Religions and Globalisation

European Judaism, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview
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Religions and Globalisation


The topic I propose to address here is vast, and all I can reasonably do is to present a picture painted with very large brushstrokes. Much of what I will have to say will be based on insights gained from the work of the research centre I direct at Boston University, first of all from the largest project we ever undertook--a ten-country study of globalisation and culture (the major results have been published in a volume I co-edited with Samuel Huntington, Many Globalisations: Cultural Diversity in the Contemporary World Oxford University Press, 2002). And before I say anything about religion, I must make some general observations about the cultural dimension of globalisation. (Though I will point out right away that in most of the world, as soon as one looks at culture, one is looking at religion.)

Globalisation is a process driven by immensely powerful economic and technological forces. We know that there are both benefits and costs, material and other, resulting from this process, both between and within societies. I cannot deal with this aspect of the matter here, important though it is. But there is one rather simple fact to be noted: globalisation means an enormous increase in the possibilities of communication between an increasing number of people throughout the world. With less and less effort, everyone can talk with everyone else. This is true not only of people sitting at the levers of economic and political power, but of people in every other institution--academics, advocates of religious or ideological messages, gangsters, aficionados of every type of hobby from stamp-collecting to pornography--and, increasingly, ordinary people with the money to travel or with access to telephones, fax machines or modems. It seems to me that this basic fact is worth thinking about for a moment, because it already makes it very implausible to evaluate this global chatterbox as either all good or all bad. One may rejoice at the ease with which university professors or stamp-collectors in Boston can communicate with their colleagues in Bangkok, but the joy will be tempered by the recognition that drug-lords, terrorists and paedophiles share this facility.

There is by now a conventional view of the relation between globalisation and culture, a view which is shared by both proponents and critics of globalisation. This view holds that there is an emerging global culture, most of it Western and indeed American both in origin and content, and further that this culture is rolling across the world like a gigantic steamroller. For some, there is a great hope there--a global culture that will promote higher standards of living, an international civil society and democracy. Others look at this culture as a great threat--at best, as the spread of superficial and trivial ways of life, at worst as an evil conspiracy of neo-imperialists in the service of a predatory capitalism. I think that both the hope and the threat are greatly exaggerated. In any case, the cultural situation (be it perceived favourably or not) is considerably more complicated.

Like many conventional views, this one has some basis in fact. There is indeed an emerging global culture, mainly Western and American in inspiration. It has both elite and popular manifestations--in the international business elite which Samuel Huntington felicitously called the 'Davos culture', but also in other elites (including a globalised intelligentsia)--but through popular culture it penetrates vastly larger populations. In all these manifestations a significant fact is the near-absolute hegemony of the English language, and of American English at that. I will only remark here that one does not use a language innocently; like it or not, one takes on board a heavy freight of cognitive and normative assumptions which come with the language.

Talk about a global culture is relatively recent. But the phenomenon relates to something that has been talked about for a much longer time--namely, the process of modernisation.

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