Religion and global development

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Religion and global development

Globalisation has had a significant impact on religion. The mass movement of people around the world has created greater religious diversity, but also led to religious conflict. Religion has also influenced economic development within countries around the world.

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Religion and development in India

Globalisation has led to rapid economic development in India. It has created a wealthy new middle class who are educated and working in industries such as IT, pharmaceuticals and biotechnology. These groups are generally the least religious: scientific backgrounds often mean religion has been undermined by rationalisation.

However, Nanda recognises that these people are becoming more religious. This cannot be due to existential security, because they are financially well off. Nanda argues the religiosity amongst this group is due to an apparent ambivalence – or uncertainty - about their wealth because, on the one hand, Hinduism rejects materialism but, on the other, the new middle class are becoming wealthy. This creates contradictory emotions for them. 

Hinduism rejects materialism which creates a problem for this wealthy group. This is resolved by modern versions of Hinduism which claim that worldly desires are not bad, and allow the wealthy to balance their guilt about their wealth by paying for extravagant religious rituals. This, therefore, legitimates the wealth of the new middle class and allows them to adjust to global capitalism.

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Capitalism in East Asia

East Asian ‘tiger economies’ such as South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore now have a major influence on the global economy. Some sociologists argue that, in these countries, the influence of religion is similar pattern to that of Calvinism on capitalism in the 16th century. Redding identified post-Confucian values which encourage hard work, self discipline and frugality – i.e. these values of the traditional Confucian belief system are similar to those of Calvinism, leading to greater economic productivity and the successful development of a capitalist economy. 

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Pentecostalism in Latin America

Berger argues something similar has happened in Latin America. Latin American Pentecostalism has a strong work ethic and self discipline based on an ascetic (self-denying) way of life.

This form of Pentecostalism has brought prosperity to places such as Chile and Brazil. However, Berger agrees with Weber that religious beliefs alone cannot bring about capitalism; there must also be natural resources to allow for economic development.

For example, in northern Brazil Pentecostalism is very strong but the lack of natural resources means little economic development.

The south of Brazil, by contrast, does have the natural resources and, coupled with the work ethic of Pentecostalism, has led to economic development and prosperity.

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Religious fundamentalism

Religious fundamentalists take a literal interpretation of religious texts which they believe to hold the absolute truth. They believe their view is the only true view of the world, and are intolerant of those who disagree. Any challenges to their views are dealt with by reference to the religious texts, rather than rational argument. Fundamentalists rely on the guardians of tradition, such as religious clergy or elders, to translate religious texts and establish the rules that govern their lives.


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Religious fundamentalism

Giddens believes that fundamentalism has developed in response to globalisation. Traditional norms about the family, sexuality and gender roles have been undermined in a late-modern society, and although this has created choice is has also brought about greater uncertainty and risk. In this context fundamentalism may attract followers who seek certainty in an increasingly uncertain, late-modern world. For example, it provides clear guidelines on traditional gender roles within the family. Fundamentalists may use modern technology such as the internet and television to spread their beliefs.

Bauman sees fundamentalism serving a similar purpose in a postmodern society. Once again, the absolute truth and certainty of fundamentalism is a response to the risk and uncertainty of postmodern society. 

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However, Beckford criticises these views of fundamentalism. For example, he argues Giddens fails to distinguish between different types of fundamentalism, and ignores how globalisation is influencing and changing non-fundamentalist versions of religion such as Catholicism. Haynes argues much Islamic fundamentalism is a reaction to the failure of local elites to improve living standards, rather than a reaction to globalisation.

Nonetheless, Bruce agrees with Giddens that fundamentalism is largely the result of global threats to religious beliefs and lifestyles. However, he also argues that fundamentalism only occurs within monotheistic religions: i.e. those which believe in one God, such as Christianity, Judaism and Islam. These religions are based around a single version of the truth as set out in a single religious text which gives clear guidelines for behaviour. Polytheistic religions, such as Hinduism, have many Gods and Goddesses and often lack one single text. This means it is harder to establish a single version of the truth. 

Bruce also identifies different causes of fundamentalism around the world. Fundamentalism emerges in the West because of changes within society. For example, the New Christian Right developed in the USA in response to changing attitudes to the family, marriage, divorce, homosexuality, abortion and adultery. On the other hand fundamentalism emerges in Third World nations because of change imposed from outside. For example, Islamic fundamentalism in Iran developed in response to the ‘Westernisation’ of Iranian culture 

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Religion and cultural defence

Religion can act as a means of cultural defence by uniting a community against an external threat. It can symbolise a collective identity and unite the group to resist the external threat being imposed on them.

The Catholic Church acted as a means of cultural defence in Poland during communist rule. It served to maintain Polish identity to resist communism being imposed on Poland by the Soviet Union. The Catholic Church also supported the Solidarity free trade union movement that led to the collapse of communism throughout Eastern Europe. (This also suggests that religion does not disappear in a communist society, as suggested by Marxism.) 

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Islam in Iran also served as a means of cultural defence. Iran was under the rule of the Shah who had developed a policy of Westernisation. The veil was banned, the traditional Islamic calendar was replaced, a Western curriculum was introduced in education and secular laws imposed. A Western culture of clubs, bars and cinemas also developed. This brought considerable wealth to a small minority but left the majority of Iranians in poverty. Islam served as a means of resistance to these Western changes, leading to a revolution in 1979 headed by the Ayatollah Khomeini. This overthrew the Shah and imposed Islamic law throughout the country.

However, Haynes argues that Iran was unusual in Middle Eastern politics because the revolution was led by religious leaders. Religion in other Middle Eastern countries such as Saudi Arabia is much more closely connected to those in power.

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Religion and the ‘clash of civilisations’

The twenty-first century has seen religion at the centre of global conflicts, such as the 9/11 attack on the USA and the London bombings. Huntington argues this is due to a ‘clash of civilisations’. He identifies seven civilisations:

  • Western,
  • Latin American,
  • Confucian,
  • Japanese,
  • Hindu,
  • Islamic
  • and Slavic-Orthodox. 

Each has a common cultural identity and is closely linked to one of the major world religions. This has created tension between civilisations, and this has intensified due to globalisation

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This tension has been caused by various factors. Globalisation has led to the mass movement of people around the world, meaning civilisations are in greater contact with one another. The collapse of communism has meant political differences between countries have become less significant and cultural differences more important.

Huntington believes that religious differences are harder to resolve than political differences because political values change with different governments, but religious differences are more firmly fixed in culture. 

However, Casanova argues Huntington ignores conflicts within civilisations, such as between Sunni and Shi’a Islam. Furthermore, Armstrong argues that much conflict is the result of Western foreign policy in the Middle East. The West has been selective which regimes it supports. For example, the USA has continuously supported Israel – a Jewish state - despite Israeli oppression and violence against Palestine – where Islam is the dominant religion.  

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