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Some major concepts shared by Baha'is and adherents of cognitive-developmentalism; avenues of communication between members of the Bahá'í Faith and the therapeutic community.
Mirrored from

Cognitive-Developmental Psychology and the Baha'i Faith:
Meaningful Connections

by Rhett Diessner

published in Counseling & Values, 39:3, pages 169-177

This article explores the relationship between a newly emerging world religion, the Bahá'í Faith, and the cognitive-developmental school of psychology. It does so by illustrating three major concepts shared by the protagonists of cognitive-developmentalism, such as Piaget and Kohlberg, and the primary authors of the sacred writings of the Bahá'í Faith: Bahá'u'lláh, 'Abdu'l-Bahá, and Shoghi Effendi. These concepts include (a) a developmental teleology, (b) the stage-like nature of development, and (c) the importance of a cognitive, or epistemic focus. It is intended that this article chart an avenue of communication between members of the Bahá'í Faith and the therapeutic community over topics of mutual interest (cf. Laszlo, 1989a, 1989b).

If you ask a small child the reason to keep a promise, the response, "Because Mom told me to," with no further justification possible, may be heard (Stage 1). Inquiring from an older child about a promise to return a friend's cassette tape, the child might be fully satisfied to say, "So Johnny will return tapes that I loan to him" (Stage 2). Asking teenagers why they should follow up on their agreements with their fourth-period cooperative study group might elicit, "That way they will think well of me" (Stage 3). Probing adult executives' reasons for not misrepresenting their company's products may bring forth, "Being honest with consumers is also being honest with yourself; it involves your own integrity." (Stage 4). Questioning wise senators about why they will stick to their campaign commitments may bring this answer, "Promises are based on trust, and trust is the foundation of all human interaction" (Stage 5).

These five scenarios represent five hierarchically different stages of thought about moral issues. Cognitive-developmental stages of scientific thought were introduced by Piaget (1932/1965, 1936/1963, 1964/1968, 1970) and later applied by Kohlberg (1958,1984) to moral, or justice, reasoning.

These stages have been used to explain human understanding in domains as diverse as religious faith (Fowler, 1981) and the understanding of art (Parsons, 1987). Counselors' daily work, however, is assistance in the development of the individual self of their clients. Therefore of particular interest to counselors is Robert Kegan's (1982) work on the development of the self. Kegan transforms Piaget's stages of scientific reasoning to stages of understanding one's self and others.

Piaget's (1968) Preoperational stage is equivalent to Kegan's (1982) Impulsive Stage 1. At the Impulsive stage the child's understanding of others is limited to physically obvious features and behaviors. Piaget's Concrete Operational stage is parallel to Kegan's Imperial Stage 2. Once the child can transcend the physically obvious (Impulsive stage), they can observe patterns of behavior and attribute concrete traits to persons (Imperial stage). The child or teen at the Imperial stage, however, is unable to understand inner feelings of others. Kegan's Interpersonal Stage 3 is analogous to Early Formal Operations in Piaget's theory. The ability to think abstractly at this stage allows the person to understand others' inner lives. At the Interpersonal stage, however, the person is unable to establish a systematic identity because he or she is absorbed by mutuality with others.

Kegan's (1982) Institutional Stage 4 is based on Piaget's (1968) Advanced Formal Operational stage. It is called "institutional" because the self becomes systematic and organizes itself around a consciously held value system. Institutions are like that in that they have formal mission statements and evaluate themselves based on those mission statements. A person at this stage can objectively evaluate others based on their value system, so they are no longer bound by mutuality. This ability to be independent, however, becomes its own limitation when a person asks him- or herself why their own value system is better, or worse, than someone else's value system. Honestly facing this form of relativity pushes a person beyond Piaget's stages and into Kegan's highest stage, the Interdependent Stage 5. At the Interdependent stage, a person comes to realize that they are simultaneously independent of, but nonetheless dependent on, others. This kind of highly developed thought requires "dialectical" schemata (Basseches, 1980, 1984) and "open-systems" operations (Koplowitz, 1984).


The Bahá'í Faith is an independent world religion, begun in the middle of the 19th century, with communities in over 205 countries (Barrett, 1988). The people of the Bahá'í faith regard Bahá'u'lláh, the prophet-founder of the faith, as a manifestation of God and view his writings as divinely revealed. Bahá'u'lláh (1976,1978) emphasized developmentalism, including physical, social, and religious evolution. Bahá'u'lláh taught that truth is simultaneously absolute and relative. For example, God's knowledge is absolute but human knowledge is always relative. Therefore, humans can never be all-knowing, but can always become more-knowing. Bahá'ís believe that God is manifested periodically through personages such as Abraham, Krishna, Buddha, Moses, Christ, Muhammad, and Bahá'u'lláh. God's purpose in doing this is to reaffirm regularly to humans eternal spiritual principles such as love and justice. Because social conditions change in different epochs of human history, these messengers of God reveal different laws and social rules that are applicable to a particular time and place. These different rules may be based on the same principles. For instance, it may have represented justice to take an eye for an eye during the Mosaic dispensation, but in the Christian dispensation justice is shown by turning the other cheek. Bahá'u'lláh indicated that the apparent differences among religions are superficial and due to the context and particularities of every age. Bahá'u'lláh's social teachings for this age include complete lack of prejudice for race, nation, religion, and sex; support for the individual's independent search for truth; a fully international government with universal weights, measures, monetary exchange, and auxiliary language; abolition of extremes of individual wealth or poverty, with an economic system based on a spiritual conception of justice; and the essential unity of science and religion. Bahá'u'lláh requires that all humans become literate and that each has the right and the responsibility to interpret sacred scripture according to their best conscience, thus eliminating the need for clergy. Although there are no Bahá'í clergy, each Bahá'í community is guided by a body of nine elected by universal adult suffrage.

Upon his death in 1892, Bahá'u'lláh appointed 'Abdu'l-Bahá as the authoritative interpreter of his writings. 'Abdu'l-Bahá, in turn, appointed Shoghi Effendi as his successor in 1921. After the death of Shoghi Effendi in 1957, the Universal House of Justice was elected through universal adult Bahá'í suffrage. That body now administers the worldwide Bahá'í community. For a popular introduction to the tenets and history of Bahá'í, see The Bahá'í Faith (Hatcher & Martin, 1984).


There are three particular aspects of cognitive-developmental psychology that also have relevance in the Bahá'í writings (Diessner, 1990). These are discussed in the following sections under the headings of Developmental Teleology, The Stagelike Nature of Development, and An Epistemic Focus.

Developmental Teleology

There is a teleological focus that underlies the cognitive-developmental research program (Diessner, 1989). Teleology is the belief that human activity has "purpose" embedded in it. In developmental psychology, a teleological view stands for the belief that human development has a direction and a purpose. Tacit in developmental theories is a teleological view. Cognitive-developmental psychology implies that human development is the purpose of a human life. This is clearly echoed in Kohlberg's classic piece "Development as the Aim of Education" (Kohlberg & Mayer, 1972). The purpose, or aim, of a human life is to unfold the potentialities that lie within it.

The word development encompasses two critical meanings. One is that of change. Development necessarily implies growth or change in an organism. The second is change for the better. Development may be framed as an inherently normative word. Kegan (1982) has stated about the evolving self: "later stages [are] 'better'. . .on the philosophical grounds of their having greater truth value" (p. 294). Kohlberg (1981,1984) has made similar, if more involved, arguments.

The Bahá'í writings support developmentalism, both on an individual and on a collective basis. The "chief goal [of the Bahá'í Faith] is the development of the individual and society" (Shoghi Effendi cited in Rost, 1979, p. 95). All humans "have been created to carry forward an ever-advancing civilization" (Bahá'u'lláh, 1976, p. 215). "The growth and development of all beings is gradual; this is the universal divine organization and the natural system" ('Abdu'l-Bahá, 1984, pp. 198-199). "This state of motion is said to be essential--that is, natural; it cannot be separated from beings because it is their essential requirement, as it is the essential requirement of fire to burn" ('Abdu'l-Bahá, 1984, p. 233).

Creation is the expression of motion. Motion is life. A moving object is a living object, whereas that which is motionless and inert is as dead. All created forms are progressive in their planes, or kingdoms of existence, under the stimulus of the power or spirit of life. The universal energy is dynamic. Nothing is stationary in the material world of outer phenomena or in the inner world of intellect and consciousness. ('Abdu'l-Bahá, 1982, p. 140)

The Stagelike Nature of Development

One of the classic controversies in developmental psychology is whether human development occurs in relatively distinct stages (qualitative change), or whether it is gradual (quantitative change). Piaget's (cf. 1968) mapping of human development relies heavily on the concept of stages. His four basic stages, the Sensorimotor, Preoperational, Concrete Operational, and Formal Operational, all represent four different ways of understanding the world. Each progressive stage increases the breadth and depth of a person's understanding.

The Bahá'í writings have many references to development through stages. Bahá'u'lláh's most popular mystical text, The Seven Valleys (1978), describes the soul's development through stages:

The stages that mark the wayfarer's journey from the abode of dust to the heavenly homeland are said to be seven. Some have called these Seven Valleys, and other, Seven Cities. And they say that until the wayfarer taketh leave of self, and traverseth these stages, he shall never reach to the ocean of nearness and union. . .The first is the Valley of Search. The steed of this Valley is patience. . .[The next is] the Valley of Love. . .The steed of this Valley is pain. . .[Next] he will enter the Valley of Knowledge. . .which is the last plane of limitation. [Then] the wayfarer cometh to the Valley of Unity . . .[then] the Valley of Contentment . . .[then] the Valley of Wonderment . . .[and finally to] the Valley of True Poverty and Absolute Nothingness. This station is the dying from self and the living in God . . . (pp. 4-36)

Piaget (1970) referred to his own theory as one of "genetic epistemology." This means that the stages emerge naturally (genetic) and that each stage represents a theory of knowing (epistemology). Although the Cognitive-Developmental research program has emphasized knowing and cognition, this does not imply that other basic experiences, such as feeling or willing, are not equally as important. Knowing, emoting, and willing are all inextricably interactive. This article is not making a case of which is more important, rather it is establishing that a cognitive emphasis is of great importance. The theories of the cognitive-developmental research program emphasize the importance of thought and knowledge. Kegan (1982) referred to each of his stages as coherent epistemologies. Kohlberg's later articulations of his theory referred to it as generally one of "justice reasoning" (1984,chap. 3).

The Bahá'í concept of knowing and knowledge likely exceeds typical usage of the words reason and logic. Human intellectual powers are considered spiritual abilities in the Bahá'í Faith (viz., 'Abdu'l-Bahá, 1984, chap. 56). Bahá'u'lláh wrote, "consider the rational faculty with which God hath endowed the essence of man . . .Immeasurably exalted is this sign, in its essence and reality" (1976,pp. 164-5). And 'Abdu'l-Bahá confirmed, "God's greatest gift to man is that of intellect, or understanding" (1971,p. 41).

In the Piagetian view, the stage of formal operations separates the child from the young adult. A similar view is found in 'Abdu'l-Bahá's writings:

The suckling babe passeth through various physical stages, growing and developing at every stage, until its body reacheth the age of maturity. Having arrived at this stage it acquireth the capacity to manifest spiritual and intellectual perfections. The lights of comprehension, intelligence and knowledge become perceptible in it and the powers of its soul unfold. (1978,p. 285)

Of particular interest to many counselors, and their clients, is the relationship between faith and reason in human development. The Bahá'í writings make clear the limitations of reason. Reason, although critically valuable, is fallible as used by human minds ('Abdu'l-Bahá, 1984, chap. 83). On the other hand, faith, if not supported by reason, is superstition. "If a question be found contrary to reason, faith and belief in it are impossible and there is no outcome but wavering and vacillation" (Bahá'u'lláh & 'Abdu'l-Bahá, 1956, p. 240). Bahá'ís are expected to use reason to critique their faith and to use their faith to critique their reason. The relationship between faith and cognition is intimate. Separating faith and knowledge from action is to misunderstand the nature of faith. "By faith is meant, first, conscious knowledge, and second, the practice of good deeds" (Bahá'u'lláh & 'Abdu'l-Bahá, 1956, p. 383). "Faith in God, and the knowledge of Him cannot be fully realized except through believing in all that hath proceeded from Him, and by practicing all that He hath commanded. . . (Bahá'u'lláh & 'Abdu'l-Bahá, 1956, p. 188).

Similarities to this Bahá'í conceptualization of faith and cognition are found in Fowler's (1981) work within the cognitive-developmental school on stages of faith. In referring to Niebuhr and Tillich, Fowler stated that faith is "a way of seeing the world. . .[it] is a kind of knowing, a constructing of the world in light of certain disclosures of the character of reality as a whole that are taken as decisive" (p. 98). This coincides with 'Abdu'l-Bahá's (Bahá'u'lláh & Abdu'l-Bahá, 1956) idea that faith is conscious knowledge; faith is intimately involved in what we know. If we do not know something, in some way, we cannot have faith in it. And as Fowler (1981) has shown (see Table 1), stages of faith are correlated with stages of cognition.


There are currently 5 to 6 million Bahá'ís worldwide who have formed organized communities in over 205 countries. It is the second most widely distributed religion on our planet, according to The Encyclopedia Britannica (Barrett, 1988). Although Bahá'ís strive to develop a spiritually and psychologically healthy community, it seems likely, based on the stresses and strains of modern life, that counselors will have opportunities to counsel Bahá'ís. In particular, guidance in the Bahá'í writings urge Bahá'ís to use mental health professionals if necessary (Hornby, citing Shoghi Effendi, 1988, pp. 284-285).

The teleological emphasis in Bahá'í is found in several therapies, particularly that advocated by Adler and Dreikurs. "Adlerian psychology regards a human being as a goal-oriented individual and considers everything the person does from the point of view of the goal" (Blumenthal, 1988, p. 13). Counselors familiar with this approach could easily engage Bahá'ís in the therapeutic process by indicating this connection.

Some counselors already use stage theories in their work. Many counselors are familiar with Erikson's (1950) psychosocial stages of development. Counselors interested in a transpersonal approach may be familiar with the Spectrum of Consciousness stages advocated by Wilber (1977). They can make use of the citations in this article about stage development in the Bahá'í writings to build communication bridges with Bahá'í clients.

The Bahá'í focus on the value of the rational powers of the human mind is an important factor in counseling. Therapeutic approaches such as cognitive behaviorism (Meichenbaum, 1977) and rational-emotive therapy (Ellis, 1962), which emphasize the use of reason to overcome emotional difficulties, may be quite amenable to a Bahá'í.

Counselors wishing to study the practical aspects of the cognitive-developmental school should refer to Kuhmerker's The Kohlberg Legacy and the Helping Professions (1991); the last chapter of Kegan (1982), "Natural Therapy"; and to Lickona's (1982) book, Raising Good Children. Counselors in the schools would do well to examine works by Power, Higgins, and Kohlberg (1989); Reimer, Paolitto, and Hersh (1983); and Mosher and Sprinthall (1970). These texts all address psychological development of students in public schools from a cognitive-developmental framework.

It would be inappropriate to advocate for the superiority of one therapeutic approach over another for Bahá'ís in a short article such as this. Its primary usefulness for counselors is to understand further the mind set of Bahá'ís, in general, and thus set the conditions for accurate empathy.

TABLE 1 Stages of Various Theories of the Cognitive-Developmental Research Program
Legend for Chart:
A - Theorist/Content Area
B - Stage 0
C - Stage 1
D - Stage 2
E - Stage 3
F - Stage 4
G - Stage 5

              B                           C
              D                           E
              F                           G

Piaget /Logico-Mathematical
   Sensorimotor                 Pre-operations
   Concrete Operations          Formal Operations
   Formal Operations            Postformal Operations

Kohlberg / Justice
    N/A                         Heteronomy
    Instrumental                Mutuality
    Social System               Social Contract

Kegan / Self
    Incorporative               Impulsive
    Imperial                    Interpersonal
    Institutional               Inter-individual

Fowler / Faith
    N/A                         Intuitive/Projective
    Mythic/Literal              Synthetic/Conventional
    Individual/Reflective       Conjunctive


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    Rhett Diessner is an associate professor of psychology and education in the Division of Education, Lewis-Clark State College, 8th Avenue & 6th Street, Lewiston, ID 83501.

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