Founded in 1999, the Institute for Studies in Global Prosperity initially emerged from a dialogue that began a few years earlier between a number of non-governmental organizations and development agencies that sought to explore the constructive and complementary roles which both science and religion must play in processes of social and economic development.
For the previous six decades, international development theory had generally conceptualized religion as an anachronistic system of belief that was antithetical to science and was an obstacle to development. Such conceptions, however, were part of a development enterprise that had proven largely unsuccessful in its efforts to foster global prosperity and well-being.
In the search for more effective approaches to development, many thoughtful voices were beginning to ask whether religion might, in fact, be an essential partner in the development enterprise. In this context, the International Development Research Center (IDRC) of Canada sponsored a dialogue among leading development practitioners whose work was motivated and shaped by religious insights and commitments. Key contributions to that dialogue were later published by the IDRC in a book titled The Lab, the Temple, and the Market.
In response to this initial dialogue, the Institute for Studies in Global Prosperity was established as a non-profit organization in association with the Bahá’í International Community. From its founding, one of the purposes of the Institute has been to explore, with others, the complementary roles that science and religion – conceived of as co-evolving systems of knowledge and practice – must play in the advancement of civilization.
The Institute’s first initiative was to launch a year-long consultation with prominent development thinkers and organizations in India. Focusing on the present state of development thought and practice, this consultation identified the need for a fundamental reconception of both science and religion in the context of development. How can the masses of humanity be empowered as protagonists in the systematic generation, application, and diffusion of practical knowledge regarding the improvement of their own social and economic conditions? How can this process be motivated and guided by the application of spiritual principles and insights? How must science and religion both be reconceived in order to support these processes?
Some of the insights generated by these deliberations were incorporated into a concept paper entitled, Science, Religion and Development: Some Initial Considerations, which was then presented at a colloquium in New Delhi in 2000. There, participants explored the need to address both the spiritual and material dimensions of human existence in promoting social transformation and identified some areas for further inquiry and action.
Building on the Indian experience, the discourse on science, religion, and development was extended to other countries. The Institute organized a series of seminars in different regions of Uganda. At these seminars, academics, government officials, and representatives from nongovernmental organizations, gathered to discuss – within the context of Ugandan society – the issues raised in the Institute’s concept paper. Participants later formed working groups to explore how the discourse could affect such areas of human activity as education, economic activity and environmental resources, technology, and governance. A series of documents were prepared to be presented to the government. A video entitled Opening a Space: The Discourse on Science, Religion, and Development, documenting the Ugandan experience, was produced in 2006.
In Brazil, eleven leaders of thought were invited to respond to the Institute’s concept paper. The outcome was a book, titled Ciência, Religião e Desenvolvimento: Perspectivas para o Brasil (Science Religion and Development: Perspectives for Brasil), which was used around the country to stimulate discussions in seminars. In 2005, in Malaysia, Social & Economic Development Services (SEDS) together with the Centre for Civilisational Dialogue organized two nation-wide colloquia on science, religion and development and published the results in a book.
Since it began in 1999, the discourse on science, religion and development has actively been promoted by collaborating individuals and organizations in a number of countries, including India, Malaysia, China, Uganda, Brazil, Chile, Bolivia, Colombia, Costa Rica, and Australia. Insights gained from the initial experiences in India, Uganda and Brazil have been documented in a paper titled Science, Religion, and Development: Promoting a Discourse in India, Brazil, and Uganda.
Among the diverse agencies involved in the field of development, nongovernmental organizations play a crucial role in designing and carrying out projects at the grassroots, close to the people upon whom any significant process of change will depend. The Institute has supported processes of action and reflection undertaken by a few such organizations, specifically by those that use science and religion as sources of knowledge for their projects.
In order to improve their own practice and to gradually influence policy, organizations began their collaboration with the Institute by making explicit their assumptions about the nature of the human being and society, and about the role that knowledge plays in understanding the world and transforming it. After having articulated their own reading of the social reality in which they are working, they stated their priorities, the goals they had set for themselves, and the approaches and methods they have adopted for translating their vision into action. Some organizations then documented, through action and reflection, a few of their own experiences, thus contributing to the advancement of the discourse on development that takes into consideration scientific knowledge and spiritual insights.
Within these broad outlines, the Institute designed a specific action-research project that called for the analysis of a set of statements by participating organizations. The statements, articulated by the Institute, addressed some of the fundamental challenges that development organizations face as they strive to apply spiritual principles and scientific methods to their plans and programs. Organizations were asked to reflect on these statements in the light of their own experience and to describe how they had attempted, or might attempt, to address these challenges in their day-to-day operations. In addition to increasing the effectiveness of their own action, such reflection, it was hoped, would enhance their commitment to development processes that are inspired by spiritual principles and informed by scientific methods. The first of these efforts that was documented involved an organization in India known as Seva Mandir. The title of this document is May Knowledge Grow in our Hearts: Applying Spiritual Principles to Development Practice.
Based on these initial experiences, the Institute for Studies in Global Prosperity learned that many people – including many university students and young professionals – were interested in exploring the concepts the Institute is working with, and in developing the capacity to contribute to contemporary discourses through a framework that draws on insights from both science and religion. In 2007, the Institute initiated another line of action focused on raising capacity in university students and young adults to participate constructively in the discourses of society and to contribute at higher levels of sophistication and effectiveness to the betterment of humanity. The Institute now conducts a series of seminars for university students and graduate seminars in a growing number of countries for this purpose. Seminars have been held in some 50 countries throughout the world, serving thousands of young adults from more than 100 countries.
To help young people further develop their capacity to make significant contributions to their fields of study or professions and to generate knowledge about contemporary issues that are crucial to the life of society, the Institute initiated another line of action focused on research in specific areas of inquiry. This initiative began with the purpose of identifying pressing social phenomena and attempting to describe and analyze them in light of a framework that draws on insights from both science and religion. The aim of this line of action was not to explore broad disciplines, such as history, medicine, education or economics, but to help individuals and small groups analyze the evolution of thought on a set of interrelated issues of importance to the life of humanity—drawing on multiple fields of knowledge—and to raise questions that may help advance understanding in these areas. The Institute initiated this undertaking by focusing on three areas of inquiry: the global movement of populations, peace and justice in societies in transition, and the growth and development of cities.