Apr 18

Part 1 of Poverty and Humanity: Open Your Hands

torah.jpgAnd you shall not glean your vineyard, nor shall you gather every grape of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 19:10)

If one of your brethren becomes poor, and falls into poverty among you, then you shall help him, like a stranger or a sojourner, that he may live with you. (Leviticus 25:35)

…you shall not harden your heart nor shut your hand from your poor brother, but you shall open your hand wide to him and willingly lend him sufficient for his need, whatever he needs. (Deuteronomy 15:7,8)

For the oppression of the poor, for the sighing of the needy, Now I will arise,” says the Lord; “I will set him in the safety for which he yearns.” (Psalm 12:5)

Above are four scriptural references out of many that deal prescriptively with poverty. Note that they are all from the Torah—the Old Testament—and speak of a foundational element of Jewish, Christian and Muslim faith: the caring for the poor in society. If I expanded my selections to the Evangel and the Qur’an, the whole blog post would be nothing but quotes.

How important is this social principle of aiding the poor? The sheer number of repetitions of the basic idea of caring for the poor should hint at its importance, but if that’s not enough, the Old Testament prophet, Ezekiel, says in clear language, that the failure to elevate the poor was the sin that brought low Sodom and Gomorrah.

“As I live,” says the Lord God, “neither your sister Sodom nor her daughters have done as you and your daughters have done. Look, this was the iniquity of your sister Sodom: She and her daughter had pride, fullness of food, and abundance of idleness; neither did she strengthen the hand of the poor and needy.” (Ezekiel 16: 48-50)

Andrew-CarnegieOn this subject, Bahá’u’lláh and Abdu’l-Bahá also wrote copiously:

“Be generous in prosperity, and thankful in adversity. Be worthy of the trust of thy neighbor, and look upon him with a bright and friendly face. Be a treasure to the poor, an admonisher to the rich, an answerer of the cry of the needy, a preserver of the sanctity of thy pledge.” (Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings CXXX)

“…you must assist the poor as much as possible, even by sacrifice of yourself. No deed of man is greater before God than helping the poor.” (Abdu’l-Bahá, Foundations of World Unity, p. 36)

“Man reacheth perfection through good deeds, voluntarily performed, not through good deeds the doing of which was forced upon him. And sharing is a personally chosen righteous act: that is, the rich should extend assistance to the poor, they should expend their substance for the poor, but of their own free will, and not because the poor have gained this end by force. For the harvest of force is turmoil and the ruin of the social order. On the other hand voluntary sharing, the freely-chosen expending of one’s substance, leadeth to society’s comfort and peace. It lighteth up the world; it bestoweth honour upon humankind.” (Abdu’l-Bahá, from a letter to Andrew Carnegie)

We have a tremendous problem with poverty in this country. The wealth gap, which seemed to abating in the 1970s, has widened in successive decades and inflated dramatically during the recent recession. It pushed middle class families into poverty and crushed the working poor. Millions lost jobs at every income level and, so far during the recovery, most of the returning jobs have been in the lower-paying sectors of the economy. Healthcare in some of our rural areas looks just like it does in so-called “Third World” countries.

This has spurred a huge debate over who is responsible (if indeed anyone is) for helping the American poor recover alongside the corporations and businesses big and small, some of which have posted record profits in the last year or two.

chp_homeless_1296676324Opinions vary widely. Here are some of the more common ones I’ve seen and heard.

  1. Everyone has a support network—family and friends. It’s up to the families and friends of the poor to bail them out.
  2. It’s up to charities to see to the poor—isn’t that what they’re for? People just need to contribute more as individuals.
  3. If someone is poor it’s their own fault. They should just stop being poor (Yes, a media network commentator did actually say that.); i.e., they should stop being lazy, they should get better-paying jobs, they go back to school to get useful skills, etc.
  4. It’s everyone’s responsibility to pull themselves up by their boot straps, no matter how they came to be poor. We all need to take responsibility for our own lives.
  5. It’s up to society as a whole to lift the poor out of poverty. We’re interdependent members of one nation (and one species), and if we behave like that we can solve this problem together.

Next time, I’d like to take a look at some of these arguments in light of scriptural teachings about the pernicious problem of poverty.

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Apr 16

Part 7 of Religion – The Most Harmful Agency on the Planet?

David Langness

David Langness

Bad Religion: When The End Justifies Any Means


For most of us, authentic religion focuses on the transcendent.  True religion links loving, kind and compassionate relationships with others on this plane of existence to the growth of the soul and an eternal life in the next.

But some people — especially those who focus fanatically on a single component of their belief system – discard loving, kind and compassionate relationships in favor of an expectation; some hoped-for “sacred” outcome or end that justifies any means for its accomplishment.

This basic human moral question, explored in detail by Immanuel Kant and just about every philosopher since, asks “Can the ends ever justify the means?”  In other words, “Does it matter how I get what I want, as long as I get it?”  Or “Is it OK to do something wrong or immoral to achieve a positive end?”

Authentic religion always answers that question with an emphatic “No.” Read the rest of this entry »


Apr 02

Part 6 of Religion – The Most Harmful Agency on the Planet?

David Langness

David Langness

The Ideal Time for Religious Triumph

The idea of triumphalism – that any particular religion will one day prevail, dispatch the “heretics” and conquer the world – has plagued humanity for centuries.  In his book When Religion Becomes Evil, Dr. Charles Kimball explores the concept of triumphalism, in which some faith groups see the ideal time for their certain triumph as inevitable and desirable:

Some religious communities place a great deal of emphasis on a this-worldly hope…. When the hoped-for ideal is tied to a particular religious worldview and those who wish to implement their vision become convinced that they know what God wants for them and everyone else, you have a prescription for disaster. — p. 105.

Wikipedia defines it this way:  Triumphalism is the attitude or belief that a particular doctrine, religion, culture, or social system is superior to and should triumph over all others.

This concept of inherent superiority has several negative consequences, especially when religious belief becomes triumphalist.  It creates an in-group and an out-group, often judging those in the out-group as “evil”.  It makes it very difficult for people who belong to the in-group to objectively view the overall morality or value of the group’s actions.  It stifles innovation and change within the in-group.  It produces a sense of isolation and distance from others.  And it generates a will to conquer and dominate others by imposing the in-group’s ideology and belief systems on them.

Triumphalism, then, is nothing more than a severe prejudice — the mistaken notion that my belief is somehow more substantial, correct and Godly than your belief. Read the rest of this entry »


Mar 26

Part 5 of Religion – The Most Harmful Agency on the Planet?

When Religion Requires Blind Obedience

David Langness

David Langness

Authentic religion engages the intellect as people wrestle with the mystery of existence and the challenges of living in an imperfect world.  Conversely, blind obedience is a sure sign of a corrupt religion.  Beware of any religious movement that seeks to limit the intellectual freedom and individual integrity of its adherents.  When individual believers abdicate personal responsibility and yield to the authority of a charismatic leader or become enslaved to particular ideas or teachings, religion can easily become the framework for violence and destruction. – Dr. Charles Kimball, When Religion Becomes Evil, p. 72.

Everyone has heard of religious groups that require blind obedience, shut off the intellectual freedom of their adherents or imperil their individual integrity.  All we have to do is read the headlines:

Aum Shinrikyo Cult Releases Nerve Gas in Tokyo Subway (March 20, 1995)

Burmese Buddhist Monks Goad Mobs to Kill Muslims (July 14, 2013)

Fanatical Christian Assassinates Planned Parenthood Physician in Church (May 31, 2009)

Thousands of Innocent Muslims Killed by Hindu Fanatics in Gujarat (November 2, 2002)

Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin Assassinated by Fanatical Zionist (November 4. 1995)

World Trade Center Suicide Missions Kill Thousands (September 11, 2001) Read the rest of this entry »


Mar 21

Food for Thought

The Great Being saith: Regard man as a mine rich in gems of inestimable value. Education can, alone, cause it to reveal its treasures, and enable mankind to benefit therefrom.” (Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings, CXXII)

Bosch Baha'i School on Science and Religion Apr 9, 2011

Bosch Baha’i School on Science and Religion Apr 9, 2011

A number of key Bahá’í principles relate to education. Bahá’u’lláh made the independent investigation of reality and truth a primary article of His faith. He further says the acquisition of knowledge “is incumbent upon all”. This, obviously, requires a person to have the skills to acquire knowledge through independent investigation. Hence, universal education is a foundational principle of the Bahá’í Faith. Bahá’u’lláh instructs the community-level administrative bodies of His Faith (Local Spiritual Assemblies) to provide for the education of children if parents are unable to do so.

Besides being the force that can bring the gems of human virtue to the surface, education is the key to success in almost any endeavor, which is why so many Bahá’í social and economic development projects begin with education and literacy.

Bahá’ís share this regard for the importance of education with the founding fathers of the American republic. John Adams wrote, for example, that

“The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expenses of it. There should not be a district of one mile square, without a school in it, not founded by a charitable individual, but maintained at the public expense of the people themselves.” (John Adams to John Jebb, 10 Sep. 1785)

Read the rest of this entry »


Mar 19

Part 4 of Religion – the Most Harmful Agency on the Planet?

No Faith is Final — Religious Claims to Absolute Truth

David Langness

David Langness

When a religion claims to have access to the absolute truth, religious scholar and writer Dr. Charles Kimball explains, those rigid truth claims can form the basis for demonizing and dehumanizing those who differ:

A human view of truth, one that is dynamic and relational, enables religious people to embrace and affirm foundational truths without necessarily solidifying the words into static, absolute, propositional statements.  Conversely, religious convictions that become locked into absolute truths can easily lead people to see themselves as God’s agents.  People so emboldened are capable of violent and destructive behavior in the name of religion. — When Religion Becomes Evil, p. 70.

We’ve all seen this concept play out gruesomely in the modern world, as fundamentalist and overzealous “believers” wage war on each other, become terrorists who randomly kill innocent people and insist, through violence, intimidation and “holy war” that they are right and everyone else is wrong.  This kind of divergence from the originally peaceful and loving teachings of faith can happen to any religion, and fundamentalist sects of Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam have all fallen prey to such religious violence and terror. Read the rest of this entry »


Mar 12

Part 3 of Religion – The Most Harmful Agency on the Planet?

When Religion Itself Becomes Evil

David Langness

David Langness

The well-known religious scholar and chair of the department of religion at Wake Forest University, Charles Kimball, published a landmark book a few years ago, called When Religion Becomes Evil.  Dr. Kimball doesn’t dislike faith, and he is no atheist – in fact, he’s an ordained Baptist minister – but the book describes what he sees, after a lifetime of research, as the five warning signs of corruption in religion:

  1. Claims to absolute truth
  2. Requirements for blind obedience
  3. Establishing the “ideal” time
  4. The end justifies any means
  5. Declaring holy war

In the following five articles in this series on the harm that religion can cause, we’ll explore those warning signs and investigate what the new Baha’i teachings say about each one. Read the rest of this entry »


Mar 05

Part 2 of Religion – The Most Harmful Agency on the Planet?

David Langness

David Langness

Atheists Say Religion Causes Ignorance and Hatred

A whole host of atheist philosophers, thinkers and commentators have written influential books and essays during the past few decades, each one saying that religion has become a force for hatred, violence and evil in the world.

Writers like Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins have all published popular atheist manifestoes.  Most of their books, as in this quote from Harris’ The End of Faith, contain some variation on the idea of religion as “merely an accident of history,” where “it is considered normal in our society to believe that the Creator of the universe can hear your prayers, while it is demonstrative of mental illness to believe that he is communicating with you by having the rain tap in Morse code on your bedroom window.” Read the rest of this entry »


Feb 26

Part 1 of Religion — The Most Harmful Agency on the Planet?

David Langness

David Langness

Editorial note: We’d like to welcome guest blogger David Langness and his nine part series that takes a look as religion’s rap as the most harmful agency on the planet. David is the host of Bahaiteachings.org and is a member of the Bahá’í community in my old stomping ground up in Nevada County, California. So, without further ado … take it, David!


My friend the historian and I had a long discussion about religion the other day.  When he learned about my belief in the Baha’i Faith, he challenged me by saying “I think religion has been responsible for most of the problems of humanity throughout history.”

It shocked him when I agreed. Read the rest of this entry »


Feb 07

Making Reality Behave, #2: Useful Fictions and the Scientific Method


“Scientific knowledge is the highest attainment upon the human plane, for science is the discoverer of realities. It is of two kinds: material and spiritual. Material science is the investigation of natural phenomena; divine science is the discovery and realization of spiritual verities. The world of humanity must acquire both. A bird has two wings; it cannot fly with one. Material and spiritual science are the two wings of human uplift and attainment. Both are necessary…” — Abdu’l-Bahá, Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 138 (23 May 1912, Cambridge, MA)

There is much talk about the scientific method as a paradigm for acquiring knowledge about Life, the Universe, and Everything. It’s a good paradigm, one that is used prescriptively in the Bahá’í community as part of the culture of learning promoted by the Universal House of Justice. But I’m finding more and more that the scientific method is at least as vague a notion (or at least one with as many variations) as faith. Stephen Friberg’s series on the Enlightenment goes into that in some depth—in fact, he gave a presentation at our local Bahá’í Center a while back on the evolution of the scientific model.

I think it’s worth taking a moment to consider what it is we mean by a scientific method. Some people (not scientists) think that science is what is consciously performed in the controlled environment of a lab. Some think science is just a collection of “facts”. There is also the notion that any knowledge worth having is scientific knowledge and that only science (or math) can make meaningful and worthwhile pronouncements about this worthwhile knowledge. Read the rest of this entry »


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