical difference. The Bahá'í goal is decidedly not "material betterment," but spiritual transformation (as I said). This is why Bahá'ís are discouraged from contributing to secular organizations like Amnesty Int'l.
Yesterday at 5:01pm

Jason Snyder
Mav, I think we will have to agree to disagree here. Just because the vision is spiritual in nature doesn't mean it is utopian. The word "utopian", popularized by the book "Brave New World" is decidedly unrealistic, and overly sanitary. If we look at the direction of history and cultural integration, I think that it is hard to argue that world integration is not inevitable. Baha'is acknowledge this historical inevitability as being part of a larger purpose, but it is not simplistic. It is messy, but progress is being made, and the material metrics you mention are being developed according to the aformentioned process. The idea that we believe in spiritual transformation but not material betterment doesn't make any sense. The two concepts our inextricably tied together. Baha'is avoid certain organizations due to their highly partisan nature. We clearly do believe in and work for many of the same goals as amnesty international, but our approach, which I described previously, is different
Yesterday at 5:29pm

Mavaddat Javid
Jason, the term "Utopia" was popularized by Sir Thomas More's eponymous book "Utopia," not Huxley's "Brave New World."

I was once a Bahá'í myself, though I continue to love my Bahá'í friends. So I understand your faith in the Bahá'í narrative of inevitable world unity. But I believe a sophisticated review of history would prove precisely the opposite conclusion. Beyond unquestioning faith, there is no reason to believe that international unity is a plausible or even desirable goal (let alone inevitable). "Agree to disagree" is usually a terminus reached by subjective differences of opinion. But we're talking about the facts of history, economics, and game theory; surely here is not the place for subjectivity.

The point is that spiritual transformation has nothing to do with material betterment. This is evidenced by the fact that the Bahá'í World Centre measures the number of new enrollees from development projects, not whether anyone is actually materially helped.
Yesterday at 7:15pm

Jason Snyder
"Beyond unquestioning faith, there is no reason to believe that international unity is a plausible or even desirable goal (let alone inevitable). 'Agree to disagree' is usually a terminus reached by subjective differences of opinion. But we're talking about the facts of history, economics, and game theory; surely here is not the place for subjectivity."

If only I could be more objective, I could see history clearly without any human bias. If only I were a computer..:)

I think we are both drawing from the same facts of history, economics, etc to develop our conceptual framework of the world. You are making a clear statement of your beliefs, are you saying that they are the objective truth? Aren't words such as "desirable" subjective claims? How is world unity not plausible but by unquestioning faith? There are many secular/materialist thinkers who see world unity as the next step in the direction of history. Robert Wright's "Non-Zero" is a good example. Buckminster Fuller was another
Yesterday at 11:37pm

Mavaddat Javid
Jason, it's important we be clear in the concepts we employ. By "unity" here I mean the unification of all nations in one common ideology, in agreement about the locus of good, cooperating to achieve mutually agreed upon goals. This is not what Wright or Fuller had in mind.

I think we've run the conversation dry, but to reiterate the points I consider important: The real issue in this note is with laissez-faire governance. The happiness of people depends on material and institutional improvements. Ideologies that, instead, aim to reshape human nature itself have always failed with terrifying consequences. The Bahá'í Faith, like all religions, flatters us by declaring that we know the answers to the world's problems (from authority) and then work out the reasons after. It's like having a computer tell you the answers to a math exam, and then try to force them to work. The only problem is when we don't know the math or how the program works, we don't know if the answers are right!
15 hours ago

Jason Snyder
I'm not sure about Fuller, but Wright definetely advocates a single universal theology... I think the goals of Baha'i unity are sufficiently vague that they are not restrictive. For example, the unity of the human race, universal education, bridging the extremes of wealth and poverty, these are hardly controversial, and yet the means to achieving these have not been prescribed. But if we can't have a vision that we can believe in and work for, others will do the shaping for us. All Baha'is are doing is sharing the vision. We are required to be non-violent, we expect independent investigation of truth, it really bears no resemblence to the terrifying ideologies of the past. And, in the end, material improvements only take us so far.. Happiness for me and many others, beyond the basic physical needs of existence, is a spiritual condition.
7 hours ago

Mavaddat Javid
Jason, I recently watched Wright declare that God is a human invention in an interview with Bill Moyers. He's agnostic. So I'd be interested to know how you conclude that he advocates a single universal theology. Why think so?

I want to be clear that I passionately agree with the secular principles that the Bahá'í Faith reiterates. These are maxims enunciated by Plato, Rousseau, Locke, and enlightenment philosophers. Although they are an integral part of the Bahá'í Faith, there's nothing especially Bahá'í about them. So I have no quarrel with you about racism, education, poverty, etc. It's the uniquely Bahá'í aspects of the Bahá'í Faith that I find disturbing.

Specifically, I fear the demand that everyone unconditionally submit to the authority of Bahá'í leaders, that "Covenant breakers" are spiritually diseased and to be shunned, and that becoming a Bahá'í is more important than knowing where your next meal is coming from.
about an hour ago


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Mav, I wrote a post awhile ago review Wright's book. I quoted a few passages that suggest that he envisions, if not advocates, for a universalistic theology.


    Your criticisms are fair, but I have a different take on them. You mention submission to Baha'i leaders. First of all there are no single official leaders in the Baha'i Faith. No single individual can claim leadership or authority for themselves. There are elected bodies at every level...you know all of this, but my point is, they cannot change anything already specified by the central figures of the Faith. The tenants that attract individuals to the Faith cannot and will not change. They can legislate on matters not explicitly ordained in the text, and individuals can choose to accept this guidance as a Baha'i, if it is not to their liking, they can leave the Faith if they want. Simple as that.

    Regarding the shunning of "covenant breakers", this is a very specific and limited circumstance which is necessary to protect the faith from being divided and destroyed. The Central Figures were very clear about how authority would be passed down and developed into what it is today. The result is a covenant unparalleled in human history, and a Faith ultimately united in all its diversity

  3. excerpt:

    | Rabbi Lerner’s teacher, Abraham Joshua
    | Heschel, used to talk about God as “ineffable”
    | precisely to capture this reality:

    Let us stop fighting
    against the God that we
    don’t believe in. We
    stipulate that the God you
    don’t believe in doesn’t
    exist in order to make
    room for you to encounter
    the God or spiritual
    reality of the universe that
    you might believe in.

    | that our language is deeply limited and almost
    | every attempt to speak about spiritual reality
    | can become a caricature, turning what is a
    | living reality into a lifeless and distorted
    | idolatry.


    Marx was correct that the techno-economic mesh of a society shapes the origins of culture and beliefs moreso than the other way around.

    The technology and economy of hunter-gatherer societies results in a predictable pattern of beliefs/religion - tribalism and shamanism (magic).

    The techno-economic nature of agricultural societies leads to imperialism, vast slave economies (Egypt), and "universal" religions.

    The industrial revolution led to capitalism and democracy, and ended slavery (machine power replaced slave power).

    The information society, where people work in offices, not factories, led to postmodernism and consumer economy. Consciousness is fragmented, and rationalism/systems "colonize lifeworld" (Habermas).

    In an information society, relativism and pluralism, as well as narcissism/nihilism, make traditional/organized religion meaningless, or irrelevant.

    The beginning of "religion of no religion" emerges. Outmoded metaphysics are rejected.

    The next stage is one of holism, where rational and transcendent (mystical) awareness complement each other.

    The title of a meditation book is:

    "Don't Just Do Something: Sit There"

    Transformation has a good side and a bad side. The good side is about the higher realization of self. Bahai is not working this angle well, which is why growth has stopped. The fear of counterculture/new age relativism/pluralism in bahai tends to bring out a backward tendency, and lead to rot/stasis in the bahai bureaucracy.

    The bad side of transformation in postmodern culture is that it becomes superficial, and is all about "style over substance". We do not produce, we consume. And so forth.

    The "Utopia" is one of complementarity, and holism.

    Humanity is naturally evolving and developing towards things like "spiritual capitalism". "Prophets" have been replaced by "profits". Since we have brain sciences, modern linguistic theory, and evolution, "progressive revelation" (which is easily discredited) isn't needed.

    Linguist George Lakoff says that "Conservatives" are defending the "strict daddy" archetype, and that liberals are defending the "nurturing mommy" archetype.


    What we see in the "Utopia" is the beginnings of new ways of thinking, where archetypes can be seen in the context of systems thinking and brain science. Mythic consciousness has to become complementary to rationalism and science, thus providing the social bonding rituals that people use to construct emotionally healthy and meaningful lives.




    "There is, monks, an unborn, unbecome, unmade, unconditioned. If, monks, there were no unborn… no escape would be discerned from what is born, become, made, conditioned. But because there is an unborn..., therefore an escape is discerned from what is born, become, made, conditioned.”
    ~ The Buddha
    Ud 8:3

    Translator: Bhikkhu Bodhi
    Udana 8:3
    In the Buddha’s Words, Bhikkhu Bodhi (ed), Wisdom 2005, p. 366.

  4. I am a Baha'i and recognise the direction from which all life is regaining it's strengths to take on the new day. The sun of truth has risen again.
    I'm not an active Baha'i of the community where I live but all my resonance with others can be said to be great because of my calmness and relax pose that I emanate or reflect from knowing which direction to turn for my daily Vit D(God). Are you an aimless plant turning in your own directions and misaligning yourself from attaining fruition? That's my two cents..or less
    Once you have seen the sun can you really expect others to believe what you see other than the truth? Good Luck going against that.