There has been a good deal of discussion and debate, especially in Western sociology, about the process of secularization. The Enlightenment project repudiated the world-view of medieval Christianity and sought to replace it with secular rationalism. From the middle of the 19th century, region began to experience a steady decline in power, prestige and popularity in large parts of the Western world. For example, between 1965 and 1999, the percentage of church-goers in West Germany dropped from 75% to less than 30%. In 1851, about 60% of the population of England and Wales attended church. By the end of the 20th century, this figure dropped to 10%. The steady decline of religion in Europe is also reflected in the shortage of priests. Thus, though the population of England grew by 35% between 1900 and 1984, the number of Christian clergy halved from over 20,000 to 10,000. The available survey data indicate that in most European countries there has been a general erosion of religious beliefs and a steady decline in church membership and attendance.
Sociologists have a tendency-which is far from healthy-to jump to generalizations on the basis of limited data. This has particularly been the case with the sociology of religion, especially with what has come to be known as the secularization thesis. Sociologist Rodney Stark in his book Acts of Faith (2000) writes that “for nearly three centuries social scientists and assorted Western intellectuals in the West have been promising the end of religion. Each generation has been confident that within another few decades, or possibly a bit longer, humans will ‘outgrow’ belief in the supernatural. This proposition came to be known as the secularization thesis. However, all these prophecies about the impending demise of religion failed.” A well-known American sociologist Peter Berger told The New York Times in 1968 that by “the 21st century, religious believers are likely to be found only in small sects, huddled together to resist a worldwide secular culture.” He asserted that modernization would inevitably lead to a decline of religion in the public and private spheres. This, however, did not happen. In fact, in the last couple of decades there has come about an evident resurgence of ethnic and religious consciousness in large parts of the world. This development has taken sociologists like Berger by surprise. Peter Berger has recently confessed that the secularization thesis has been falsified by the revival of ethnic and religious consciousness in many countries, including the United States. He concedes that the project of secularization has been successful only in one small corner of the world, namely Western Europe. The rest of the world, he says, continues to be as fervently religious as before. The point is that modernization and secularization do not always go together and that secularization is neither universal nor inevitable. In fact, one of the most modernized nations in the world, the United States, is the only developed country in the world where most people belong to a religious organization and where more than 90% people believe in God. Pentecostalism, which originated at a Bible college in Kansas in 1901, is the world’s fastest growing religion, with some 500 million followers. The World Christian Encyclopaedia suggests that by 2050 there may be more than a billion people affiliated with Pentecostalism. There are more than 140,000 American missionaries around the world and American-style mega churches are beginning to appear in many European countries. There has come about a remarkable resurgence of religious sentiments in the United States in recent years. There is now a strong Protestant, evangelical fundamentalism, rare in Western Europe, which is one of the primary mobilizing forces in US politics. In fact, it is widely believed that this evangelical upsurge played a decisive role in the presidential election of 2004. President George W. Bush makes no secret of his strong evangelical leanings. He candidly claimed that his decision to invade Iraq was “a mission from God”. Bush and his loyal foot-soldier Tony Blair are said to have prayed together in the lead-up to the Iraq invasion and are believed to share a “spiritual affinity”. Despite the fact that the American constitution stipulates a separation between church and state, US churches, mainly white, Anglosaxon, openly campaign for candidates and political parties and raise large funds for them. It is common to hold prayer meetings in government buildings. A recent incident reflects the strengthening of religious consciousness in the United States. Shortly after he took office as chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court in 2001, Roy Moore caused a national furore when he commissioned and installed a granite monument of the Ten Commandments in the state Supreme Court building and refused to remove it. When Moore defied a recent federal court order to remove the monument, thousands of his supporters from across the country descended in the city of Montgomery to offer him moral and social support. They squatted on the steps of the Supreme Court building, praying, singing, threatening and blowing rams’ horns.
In recent years, a good deal of scholarly and media attention has been focused on what has come to be known as new religious movements (NRM). These movements, such as Scientology, Jehova’s Witnesses, Mormons, Assemblies of God and the Nazarenes, Moonies and Wiccans, among thousands of others, are spreading with astonishing rapidity in large parts of the world. A new journal Nova Religio is devoted to the study of new religious movements. These movements cover nearly 20% of the global Christian population.
An interesting dimension of the changing face of religion in the globalizing scenario is what some commentators have described as the “South-South” pattern in the global spread of Christian evangelism. Christian missionary activity no longer seems to flow from the North or the developed countries to the South or the developing countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America. Brazilian Pentecostal movements are becoming influential in Africa. Similarly, new African religious movements are becoming popular in many parts of Asia. Korean evangelists now outnumber their American counterparts around the world. One can also notice a significant “South-North” connection in respect of the spread of worldwide spread of evangelism. Many new African religious movements are attracting white people in North America and Europe. A rapidly growing Brazilian Pentecostal movement known as the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God is making its presence felt in Europe, the United States and Canada.
Britain has an established church. Bishops sit in the House of Lords by right and only the senior archbishop can crown a new monarch. Denmark also has a state church. The UK, Germany and the Netherlands, among other European nations, extensively support denominational schools out of public funds. Thousands of Anglican, Catholic and Jewish schools in Britain are funded by the state. Nearly a third of all school pupils attend state-funded religious schools. In Germany, the Jewish community and the Catholic dioceses are officially recognized as corporations. Nearly 80% of state-funded nursery schools are run by the churches. In many European countries one can notice a kind of coexistence of secularization and religiosity. Countries like England, Denmark and Greece believe that secularism is compatible with established churches. In Sweden, where only about 5% of the population attends church weekly, the Protestant value system still permeates society. The values of Protestantism are no longer transmitted by the church, but by the educational system and the mass media. In Italy, a country which generally ignores the Roman Catholic teaching on contraception, many people express their resentment over the removal of crucifixes from school walls. Thus, despite the evident decline of institutionalized religion in large parts of Europe, Christianity continues to exist as a fairly powerful cultural force.
Modern information and communication technologies are the lifeline of globalization. It is interesting to note that modern information and communication technologies have played and continue to play a highly significant role in the global dissemination of religious ideas and beliefs and in the revival of religious consciousness. Many of America’s biggest publishing and media corporations are pushing into the religious market for the simple reason that the religious market in the country is experiencing a huge, unprecedented boom. It is estimated that the market for religious products in the US alone in 2003 was worth 8.6 billion dollars. The market for religious books, mainly evangelical literature, grew by 37% in 2003. The Purpose-Driven Life by Rick Warren, an evangelical preacher in the US, is the best-selling hard cover book in American history, with more than 25 million copies sold. The growing popularity of religious literature is also reflected in the consumer market. Thus, Wal-Mart, America’s largest chain of supermarkets, now sells Christian diet books and Christian detective stories.
An eminent contemporary sociologist Zygmunt Bauman has coined the phrase glocalization to highlight the fact that globalization seems to reinforce not only global and transnational but also local and ethnic identities. Thus, in Thailand Buddhist monks are making increasing use of the Internet for disseminating their traditions through 200 websites. In the US, the television shows of the evangelist Billy Graham enjoy enormous popularity across the country. This phenomenon is not confined to the developed world. There are at least ten television channels in India which are devoted to religious discourses, yoga and meditation. One of them, Astha TV, set up in 2000, is beamed in 160 countries. Swami Ramdev, who regularly appears on Astha TV, has become a cult figure with hundreds of thousands of followers not only in India but also in countries which have large numbers of NIRs. There are more than 17000 web pages on Google on Swami Ramdev. Books, cassettes and VCDs containing his discourses are widely circulated in India and abroad. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, whose discourses and the “Art of Living” meditation package designed by him have become hugely popular across the length and breadth of India, has tens of millions of devotees in 145 countries. The Brahma Kumaris, a women’s ascetic movement based in India, has 500,000 members worldwide. Soka Gakkai International, a new form of Buddhism based in Japan, has some 18 million members in 115 countries.
India has been a deeply religious country for the past several centuries. In recent years there has come about a conspicuous upsurge in religious consciousness in the country, which is reflected in the growing demand for religious literature, including CDs and audio and video-cassettes, the increasing popularity of religious preachers and mentors, the huge turnout at the discourses of assorted gurus and spiritual guides, and the unprecedented popularity of centres of religious pilgrimage. The Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam in Andhra Pradesh has an annual revenue of 80 crore rupees from donations, a surplus of 375 crore and an annual budget of 675 crore. It receives Rs.1.5 crore as donation annually from devotees across the world through its website. The trust which manages the hugely popular shrine of Sai Baba in Shirdi in Maharashtra has an annual revenue of 50 crore and a corpus of 240 crore. All prominent centres of worship and pilgrimage in India are poised to come together on a web portal through which devotees from across the world can book prayers, make donations and receive blessings and mementos.
One of the highly significant features of globalization is the existence of transnational communities or diasporas which maintain a vast network of communication and culture with their homelands. Modern information and communication technologies, especially telephone, satellite television and the Internet, play a highly important role in connecting these diasporic communities to their cultural roots and their homelands. Hundreds of local newspapers and magazines in scores of languages are available online, which allow the overseas immigrants to keep in touch with their religious and cultural traditions as well as developments in their native countries. With the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, more than 50% of the local Palestinian population was driven out of their homeland. More than four million of the refugees took shelter in Europe and North America. A whole generation was born and brought up in foreign lands, cut off from their roots. The members of this generation are now rediscovering, thanks to homepages on the Internet, their religious and cultural traditions as well as the villages from which their parents migrated. The Internet is thus serving as a source of virtual rootedness. It is also becoming an instrument for transnational political mobilization, as in the case of Kurdish and Palestinian refugees in Europe.
One can scarcely fail to notice a world-wide upsurge of Islamic awakening and revival. This is reflected in the growing demand for Islamic literature, in the proliferation of religious and communitarian movements, institutions and organizations, and in the increasing involvement of Muslim youth as well as Muslim women in faith-based activities. Modern information and communication technologies are playing a highly significant role in Islamic resurgence. The use of computers and the Internet is rapidly expanding in the Islamic world. The entire text of the Quran, commentaries and translations of the Quran in several languages, several collections of the Traditions of Prophet Muhammad (Hadith) and compendiums of Islamic law are now available on CD. The Internet-through websites, email and chat rooms-has emerged as a useful and increasingly popular forum for sharing and disseminating information and views about Islam and Muslims. Huruf, an Internet-based service jointly managed by Knowledge Management Systems (KnowSys) and ITLogic, offers a wide range of information on Islam and on the social, economic, political and cultural affairs of the global Islamic community. One of the significant uses of the Internet is to provide solicited legal opinion on religious, social and economic issues faced by Muslims in their day-to-day life. The Saudi Arabian Permanent Committee for Islamic Research and Fatawa, a government-regulated body, runs a website known as Fatawa-Online. It received over 30,000 hits from surfers between October 1999 and December 2000. Another site prominent on the Internet is the US-based As-Sunna Foundation. Online Fatawa located on the Internet are available in English and other European languages as well as in Persian, Turkish, Malay, Urdu, Thai and other languages. The “digitalization” of Islam thus provides commonly shared religious and cultural spaces to expatriate Muslims in Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand as well as other parts of the world where Muslims have a sizeable presence.
The process of globalization has greatly contributed to the growing popularity of Eastern cults in the Western world. The International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) now has a million followers worldwide, including such notables as a scion of the Ford family and Beatle George Harrison. In Russia, there are an estimated 1,00,000 white, Slav members of ISKCON. The global popularity of yoga, the discourses of Hindu spiritual leaders and the quasi-spiritual works of Deepak Chopra owe a great deal to modern information and communication technologies.
The fascination with Eastern philosophies and cults in Europe and North America needs to be viewed in the social and cultural context of contemporary Western societies. Several Western social scientists, writers and commentators have pointed out that, by and large, Western societies are faced with fracture, fragmentation and atomization and that this fragmentation is evidenced in the lives of individuals as well as in the institutional structure and cultural patterns. It is manifested in the falling apart and decomposing of human relationships, in the growing feelings of insecurity, vulnerability and uncertainty, and in a pervasive existential vacuum. There is a steady increase in the number of people living alone as well as people who experience feelings of loneliness. In Western societies, social institutions-family, neighbourhood, church, community-that once provided common bonds and a sense of belonging and served as a bulwark in the face of life’s inevitable uncertainties and crises, have nearly disappeared and have not been replaced by any viable alternatives. Living in the abstract and disquieting spaces of late modernity and globalization-characterized by gigantic, impersonal structures, fragmented social fabric, atomized relationships, stressful lifestyles-the individual inevitably feels diminished, alienated, depersonalized. It is hardly surprising that many people in Western countries are turning to Eastern philosophies in search of spiritual solace and fulfillment.
I mentioned earlier that globalization has paradoxical features and consequences. Thus, on the one hand, one notices a good deal of exposure to ethnic, cultural and religious diversity and consequently a substantial measure of inter-cultural and inter-religious sensitivity and tolerance. This is an important dimension of contemporary multiculturalism. Candy producers in Europe, like Haribo and Van Melle, are now substituting their meat-produced gelatin with alternative substances, so that they will be acceptable to Jewish and Muslim consumers who prefer kosher and halal meat products. The global fast food chain MacDonald’s displays appreciable cultural sensitivity in not serving beef burgers in India or hamburgers in Islamic countries. In Saudi Arabia, McDonald’s has separate sections for male and female customers and closes four times a day during prayer times.
On the other hand, one finds that the cultural atmosphere in many Western countries is suffused with xenophobia, exclusion and discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities. The 2004 annual report of the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia points out that the record of EU governments in combating racism and xenophobia is at best mixed and at worst deplorable. The report says that some EU countries are either too slow to enact anti-racism laws or pass measures that actually curtail the rights of immigrants. The report reveals that the British police received nearly 53000 complaints of racist attacks in 2004, followed by Germany which received 6474 complaints. According to the report, religious and ethnic minorities, particularly the Gypsies and Muslims, face discrimination and exclusion in many different forms, from inadequate access to education and poor housing to ghettoization and meagre employment opportunities.
In many European countries there is an evident chasm between legal norms (such as equality, citizenship) and the social reality of exclusion and discrimination in respect of certain sections of the population. France, for example, swears by the ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity. In reality, widespread discrimination and exclusion, especially in the case of immigrants from North and West Africa, expose the hypocrisy of the French system. In Britain, legislation against discrimination on grounds of race was outlawed in the 1960s. However, racial discrimination, in overt or covert forms, is still widely prevalent. There is an avowedly colour-coded allocation of housing which in reality is discriminatory in respect of non-whites. Elite schools in the UK require a record of regular church attendance on the part of parents, which automatically excludes people from other religious backgrounds. According to British law, blasphemy against Christianity is a punishable offence. This provision, however, is not applicable to Islam or other religions. Thousands of Anglican, Catholic and Jewish religious schools are funded by the state in Britain. It was only recently that this privilege was extended to a few (five) Muslim schools and a Sikh school. In the US, despite the existence of legal mechanisms such as the Equal Opportunity Agency, discrimination against the African Americans, Hispanics and other minority groups continues unabated.
In most Western countries, immigration and cultural diversity have become sites of intense contestation. By and large, the immigrants are faced with discrimination, lack of legal security, unclear citizenship status and institutionalized racism. During the past couple of decades, racist sentiments and violence against foreigners and immigrants have been on the rise in many Western countries. Ethnic and religious minorities often bear the brunt of attacks by neo-Nazi groups and other racist outfits. The growing popularity of racist, ultra right-wing political parties such as the British National Party, Front Nationale in France and Vlaams Belang in Belgium (which secured nearly 25% of the popular vote in the 2004 election) indicate that racist sentiments are being strengthened.
Racist sentiments are so deeply embedded in the consciousness of people in many Western societies that even the mainstream churches do not seem to be immune to its insidious influence. This is borne out by the experience of immigrants from the Caribbean islands who began migrating to Britain from the 1950s onwards. They saw Britain as the mother country where they would find honour and economic well-being. Their hopes were dashed when they began to experience discrimination and vilification by the established churches. Some of them were so disillusioned that they eventually turned to Pentecostalism which promises salvation in the next life.
There has been a good deal of debate in the US about racial profiling in the aftermath of 9/11. Certain sections of the population, notably ethnic and religious minorities from West Asia and the Middle East, have been subjected to a process whereby information about their beliefs, background and activities is secretly collected by the FBI. Nearly 32 million people in the US, mostly Muslims, have reported that they have been racially profiled. A recent report by the Amnesty International points out that nearly 87 million people in the US are at high risk of being victimized because they belong to ethnic or religious minorities.
A dark side of globalization is the global campaign of hatred against ethnic and religious minorities and its clandestine funding by sections of diasporic communities. For example, an affluent section of the Indian diaspora in the US has been an important source of funding as well as political and moral support for fanatical and quasi-political organizations such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). It was recently revealed that, for the past 13 years, the India Development and Relief Fund (IDRF) has been misusing funds donated by the corporate sector in the US to support RSS-affiliated organizations in India. The IDRF receives every year hundreds of thousands of dollars from corporate houses and business establishments in the US. In 2000, for example, it collected 1.7 million dollars. Most of the four million dollars collected by the IDRF between 1994 and 2000 was used against Christians and Muslims in India. These startling revelations were brought out by the Campaign to Stop Funding Hate, a coalition of Indian professionals, students, artists and intellectuals in the US.
Modern information and communication technologies are being increasingly used for the global dissemination and export of extremist political and religious ideologies and the cult of violence and terrorism associated with them. The globalization of reckless terrorism, in the guise of religion, poses an ominous threat to world peace.
A relatively recent phenomenon which has attracted worldwide attention, especially in the aftermath of 9/11, is what has come to be known as Islamophobia: fear of and hatred towards Islam and Muslims. The Runnymede Trust, which set up the Commission on Islamophobia, recognized it as one of the chief forms of racism in contemporary Britain. A set of factors, including the role of the global media, the writings and utterances of some influential writers and intellectuals and the growing global network of terrorism, has contributed to the negative perception about Muslims. The currently prevailing perception about Islam in the western world is that is at variance with the values of progress and enlightenment, that it incites violent passions in its followers, and that it poses a serious threat to world peace. Shortly after 9/11, Nobel Laureate V. S. Naipaul asserted that Islam enslaved and attempted to wipe out other cultures and that it had a calamitous effect on converted people. Samuel Huntington described the contemporary period as the “age of Muslim wars” in which Muslims are fighting each other and non-Muslims alike. He asserts that these wars have replaced the Cold War as the principal form of international conflict, and that there is a danger that the current situation could produce a clash of civilizations between the Islamic world and the West. Francis Fukuyama argued that the September 11 attack on the US represents a “desperate backlash against the modern world by those who either do not understand modernity or do not want to understand it.” He characterizes the challenge faced by the West as a struggle between Western liberal democracy and what he calls Islamo-fascism. A British historian Niall Ferguson has recently said that even if the Muslims in Europe are the citizens of the countries where they live, they cannot be true citizens.
The global media has played a significant role in popularizing and strengthening stereotypes about Muslims. Disney’s 1993 animated film Aladdin referred to Arabs as “barbaric.” The Hollywood film True Lies stereotypes Arabs as violent anti-American fanatics who launch terrorist attacks for no apparent reason. This kind of stereotyping and labeling not only distorts and misrepresents reality but also fails to take cognizance of the fact that there are more than 15 million Arab Christians in the Middle East.
In many Western countries, Muslim immigrants regularly experience discrimination and exclusion in respect of housing, education and employment. According to the French policy laicite or secularism, the immigrants are required to eschew their cultural, religious and political distinctiveness and allegiances and assimilate into the French system. Notwithstanding the lofty ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity, a mixture of class, religion and race differentiates the French population. The suburbs, where the majority of Muslim immigrants from North Africa and their second and third generation descendants live, are characterized by poverty, high unemployment rate and crime. The unemployment rate among the North African immigrants is 30% to 40% as compared to the national average of 10%. Mainstream jobs and positions remain largely with the white, upper class, Christian majority. Faced with this depressing situation, many Muslim youths, born and brought up in France, are forced to change their names from Fatima and Ahmad to Michelle and Maurice to conceal their religious identity. Many of them hide their local addresses for fear that this might jeopardize their chances of getting a job. In November 2005 there was large-scale rioting and vandalism on the streets of Paris carried out by North African youths, triggered by the accidental death by electrocution of two of their colleagues who were being chased by the police. The riots exposed the fragility and failure of the French system and the marginalization and vulnerability of the immigrants.
The discrimination and exclusion experienced by Muslims living in Western countries is also reflected in the denial of their cultural and religious rights. A couple of years ago, the French president Jacques Chirac commissioned the Bernard Stasi report, which recommended a ban on school children wearing religious symbols, including the Jewish yarmulke, the Christian cross, the Islamic headdress and the Sikh turban. The Netherlands is currently considering a ban on the Islamic headdress. The southern state of Baden-Wurttemberg in Germany has created its own searching exam exclusively for Muslim applicants seeking German citizenship. Questions in the exam include the following: If your son told you he was a homosexual and wanted to live with another man, how would you react?
The disquieting climate of our time has produced some prophets of doom such as Samuel Huntington. He argues that future international conflicts will no longer be based on the clash of political ideologies or economic interests but on civilizations or cultural-religious communities. He believes that the renewed aggression and hostility in many Islamic countries directed against the West is the root cause of many present-day problems. He sees Western Christianity and Islam as potentially pitted against each other in the unfolding global scenario.
Huntington’s argument is true neither from the historical point of view nor in the context of present times. The assumptions on which he bases his conclusions are fallacious, naive and contestable. He takes an essentialized, fossilized view of cultures and civilizations. His view is not only myopic but also frought with dangerous implications and insinuations. Thankfully, the hollowness of his argument has been exposed by some of the world’s leading thinkers and intellectuals. Edward Said, for example, decries the clash of civilizations thesis as a deplorable attempt to revive the good vs. evil dichotomy prevalent during the Cold War era. Huntington’s views have been publicly denounced by heads of states, statesmen and politicians in many Western countries. Thus, in a speech to the Jordanian Parliament in 1994, President Bill Clinton strongly repudiated the clash of civilizations thesis, noting that “there are those who insist that there are impassable religious and other obstacles to harmony, that our beliefs and our cultures must somehow inevitably clash. America refuses to accept that our civilizations must collide”. The massive anti-war protests and demonstrations across Europe, North America and the rest of the world before the American-led invasion of Iraq and the sharp differences between the EU and the US and its allies before and after the invasion exposed the absurdity of the clash of civilizations thesis. Noam Chomsky has pointed out that for the first time in the history of Europe there was massive, unprecedented protest against a war even before it was officially launched.
A notable development in recent years, which has been facilitated by the process of globalization, is inter-religious or inter-faith dialogue. Inter-faith activities in the West have been initiated by Christian and Jewish groups. The World Council of Churches in Geneva opened an office that deals with inter-faith issues. In Sweden, inter-faith programmes are supported by the state. A small group comprising a Christian priest, a Jewish rabbi and a Muslim imam held public dialogue sessions in which churches, universities and the media were also involved. This was followed by the establishment in 1996 of the Nordic Centre for Inter-Religious Dialogue. The Pontifical Institute of Arabic and Islamic Studies in Rome brings out an annual journal Islamochristiana, which is devoted to dialogue between Christians and Muslims on an intellectual and spiritual level.
Many people who are active in inter-religious dialogues emphasize that religion needs to be reinterpreted and reinvented in the context of present times and in the service of good will, tolerance and harmonious coexistence between followers of different religious traditions. They also emphasize that world religions need to relegate the narrow sectarian and polemical issues to the background and concentrate on harnessing their creative potentialities in the service of human welfare and world peace.
Richard K. Fenn, ed.:The Blackwell Companion to Sociology of Religion (2001)
D. Martin: The Religious and the Secular: Studies in Secularization (1969)
S. Bruce: Religion in the Modern World (1996)
Eileen Barker and Margit Warburg, eds.: New Religions and New Religiosity (1997)
Edward I. Bailey: Implicit Religion in Contemporary Societies (1997)
Gilles Kepel: The Revenge of God: The Resurgence of Islam, Christianity and Judaism in the Modern World (1994)