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Religion, Globalization, and Modernity

Human Rights and Interreligion in the 21st Century

Modernity equates to a secular view of the world. Religion will slowly wither away. Globalization is a new force in the world, spreading modernity, finally spelling religion’s death-knoll.

Well, no. A popular view, but popular views are sometimes wrong. The obituary of God has been written many times.

For over 250 years, the view has grown that “advanced” men and women, well-educated and comfortable, no longer need religion. It was a view rooted in the Enlightenment, sometimes held with the ferocity of the French Enlightenment, sometimes with the sophistication of its Scottish and American versions. It was reinforced by scientific discoveries that challenged traditional religious understandings of the nature of the world and the place of human beings in it.

Despite the disillusionment of the First World War and the secular ideological horrors of the 20th century, it was underpinned by a belief in the inevitable progress of all humankind – but especially those who happened to live in the West. It was a view that increasingly tried to confine religion to the private sphere. And it still has staying power.

Religion Not Going Away

At no time since the Enlightenment has religion ever gone away. It has always been at the core of life for millions of people, the motive for much of their behavior, the foundation of their culture, the thing which gives sense to their lives and purpose to their endeavors, which makes life more than just a “sparrow’s flight through a lighted hall” from one darkness to another, in that memorable image of the Venerable Bede. In the last few years, we have also been painfully reminded again of the great destructive power of religion.

Peter Berger – Photo: bu.eduThe distinguished American sociologist who thought that it would decline, and developed a theory around this idea, Peter Berger, has graciously admitted that he was wrong. But he emphasizes that we have the capacity today to hold both a religious and a secular framework of meaning – Charles Taylor’s “immanent frame” – for dealing with the world: a choice that reflects in our mental worlds the division between secular and religious institutions, and associations in reality. This condition of religion’s “not-taken-for-granted-ness,” of alternatives, options, individual decisions – that can all be reversed – equates modernity not with secularism but with religious pluralism.

The role of faith has become especially important in contemporary international relations and domestic policy, not least because most religions were global, even before political and economic systems. Christianity fanned out along the trade routes of the Roman Empire. Islam swept from its heartland in today’s Saudi Arabia into Mesopotamia, Asia, and North Africa during the second part of the 7th century. By the 19th century, Christianity was again seaborne to Africa, Islam was camel-borne across the Sahara or arrived in dhows in East Africa. Today both come into homes and individual lives around the world via cyberspace.

The Pluralistic Option

From the 8th till near the end of the 10th centuries CE, Cordoba, under Muslim rule, was one of the largest cities in the world, an intellectual hotbed, and fostered considerable interfaith respect and dialogue. – Photo: WikipediaIn the past, many people of faith learned, sometimes painfully, to co-exist and grew to respect those who looked different, ate differently, worshipped in another way - they encountered “the other” in short. Damascus, Cordoba, and today Assisi, are towns that have come to symbolize the history of faiths coming together in pursuit of civility and a common vision. And repeatedly faiths have generated shameful models of bigotry, exclusion and violence. Europe spawned a persistent and malignant anti-Semitism and exported it. The Crusades are seared into Muslim hearts – much as the Battle of the Boyne is into Protestant and Catholic hearts in Northern Ireland. We should have left the burden of this history behind. But we still labor under it.

So it is wrong to see the relationship between faith and globalization as an entirely new question. The 16th century saw it articulated in the Americas. As the Spanish conquistadores plundered Latin America for gold and subjected its Mayan societies and polities to subjugation of the most brutal kind, Europe had its second great encounter with “the other” – in the Aztec Empire. Europeans had already defined themselves against the “Islamic enemy” to the East. Latin America opened up the possibility of another, new, approach.

Some of the Christian missionaries who voyaged westward across the Atlantic, like astronauts into outer space, came with more open minds. The Salamanca Dominicans tried to come to terms with an alien Aztec culture, fit it into the religious understanding of their world-view and their concept of humanity. Led by Bartolomé de las Casas and Francisco de Vitoria, and mainly in reaction to the Aztec religious practice of human sacrifice, their verdict was that Aztec culture was barbarous. But, they concluded that as a state and society, its peoples had rights and its rulers held legitimate sovereignty. Both had to be respected. 

The Birth of Human Rights

Before its time, and highly contested, they had invented something akin to “the duty to protect”. Thus were born the antecedents to the modern concept of human rights and international law. And the practice of the latter was soon defined as the task of Reason rather than Faith.

Again, in the 18th century, sea power and trade opened up the world further, arousing in Kant many of the anxieties found today about globalization. The seaborne empires and waves of missionary expansion a century later introduced to Europe a new cluster of different cultures and religions, new “others” whose ideas and faiths, ways of living, and languages were soon to become the intellectual fare of the great British and German universities. Better boats moved labor, slaves, and goods around the world, with settlers and migrants entering societies that initially treated them badly, then slowly came to terms with their presence.

Supercharged with High Technology

Bartolomé de las Casas, Bishop of Chiapas, was known as the “Protector of the Indians.” – Photo: Wikipedia

We are now in the midst of a new wave of globalization driven by communications technology, entering a new epoch brought into being by the discovery of the microchip in 1971. But the hard-won acknowledgement of the universality of human rights, the rights of the other, and indeed religious freedom are being eroded by challenges coming from perverse religious identities and modernities sometimes with the aid of these technologies. Think of the use ISIS makes of the internet.

Today, faith communities and their leaders and organizations are aware of the important part they can play in reducing fear and tension. They understand that they can be both proud of their own distinctive religious and cultural identity, and open and in amity towards those of a different religion. Yet in some cases, traditional leaderships are being bypassed and religious faith used to bolster and promote the imagined clash of cultures and civilizations we seek to avoid.

We do not have a Bartolomé de las Casas or a Francisco de Vitoria to weigh up the new moral complexities that our contemporary reality of globalization demands. But in the promoters of violent religious extremism we face a fearsome new “other.” We will do well to retain our values and concern for human rights, our concept of modernity against theirs, during the long struggle ahead to destroy their ideology.

The article was originally published by Huffington Post UK on October 28, 2014.