Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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Processes that bring about a single worldwide sociocultural system, or the development of the modern world system, not exhausted by specific trends in marketing, finance, and politics, are sometimes described with this term. In sociology of religion, globalization is associated above all with the work of Roland Robertson (1992), who has offered one of several contending interpretations of the phenomenon.

Traditionally, social scientists thought of modernizing change as those things nation-states had to do, the phases they had to go through, to become modern. More recently, many scholars have come to see modernization as itself a transnational process. Economic growth, state formation, the rise of national cultures, changes in the place of religion around the world—all are processes affected by relations between societies and in turn create new economic, political, and cultural relations not contained by societal boundaries. Globalization , then, refers to those aspects of long-term historical processes that help to form new patterns of global interaction, new global institutions, and new ways of thinking about the world as such. How one views the role and future of religion in the expanding world system depends on how one accounts for that process generally.

If one thinks of the world system as a world market linking units differentiated by geography and history, in which some (core countries) have vastly greater control over economic resources than others (periphery), religion is bound to appear of little consequence. Thus, in the work of Immanuel Wallerstein (e.g., 1983), Christianity may have served as at best one source for the universalism and rationality that serve as a supporting ideology for the capitalist world system. Yet because there is no possibility of class solidarity across the globe, and because this dominant ideology is a powerful tool of exploitation, religion can become a vehicle for the resistance of exploited peripheral groups. Religion may inspire antisystemic movements. Fundamentalist Islam is a case in point.

If one thinks of the world system as consisting of institutionalized sets of rules (a world polity that steers local state action), religion may be assigned a more important historical role. For example, to support his argument that there is a world polity that specifies what a society must look like and strive for, John Meyer (1989) looks to classic Christendom as a model of how such a polity can work. Christianity not only contained values that have been transposed to the global level, it also linked a particular worldview to a powerful form of organization. Although some global norms may acquire quasi-sacred status, the world polity is unlikely to legitimate a public role for religion in any conventional sense.

If one thinks of the world system as a new global culture in which different actors debate the nature and direction of the expanded relations between them, religion becomes crucial in several respects. As Robertson has argued, the direction of global change is uncertain; new global relations call into question the identities of societies and individuals; globalization brings different civilizations into one public square. Under these circumstances, religious traditions are powerful sources of new images of world order. At least some groups will respond to new identity demands by reinterpreting their religious heritage. In each society, new tensions will emerge between political and religious institutions. Religious leaders become global actors, engaged in global debates. All this is not to say that religion somehow determines the direction of globalization. It is to say that religion, in its many forms, will help to influence definitions of the global situation.

But how can it do that? A study by Peter Beyer (1994) addresses the issue. Following Robertson, he distinguishes between religious movements that defend sociocultural particularism and those that support change toward a pluralistic world order in which different traditions coexist. Conservative antisystemic movements, such as Islamic fundamentalism, react against global trends that threaten old identities. However, their desired public impact usually remains limited and localized. Liberal movements, such as some kinds of religious environmentalism, aim to infuse world culture itself with ultimate meaning. They may contribute resources for dealing with residual problems that secular systems cannot address, but they are unlikely to determine the ways secular institutions actually operate. From Beyer's work, we may infer that religious actors and beliefs will be more prominent in discourse about the globe than in the institutions shaping actual global relations. He holds out the prospect of many contending versions of a global civil religion but envisions the traditional religions as cultures that primarily serve individuals.

In the study of religion, globalization has come to indicate both a set of substantive issues and a change in perspective. The issues concern the historical role of religious values and institutions in fostering a new global system, the actual religious content of current debates about world order, and the future role of religiously inspired actors as significant players in globalization. Apart from this emerging agenda, the change in perspective suggests a new way of thinking about religion. It questions notions of secularization as something that affects individual societies. It suggests that seemingly ethnocentric conservatives also are engaged in a global discourse. It undermines attempts to link religion to a cohesive national culture that bolsters solidarity. Perhaps most important, it assigns the sociology of religion the role of interpreting global cultural change.

Frank J. Lechner


P. Beyer, Religion and Globalization (London: Sage, 1994)

M. Featherstone (ed.), Global Culture (London: Sage, 1990)

J. Meyer, "Conceptions of Christendom," in Cross-National Research in Sociology , ed. M. Kohn (Newbury Park, Calif.: Sage, 1988): 395-413

R. Robertson, Globalization (London: Sage, 1992)

R. Robertson and W. Garrett (eds.), Religion and Global Order (New York: Paragon House, 1991)

W. Swatos (ed.), Religious Politics in Global and Comparative Perspective (New York: Greenwood, 1989)

I. Wallerstein, "Crisis," in Crises in the World System , ed. A. Bergesen (Beverly Hills, Calif.: Sage, 1983): 21-36.

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