Contribution to GTI Roundtable "Religion and a GT"

Paul Raskin

Hardly surprisingly, this debate about religion, spirituality, science, and meaning has revealed a spectrum of strongly-held and incommensurate perspectives. The discussion provides an interesting test of an old GTI tenet—“the politics of trust”—that holds that a diverse community can tolerate significant differences, yet pursue together the common aim of transformation. Let me test the hypothesis a little further.

I think we can stipulate several things. First, since the scientific revolution, the boundaries of reality amenable to rational explanation have been expanding rapidly. Second, the ontological turf claimed by religion has correspondingly shrunk as natural explanations for phenomena displace attributions of divine cause. Third, a vast realm remains beyond the ken of contemporary science that, even though it will certainly shrink, may never vanish.

Different sensibilities fill that terra incognita in different ways. The religiously inclined claim it for a higher intelligence that intervenes in the material world, perhaps continually or perhaps not, perhaps sending a divine messenger into the corporeal realm (perhaps more than one). Others opt for a more amorphous, non-interventionist spirituality, often of a highly individual character. Still others (I’m one of them) don’t take human limits of understanding as evidence for the supernatural. Rather, we come to terms with the fact that there’s lots of stuff that our limited brains do not know (even as enhanced by the cumulative power of scientific understanding), and may never know, all the while working hard to reduce ignorance.

From this perspective, Karlberg’s claim that science (rooted in a skeptical stance toward knowledge claims and subject to empirical refutation) and religion (rooted in faith) have a kindred epistemological status is not persuasive. He defends that equation by adopting an extreme form of sociology of scientific knowledge that emphasizes the way science reflects ideology (which it does to some, but only some, extent), while downplaying the essence of the scientific enterprise that distinguishes it from faith—repeatable experiments and observations in which nature serves as a referee for contending claims. This inter-subjective (i.e., objective) scientific method is what fosters consensus and provides a basis for a cumulative scientific culture.

Finally, I want to reassure those who argue that a religious orientation is needed to truly give life meaning and purpose that the wonder of cosmic evolution, the majesty of life on our small planet, the intricacies of nature, and the eons of toil and struggle for human survival, justice, culture, and knowledge – and dreams of a flourishing future – provide a powerful foundation for living with meaning and purpose.

Paul Raskin
Paul Raskin is the founding president of the Tellus Institute and director of the Great Transition Initiative. His books include Journey to Earthland: The Great Transition to Planetary Civilization. He holds a PhD in Theoretical Physics.

Cite as Paul Raskin, contribution to GTI Roundtable "Religion and a GT," Great Transition Initiative (December 2014)

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