Understanding the Interplay of Globalization and Religion: An Obstacle Course with Many Exits.

Hieizan religious summit_2014

Ugo Dessì, Visiting Senior Research Fellow at RaT on the relationship between Religion in a globalized world and everyday experience.

Under globalization, culture becomes a hodgepodge of imported elements, local innovations, and hybrids, in which tradition is only one more option, one more choice among others. For those who wish to remain in traditional culture, globalization requires them to consciously choose to be traditional and act in traditional ways, which negates the very idea of what ‘traditional’ is (William Stahl, “Religious Opposition to Globalization”).


What is the relationship between globalization and religion? Is this question relevant to our daily lives or is it just an academic exercise? And if it is relevant, in how many ways can we understand the trajectory of the sacred in this age of dramatic change?

As soon as we ask these questions we are forced to confront common representations of globalization, which unfortunately do not provide a particularly helpful starting point. On the one hand, there is the dominant view endlessly circulated by the media that globalization is a phenomenon almost exclusively related to the development of the world market economy, which not only disregards the cultural dimension of globalization, but also implicitly presents capitalism as the inevitable destiny of all local economies. On the other hand, there is the complementary view that globalization has to do with the creation of a global village where information can flow freely thanks to the Internet and its manifold applications; this view is overly optimistic and misleading because it overlooks the bare fact that growing interconnectedness is accompanied by the creation of new sophisticated mechanisms of exclusion, through which the centers of global power can decide who can and cannot access the global network, and what can and cannot circulate in it.

To be able to find a place for religion within globalization, we need therefore to broaden our understanding of this process. We need to acknowledge that globalization has to do not only with the economy and the new communication technologies but also with culture, of which religion is a very important ingredient. In other words, we need to realize that the global flows that characterize our present age circulate ideas of any kind, among which religious convictions, symbols, practices, and practitioners.

However, this is still not enough to locate precisely religion within globalization. In fact, the link that we have acknowledged between global cultural flows and religion can become a source of misunderstanding. That is, it can be misleadingly intended to imply that the globalization of religion is substantially analogous to its expansion on a global scale and to the missionary activities of some dynamic religious organizations. Moreover, acknowledging the existence of global religious flows does not automatically clarify phenomena such as the emergence and the global scope of religiously inspired forms of violence that present themselves as counter-globalization forces.

One way of getting out of this impasse is to realize that religion does not necessarily need to cross borders to be part of the process of globalization. Needless to say, religions should be acknowledged as carriers of globalization, that is, as one of the many ways through which cultural elements are transmitted from one place to another. This role has been played by religion since ancient times, as the spreading of Buddhism, Christianity, Islam and other faiths so neatly shows, and has become even more relevant in the present age, due to the advances of the transportation and communication technologies. And yet, their globalization means much more than that.

My suggestion is that we can look at the interplay of religion and globalization from at least three additional perspectives that are interwoven with each other.

The first perspective focuses on interreligious encounters. That is, it gives importance to the ways in which competing sources of religious authority reposition themselves in the world map of the sacred. This aspect is very relevant in a globalized society that, with its ceaseless bombardment of information, images, and symbols, and the intensification of migration, makes the presence of the religious other much more intensely felt than in the past. Within the globalized context, competing sources of religious authority can sometimes be truly accepted as equals but are more often tolerated as less developed forms of spirituality. There is of course, also a third option, which is the total rejection of the religious other, which characterizes several forms of fundamentalism in different traditions and can open the way to religious violence and terrorism.

The second perspective focuses on the interplay between religion and specific ideas circulating in the global cultural flows. We can think for example of the impact that the ideas of human rights and gender equality have upon different religious traditions worldwide. These and many other global ideas can be rejected by local religions that react to the threat of cultural imperialism. They can also be passively accepted, when they are perceived as compatible with the local tradition but more often than not they undergo some degree of adaptation before they are incorporated by local religions. In other words, global ideas put in motion processes of hybridization through which religious cultures reorient themselves in the broader global context. This is why we witness phenomena such as the emergence of the New Age movement, which combines disparate elements from different religious cultures, or the unexpected popularity of the belief in reincarnation among European Christians. Historically speaking this is nothing new, at least if we accept the view that “hybridization as a process is as old as history.” However, as aptly suggested by Jan Nederveen Pieterse, in the present phase of accelerated globalization “the pace of mixing accelerates and its scope widens in the wake of major structural changes, such as new technologies that enable new phases of intercultural contact.”

There is at least another perspective that can be helpful for a more nuanced understanding of the globalization of religion. This aspect is perhaps less evident but no less important, since it has to do with the interplay of religion with other spheres of social life such as science, the economy, politics, and the like. In our times, the scope of such spheres has become truly global. We can think for example of the impact of modern medical science upon local cultures, and the creation of agencies such as the World Health Organization within the United Nations. From the perspective of religion, globalized medical science represents in not a few cases a competing source of secular authority, as is apparent in the ongoing debate on bioethics in many religious traditions. The recurrent campaigns against abortion, contraception, and the use of stem cells promoted by some religions show that the authority of modern science can be contested and rejected. Most of the times, however, it is accepted either unconditionally or conditionally, the latter implying a cautious attitude and a careful monitoring of the advances of modern science from the side of religion.

We can see then that understanding the interplay of globalization and religion is a sort of obstacle course with many exits. Religions are not only carriers of globalization, but are also deeply affected by its dynamics at different levels, whether or not they cross borders and spread internationally. And even when they react to its undesired effects, they always do that from within globalization and never from the outside.


Ugo Dessì is adjunct professor at Leipzig University, honorary research associate at the University of Cape Town, and a Visiting Senior Research Fellow at the Platform RaT.


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