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The Centenary

Traditions Differ From Truth

Our object is universal peace and the unity of humankind, 'Abdu'l-Baha said to the newspaper reporters who came on board the Cedric when He arrived in New York City on the morning of April 11, 1912.

he instinct of imitation in the animal kingdom is the equivalent of language for humans. By imitation animals transmit information from one generation to another. From the time of birth the animal learns through imitation the skills needed for its survival, the sources of its food and drink, to watch for its enemies, to escape for its life and to blend with its species.

Nature has also provided humans, in their package of instincts, with a set of abilities similar to those of animals to make it possible for infants to learn until such time that they can comprehend human language and are able to use speech. Thus, imitation constitutes an early school at a time when the mind is not yet fully functional, until the child reaches a certain degree of maturity. Imitation covers so many human daily activities—those exhibited in learning sports, for example, in fashion, social behaviour, in politics, the arts, education and many other areas that are subject studies in sociology, anthropology, psychology, other social sciences and religion etc. Imitation is equally practiced in both developed and undeveloped societies, but it is the social norm as we get closer to primitive societies.

This said, if imitation is continued beyond a certain degree of development, it changes its benign character, whereby the individual was taught his way of learning and was helped to develop into a person accepted in his society, and shows instead its sinister side—at that juncture it stands as a hindrance in the way of further development. This dual effect of imitation in the human world distinguishes it from its role in the animal kingdom where it continues its benign role.

Individuals who persist in imitation risk losing their intellectual independence and their freedom to judge equitably and make their own judgments. In fact, by imitation, the individual delegates the authority involved in decision-making and in determining attitudes to those who are being imitated, while at the same time through the repeated act of imitation he weakens his chances of reaching full mental capacity and complete maturity.

Social and religious norms often carry the fingerprints of well-observed forms of collective imitation in a given society. These traditions have the same nefarious effects on the people of that society and lead them to a cultural deadlock. The reappearance of practices bearing characteristics of idolatry and paganism in present day life is an example of this kind of cultural stagnation. Their ill-founded traditions transmitted from the far past and now re-adopted might have been suited to the little knowledge past primitive generations possessed, but it is surprising that they are being revived and blindly followed in a number of countries under the rubric of cultural or religious heritage despite their obvious opposition to reason and confirmed scientific theories.

The inability to distinguish between good and evil is the worst product of blind imitation. To follow customs and traditions, especially those related to religious beliefs, is destructive of moral judgment in that it weakens the foundation of religion, and thus deprives modern societies from the benefit of myriad spiritual values and leads to extreme materialism and atheism. To justify patterning one’s life after such forms and fancies without any reason is like condoning idolatrous fad following in an age of knowledge and discovery. Whatever were the conditions that might have caused past generations to err, whether it was the strong tribal traditions, or the lack of cultural and scientific exchange between nations, or the feeble scientific methods they used, they do not exist in our present day world and nothing but ignorance, blind imitation and prejudice can explain the adoption of a similar way of thinking by those of recent generations who uphold beliefs that are in obvious contradiction with science and logic.

Their argument that they are following the generations closest to the source of their religion confirms their confusion, for those prophets and divine manifestations were the greatest innovators of all time. They transformed individuals and saved nations from unthinking imitation, and taught them creativity, and to follow new laws and new values that caused them to advance and to build new civilizations.

Moses, for example, after freeing the Hebrew tribes from Pharaoh, gave them a new mindset, and revived their spirituality, and created from those previously enslaved people a nation that was feared by all its neighbours. And Moses’s reform plan worked because He isolated His people for forty years in the desert to free them from Egyptian traditions, because He protected them from the influence of the idolatrous nations around them, and educated them in a new Law and new morals. Once they gained enough faith in themselves and confidence in God’s help, He permitted them to go and establish their new homeland.

The renewals that Christ and Muhammad achieved were no less miraculous than the forgoing transformation, despite the fact that these regenerations were built upon previously established religious foundations. They had to remove the strong tribal traditions that were controlling the people deeply, to the point of eliminating their individuality. Thus, in some of the Holy Books of the past, we find allusions to ancestral imitations that transformed people into sheep, poisonous snakes, monkeys and beasts without knowledge, that is, into creatures that rely too much on mimicry to the extent that no creativity is possible for them.

The imitation that once in infancy was a useful even necessary means of learning becomes, therefore, in later stages of individual life a barrier for intelligent thinking and innovation. Sane adulthood is characterized by independence and a greater reliance on rational reasoning than on custom. Humans should account for their choices in life and their adopted attitudes. Freeing the mind from the prejudices and useless imaginings that come with traditions is the individual’s first duty to himself.

For these reasons, ‘Abdu‘l-Bahá many times during His talks in Europe and North America warned against the infiltration of old traditions into the religious beliefs of modern societies. On one of these occasions, in a talk He gave at the Unitarian Church in Philadelphia on 9 June 1912, He said that we should not believe in a religion that does not comply with reason and science: “…we must cast aside such beliefs and investigate reality. That which is found to be real and conformable to reason must be accepted, and whatever science and reason cannot support must be rejected as imitation and not reality.”1

The concept of religious truth, as I understand it from ‘Abdu‘l-Bahá‘s talk, essentially includes religious beliefs that are approved by established scientific truth and accepted by reason after a careful examination. The truth that meets these two conditions is truth that satisfies the human conscience and protects people from seeking the false tranquility found in the cave of outdated inherited traditions. Religion, said Bahá‘u‘lláh, must agree with reason and accord with science, and both must be firmly bound together. ’Abdu’l-Bahá explained this principle: “This is the foundation of the truth. If any religious teaching contradicts reason or is in conflict with science, it is merely a fiction.”2 This means it is necessary to close the gap that may separate religion from real life, a gap that with time weakens religious belief itself and raises doubts about its basis.

The duty of investigating the truth is not confined to individuals alone. It extends to the society, nay humanity altogether. The social fabric as well as the harmony that makes human societies hold together depend on the unifying the source of our beliefs, albeit with ample room for diversity and a minimum of consensus for acceptable behaviour. Such a unity in harmony cannot be built around ideas and beliefs that are not accepted by the modern mentality or in compliance with science.

It is also understood, from the talk given by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá on the 24th of May 1912 at the Free Religious Association (or Unitarian Conference) in Boston, Massachusetts, that the outpouring of divine effulgences is continuous, a fact that is entailed in the unchangeability of the attributes of God. The implication of these two conceptual views is the inevitability of progressive changes, whether in social norms or in spiritual life, for change is the force behind growth and compliance with the will of God. Religion cannot fulfill its mission nor lead human progress unless it grows in exact proportion with human consciousness and knowledge, which two are unlikely to come to an end.

The premises of ’Abdu’l-Bahá’s argument He explained in these words: “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. The divine institutes are continuously active and evolutionary; therefore, the revelation of them must be progressive and continuous. All things are subject to reformation. This is a century of life and renewal. Sciences and arts, industry and invention have been reformed. Law and ethics have been reconstituted, reorganized. The world of thought has been regenerated. Sciences of former ages and philosophies of the past are useless today. Present exigencies demand new methods of solution; world problems are without precedent. Old ideas and modes of thought are fast becoming obsolete. Ancient laws and archaic ethical systems will not meet the requirements of modern conditions, for this is clearly the century of a new life, the century of the revelation of reality and, therefore, the greatest of all centuries. Consider how the scientific developments of fifty years have surpassed and eclipsed the knowledge and achievements of all the former ages combined. Would the announcements and theories of ancient astronomers explain our present knowledge of the suns and planetary systems? Would the mask of obscurity which beclouded medieval centuries meet the demand for clear-eyed vision and understanding which characterizes the world today? Will the despotism of former governments answer the call for freedom which has risen from the heart of humanity in this cycle of illumination? It is evident that no vital results are now forthcoming from the customs, institutions and standpoints of the past. In view of this, shall blind imitations of ancestral forms and theological interpretations continue to guide and control the religious life and spiritual development of humanity today? Shall man, gifted with the power of reason, unthinkingly follow and adhere to dogma, creeds and hereditary beliefs which will not bear the analysis of reason in this century of effulgent reality? Unquestionably this will not satisfy men of science, for when they find premise or conclusion contrary to present standards of proof and without real foundation, they reject that which has been formerly accepted as standard and correct and move forward from new foundations.”3

’Abdu’l-Bahá explained further that the religion which ties humanity to its creator is one, but turning away from its truth and replacing it by traditions has caused its weakness: “The nations and religions are steeped in blind and bigoted imitations. A man is a Jew because his father was a Jew. The Muslim follows implicitly the footsteps of his ancestors in belief and observance. The Buddhist is true to his heredity as a Buddhist. That is to say, they profess religious belief blindly and without investigation, making unity and agreement impossible. It is evident, therefore, that this condition will not be remedied without a reformation in the world of religion. In other words, the fundamental reality of the divine religions must be renewed, reformed, revoiced to mankind.”4