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Evolution and Bahai teachings

[The relevant section from the Introduction to the new translation of Some Answered Questions is added below: search down on “saqi” ]

THE UNIVERSAL HOUSE OF JUSTICE
DEPARTMENT OF THE SECRETARIAT
21 February 2016
Transmitted by email

[To an individual]
Dear Baha’i Friend,

Your email letter 19 June 2015 including your thoughtful questions about a paragraph regarding evolution in the foreword to the 2014 edition of Some Answered Questions has been received by the Universal House of Justice, which has asked us to convey to you the following in reply. The delay in our response, which is due to the pressure of work at the Baha’i World Centre, is regretted.

As you have observed, the purpose of the paragraph in question, which the House of Justice approved for inclusion in the foreword, does not limit how a Baha’i, as an individual, may personally choose to interpret the Sacred Writings. Yet, the paragraph does not insist that science is “absolute truth”, nor, as you seem to conclude, does it attempt to “apologize” for ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s statements. Rather, recognizing that He would not make a statement that contradicts reality, the paragraph encourages the friends to use all of the relevant texts on the subject as well as the most accurate and reliable picture of reality that science can provide to try to understand what ‘Abdu’l-Baha actually is conveying.

It is evident that there are instances throughout history when statements made in the Sacred Scriptures that conflicted with the scientific views of the time were confirmed by science itself centuries later. There also may well be statements in the Writings about the material world the veracity of which will be proven by science in future. The notion of scientific “truth” does not encompass every claim or theory asserted in the name of science. But while a great deal of scientific discourse is tentative and subject to change, some scientific statements are accurate and reliable descriptions of reality, and those findings are not in conflict with true religion, that is, with the Revelation and its authorized interpretations. It is for this reason that ‘Abdu’l-Baha emphasizes that religious beliefs should be weighed in the light of science and reason, so that personal interpretations of the meaning of the Revelation, which are also fallible and subject to change, do not lead to incorrect conclusions.

The Master’s statements on evolution are subtle and complex and must be understood within the context of the entirety of the Baha’i teachings, because His statements are both predicated upon and coherent with those teachings. In the passages found in Some Answered Questions, as well as in numerous other Tablets and talks, ‘Abdu’l-Baha elaborates upon the principle of the harmony of science and religion, observes that human beings and animals have in common the same physical nature, emphasizes that it is the mind and the soul that distinguish humanity, and rejects the idea that human beings are merely animals, a haphazard accident, and captives of nature trapped in the struggle for existence. In light of all such statements, it is possible for a Baha’i to conclude that one can disagree with the materialistic philosophical interpretation of scientific findings—that man is merely an animal and a random expression of nature—without contesting the scientific findings themselves, such as those in genetics which are incompatible with a concept of “parallel” evolution.

Of course, different individuals, using their rational powers to reach personal interpretations of scientific findings and the meaning of Sacred Texts, may come to different conclusions on different questions. This is the inevitable outcome of the independent investigation of truth. On certain matters, there may for a time be a degree of ambiguity; on others, an exchange of views conducted in a consultative spirit may make the truth evident. Yet, in their efforts to explore the ocean of Baha’u’llah’s Revelation, the House of Justice hopes that the friends will guard against two extremes. The first is to simply dismiss the truths found in the Revelation owing to a dogmatic attachment to materialistic interpretations of scientific findings. The second is to assume that in every instance where one’s personal understanding of the teachings conflicts with scientific findings, it is these findings that must change in future, for such a posture would place Baha’is in the position of constantly contending with science. Both of these extremes are incompatible with the Baha’i principle of the harmony of science and religion.

As you consider this matter, you may find of interest the work of those believers who have attempted to correlate ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s statements with contemporary science, such as the article “Religion and Evolution Reconciled: ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s Comments on Evolution” by Courosh Mehanian and Stephen R. Friberg, published in The Journal of Baha’i Studies, volume 13, number 1/4, pages 55–93, which may be found at bahai-studies.ca/past-issues

With loving Baha’i greetings,
Department of the Secretariat
==
SAQI – from Some Answered Questions Introduction:

Broad and wide-ranging as the topics treated in Some Answered Questions may be, the book was not intended to be an exhaustive exposition of a self-contained system of thought, as attested by the volume’s title. A number of fundamental teachings of the Faith are, therefore, not explicitly mentioned. Moreover, in the course of the months and years that the talks were given, the same topic would sometimes be addressed from different perspectives in separate conversations, with the result that the concepts required to fully understand a given subject may be spread across different chapters, or the contents of a subsequent chapter may form the basis for the understanding of an earlier one. Finally, it should also be noted that, although ‘Abdu’l-Baha reviewed and corrected the text, He did not attempt in the process to alter the basic form of the replies or to reorganize and consolidate the material. To develop a fuller picture of ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s exposition of a given subject, then, the attentive reader should consider any chapter within the context of the entire book, and the book within the larger context of the entire body of the Baha’i Teachings.

A notable case in point is the treatment of the subject of the evolution of species, which is taken up explicitly in Part 4, and which must be understood in light of several Baha’i teachings, especially the principle of the harmony of science and religion. Religious belief should not contradict science and reason. A certain reading of some of the passages found in Chapters 46–51 may lead some believers to personal conclusions that contradict modern science. Yet the Universal House of Justice has explained that Baha’is strive to reconcile their understanding of the statements of ‘Abdu’l-Baha with established scientific perspectives, and therefore it is not necessary to conclude that these passages describe conceptions rejected by science, for example, a kind of “parallel” evolution that proposes a separate line of biological evolution for the human species parallel to the animal kingdom since the beginning of life on earth.

A careful review of ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s statements in this volume and in other sources suggests that His concern is not with the mechanisms of evolution but with the philosophical, social, and spiritual implications of the new theory. His use of the term “species”, for example, evokes the concept of eternal or permanent archetypes, which is not how the term is defined in contemporary biology. He takes into account a reality beyond the material realm. While ‘Abdu’l-Baha acknowledges elsewhere the physical attributes that human beings share in common with the animal and that are derived from the animal kingdom,1 in these talks He emphasizes another capacity, a capacity for rational consciousness, that distinguishes man from the animal and that is not found in the animal kingdom or in nature itself. This unique capacity, an expression of the human spirit, is not a product of the evolutionary process, but exists potentially in creation. As ‘Abdu’l-Baha explains, “…since man was produced ten or a hundred thousand years ago from the same earthly elements, with the same measures and quantities, the same manner of composition and combination, and the same interactions with other beings—it follows that man was exactly the same then as exists now”. “And if a thousand million years hence,” He goes on to say, “the component elements of man are brought together, measured out in the same proportion, combined in the same manner, and subjected to the same interaction with other beings, exactly the same man will come into existence.”2 His essential argument, then, is not directed towards scientific findings but towards the materialist assertions that are built upon them. For Baha’is, the science of evolution is accepted, but the conclusion that humanity is merely an accidental branch of the animal kingdom—with all its attendant social implications—is not.

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