Contribution to GTI Roundtable "Religion and a GT"

Kurt Grimm

Michael Karlberg’s essay raised important issues and attracted divergent comments, including some that strongly diminished the past contributions and future potentials for organized religion to contribute to a Great Transition. This comment refutes some ill-founded anti-religious perspectives with evidence from history, and suggests that deep institutionalization—occurring in religious and non-religious organizations—may exacerbate many social maladies while suppressing innovation and collaboration towards great social achievement.

Four points are relevant in this regard:

First, anti-religious sentiments—whether subtle, implicit or explicitly stated—are commonplace, in many scholarly communities and well beyond. In some of these communities, religion is dismissed or parodied; its role in human lives, social process, and history is often diminished and/or widely ignored, sometimes in cavalier tones. Such comments and presumptions were evident in this dialogue; the scarcity of a stern rebuke or challenge to such presumption is also notable, particularly given the magnitude of contradictory evidence.           

To sum in a sentence, history reveals that organized religions and “religious people” have made great contributions to human progress ranging from the abolition of slavery and child labor to women’s suffrage and the founding of many charities, orphanages, hospitals, and universities.

Throughout the history of Western civilization, one finds idealistic roots, moral propulsion, and individual-to-collective courage rooted in religious convictions. The same applies to many twentieth century leaders of great social change, including Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Furthermore, any reasonable historian must conclude that the Enlightenment itself was substantially propelled by men who employed empirical methods as a lens for exploration, worship, and veneration of Deity (e.g. Newton’s deep religiosity).

Second, many people, billions of humans in fact, find great meaning, purpose, and usefulness in the culture and experience of “religion.” Many rich and vibrant cultures find direction and expression through religion. Warts and all, religion is a vehicle for community, culture, and tradition, within shared lives of respect, purpose, and dignity.

Third, some religious people/groups hate and degrade other people, commit atrocities, and/or engage in bloody conflicts with people bearing different religious ideologies. Same goes for people and groups that are not religious.

Fourth, if religion exists and religious people act badly, it is wrong to conclude that religion is bad. The common denominator between evil and great evil is not religion: it is people. More specifically, the common denominator among evils of various sort committed by religious institutions (colonialism, cultural genocide, institutionalized degradation, etc.) is perhaps not religion, but the institutionalization of religion.

In this context, it is important to examine the histories of diverse evils occurring within non-religious institutions. For prominent examples of deep institutionalization of secular-to-atheist sorts, consider Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, and Mao Zedong. Note their secular and intelligent rationales. For example, examine Marx and Mein Kampf, and notice how a sensible Darwinism morphed into social Darwinism, eugenics, and deeply institutionalized mass murder.

To close, let’s agree that selfish and hateful sentiments exist in every human heart. Let’s agree that their scope and scale is enlarged by and within many institutions, religious and otherwise. I suggest that the discernment between religion and religious institutionalism is vital to a Great Transition. In fact, clear discernment of a post-institutional worldview may be the driver and defining signature of the better tomorrow that we individually and collectively aspire after. This is not to endorse anarchy or the abolition of institutions, but a clear discernment of where institutionalization permits—and perhaps exacerbates—social pathologies while diminishing individual creativity and social imagination.

Kurt Grimm
Kurt Grimm was an Associate Professor in the Department of Earth, Ocean & Atmospheric Sciences at the University of British Columbia. From a foundation in applied ecology, he became specifically interested in the origins of patterning in the real world.

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

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