Sunday, October 15, 2006

Podcast on Globalization and the Rise of Religion

I am blogging while listening to this week's "Speaking of Faith" podcast, featuring interviews with sociologist of religion Peter Berger and Harvard business professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter. The program offers a fascinating overview of currents that have become more noticable since 9/11, with discussions of the 'clash of civilizations' and the globalization of different religious faiths.

I think back to my graduate school experience during the early 1990s and reflect that indeed Peter Berger's earliest views on the place of faith in the modern world were also characteristic the readings and discussions that we engaged in as students. Modernization tended to be equated with the rise and spread of secularism. We must not have been aware of how Eurocentric this perspective was. The fact that this emphasis continued amongst participants in the Committee on Social Theory in spite of all of the growing evidence to the contrary tells you something about the interests and world view of the American intelligentsia esconsed in university towns. It is worth noting that this was also my own worldview created as a result of growing up with a father who as a university professor and a mother who was an active faculty wife, in college towns like Columbia, Missouri and Columbus, Ohio.

Conversation with Peter Berger: Instead, what Peter Berger has found is that modernization and globalization have spurred the spread of religion in a way that is transforming its practice. Countries and regions that haven't had to grapple with with religious diversity in the past are now forced to do so. Pluralism presents a challenge to the old religious groups including mainline Protestantism. This doesn't mean that these faith traditions need to be abandoned, that that religious practice needs to become more intentional - see the exciting new book by Diana Butler Bass, Christianity for the Rest of Us, for which presents a number of case studies for liberal churches that have followed this path and thrived. [She recently blogged about the birth of a new media-savvy group called the 'Red Letter Christians.'] Religions of all kinds are losing their taken-for-granted status. Rather than growing up in a faith community that offers the necessary structure, people are now forced to make choices. This is a very big change and offers quite a burden for people. What are the ways in which people can cope with the loss of this taken-for-granted status? People respond in three ways.

1. Stay in your faith, but enter into dialogue with the alternatives that exist. Difficult but possible. [I wonder if the faith that I currently practice, Unitarian-Unitarianism, offers the best or even a preferred opportunity for this. We lead the curve in this movement, but now find ourselve without a core body of believes. Faith by committee.] Berger observes that these exchanges don't have to take place in elite settings, and offers the anecdote of his 5-year old granddaughter chatting "across the fence between houses in suburban America." He observed a fascinating conversation unfold with the other 5-year old girl from across the street - Hindu and a Jew for Jesus coming to terms with one another.

2. Create sectarian subcultures, in response to pluralism. These little groups must maintain tight control. I think here of the role of the mosque for itinerant Senegalize traders in New York City.

3. The third form of response is to attempt through cultural and political force to reinstitute one belief system for the state. The Eastern Orthodox Church is trying to reinstitute its authority, within Russia, along the lines of the long established model of church, state and society operating together as a symphonia. The establishment of state religion is an ongoing project througout large portions of the Islamic World.

Conversation with Rosabeth Moss Kanter: What role should religion play in business settings? At the beginning of the semester, she asks the students in her courses to send her an email describing a little bit about themselves that they think their professor should know. In the past, students who introduce themselves would devote most of that space to discussing their career trajectory. But this past year, many wrote about faith and the role that it played in their lives. Religion also appears to be playing a much stronger role in discussions in corporate America and at world economic fora.

Much more of these fascinating conversations can be found at and the specific program website. Don't miss the excellent annotated program guide.