Study Notes

Globalisation & Religious Belief

AS, A-Level
AQA, Edexcel, OCR, Eduqas, WJEC

Last updated 14 Nov 2018

A key feature of contemporary society, especially according to postmodernists, is the process of globalisation: how society has become more interconnected across the world, economically, culturally and politically. This has had a number of effects on religion and belief.

Peter Beyer (1994) identified three key impacts of globalisation on religion:

  • Particularism – religion has increasingly been used as an avenue for anti-globalisation activity. While one feature of globalisation is a sort of cultural homogenisation (the creation of a single, global popular culture) religion is often seen as the opposite of that: a symbol of how people are culturally different from one another, rather than the same. This has contributed to a rise in fundamentalism and is a feature of political conflict in many areas of the world.
  • Universalism – however there is also some evidence of the opposite trend. While small fundamentalist groups might emphasise their difference from other people, the major religions have increasingly focused on what unites them. Far from the feared clash of civilisations (which will be returned to later) religious leaders emphasise shared values and common concerns. Indeed, inter-faith dialogue through global communication has helped to diffuse conflict between religions.
  • Marginalisation – Beyer also notes that religion is increasingly marginalised in contemporary society, playing less part in public life, although this may well be a rather Eurocentric view and may be caused by other social changes rather than globalisation.

Another way in which globalisation has impacted on religion is the way religions have made use of global communications. Religious groups are able to take advantage of modern technology to recruit new members, spread the word and keep in contact with other members of the religion. While with some of the more fundamentalist, anti-modern, anti-global religious organisations this can hold a certain irony, it is one of the ways in which religion is much less linked to nationality than it once was.

Religious identity is much less attached to national identity than it once was. Most of the main world religions are international in character and while some countries still have clear state religions, it is certainly less a feature of national identity in the West than it used to be. However, people do still sometimes refer to countries like the UK as “Christian countries”.

A significant exception is India. Meera Nanda (2008) argues that Hinduism is closely related to Indian nationalism. In a survey 93% of Indians considered their culture “superior to others” and increasingly Indian national identity and Hinduism are seen as effectively the same thing. In other words, Hinduism has become what Bellah called a civil religion. Through the worship of Hindu gods, Indians are worshipping India itself.

There were “World Religions” long before the process of globalisation is thought to have begun. Christianity, Islam and Judaism in particular have been present across many nations and continents. However, some sociologists suggest that globalisation has led to the rapid spread of some religious organisations. David Martin (2002) points to the growth of Pentecostalism (a Christian denomination) through the developing world. Martin contrasts Pentecostalism with Catholicism. Martin argues that various features of Pentecostalism endear it to people in poorer parts of the world in an era of globalisation. First, people choose to join the church rather than being born into it. Second, it is viewed (rightly or wrongly) as being on the side of the poor, rather than being an enormously wealthy institution. Third, it is not associated with state or government whereas the Catholic church is often closely connected to the state. Finally, it is less hierarchical than the Catholic church. As such in areas where the Catholic church was once dominant but is now stagnating and losing support, Pentecostalism is flourishing.

While Martin presents one way in which religious institutions themselves have responded to globalisation, Giddens (1991) presents another which is becoming ever-more apparent in contemporary society: fundamentalism.

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