Religion in a Global Context



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According to secularisation theory, development undermines religion: modern science and technology destroy belief in the supernatural.

However, religion may also contribute to development, e.g. Weber's claim that the Protestant ethic helped bring about modern capitalism.

More recently, sociologists have examined the role religion plays in development in today's globalising world.

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God and Globalisation in India

Globalisation has brought rapid economic growth in India and rising prosperity (position where they are flourishing financially) to a new middle class. Nanda examines the role of Hinduism, the religion of 85% of the population, in legitimating the rise of a new Hindu 'ultra-nationalism' and the prosperity of the Indian middle class.

Hinduism and Consumerism

According to secularisartion theory, the prosperous, scientifically educated, urban middle class are precisely the people who will be the first to adopt a secular worldview. Yet surverys show that Indians are becoming more religious and that urban, educated Indians are more religious than rural, less literate Indians. Poverty and existential insecurity cannot explain this increased religiosity because the middle class are not poor.

Nanda argues that this increasing religiosity is the result of the middles class's ambivalence about their newfound wealth, stemming from a tension between their new proseperity and the traditional Hindu belief in renouncing materialism.

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God and Globalisation in India continued...

This is resolved by modern holy men and tele-gurus who preach the message that desire is not bad, but a manifestation of divinity that motivates people to do things.

These business-friendly versions of Hinduism legitimate the position of the middle class and allow them to adjust to globalised consumer capitalism.

Hinduism also legitimates a triumphalist version of Indian nationalism. Politicians and the media constantly promote the view that India's success in the global market is due to the superiority of 'Hindu values'. In this Hindu ultra-nationalism, the worship of Hindu Gods has become the same as worshipping the nation of India: Hinduism has become a civil religion.

Hinduism has also penetrated public life and the supposedly secular state; e.g. 'Hindu sciences' such as astrology are being taught as academic subjects in public universities and being used supposedly to predict natural disasters.

Capitalism in East Asia- some countries in East Asia such as South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan have successfully industrialised and become significant players in the global economy. Even more recently, China has become a major global industrial power.

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Pentecostalism in Latin America

Berger argues that Pentecostalism in Latin America acts as a 'fundamental equivalent' to Weber's Protestant ethic, encouraging the development of capitalism in the same way as Calvinism did in 16th century Europe.

Like Calvinism, Pentecostalism demands an ascetic (self-denying) way of life emphasising personal discipline and hard work. This encourages its members to propser and become upwardly mobile.

For Berger, something like Protestantism is necessary to promote economic development and raise a society out of power. This can be led by an active minority with an ethic of this worldly asceticism, such as the Pentecostalists.

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Pentecostalism: Global and Local

In the last five centuries, Christianty has globalised itself by expanding into South America and Africa. Lehmann distinguishes between two phases in the expansion:

  • The first phase of this was through colonisation, with Christianity being imposed on the indigenous(native) populations by conquest.
  • In the second phase, over the last century, it has spread because it gained a popular following from below, mainly through Pentacostalist and similar charismatic movements.

Pentecostalism creates new local religiopus forms, incorporating existing local beliefs (e.g. spirit possession), rather than replacing them with ones imposed from outside.

In Africa, this has led to the 'Africanisation' of Christianity rather than the total disappearance of indigenous religions.

Pentecostalism has also been successful in developing countries because it is able to appeal particularly to the poor who make up the vast majority of the population, and because it uses global communications media to spread its message.

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Religious Fundamentalism has increasingly become a major political and media concern, especially in relation to international islamist terrorism.

However, the term 'fundamentalist' has also been applied to followers of other religions, e.g. Jesus Camp, Evangelical Fundamentalists, The Westboro Baptist Church (Christian Fundamentalists).

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Fundamentalism and Cosmopolitanism

Giddens defines fundamentalists as traditionalists who wish to return to the basics/fundamentals of their faith and who have an unquestioning belief in the literal truth of scripture. They believe that their view is the only true view of the world and are intolerant of other views. They tend to avoid contact with others that think differently -e.g. in interviews they talk over people (Shirley Phelps Roper- Westboro Baptist Church) and keep repeating their views.

They rely upon the guardians of tradition, e.g. the elderly or the clergy to interpret sacred texts and lay down rules that determine lifestyle. However, while fundamentalists detest modernity, they use modern methods to express and spread their beliefs, e.g. Internet, e-mail, televangelism and the 'electronic church'.

Giddens sees fundamentalism as a reaction to globalisation, which undermines traditional social norms e.g. the nuclear family, gender and sexuality. Giddens contrasts fundamentalism with cosmopolitanism- a way of thinking that embraces modernity, is tolerant, open and constantly reflects on and modifies beliefs ('reflexive' thinking).

Cosmopolitanism sees lifestyle as a personal choice, not something dictated by an external religious authority. It emphasises the pursuit of personal meaning and self-improvement rather than submission to authority.

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Responses to Postmodernity

Bauman sees fundamentalism as a response to living in postmodernity. Postmodern society brings freedom of choice, uncertainty and heightening awareness of risk, undermining old certainties about how to live that were grounded with tradition. While some embrace the new freedom, others are attracted to fundamentalism by its claims of absolute truth and certainty.

Similarly, Castells distinguishes between two responses to postmodernity:

  • Resistant Identity- a defensive reaction of those who feel threatened and retreat into fundamentalist communities.
  • Project Identity- the response of those who are forward-looking and engage with social movements such as feminism and environmentalism.


  • They distinguish too sharply between cosmopolitanism and fundamentalism, ignoring 'hybrid' movements.
  • They are 'fixated on fundamentalism', ignoring other important developments- including how globalisation is also affecting non-fundamentalist religions such as Catholicism.
  • Giddens lumps all types of fundamentalism together, ignoring important differences between them.
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Monotheism and Fundamentalism

Bruce sees the main cause of fundamentalism as the perception by religious traditionalists that globalisation threatens their beliefs and lifestyle. This leads them to develop rigid rules about belief and behaviour.

However, Bruce regards fundamentalism as being confined to monotheistic religions (Judaism, Islam, Christianity). Polytheistic religions (e.g. Hinduism) that believe in many Gods are unlikely to produce fundamentalism.

Bruce argues this is because monotheistic religions are based on a notion of God's will as revealed through a single, authoritative sacred text. Polytheists lack a single all-powerful deity and a single authoritative text, leaving much more scope for differing interpretations.

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Two Fundamentalists

Bruce argues that while fundamentalists share the same characteristics such as belief in the literal truth of the sacred text, different fundamentalist movements have different origins.

In the West, Fundamentalism is usually a reaction to change within society, e.g. trends towards diversity and choice. So the New Christian Right in America has developed in opposition to family diversity, sexual 'permissiveness', gender equality and secular education.

In the Third World, fundamentalism is usually a reaction to changes being thrust on a society from outside, e.g. 'Western' values imposed by foreign capitalism. Here fundamentalism involves resistance to the state's attempts to reduce the social influence of religion.

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Bruce sees one function of religion as cultural defence-religion unites a community against an external threat and this often gives it a prominent role in politics. Relgion has special significance for its followers because it symbolises the group or society's collective identity.

Two examples to show that religion can be used to defend national identity against domination by an external power. In both cases, the role of religion has to be understood in a transnational context.

POLAND- From 1945 to 1989, Poland was under communist rule imposed from outside by the Soviet Union. Although the Catholic Church did not always challenge the communist regime openly, it served as a popular rallying point for opposition, e.g. actively supporting the Solidarity free trade union movement that contributed to the fall of communism.

IRAN- Western capitalist powers and oil companies had long had influence in Iran, installing a pro-Western regime headed by the Shah. During the 1960s and 70s, his successor embarked on a policy of rapid modernisation and Westernisation. Islam became the focus for resistance to change and to the Shah. The 1979 revolution brought the creation of the Islamic Republic, in which clergy held state power and were able to impose Islamic Shari'a law.

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Religion has been at the centre of a number of recent global conflicts, e.g. the '9/11' Islamist attacks in the USA, Lee Rigby's Murder in London.

Huntington, an American neo-conservative, claims that these conflicts have intensified since the collapse of communism in 1989 and are symptoms of a wider 'clash of civilisations'. He identifies seven civilisations: Western, Latin American, Confucian (China), Japanese, Islamic, Hindu and Slavic-Orthodox. Each civilisation has a common cultural background and is closely indentified with one of the world's greatest religions.

Religious differences have now become a major source of identity for three reasons:

  • With the fall of communism, political differences between nations have become less important as a source of identity.
  • Globalisation has made nation-states less significant as a source of identity, creating a gap that religion has filled.
  • Globalisation makes contact between civilisations easier and more frequent, increasing the likelihood of old conflicts re-emerging.
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The clash of the civilisations continued...

Religious differences are creating a new set of hostile 'us and them' relationships, with increased competition between civilisations for economic and military power.

Huntington sees history as a struggle of 'progress against barbarism' and predicts growing conflict between 'the West and the rest'.


Jackson sees Huntington's work as an example of orientalism- a western ideology that stereotypes Eastern nations and people (especially Muslims) as untrustworthy, inferior or fanatical 'Others'.

Casanova argues that Huntington ignores important religious divisions within the 'civilisations' he identifies- e.g. between Sunni and Shi'a Islam.

Karen Armstrong argues that hostility towards the West does not stem from fundamentalist Islam, but is a reaction to Western foreign policy in the Middle East. The West has propped up oppressive regimes and continues to support Israel despite its aggressive treatment of Palestinians.

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The real clash of civilisations?

World Values Survey data indicates that the issue dividing the West from the Muslim world is not a democracy but sexuality. Support for democracy is high in both the West and the Muslim world, but there are great differences in attitudes to divorce, abortion, gender equality and gay rights.

While Western attitudes have become more liberal, in the Muslim world they remain traditional.

Inglehart and Norris argue that there is no global agreement about self-expression values, such as gender equality and freedom of speech. It is these values that constitute the real 'clash of civilisations' between Muslim societies and the West.

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