Karlberg: Meaning, Religion and a Great Transition - review

Submitted by Arthur Dahl on 9. January 2015 - 9:40

Meaning, Religion and a Great Transition

by Michael Karlberg
a review and commentary by Arthur Dahl

The Great Transition Initiative is an international collaboration for charting pathways to a planetary civilization rooted in solidarity, sustainability, and human well-being. It operates an on-line forum of leading intellectuals moderated by the Tellus Institute in Boston. Papers are commissioned for discussion, and then published. A couple of IEF members take part in these discussions, which have been largely on scientific, political and institutional themes. In November, for the first time, the topic was "Meaning, Religion and a Great Transition" with a paper prepared by Michael Karlberg which has now been published on line. The discussion was lively and controversial, with the more secular scientists contesting that religion could be considered a knowledge system or be anything more than subjective and not worthy of serious consideration, while others welcomed this as an essential part of any transition. At the end of the month, Michael responded to the debate, and his commentary is also on line.


It is difficult to summarize such a well-reasoned and carefully-worded analysis of religion and science, addressing the concerns of skeptics and demonstrating the usefulness of religion to the challenges we face.

Karlberg starts with the importance of systems of meaning, often unconscious, that underly our cultures, and notes that major structural changes in society will occur only with the emergence of larger systems of meaning that render them imaginable, desirable, and feasible. With reference to religion, he notes that the vast majority of the earth’s inhabitants continue to draw meaning and inspiration from religion, so any movement with global aspirations needs to consider this relatively universal human impulse. Also, religion has made vital contributions to many progressive social movements in the past two centuries.

"At the same time, organized religion has all too frequently been corrupted and abused by political and economic interests that pervert its accomplishments and distort its ends, foster superstition and blind imitation, set religion at odds with science and reason, and breed sectarian conflict and violence. In addition, religious belief and practice has frequently been characterized by the uncritical transmission of inherited cultural prejudices and oppressive social norms. Therefore, the concept of religion is, itself, in need of a great transition. Like every social institution, our understanding and practice of religion must evolve in order for it to make an ongoing contribution to the advancement of civilization."

Karlberg presents a concept of religion as an evolving system of knowledge and practice that, much like science, embodies a collective human endeavor to generate insights regarding significant dimensions of reality and apply those insights to the betterment of the human condition. He develops an extended parallel between the evolution of science to a single universal and increasingly rigorous process, and the need for religion to follow the same path. Science has gradually uncovered the governing dynamics of the natural world. But there are other governing dynamics for highly intangible spiritual forces, such as the powers of love, compassion, and justice, of which we have only a dim understanding at present. The essence of human nature—the human spirit or the rational soul—responds to these spiritual forces even if we do not adequately understand them, just as human bodies have always responded to forces such as gravity, regardless of whether we understood those forces. Neither secular nor religious intolerance constitutes a viable path to global human solidarity.

What he calls for is a constructive conception of religion that provides normative standards of religious practice in relation to the emergence of a more just and sustainable global civilization. This requires focusing on religion as a singular, universal, trans-historical phenomenon.

If religion is understood as a system of knowledge and practice that seeks insight into spiritual reality and applies that insight to improving the human condition, then one condition it would need to satisfy is that it be practiced in a thoughtful, intelligent, and rational manner complementary to and harmonious with science. Religion must grow beyond dogmatic and narrow-minded assertions of truth and adopt instead a posture of systematic learning. There is a need for humility in the interpretation of religious texts, coupled with rational methods for the ongoing generation of knowledge regarding how to apply spiritual insights to the betterment of humanity. These rational methods might include, for instance, a consultative and reflective approach to inquiry, grounded in constructive social action, which draws on diverse perspectives and experiences within evolving frameworks of understanding built upon ethical commitments and altruistic ideals.

Religion can also recognize and promote the systemic unity and interdependence—the organic oneness—of humanity. It can acknowledge the human being as having a twofold purpose: to develop one’s latent individual capacity and to contribute to the advancement of civilization. This leads to a holistic and co-evolving view of the individual and society, with individual and collective well-being inextricably linked. Within this framework, normative concepts such as progress, justice, prosperity, sustainability, education, and empowerment begin to take on new meanings that reflect the needs of the age in which we live.

He contrast the negative press that religion receives today with an overly positive view of science, which is in fact in a relative state of systemic crisis, even though this is seldom recognized by scientists. Contemporary science, as a system influenced by powerful social forces, too often lacks critical reflection and is uninformed by a wider social and ecological consciousness. The crisis in science reflects its increasing privatization, industrialization, and commercialization into a self-serving system inextricably tied to the political economy of today’s maladaptive social order. The contemporary systems of consumer capitalism and partisan politics are becoming increasing inseparable, and each embodies and reinforces the same underlying competitive logic, which aligns with the narrow short-term interests of the most powerful segments of society, and is becoming one of the most influential systems of meaning on the planet today, rivaled in its influence only by religion. He concludes that we need a more critical normative discourse regarding the practice of science, and religion, at this critical juncture in history when all inherited social institutions and practices urgently need to be re-examined.

At its best, religion enables humans to grapple in meaningful ways with universal and existential questions that cannot be ignored but are beyond the scope of science. Moreover, in the process, religion can reach the roots of human motivation and prompt the will to struggle—and the willingness to make personal sacrifices—for the betterment of the human condition. We therefore need to encourage the ongoing evolution and refinement of religion as a partner in a growing global citizens movement.


In one of my contributions to the discussion of Karlberg's paper, I raised a number of additional points. Some commentators were revolted by religion as the source of intolerance, atrocities and "holy war". Horrendous crimes in the name of religion are nothing new, but the headlines they are now making produce an emotional reaction that makes any rational discussion of religion difficult. The fact that such crimes are in fundamental contradiction with the essential teachings of those religions (i.e. Thou shalt not kill), and thus demonstrate the moral bankruptcy of the perpetrators twisting a religious vocabulary for other ends, gets overlooked, as does the fact that other ideologies and political movements, including some similarly twisting science to their ends, have produced equally tragic outcomes. All this illustrates the depths to which human beings can sink when they have lost any moral compass.

Karlberg's paper rightly insisted that we approach religion objectively, not only seeing its negative contribution embodied today in rigid structures, dogmas and fragmented interpretations under that heading, but as an evolving dimension of human experience with undeniable positive impacts on individual lives and on the advancement of civilization at key transitions in our historic past. It is religion, not science, if broadly understood to include spirituality in all its forms, that gives life meaning and purpose, and that raises our sights above the merely material. It is religion, not science, that speaks to the need to subjugate pride, ego and selfish desires to the altruism, humility, trustworthiness, and spirit of service that humans are capable of. We need to ask how this positive contribution can be mobilized for the transition we are all working for.

Discussants from the philosophical/spiritual/religious perspectives were more open to a balanced and respectful exploration of the harmony of science and religion than secular atheists, who found it difficult to accept that much of human experience and the less material accomplishments of civilizations are part of human reality and forms of knowledge as valid as science. Karlberg has carefully explained that science itself is constantly evolving and cannot escape from subjective elements. Both religion and science need to be treated with the same normative rigor and rational approaches, while being open to those dimensions for which material proofs are irrelevant or inappropriate. We must be careful not to fall into the same trap as the fundamentalists in narrowing the interpretive frame that defines what is reality.

One of the challenges to science in this context is the assumption that we are intellectually capable of knowing and explaining everything, and that we shall some day have perfect models and formulas for each domain of science. The human mind has its limitations, as anyone trying to understand quantum physics or complex systems experiences. The corollary of this assumption is that anything that we cannot fully understand does not exist or is "subjective" and beyond serious academic consideration, and therefore that religion cannot be considered a system of knowledge complementary to science. This is a denial of much of human experience, experience that is highly relevant to the Great Transition.

Karlberg has called for a reconceptualization of religion in support of the great transition. One challenge that appeared in the comments is the gap between those who see spiritual experience at an individual level as the central focus, and those for whom there is a spiritual reality beyond material reality that transcends individuals and includes what he has called a Source, a First Cause, a Supreme Animating Will or Power, and others refer to as God, Allah, etc. The latter orientation both encourages an other-centred focus for the individual, turning out from the self, and also provides an external source of authority for the ethical precepts offered by religion to structure community life and society. Many of those precepts, when understood in an evolving framework responding to human needs at different points in our social evolution, would counter the values of our present materialist consumer culture and support the great transition. There is a lot in the progressive and constructive practice of religion to build on.

One suggestion that only religion may be able to give us the courage and grace to live through the traumatic times ahead may be an additional short-term rationale for giving more attention to it, but should not detract from the more positive role it should play in building not only understanding but deep commitment to the major structural changes required, providing "larger systems of meaning that render them imaginable, desirable, and feasible", as Karlberg has put it.

If significant numbers of people are to support the transition, they need the support of an inclusive combination of the positive aspects of the diverse religious, spiritual and ethical dimensions of human experience, as a motivating force for the individual, community and institutional transformations that are required. Karlberg's paper proposes a way forward and raises the questions we need to address.

Michael Karlberg: Meaning, Religion and a Great Transition

Karlberg's author's response to the debate

Last updated 9 January 2015