Author's Response to GTI Roundtable "Religion and a GT"

Michael Karlberg

I am very thankful to the Great Transition Initiative for inviting me to submit an essay exploring the constructive role that religion, as a system of meaning, might play in the transition to a more just and sustainable global order. I also appreciate the many thoughtful comments, questions, and constructive criticisms that emerged in response to the essay.

Across the entire discussion, there seemed to be widespread agreement that the search for viable systems of meaning is essential to the great transition—whether those systems are secular or religious. There also seemed to be fairly strong agreement that the movement toward a great transition cannot ignore religion and cannot fail to engage religious communities in some way, since billions of people on the planet today—including countless social and environmental activists—are religious.

There was also a reasonable amount of agreement with the essay’s primary thesis that a critical normative discourse regarding religion, for the purpose of contributing to the ongoing evolution or transformation of religious thought and practice, is an important requisite of the great transition. In this context, a number of valuable suggestions were made regarding substantive aspects of that discourse. For instance, Mimi Stokes-Katzenbach pointed out the need to challenge modes of religious thought that rob people of a sense of agency in relation to pressing global problems.

There was also significant agreement that, if religions are to play a positive role in the great transition, they will need to internalize a consciousness of the oneness of humanity and translate this into practice on a global scale. Several voices suggested that the seeds of this consciousness are already present in most, if not all, religious traditions.

Not surprisingly, there were also some divergent perspectives expressed in the discussion. In response, I would like to focus my summary comments on two themes that clearly emerged. Before doing so, it is important to note that we need not arrive at one “correct” way of thinking and talking about religion. As a general epistemological principle, it is now widely recognized that different conceptual frameworks can have validity within different domains of analysis. For instance, the frameworks of classical mechanics and quantum mechanics appear to have validity within different domains of physics. This epistemological principle is even more applicable in the analysis of complex social, cultural, and historical phenomena—including religion. Therefore, the comments below are offered in a spirit of collective inquiry, and readers are invited to consider the productive insights that might be gained from the framework they represent.

1. Should we focus on organized religion or individual spirituality?

The first theme I want to address is skepticism regarding organized religion and inclinations toward more individualized approaches to spirituality. These sentiments derive from valid and familiar concerns regarding abuses of power by religious institutions past and present—which were noted in the initial essay. It is easy to understand why such abuses lead many thoughtful people to reject organized religion altogether. However, an alternative approach, which the essay suggests, is to hold religious institutions to account, wherever possible, rather than rejecting them altogether.

If we reject all institutions that sometimes abuse power, then we would need to reject all secular institutions as well. No secular institution is free from abuses of power, and the scale of such abuse in the twentieth century has been staggering. This is why anarchists reject all forms of institutional authority. Yet the just and sustainable global order envisioned by GTI will not be achieved without institutional capacities—at the levels of both collective agency and institutional structure. In this regard, anarchism does not offer a coherent route through the great transition. Such a route also cannot be found in the extreme individualism or libertarianism of a Western civilization that is proving incapable of grappling with the collective challenges of global interdependence. A purely individualistic approach to spirituality can be seen as a reflection of this culture of individualism.

Individual spirituality can be viewed as a necessary but insufficient condition for the advancement of civilization. Institutional capacity is also necessary. As my initial essay documented, and as several respondents affirmed, most modern social movements have been driven in part by religious commitments and organizational capacities. In the US, where I currently live, it is doubtful that the abolition movement, the suffrage movement, or the civil rights movement would have advanced in the time frames they did without organized religion as a central mobilizing force. Likewise, the institution of the modern university was a religious construct, originating initially through the organized practice of Islamic communities in Baghdad, Cairo, and other previously unsurpassed centers of learning. Similarly, consider the countless hospitals, orphanages, and other humanitarian endeavors of organized religion today. In my home city, there would not be a single hospital if it were not for organized religion—due in part to failures of the secular state—and the same is true for vast parts of the contemporary world, both North and South.

In the haste to dispense with organized religion, are people saying they would prefer to live in a world without these major progressive accomplishments and essential services? Furthermore, mobilization in the civil society sector requires organizational capacities linked to high ideals and a willingness to struggle for social change. Many religious communities have all of these in abundance, and thus, they have much to contribute to the great transition.

2. Can religions be understood as systems of knowledge?

The second theme I want to address emerged from various reservations regarding my suggestion that it is possible to conceptualize religion as an evolving system of knowledge and practice that, like science, entails a collective human endeavor to generate insights into reality and apply those insights to the betterment of the human condition. The discussion of this theme requires us to recognize, as alluded to above, that diverse conceptual frameworks can offer valid insights within different domains of analysis. With this in mind, I invite others to consider the possibility that the comments I offer below might have validity within a specific domain of analysis—even as apparently divergent comments from the online discussion might have validity within other domains.

Rich Rosen responded to the idea that religion can be understood as a system of knowledge by commenting “if we take knowledge to involve statements about the real world which are justifiably true (the standard philosophical definition of knowledge), then science is the only true system of knowledge.” Though the first half of Rosen’s statement glosses over complex unresolved debates in the field of epistemology and the philosophy of science—such as what constitutes “justifiably true”—I can accept the general sentiment. However, the second half of Rosen’s statement embodies a very narrow conception of knowledge that may be applicable in some contexts but does not exhaust the productive ways that knowledge can be conceptualized.

For instance, when early humans learned how to make increasingly refined stone tools hundreds of thousands of years ago and used language to transmit this knowledge from one generation to another, would we call that science? Or would we dismiss it as invalid knowledge? Rosen’s logic would require us to make this choice. Likewise, when a hunting and gathering society accumulates a complex body of knowledge regarding the nutritional and medicinal value of hundreds of species in its habitat, and successfully transmits that knowledge across generations, is that science or invalid knowledge? Similarly, when a population learns to successfully inculcate values and norms that enable it to survive and prosper for an extended period of time within a given social, ecological, and historical context, and it successfully transmits this knowledge from one generation to the next, is that science or invalid knowledge?

Diverse forms of valid knowledge have been widely recognized for centuries. For example, Greek philosophers distinguished between episteme (scientific knowledge), techné (technical knowledge), and phronesis (practical wisdom). Within this typology, Rosen asserts that episteme is the only valid form of knowledge in any context.

If we recognize that knowledge can take different forms depending on the mode or domain of analysis, and if we recognize the examples above as valid forms of knowledge, then we can see that science is not the only valid approach to the generation of knowledge—even though it is a very important approach. We can also see that other forms of knowledge are not inherently anti-scientific or opposed to science—they merely operate in different domains. Indigenous cultures clearly engaged in the generation and transmission of some forms of valid knowledge that we generally do not categorize as scientific. Early agriculturalists engaged in the generation and transmission of knowledge that we generally do not categorize as scientific. Guilds engaged in the generation and transmission of knowledge that we generally do not categorize as scientific. Is it so difficult, then, to conceptualize religious communities as protagonists in the generation and transmission of certain forms of knowledge—such as knowledge about how to foster virtue, altruism, and compassion? Or how to struggle against the pull of ego and self-centeredness? Or how to employ non-violent strategies in the pursuit of social justice?

Note that in my preceding comment, and in my initial essay, I am not referring to metaphysical or theological premises or assertions as “knowledge” (e.g., unprovable premises regarding the existence or nature of God). I agree with Rosen if this is what he is rejecting as justifiably true knowledge. Indeed, I find debates over such metaphysical premises, including debates between atheists and theists, to be completely counter-productive and fruitless.

All knowledge systems, including every major research program in the natural sciences, rest on unprovable ontological premises of one kind or another—even though these premises can be obscured or forgotten within discourse communities that start to take them for granted over time. Ultimately, our confidence in such premises rises or falls in relation to how fruitful they are in generating practical knowledge. In this regard, when I speak of religious knowledge I am referring to practical knowledge about how to improve the human condition that rests on ontological premises regarding a spiritual dimension of reality. Ultimately, our confidence in such premises can only be assessed by how fruitful they prove to be. An objective reading of history suggests that such premises have indeed been quite fruitful in various contexts. The question before us is whether they will prove fruitful in the context of the transition to a more just and sustainable global order. And it is too early to pass judgment in this regard.

Steven Rockefeller, in his deeply insightful and engaging comments, asks how I am defining knowledge and states that my essay’s “conceptualization of the whole field of religion as one ‘evolving system of knowledge and practice’ is a very general description of religion that requires clarification.” I agree. This is why I included citations in my original essay that offer extensive elaborations of this theme—elaborations which were not possible for me to articulate in such a brief essay.

Rockefeller also suggests we might view religions not as evolving systems of knowledge and practice, but as “evolving systems of spiritual wisdom and practice.” This thoughtful suggestion points toward a productive exploration of the nature of religious knowledge, or wisdom, and its potential role in a great transition. I hope this exploration will continue.

In the meantime, whether one uses the term knowledge, wisdom, or any other related term, it is important to recognize the way religious communities can, collectively and systematically, generate insights that contribute to the betterment of the human condition. In this regard, religious beliefs and practices, including those rooted in indigenous cultures, are not static museum artifacts (as some voices in the discussion seemed to imply). They are adaptive and dynamic phenomena that respond to changing social, ecological, and historical conditions. Granted, reactionary conservative impulses can emerge within religious communities, and these certainly dominate much public discourse about religion today in the West. But the critical normative discourse on religion that is gradually expanding across the planet beckons thoughtful people to move beyond these reactionary impulses. And many people—especially among the younger generations—are proving eager to do so without abandoning their underlying religious commitments.

The great transition will require radical transformations of human thought and practice at many levels. Why should religion be exempt from this imperative? Why should religion, which has generated valid forms of knowledge in the past, not become significantly more conscious, purposeful, and systematic about the generation of practical knowledge that helps us adapt to conditions of planetary interdependence?

Michael Karlberg
Michael Karlberg is Professor of Communication Studies at Western Washington University and the author of Beyond the Culture of Contest and Constructing Social Reality.

Cite as Michael Karlberg, author's response to GTI Roundtable "Religion and a GT," Great Transition Initiative (December 2014),

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As an initiative for collectively understanding and shaping the global future, GTI welcomes diverse ideas. Thus, the opinions expressed in our publications do not necessarily reflect the views of GTI or the Tellus Institute.