Bahá’í Studies: Pursuing an expanded view of reality in light of spiritual principles
ATLANTA, United States — For the first time since the onset of the global health crisis, the annual conference of the Association for Bahá’í Studies (ABS) in North America was convened in person, welcoming some 1,900 attendees.
The conference is a notable highlight among a growing constellation of ABS initiatives, all dedicated to enriching the intellectual life of communities. By correlating spiritual principles with insights from diverse fields of knowledge, these endeavors seek to uncover fresh perspectives for addressing the challenges facing humanity.
Nwandi Ngozi Lawson, member of the Continental Board of Counsellors for the Americas, addressed participants, referencing the ABS vision statement: “[the conference] aims to foster an animated conversation among diverse participants about how to provide, in the world of ideas, the intellectual rigor and clarity of thought to match their commitment to spiritual and material progress in the world of deeds.”
In a conversation with the News Service, Todd Smith, secretary of the ABS executive committee, further explained ABS’s approach: “A critical aspect of our examination of different fields and societal discourses is to uncover the values and assumptions they implicitly hold, particularly in light of spiritual principles, including the oneness of humanity, justice, and the harmony of science and religion.”
He further added: “This approach paves the way for a deeper understanding of how these principles can shape advances in thought and practice within these very discourses.”
The conference gave rise to rich discussions spanning a range of themes—humanity’s relationship with the natural world, the power of the arts in inspiring social justice, the role of technology in social progress, and the importance of education in addressing racial prejudice.
A distinctive feature of this year’s conference was the inclusion of ten thematic seminars. Dr. Smith highlighted the evolution of these seminars, noting that they “have in large part been informed by conversations that have taken place throughout the course of the year within small-group settings such as reading groups and earlier seminars.”
Recasting human nature in economics
One of the thematic seminars invited undergraduate students to examine the conceptual underpinnings of foundational economics courses at tertiary institutions, for example, how human nature is portrayed.
Selvi Adaikkalam Zabihi, from the economics working group, described to the News Service how in these courses, self-interest is presented as “the dominant aspect of our nature and integral to our economic lives.”
Participants noted that such a view influences how we perceive individual motivations, predict behavior, and craft economic policies. This perspective, however, contrasts sharply with the understanding of human nature promoted by the Bahá’í teachings, which emphasize the innate human potential for selflessness and generosity that can be cultivated through moral education.
Ms. Adaikkalam Zabihi highlighted research that challenges economic theories’ sole reliance on self-interest. This research, she said, is sparking new academic discussions about how economics should be taught to students.
She added: “While many policies are based in incentives that appeal to self-interest, such as tax credits or fines, this approach can unintentionally prioritize individualistic tendencies at the expense of concerns for the common good.
“By recognizing the power of moral education in shaping our aspirations and commitment to societal wellbeing, we can start to imagine innovative ways to improve our economic and social structures.”
Exploring the limits of naturalism in biology
Another seminar, titled “Navigating Materialist Assumptions in the Study of Biology,” offered both undergraduate and graduate students an opportunity to explore assumptions that, unlike those in economics, are seldom made explicit.
Neuroscientist Tara Raam explained that the core aim of many biological sciences is to identify and understand the world in terms of “biological mechanisms.” Such mechanisms, she noted, are viewed through the lens of naturalism—the expectation that all phenomena can eventually be fully explained by the natural sciences.
Dr. Raam said: “Given our dual nature—both material and spiritual—we need to develop a framework to understand how findings about our material reality—drawn from the biological sciences—can complement insights drawn from religion.”
Echoing this sentiment, neuroscience PhD student Yasmine Ayman remarked: “Religion offers insights into spiritual dimensions of reality and enables us to describe phenomena such as consciousness, human purpose, and morality.”
She added: “Biological science can only describe the physical counterparts of these phenomena and is unable to fully explain them.”
Expanding on the theme of consciousness, Ms. Ayman observed: “The prevailing notion that consciousness emerges purely from biological processes and intrinsic factors—including the theory that consciousness is solely a product of neural activity—overlooks other factors that can shape our consciousness: namely, that religion can inspire and raise our consciousness and sense of purpose.
“The spiritual dimensions of our lives,” she continued, “therefore, serve as extrinsic forces that act on consciousness, which cannot be explained by biology or neuroscience.”
Reflecting on the conference, Nilufar Gordon, of the conference organizing team, said: “Experiencing the conference in-person this year felt particularly vibrant and joyful.” She explained that “the increased diversity and the notable presence of young attendees added to its dynamism.”
Many of the topics discussed at the conference will continue to be explored in ABS reading groups, as well at thematic seminars throughout the coming year.
Recordings of plenary sessions from this year’s conference can be viewed here.