In recent years, religion has received greater attention in Canadian public life, no longer being dismissed as a matter merely of private family or community worship. What, then, is to be the public role of religion? As significant as religion may be, it remains highly contested, with little consensus about its role in society and whether that role is positive or negative.
Religion can enrich our understanding of human nature in a way that goes well beyond the narrow conception of human beings as mere consumers, economic units, individuals bereft of community, or as entitled citizens.
In defining religion and its several contributions to human life and community, several factors seem crucial. First, religion can enrich our understanding of human nature in a way that goes well beyond the narrow conception of human beings as mere consumers, economic units, individuals bereft of community, or as entitled citizens. These powerful conceptions of human nature fail to account for the full nobility of human beings. Furthermore, the claims to cultural identities that try to recover some sense of human dignity remain too specific for a universal understanding of who we are. There is a need for a broader vision of the human being, one that overcomes the problems of alienation and apathy that undermine human potential and leave it bereft of meaning, beauty, and love that seem essential to any authentic and fulfilling human life.
Secondly, human solidarity, unity, and the oneness of the human family — which face so much fragmentation in the modern world — are surely among the most central values of religion. Many religions were, after all, global before modern globalization was made possible by the communication and transportation advances of science and technology.
Thirdly, justice — in both idea and practice — has always been integral to religion and human civilization. Progress and a spread of human felicity can be observed with the rise and efflorescence of several of the world’s great religions, moving human life beyond earlier, narrower confines. Beyond even the advances of recent constitutional arrangements and the modern embrace of the rule of law (which we should all celebrate), religion can be a source of new understandings and new ways of upholding justice in personal, family, and community life, beyond the merely legal. This vision of justice is at the heart of all major religions in which various formulations of the golden rule are to be found.
Knowledge, not just of natural forces and of how best to cope with our physical existence, but of human relationships, of social organization, of art and music, and of the human spirit, have always been associated with religion. Yet a strange amnesia has taken hold of the modern mind, separating religion from science. We forget that religion and science were previously in close interaction. Religion provided a matrix of motivations and values that helped to generate science. Those who have spoken in the name of religion as science has emerged have too often, however, defended superstition and blind faith, to the detriment of the reasoning, convictions, and practices that can surely endure in complementarity with science, all elements that serve as a solid foundation of true belief for those who know that one cannot separate reason from a conviction in a transcendent and ever-abiding God. Religion must come to terms with what it understands of the generation of knowledge, the engine of human civilization, and learn to work hand in hand with the other main pillar of an enlightened civilization, science, to the benefit of all.
Religion must come to terms with what it understands of the generation of knowledge, the engine of human civilization, and learn to work hand in hand with the other main pillar of an enlightened civilization, science, to the benefit of all.
Finally, in defending and defining religion’s place in the public sphere, a broader understanding of power is necessary. Our understanding of power has narrowed to thinking of it as the use of coercion and force for the purpose of dominating others. While acknowledging the dominating exercise of power, we also need to appreciate a more positive and productive role of power. We must appreciate the necessity and place of authority in human social organization, and we must also recognize the generative powers released from developing human capacity, from drawing on the motivating potential of spirituality, and from harnessing collective aspirations.
These past several decades, thoughtful people the world over have cast aside ideas, if not completely the habits, that have propped up prejudices of all kinds—against women, against different races, against certain classes and social positions, against the handicapped, against the different and the diverse—while a general prejudice against religion, and particular prejudices against particular religions, have remained in both idea and practice. Why? Society must cast aside this last prejudice. Religion is here to stay, and it is time to engage in a fair and thoughtful discussion of its public role.
- Our Whole Society: Religion and Citizenship at Canada’s 150th (Saint Paul University, 2017)
- Book: Religion and Public Discourse in an Age of Transition: Reflections on Bahá'í Practice and Thought, Wilfrid Laurier
- Thought Piece: Religion and Civic Engagement
- Thought Piece: The Role of Religion in Society
- Article: “Canada and the Future of Religious Freedom,” OpenCanada.org (January 2013)
Other areas of focus
The Bahá’í community’s efforts to contribute to social progress include participation in the discourses of society in a range of spaces and venues. Whether as individuals, or in official capacities, Bahá’ís work with others to transform society and further the cause of unity, promote human welfare, and promote greater solidarity. Below are found short perspectives and other resources that reflect the contributions of the Bahá’í community to issues of enduring importance to Canadian society.