Like Michael Karlberg, I believe that “a critical normative discourse on the contemporary role of religion is urgently needed.” But, as a secular atheist, I come to this from a different perspective, and with a different motivation.
Karlberg’s essay is not really clear about what religion is, or how it differs from science on one hand and ethics and morality on the other. As a secular person, I do not believe that religion should be considered, to use Karlberg’s expression, a “system of knowledge.” If we take knowledge to involve statements about the real word which are justifiably true (the standard philosophical definition of knowledge), then science is the only true system of knowledge. Ethics and morality, then, are also not systems of knowledge since they are matters of opinion which are neither “true” nor “false.”
To begin, then, it is very important to clearly distinguish among the three major types of belief systems (systems of meaning) that exist in the world today: (1)
Science: a justified belief system about what is the case—what is true about the physical world. (2)
Ethics and morality: beliefs about what ought to be the case—about how people ought to live their lives and how they ought to relate to each other in a wide variety of circumstances that arise in their lives. (3)
Religion: belief about one or more supernatural beings or forces that can act in and influence events in the physical world, but which cannot be explained in terms of scientific theories. This can take the form of belief in “a Source, a First Cause, a Supreme Animating Will or Power” or belief in a “transcendent meaning or purpose” to humanity.
Contrary to Karlberg, then, I do not think that science and religion are at all similar types of knowledge systems, since the concept of knowledge does not apply to religious beliefs. In my opinion, it is not correct, as Karlberg claims, “to conceptualize religion as an evolving system of knowledge and practice that, like science, entails a collective human endeavor to generate insights into reality.” For one thing, the compelling nature of most scientific theories about the world, which describe scientifically established truths about the world, tends to lead to greater and greater agreement among scientists over time, in large part because these theories can be tested and confirmed, often to very high degrees of quantitative accuracy. (Of course, there are some scientific theories, like astrophysical theories, that can be used to make predictions, but where actual tests cannot be carried out by creating alternative universes at different stages of development from the one we inhabit.)
Moreover, I do not understand the basis for Karlberg’s claim that science is in “a relative state of systemic crisis.” He says that the basis for his claim is his analysis of the political economy of how science is done. But while I am totally sympathetic with much of what he says about the potentially negative aspects of how science is done and which institutions support most research, that does not mean that science (scientific theories) have themselves become significantly bankrupt. Karlberg may implicitly be criticizing the way in which technology is being used in the modern world, not science, but I cannot tell. It would be helpful to hear more from him on this issue.
It is true that a very wide range of religious beliefs have existed for a long time and continue to persist in the world. But their persistence does not indicate anything about their truthfulness or status as knowledge, as Karlberg seems to imply. Furthermore, while Karlberg hopes to have a wide range of religious beliefs blend and evolve into a more uniform set of religious beliefs for various reasons, he is never really clear what those final set of beliefs would be, and exactly how they would differ from, and go beyond, ethics and morality.
It is important to note that religions and religious institutions have always played a major role in most, if not all, societies in helping to develop what desirable moral beliefs for people to have would be and, therefore, for how people should organize themselves and behave towards others in their cultures. This role of religious institutions can often be positive because they contribute to our collective sense of what are desirable ethical and moral values. However, it is not uniformly positive: religious prescriptions such as “God says that women should play a subordinate role in society” undermine the ethical views that many other religious and secular people hold dear.
I think it is critical to emphasize that if a religion does not support the belief that some sort of supernatural being or force exists that can actually affect what happens in the physical world, then it is not a religion, but merely a set of ethical or moral precepts. However, I suspect that many people who consider themselves religious, in some sense of that word, primarily enjoy meeting with others in a religious institution because of the useful discussions of shared moral and ethical precepts that occur in that community. But many such people probably reject any concept such as a God, or a supernatural force that actually exists, as evidenced by its ability to influence real life events in the world. One reason for many people, such as myself, not to believe in some concept of the existence of a God, or other supernatural force that acts in the physical world, is that there has never been any clear history of evidence for such an entity or force that has been generally acknowledged as relevant to such an existence claim.
Finally, with respect to Karlberg’s claim that humanity has some sort of purpose or meaning or innate goals (his various teleological claims), it is easy to understand psychologically why many people would hold such beliefs, but it is hard to understand the rational basis for his making such claims, in part given the fact that different religions have very different visions of such purposes or goals. But, again, one would need to be clear about how such a purpose or set of goals somehow went beyond, and was different from, simply believing in various moral or ethical goals that human societies should try to achieve. Religious people may feel that religious beliefs are true, and comprise a system of knowledge, but feeling this way does not make it so.
In contrast, the fact that many of us who are secular also strive towards a great transition can be easily explained by the fact that humans are intelligent, moral, and altruistic creatures, in addition to sometimes being egoistical. Ethics and morality, along with “the powers of love, compassion, and justice,” are sufficient to “motivate the struggle and sacrifice required to bring it [a GT] about.” These aspects of human behavior are not strictly speaking components of religion, and one should not invoke religion, or “spiritual forces,” as the basis for these well-known human traits which are shared with secular people. Clearly, most if not all secular people accept the positive value of these kinds of human traits for the process of trying to make the world a better place.