Science and religion explored

September 2, 2005

CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS, United States — The relationship between science and religion was explored at the 29th annual Association for Baha'i Studies conference, which took place here on the 11-14 August 2005.

Attended by some 1,300 people, the conference explored everything from the role of inspiration in scientific discovery to the value of prayer in healing. Presentations ranged over the gamut of natural and social sciences, from neuroscience to quantum mechanics, from philosophy to psychology.

More than 100 speakers presented during the course of the four-day event. Participants came mainly from the United States and Canada but also traveled from Australia, Austria, Chile, China, France, Gabon, Germany, Haiti, Israel, Italy, Japan, New Zealand, Puerto Rico, Sudan, and the United Kingdom.

The conference was organized by the Association for Baha'i Studies--North America, one of 26 sister organizations around the world that provide forums for scholars and students to exchange ideas inspired by Baha'i principles.

Most presentations focused on this year's conference theme, "Science, Religion and Social Transformation." The Baha'i sacred writings explicitly uphold the underlying harmony of science and religion, and many scholars sought to show how these two systems are increasingly seen as complementary sides of the same reality.

Redwan Moqbel, a professor of immunology at the University of Alberta, spoke on the role of inspiration in scientific endeavors.

Dr. Moqbel said that current science is beginning to corroborate Baha'u'llah's teaching that there are realms yet to be discovered at every level of existence.

"In the field of immunology, there is this concept of universes within universes," said Dr. Moqbel. "As we discover one layer of this onion, you then peel it off and there is another layer.

"We are now beginning to discover that there are, at the molecular level, the signs and symptoms of a system within the tiniest units of a single cell," said Dr. Moqbel. "And when you go to the Baha'i writings, Baha'u'llah tells you that there are worlds within worlds, universes within universes."

Dr. Moqbel said he believes that all knowledge emanates from God, and it is the responsibility of scientists to make themselves conduits of that knowledge through an attitude of utmost humility and cooperation with their colleagues.

Redwan Moqbel, director of the pulmonary research group at the University of Alberta, delivered a plenary address on "That 'Eureka' Moment: The Role of Reflection and Inspiration in Scientific Discovery" Slideshow
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Redwan Moqbel, director of the pulmonary research group at the University of Alberta, delivered a plenary address on "That 'Eureka' Moment: The Role of Reflection and Inspiration in Scientific Discovery"

"'Humble thyself before Me, that I may graciously visit thee,'" said Dr. Moqbel, quoting from the writings of Baha'u'llah. "Fellow scientists, this is our motto."

John Hatcher, professor of English literature at the University of South Florida, delivered the Hasan M. Balyuzi Memorial Lecture, the conference's annual keynote address, titled "Unveiling the Huri of Love."

Often taking a lighthearted approach, Dr. Hatcher examined the relationship between the phenomenal world and spiritual reality, suggesting that the former is a physical manifestation of the latter and that human beings can attain greater intimacy with the spiritual world by progressing through the various stages of love revealed by Baha'u'llah.

The creation of physical reality, Dr. Hatcher said, is "a means by which we can understand abstract concepts" such as love.

In this light, everything possesses some attribute of God, Dr. Hatcher said. "We love 'stuff' for example, because all 'stuff' manifests attributes of God."

The primary purpose of human existence, he said, is to "climb the ladder of love," moving progressively from love for material things and love for self to love for others and finally to love for God above all else.

Another convention highlight was a talk by Douglas Martin, who served as a member of the Universal House of Justice until earlier this year. Mr. Martin in a plenary address urged the scholarly community to contribute its insights on the unprecedented learning process that Baha'is around the world have put at the center of their community life.

Mr. Martin likened the process, in which small groups of individuals gather informally to pray and study the Baha'i teachings, to the building of a bridge across a chasm. As more people engage in the process, the bridge is slowly built and the separation that humanity has always made between the mind and the heart gradually disappears.

The learning process referred to by Mr. Martin consists of three main activities: study circles, devotional gatherings, and children's classes. The study circles cover such topics as living a spiritual life, learning about the life of Baha'u'llah, the founder of the Baha'i Faith, and serving humanity. Each of the three activities -- whether it is group study, praying, or education of children -- is designed to bring participants to a closer understanding of their relationship to God.

The systematic and world-embracing scope of this process is unprecedented in human history, Mr. Martin said, and scholars are in a unique position to assess its impact on human behavior and community cohesion.

According to one of the conference organizers, this year's theme of the harmony between science and religion attracted a more diverse group of speakers than usual.

"We do get strong submissions on the theme every year," said Kim Naqvi, the program coordinator, "but I think we have a lot of people presenting new ideas this year and a lot of Baha'i medical practitioners as well.

"For example, Murray Skeaff came from New Zealand to present a study on fasting, and that's just the kind of presentation that we did not get before," said Ms. Naqvi. "We have had many more empirical science-based studies, particularly in the medical and natural sciences, done in the context of the Baha'i Faith than we've had in previous years."

A perennial feature at Association for Baha'i Studies conferences have been the artistic presentations, and this year's event showcased a mixture of chorale music, dancing, spoken word pieces, and musical performances.

Anne Gordon Perry performed a monologue during the Friday plenary entitled "Sarah Farmer: Raising the Flag of Peace," which recounted the triumphs and travails of the abolition-era figure who helped establish a center dedicated to peace and religious unity.

Ms. Farmer, who became a Baha'i at the turn of the century, was held in high esteem by 'Abdu'l-Baha, the son of Baha'u'llah. The center she helped found and which 'Abdu'l-Baha visited eventually turned into Green Acre Baha'i School, a facility that is used today for annual schools, conferences, and workshops dedicated to peace and unity-related themes. Green Acre is located in Eliot, Maine.

The weekend wrapped up with a panel of five speakers discussing their experience as young Baha'is in the academic and professional world. Speaking on the theme of "Walking the Academic Path with Baha'i Feet," the panelists explored the challenges of applying Baha'i principles to the often thorny problems that spring up in their respective fields, which range from economics to law to political science to bioethics to international development.

The speakers concurred that as vital as are the divine teachings that are revealed to humanity by Baha'u'llah and the other Messengers of God, the challenge for Baha'is is to show to the wider public the applicability of these teachings to the practical problems of the day.

"My challenge," noted Julia Berger, a senior researcher and writer for the Baha'i International Community, "is to never become lazy but to really think these concepts through. For example, when we talk about unity, what does it mean for today in the particular context that I might be thinking about it? How can I communicate this persuasively in a way that a community that has never heard of the Baha'i Faith can understand it?"

-- Compiled from a report by the Canadian Baha'i News Service