Corruption, morality and religion

Submitted by Arthur Dahl on 18. November 2016 - 22:43

Corruption, morality and religion

Arthur Lyon Dahl
International Environment Forum

The world is becoming a more dangerous place, with a loss of shared values, the rise of unpredictable leaders, the increasing concentration of wealth and power, the rejection of science, logic, expertise and even truth, increasing xenophobia and polarization, a disregard for the needs and desires of the young and of future generations, the headlong destruction of environmental resources and life-support systems, the destabilization of the climate, and a debt-driven economic and financial system raping the planet for short-term profit. These contrary winds are sweeping away many hopeful signs of progress from the past, and seem to be leading us to a catastrophe of multiple dimensions and unimaginable consequences. The parallel with the 1930s is frightening.


I was asked to reflect on the moral dimensions of corruption, particularly in the light of recent political events. Corruption is traditionally defined as the abuse of public office for private gain, including bribery, nepotism and misappropriation; extra-legal efforts by individuals or groups to gain influence over the actions of the bureaucracy; the collusion between parties in the public and private sectors for the benefit of the latter; and more generally influencing the shaping of policies and institutions in ways that benefit the contributing private parties at the expense of the broader public welfare (Lopez-Claros 2015). On reflection, the corruption that is eating into the vitals of global society today is more than just the material corruption of bribery for personal gain. It is any undue preference given to personal or private gain at the expense of the public or collective interest, including the betrayal of a public trust or office in government, but also the manipulation of a corporate responsibility for self-enrichment, the distortion of truth and denial of science to manipulate the public for ideological ends, and even the misuse of a religious responsibly to acquire power and wealth. Corruption is just one expression of the priority given to oneself over others, of egoism over altruism, of personal over collective benefit.

The impact of corruption on environmental destruction and mismanagement is often underestimated because, as an illegal activity, it escapes from statistics, but it is a principal reason for the failure of many efforts at environmental protection and management, whether from traffic in endangered species, illegal logging and fishing, or ignoring or evading environmental regulations.

For me as a systems scientist, it seemed clear that there must be a simple underlying systems explanation for all of this. Like the struggle between good and evil, it is nothing new, but it is expressed in complex new forms.


It starts with the nature and purpose of human beings. We are born with an animal nature and the potential for much more, a potential that is realized through education, an education with material, intellectual and ethical/moral/spiritual dimensions. Without the right education, our ego and selfish desires dominate, and our life is driven by self-interest and physical passions. It is perfectly natural to be selfish and aggressive, and for many, “you can’t change human nature”. Corruption is an expression of this, as are war, crime, dictatorships and the many other ways that self-interest is expressed in today’s world. Every civilization in which these forces of disintegration become dominant has eventually collapsed.

Self-centredness in all its forms has become the ideology for self-justification behind the conservative movements of today, whether in the neoliberal economy that drives the concentration of wealth and power, political ideologies of total individual freedom that reject any constraints or regulations in the common interest, national sovereignty that leans to isolationism and self-protection behind strong borders, xenophobia that places one ethnicity or culture above all others, multinational corporations for which the right to profits overrides all other interests, and even criminal syndicates for which illegal activities are the fastest route to money and power. These ideologies forget that Adam Smith’s invisible hand of self-interest was balanced by an individual sense of moral responsibility, and assume that the larger good will somehow “naturally” emerge or trickle down from all these selfish drives, while in practice they only serve to entrench the rich and powerful.

The irony is that human beings have the capacity for much more, as the history of the rise of civilizations has repeatedly demonstrated. Education is what allows culture, science, innovation and social cohesion to develop. It cultivates all the potentials available in each individual, whether the physical capacity for athletic performance or feats of endurance, the intellectual capacity for rational thought, scientific investigation and cultural creation, the emotional capacity for altruism, empathy, solidarity and cooperation, or the spiritual capacity for love, humility, forgiveness, volition, generosity, and self-effacement into a higher collective entity. All of these dimensions of education are complementary and mutually reinforcing, and neglecting any of them can lead to undesirable outcomes.

Fundamental to all of this is the shared morality on which any society must be built, with values that contribute to social cohesion, that favour unity in diversity and leaving no one behind. Education transmits those values and ensures the sustainability of the society. Today, those values are receding. The Baha’i international governing body, the Universal House of Justice, has so well described “the multiplying ills of a disordered society. Over the last year, it has become clearer still that, in different nations in different ways, the social consensus around ideals that have traditionally united and bound together a people is increasingly worn and spent. It can no longer offer a reliable defence against a variety of self-serving, intolerant, and toxic ideologies that feed upon discontent and resentment. With a conflicted world appearing every day less sure of itself, the proponents of these destructive doctrines grow bold and brazen. We recall the unequivocal verdict from the Supreme Pen [Baha’u’llah]: "They hasten forward to Hell Fire, and mistake it for light." Well-meaning leaders of nations and people of goodwill are left struggling to repair the fractures evident in society and powerless to prevent their spread. The effects of ail this are not only to be seen in outright conflict or a collapse in order. In the distrust that pits neighbour against neighbour and severs family ties, in the antagonism of so much of what passes for social discourse, in the casualness with which appeals to ignoble human motivations are used to win power and pile up riches - in all these lie unmistakable signs that the moral force which sustains society has become gravely depleted.” (UHJ 2015, §2)

Many people today, particularly among intellectuals, the young, and those from cultures that retain a sense of collective purpose, still hold to these values and despair at the destructive forces swirling around them, but the faltering or failure of many of the more liberal movements of the left shows that an intellectual attachment to human rights, solidarity, concern for the excluded and marginalized, and redistribution of wealth is not sufficient. Movements of the left are just as riven by ego, ambition and the struggle for power as those on the right.

What is missing is the level of spiritual education and transformation in each individual. Human potential comes to fruition when it is cultivated in a spirit of selfless service, without pride, with no desire to be seen as superior to anyone else, ready to accompany others in their own acts of service and thus to become part of an organically-evolving learning community. It is this dimension of education that is largely absent today in societies around the world. It is spiritual education that empowers every individual to refine their character and to contribute to an ever-advancing civilization. It is at this level that effective responsibility and accountability can be built into the institutions of society (Dahl 2015).


This leads us to the great absent in efforts to address the crises in today’s world: religion. Traditionally it has been religion that has provide the multitudes with basic moral and ethical values. Religion has taught about good and evil, saints and sinners, the good values that build society, versus the greed, lust, indolence, pride, and violence that are valued in today’s market society. Yet today, even in societies that claim to be religious, those ethical values are largely lacking, or are given lip service while the great majority pursue self-centred materialistic objectives. Where religion has been replaced by a secular ideology, the results are no better, and fear may be used to enforce common values rather than the positive internal motivation that religion can provide.

Interestingly, a recent study of civilisation-building by an avowed atheist has identified religion as the main explanation for the rise of complex large-scale civilizations (Turchin 2016) [see my review at]. The same researcher warned of the impending collapse of our own civilization because of the increasing concentration of wealth, loss of social cohesion and abandonment of the young (Turchin 2010) [see my review at].

However, religion in most of its expressions today is not up to the task. In its statement to the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in 2002, the Bahá’í International Community provided a detailed analysis of the challenge facing religions with respect to international efforts at the United Nations to address world problems. It highlighted “both the constructive role that religion can play in creating a peaceful and prosperous global order, and the destructive impact that religious fanaticism can have on the stability and progress of the world,” and referred to the UN failure “to address religious bigotry as a major obstacle to peace and well-being.”

“It is becoming increasingly clear that passage to the culminating stage in the millennia long process of the organization of the planet as one home for the entire human family cannot be accomplished in a spiritual vacuum. Religion, the Bahá'í Scriptures aver, "is the source of illumination, the cause of development and the animating impulse of all human advancement" and "has been the basis of all civilization and progress in the history of mankind." It is the source of meaning and hope for the vast majority of the planet's inhabitants, and it has a limitless power to inspire sacrifice, change and long-term commitment in its followers. It is, therefore, inconceivable that a peaceful and prosperous global society - a society which nourishes a spectacular diversity of cultures and nations - can be established and sustained without directly and substantively involving the world's great religions in its design and support.

“At the same time, it cannot be denied that the power of religion has also been perverted to turn neighbor against neighbor. The Bahá'í Scriptures state that "religion must be the source of fellowship, the cause of unity and the nearness of God to man. If it rouses hatred and strife, it is evident that absence of religion is preferable and an irreligious man is better than one who professes it." So long as religious animosities are allowed to destabilize the world, it will be impossible to foster a global pattern of sustainable development….

“Given the record of religious fanaticism, it is understandable that the United Nations has been hesitant to invite religion into its negotiations. However, the UN can no longer afford to ignore the immeasurable good that religions have done and continue to do in the world, or the salubrious, far-reaching contributions that they can make to the establishment of a peaceful, prosperous and sustainable global order. Indeed, the United Nations will only succeed in establishing such a global order to the extent that it taps into the power and vision of religion. To do so will require accepting religion not merely as a vehicle for the delivery and execution of development initiatives, but as an active partner in the conceptualization, design, implementation and evaluation of global policies and programs. The historically justified wall separating the United Nations and religions must fall to the imperatives of a world struggling toward unity and justice.

“The real onus, however, is on the religions themselves. Religious followers and, more important, religious leaders must show that they are worthy partners in the great mission of building a sustainable world civilization. To do so will require that religious leaders work conscientiously and untiringly to exorcise religious bigotry and superstition from within their faith traditions. It will necessitate that they embrace freedom of conscience for all people, including their own followers, and renounce claims to religious exclusivity and finality.

“…until the religions of the world renounce fanaticism and work whole-heartedly to eliminate it from within their own ranks, peace and prosperity will prove chimerical. Indeed, the responsibility for the plight of humanity rests, in large part, with the world's religious leaders. It is they who must raise their voices to end the hatred, exclusivity, oppression of conscience, violations of human rights, denial of equality, opposition to science, and glorification of materialism, violence and terrorism, which are perpetrated in the name of religious truth. Moreover, it is the followers of all religions who must transform their own lives and take up the mantle of sacrifice for and service to the well-being of others, and thus contribute to the realization of the long-promised reign of peace and justice on earth.” (BIC 2002)

There are a few steps in that direction, such as the encyclical of Pope Francis (2015), but most of the world is still not listening, especially among those who have long since rejected religion as having any relevance to the modern world.

In its message to leaders of religion, the Universal House of Justice referred explicitly to corruption within religions. “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.

“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 established.” (UHJ 2002)

It seems clear that the only solution to the multiple challenges threatening us today is to reinforce the spiritual foundations of society, and to help every willing individual to begin the process of internal transformation, and each community to launch itself on a collective process of responsibilization and transformation. Only in this way can we rebuild, from the bottom up, solid ethical foundations for the world society that must ultimately emerge from this age of frustration and transition.


Bahá’í International Community. 2002. Religion and Development at the Crossroads: Convergence or Divergence? A statement to the World Summit on Sustainable Development by the Baha'i International Community, 26 August 2002, Johannesburg, South Africa…

Dahl, Arthur, 2015. Personal and professional accountability: an ethical challenge. Presented in the IEF side event on "Principles of Accountability for Climate Change Agreements" at the UN Conference on Climate Change (COP21), Paris, France, 10 December 2015.

López Claros, Augusto. 2015. Removing Impediments to Sustainable Economic Development: The Case of Corruption. Journal of International Commerce, Economics and Policy, Vol. 6, No. 1 (2015) 1550002 (35 pages).

Pope Francis. 2015. Laudato Si': on care for our common home. Encyclical (18 June 2015)…

Turchin, Peter, 2010. Political instability may be a contributor in the coming decade. Nature, vol. 463, p. 608 (4 February 2010). doi:10.1038/463608a

Turchin, Peter. 2016. Ultrasociety: How 10,000 Years of War Made Humans the Greatest Cooperators on Earth. Chaplin, Connecticut: Beresta Books. 266 p.

Universal House of Justice, April 2002, To The World’s Religious Leaders. Haifa: Baha’i World Centre.…

Universal House of Justice. 2015. To the Baha’is of the World, Ridvan 2015. Haifa: Baha’i World Centre.…

Last updated 18 November 2016


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