Contribution to GTI Roundtable "Religion and a GT"

Christoph Bals

If religion is defined as belief in a supernatural, interventionist god, I would consider myself an atheist. But for me, this children’s belief is not at all a necessary condition to be religious. What on earth, then, could be a good reason to claim to be religious if you don’t believe in an agent that can act in the world separately from human beings or at least can modify their actions in a desirable way?

1. As a starting point which might be acceptable for actors who consider themselves in religious terms as “non-musical” (to use Jürgen Habermas’s term), I want to give religion an instrumental definition. We can see religion as a very powerful instrument to foster cooperation. We know today from game theory, from evolution theory, from developmental research and child language acquisition, that human beings are very special social animals. Michael Tomasello gathered evidence to prove that humans share two unique abilities: reading intentions and interacting with others socially. Reading intentions leads to understanding and acquiring linguistic symbols, because “learning and use of symbols requires understanding that a partner can voluntarily direct actions and attentions to outside entities.” This shows intentional action can be made by humans as long as they have a goal. Intentional action is how an organism acts so as to bring reality (as it perceives it) into line with its goals. A person wants to achieve a desired outcome and must perform an action to achieve this desired outcome. Depending on the end result, another action may or may not take place. In this sense, I would see religion as a powerful tool to define goals that determine action which change perception which again determines action.

But cooperation has two sides; it isn’t necessarily “good.” Very often, religion only supports cooperation of a limited group of people and excludes the broader co-world. Negative sides of religion—religious wars, terror against non-believers, and religion as a weapon for different state ideologies—are a logical consequence of this religious underpinning of cooperation against others. And if you belief that God is on your side, you might be able to do the most terrible things, even with pride. Look at the bible: when most Moses came back with the ten commandments of his God, the first thing was to organize the killing of others who were not seen as part of his group.

On the other hand, religion has also played a strong role in foster co-operation towards the “good,” and there are indeed many examples of this positive influence: Dietrich Bonhoefer, Mahatma Gandhi, Desmond Tutu, among others.

2. Based on these considerations, I want to bring the relation of science and religion into a historical perspective. I want to connect it to the theorem of the “Axial Age” of Karl Jaspers and the new discussion of this theorem by Jürgen Habermas. The basis of the Axial Age is the observation that we have seen in a number of relatively independent cultural regions in the relatively short period from 800 to 200 BCE very important philosophical, religious, and technical developments. All of those are still very relevant today. In China, where the teachings of Confucius and Laozi, among others, played an important role, different paths of Chinese philosophy were created. In India, the teachings of Buddha had a big effect while the natural philosophy and the older Upanishads of Hinduism have been already influential since 800 to 600 BCE. In Israel biblical prophets—Elijah, Elisha, Amos, Hosea, Micah in the eighth century BCE; Isaiah in the seventh.; Jeremiah, Zephaniah, Huldah, Nahum, Habakkuk, in the sixth; Ezekiel, Second Isaiah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Third Isaiah in the fifth and later—were an innovative voice. From 521 to 516 BCE, the second temple in Jerusalem was built and the community got a new foundation, supported by Haggai and Zechariah. In Iran, Zarathustra was in the seventh or sixth century BCE the founder of a new religion based on the perceived struggle between the good (Aša/Arta) and the ill (Druj/Drauga). In Greece, the Iliad and the Odyssey (around 750 BCE), the natural philosophers in the first half of the sixth century (Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes), and then Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle in the fifth and fourth century laid the basic foundation of the European-Occidental perspective. Cicero and Seneca built in Rome on this development.

Those innovative developments in different cultures had, according to Jaspers, a fundamental influence on all following civilizations and the categories of our thinking.

Why do I spell all of this out?

a) I think it is important to put our debate in a bigger context and to escape the trap of Europe and US-centrism.

b) This perspective of those parallel developments in different cultures gives us the opportunity to look in a broader context at the development of philosophical/scientific systems on the one hand side and religious systems on the other. This historical context allows us to think about different but important roles of philosophical and scientific thinking in contrast to the role of religion.

From my perspective, it is a categorical mistake to describe religion as a knowledge system. To use a term of Wittgenstein, religion is a different language game (“Sprachspiel”). Religion is not an alternative source of knowledge; it doesn’t present statements about the real word which are justifiably true. We shouldn’t go the road of fundamentalist actors who don’t consider the different “grammar” of the different language games. It is interesting to see how many so-called religious actors don’t differentiate between the different language games of science and religion. All attempts to use religion to drive climate denial, for instance, are a form of this categorical mistake. (And often non-religious actors don’t differentiate between those language games either).

In my eyes, religion is not a knowledge system, but a system which searches for cooperative goals and motivates people to strive towards this end. Different religions have developed very strong pictures to motivate people. And one role of spirituality is to integrate cooperative objectives into personal structures—as we know today inscribed into the own brain.

Look at three different language systems:

Morality can tell us why we have to limit climate change and stop mass extinction.

Science can tell us (based on probabilities) what the consequences will be if we don’t act. It cannot tell us why we should limit global warming and stop mass extinction. But it can inform us how we can do so.

Religion can motivate many actors who will not be motivated by morality (why) and science (how) alone.

Of course, much more can be said regarding the possible interaction and potential conflicts between science and religion. Karlberg’s idea of holding “religion to account” in the way that corporations and governments are held to account is an interesting one in this context.

c) Different religions create different path dependencies for rationalizing the strong motivating pictures. As an example, a lot of strong pictures and intuitions of the Christian and Buddhist religions became a source of inspirations for science, political theory, and social theory. They were translated into a language that extended beyond the members of the religion itself. The biblical picture that man has been created in the image of God as well as the strong role of this picture to move human rights forward had a strong influence.

It is interesting to see that rationality based on the attempts to rationalize pictures and language from the Jewish-Christian tradition has underpinned different scientific traditions. The Buddhist tradition got rationalized in a very different direction than the Christian tradition, as we can see especially in differing conceptions of time.

3. It is quite obvious that my arguments brought forward so far will not be acceptable to many religious actors. They might say, “A functional definition of religion is interesting, but is this all we can say about religion?” No, it is not.

It is very little what science can say about love. But as an old religious song says, “ubi caritas et amor, deus ibi est.” Strongly connected with this— and including the ecological co-world—is the metaphor of “organic oneness,” which can be understood as a primary meme or archetypical concept of his perspective. So god might also be a metaphor that the whole is more than sum of parts. Yes, we know this from quantum physics. But how many people are motivated by this knowledge? If religious spirituality allows us to experience this interconnectedness, this can motivate us, as do other similar resonant experiences, like those in nature.

To clarify, I am not speaking about a supernatural force. But I strongly believe that we need strong cooperation to move the Great Transition forward. Religion can be a problem; it can also be a partner. In both cases, we have to deal with it. It will not disappear.

Christoph Bals
Christoph Bals is the Executive Director of Policy at the NGO Gemanwatch. He was among the initiators of European Business Council for Sustainable Energy and has served on the board of the Foundation for Sustainability since 1998.

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

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