Globalization And Religion Research Paper

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Globalization, the historical process by which all the world’s people come to live in a single social unit, brings with it religious changes as well. Prime among these is that globalization encourages religious pluralism such that religions identify themselves in relation to one another. Religions also become less rooted in particular places because of diasporas and transnational organization. In postmodern fashion, global religious pluralism creates a situation in which absolute visions end up living side by side.

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1. Globalization And Religion

Since the 1980s, the term globalization has taken on a certain currency in social scientific as well as in popular discourses. Its meaning in both these areas varies; but what unites economic, political, cultural, and even theological conceptions of globalization is the sense that, for better or worse, all people around the world live today in a single social unit much more than they ever have before. There is now and has been developing for some time a world society which serves as the encompassing social context of all more local social units. In this regard, most of the debates about globalization, whether scholarly or popular, have centered around the relation and even polarity between the global and the local. Robertson (1992), perhaps the first social scientist to use the term globalization in a technical and consistent sense, talks about the dialogical relation between the universal and the particular. What this means is that the global context, rather than only leading to a certain homogenization of culture and social structure around the world, also provides new conditions for constructing social and cultural difference. Global society, while single, is inherently pluralistic, not only permitting but even favoring a multitude of local and particular identities, both individual and collective.

The status of religion in debates about globalization has varied, to a significant extent according to academic discipline. Perspectives that see the development largely in economic terms, for instance as the increasing dominance of global capitalist institutions, tend to ignore religion almost entirely. Many of the approaches originating in the fields of international relations, political geography, and communication studies also pay little attention to religion, with the occasional exception of the role of Islam in many Muslim states (see, e.g., Anderson et al. 1995). Overall, it is primarily the works of certain anthropologists and sociologists that accord religion a more visible place. Yet even here, analyses vary a great deal, for the most part depending on how the term is understood. Two overlapping lines of variation appear to be central: the distinction between functional and substantive notions of what counts as religion and whether one sees religion as an aspect of culture or as a differentiated and independent social domain.

A functional conception of religion regards as religion any social process that addresses certain problems, for instance the question of the ultimate meaning of life, or social integration and control. Here religion, or at least the religious, almost automatically becomes a necessary dimension in the formation of world society because problems of meaning or of selfdescription (integration) have to be addressed in any society, especially one as diverse as the global one. As examples under this heading, some authors have sought to analyze the emergence of a global culture that is the equivalent of a new global ‘sacred canopy’ (Meyer et al. 1997). One might even include a growing discussion about the development of a global ‘civil society’ under this heading (Rudolph and Piscatori 1997, Braman and Sreberny-Mohammadi 1996). In addition, a functional approach allows questions of national, regional, ethnic, or civilizational identity in world society to take on religious character (Huntington 1996, Robertson 1992); and thus will tend to see religion largely as an aspect of culture. Substantive ideas of religion, by contrast, insist on the presence of identifiable and institutional sorts of activity that refer to a posited supraempirical, transcendent reality. From this perspective, the relation of various specifically religious groups to globalization becomes the focus of attention, groups ranging from the Roman Catholic Church and Islamic organizations to Western Buddhist groups and Pentecostal movements (Cox 1995, Robertson 1992, Rudolph and Piscatori 1997). Such approaches perforce also see religion as an independent domain of social activity and as more than an expression of something else, whether economics, politics, or culture (see Beyer 1998, Hexham and Poewe 1997).

This variety in ideas about what counts as religion in the global context by itself already points to important aspects of the relation between globalization and religion. The fact that most of the literature which deals explicitly with globalization ignores religion or functionalizes it suggests that substantive or institutional forms are for these observers somewhere between irrelevant and antiglobal. One manifestation of this orientation is the great amount of attention that so-called ‘fundamentalisms’ receive, and this, ironically, very often from scholars who are oriented quite positively toward institutional or substantive religion. Thus, e.g., the volumes issuing from Appleby and Marty’s Fundamentalism Project (see Marty and Appleby 1994), although not directly about globalization, nevertheless assume globalizing processes. They judge a wide variety of important religious movements all around the contemporary world as particularistic and usually local reactions against them (see also Juergensmeyer 1993, cf. Beyer 1994). Among some of these authors, however, designating ‘fundamentalisms’ as, in effect, antiglobal movements parallels a positive attitude to the idea of a single world society, especially as manifest in the search for a specifically global ethos. In these cases, the search is on an explicitly religious basis, albeit not on the basis of a particular religion. What is somewhat ironic is that the resulting global ecumenical ethic (see especially Kung 1991) corresponds reasonably well to the intention of those who functionalize religion at the global level: i.e., it avoids reference to a particular religion while addressing what it assumes to be the urgent and globally relevant religious task of providing ethical ideals and values that people all around the world can accept. In short, this sort of discussion seems to suggest that the distinction between functional and substantive conceptions of religion overlaps in a certain way those between universal global and particular local. Since these latter are principal organizing polarities in the entire globalization debate, it is best not to decide for one conception of religion or the other; but rather to consider the potential insights that flow from both.

2. Theoretical Perspectives

An excellent example of how a functionalized conception of religion can enter the globalization debate at the theoretical level is to be found in the work of Meyer and his co-workers. In a 1997 article that clearly presents their basic outlook, they carry to the level of global society an analysis that the classical sociology of Max Weber and Emile Durkheim made for modern societies. For these scholars, the world polity, as they call it, is an extension of modern Western values and their corresponding rationalized structures to the rest of the world. Western religion had a critical role in bringing about this modernization and rationalization; but today the old religious elites have lost their power and have in any case also become believers in salvation through the pursuit of modern global values, especially progress (development) and equality. In their place there is now a new ‘religious’ elite who are ‘the professionals, researchers, scientists, and intellectuals who write secularized and unconditionally universalistic versions of the salvation story, along with the managers, legislators, and policymakers who believe the story fervently and pursue it relentlessly. This belief is worldwide and structures the organization of social life almost everywhere’ (Meyer et al. 1997, p. 174). Meyer and his co-workers support the existence of this world polity by showing how the concrete policies of most countries around the world conform to its goals and values. In arguing in this fashion, however, they present a rather alternativeless and homogenizing picture which leaves room neither for the assertion of any meaningful particular or local variation nor, not coincidentally, for any role for institutional religion other than as futile reaction or powerless supporter.

A signficantly more nuanced vision, both as regards the question of homogeneity heterogeneity and the possible role of institutional religion, is contained in the work of Robertson. This author also emphasizes what he calls the ‘globalization of societal modernity’ (Robertson 1991), which includes the sort of global religious function that Meyer and co-workers see. In addition, however, Robertson points much more positively to the proliferation of religious movements in the contemporary world, movements ranging from Latin American liberation theology and Kungian ‘ecumenism’ to Islamic ‘fundamentalism,’ Japanese Soka Gakkai, and the Unification Church of SunMyung Moon. His theoretical model makes room for these more institutional and substantive forms of religion, and not just as local defensive reactions against incorporation into the global system. Instead, Robertson allows that they can also be attempts to define the ‘global–human’ situation as a whole; and at the same time ways of identifying a particular culture, region, or (in his terms) society in relation to the global whole and other subunits of it. The task of constructing such universalistic religious visions— whether functional or substantive—is always done on the basis of particular traditions, cultures, or movements. In consequence, the forms of institutional religion themselves change in the context of globalization, leading, for instance, to revisions of old traditions, syncretic or hybrid movements, and the rise of entirely new religions. For Robertson, then, the World Parliament of Religions, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Organization), the Church of Scientology, a peripatetic Pope or Dalai Lama, and Chinese Qi Gong groups are just as much aspects of globality and contributors to the shape of global society as are the aims and pronouncements of social scientists and technocrats. They all reflect and share a common social context; and one is not more modern or global than the other.

3. Religious Pluralism

From these theoretical starting points, one of the important questions that emerges concerns religious pluralism. Only with a radically functionalized concept of religion, such as that of the world polity school, can it appear possible for global society to share a single religious vision, a single world view. All other conceptions point to the near impossibility of a hegemonic, global religion. Substantively speaking, contemporary global society shows no sign of moving in this direction. If anything, the opposite is the case: not only is there an increasing number of identifiable religions or religious traditions in the world, the variety of expressions within those religions is also growing. Indeed, some sociologists of religion, notably Luckmann (1967), have long suggested that the typically modern—and therefore now global—form of religious expression is a highly individualized one that carries pluralism to the point where Luckmann can call it ‘invisible religion.’ Put somewhat differently, the question of religious pluralism is not simply one of how different religions, each one claiming an absolute vision, can live side by side in world society; but also to what extent this society still favors authoritative institutions worthy of the name, religions. A partial answer is possible through a comparison of the idea of religion with those of culture and nation.

The model of global culture argues that, in the contemporary social world, the ideas of culture and nation serve as names for types of legitimate and fundamentally plural collective identities: cultures and nations, like individuals, have the right to equal existence. Within the context of homogenizing forces like global capitalism and mass media, one can assert one’s difference and defend that difference in the name of one’s culture or nation. Cultures and nations, like individuals, are legitimated agents or actors in global society: it is part of the world polity of which Meyer and co-workers speak, that their right to ‘self-determination’ should only be limited by the right of other such identities to assert themselves in like fashion (see Lechner 1989). Religion is both a similar and different concept. On the one hand, religion is often a part of cultural and national identities: it can help define them. On the other hand, global culture also allows that religion is something independent of these other two notions. Religions are something to which people assumedly adhere voluntarily as individuals; and this may or may not flow from their cultural or national identities. Religions also enjoy the same ‘protection’ as cultures and nations; at least such freedom of religion is an ideal expressed in most of the world’s state constitutions. Correspondingly, global cultural ideals regard religions, like cultures and nations, as inherently plural. Two seeming paradoxes emerge from this view. First, religious freedom is grounded in the individual’s right to choose, but also in the right of the religious collectivity to exist and determine itself. Religious collectivities can therefore claim authority over their members, but only with the consent of these latter! Second, religions are particular and plural; and yet it is understood that they each offer a universal or cosmic vision, a total way of life. This holist emphasis therefore includes the possibility of exclusivist religions, ones that deny the validity of all others. Thus, in true postmodern fashion, religions provide ways of multiplying ultimate narratives about how the world is and they do this in such a way that each is regarded as of equal value, the choosing of one or the other being deemed a matter of preference, or upbringing, or culture. Ultimately, each is grounded only in the conviction of its adherents, and this in the knowledge that most others in global society have different convictions: even by the most generous estimates, the largest religion, Christianity, can claim far less than half the world’s population.

4. Religion In Postmodernity

The postmodern character of religion in the context of world society is manifest in other features as well. Embedded in the idea that religion is fundamentally plural are the questions of how religions distinguish themselves from one another and what the difference is between religion and nonreligion. Neither question is susceptible to a simple and clear answer. The idea that there are a plurality of distinct religions is one that dates historically only from the European seventeenth century in the context of post-Reformation religious conflicts and as European expansion brought its people into protracted contact with a much wider variety of other cultures, civilizations, and hence religious traditions. Which traditions emerged from this historical process as ‘one of the religions’ depended both on what Westerners observed as religions and on what non-Westerners were willing to style according to the implied model of a religion. Different and even diametrically opposite outcomes resulted. Thus, the elite carriers of Hinduism took up the suggestion of Western observers and cooperated in reimagining South Asian religious traditions as somehow a single religion, whereas corresponding Chinese intelligentsia refused, in spite of Western observation, to reconstruct their Confucian thought and ritual traditions as a religion (see Beyer 1998). The contemporary list of (world) religions therefore has an inductive and even arbitrary character that cannot be reduced to abstract characteristics. Like nations and cultures, what comes to be seen as one of the religions depends in large part on how well the supposed members succeed in having others accept it as one.

The boundary between religion and nonreligion exhibits comparable ambiguities, the difficulty of deciding between functional and substantive ideas of religion being one example. At the core of this problem lies the notion that religion refers to an overarching view of the world and thus to a complete way of life; and yet religions are, in principle and in fact, plural. A prime symptom of this ambiguous status of religion in world society is that, over the past century and a half, key representatives of almost all the so-called world religions have claimed that ‘ours is not a religion.’ Most often, protests of this sort favor a broad functional conception of religion for their tradition, and reject the sort of substantive one that limits religion to a special category of human action, say one dealing only with the interaction with gods or spirits. Similarly, opponents of various new religions have sought to exclude these from the category, in these cases so as to eliminate them from the range of legitimate religious choices. Such conflicts over categorization are, on occasion, ways of circumventing the global cultural value of ‘freedom of religion,’ justifying in these instances the obligatory adherence of everyone to the tenets and practices of a particular ‘religion’; or preventing such adherence to another. Thus, does the category of religion in global culture allow a postmodern juxtaposition of absolute narratives without offering an overarching narrative through which to reconcile them.

5. Religious Authority, Transnational Organization, And Diaspora

Accompanying these various ambiguities regarding the category of religion and religions, the carrying out of institutional religion under conditions of globalization brings a number of other challenges and changes, especially with respect to questions of religious authenticity and authority. In any society, there exist a limited number of ways through which conformity to authoritative religious traditions can come about. Thus, e.g., in small scale societies a relative lack of alternatives, and social structures centered on face-to-face interaction could assure reasonable religious conformity. After the advent of writing and large scale political empires, dedicated priesthoods or monastic orders, political state support, along with distinctions between elite and popular religiosity (e.g., religion vs. superstition) could handle the problem according to hierarchical principles. Under conditions of globalization, neither relative social isolation nor hierarchical solutions are possible. Globalized communication media, from telephones and air travel to television and the internet assure that religious social networks need not be limited to local interaction or particular places. In fact, the existence of these possibilities positively encourages global or translocal religious networks and religious organizations. Moreover, the global cultural valuing of equality for both individuals and collectivities severely militates against the notion that the orthodoxy practiced or advocated by a certain group of religious professionals or adherents in a certain place should serve as the unquestioned standard for all others. Even in religions that have traditional centers of such authority, e.g., Rome for Roman Catholics, al-Azhar for Sunni Muslims, or Salt Lake City for Mormons, these centers have limited resources for enforcing their authority; and those that choose to ignore them can use the same techniques of individual religious freedom, (alternative) tradition, separate organization, and transnational networking to circumvent it. The only real exceptions are situations in which state power helps enforce religious authority; but in those cases, such as Iran or Russia, the state boundaries themselves set effective limits to such compulsion.

A prime illustration of the way that globalization encourages the multiplication of local centers of religious authenticity is the effect on religion of global migration and transnational religious networking and/organization. Although the migration of people from one part of the world to others is a constant of world history, what is new under conditions of globalization is both the extent of the phenomenon and the fact that migrants leave one place for another far less definitively. The possibilities for maintaining communicative and even physical ties with the places of origin are far more developed, meaning that migrants are less dependent on their new contexts and can still influence the places that they have left. From a different angle, the difference between migrants and nonmigrants is not as great as it used to be, just as the difference between travel tourism and migration is not as clear. And the chief source of this new situation is the much greater and more rapid communicative links that now exist throughout the world.

Among the consequences for religion of migration and enhanced transnational or translocal linkages, two are of the greatest potential significance. The first is that, as migrants from a particular religion settle in different parts of the world outside of the traditional ‘heartlands,’ these diaspora communities will develop religious variations that respond to their new locations, and may furthermore re-export these to their places of origin as authentic and authoritative versions. Thus, e.g., the temples that Hindu migrants typically set up in diaspora communities of Europe or North America often allow the worship of a range of gods and goddesses in the Hindu pantheon, unlike in India where temples usually are dedicated to one deity only. The diasporic ‘one-stop supermarket’ temple is primarily a response to the fact that Hindus from different parts of India migrate to the same places and that these communities do not have the resources to build temples for each subgroup. In spite of these strategic origins of the variation, however, the model is being transferred back to India, providing another authentic way of ‘doing’ this religion. Similar analyses could be made for Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, or other migrants as well.

The second major consequence for religion is related but also in a sense opposite. It consists in the possibility of tying together disparate versions of a religion across the globe, expressly in spite of the difference in local variations. The Roman Catholic church is perhaps the prime example of a religious organization that has taken great advantage of this possibility. The links among the world’s Islamic populations have also strengthened significantly in this context (see Levitt 1998, Rudolph and Piscatori 1997). Another very illustrative example is global Christian Pentecostalism. Here, the concrete ways of doing Pentecostal Christianity vary enormously when one compares places like Korea, South America, North America, Asia, and Africa. Yet transnational linkages in such forms as common publications, regular world conferences, connections among professionals, and migration encourage a consciousness in most Pentecostals of being part of the same worldwide religious movement, and this in spite of the differences among them (see Van Dijk 1997).

6. Conclusion

What the foregoing demonstrates is that globalization creates and enhances conditions in which religion can become more pluralistic and yet at the same time more unified. The local and the global in religion, the universal and the particular, are not opposite poles between which religious forms oscillate. Rather local religion can now increasingly only be done with reference to the global context, especially in the awareness of religious pluralism. And global religious forms expressly include and are the expression of local manifestations. Global society does not present the choice between antiglobal, perhaps fundamentalist resistance and proglobal, liberal accommodation. Instead, it recreates the conditions under which religions form and operate in relation to one another.


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