|Letter to the World's Religious Leaders|
The Universal House Of Justice
Baháí World Centre
To The World's Religious Leaders
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, there 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
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, rejection 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 nonbelievers 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 religions 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 recognition 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 effort.
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 Bahá'u'lláh 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 guidance.
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
otherwise. 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 from 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 some 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 lure 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 Bahá'í community has been a vigorous promoter of interfaith
activities from the time of their inception. Apart from cherished associations that these activities create,
Bahá'ís 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", Bahá'u'lláh urges, "unless and until its unity is firmly
THE UNIVERSAL HOUSE OF JUSTICE