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Sunday
Apr272008

The next globalization- inspired religious awakening

As our era features globalization's rapid and unprecedented advance, it will logically also feature the greatest single religious awakening the world has ever seen. Religion will become eminently more important because economic conditions will change more dramatically in coming years and decades than at any other time in human history.

Hardly the clash of civilizations, this upsurge will reflect the efforts of societies to adapt to an era of widespread abundance as a global middle class emerges. People want an independent code of behavior to help them navigate all these new opportunities - guidelines for a life well led.

All of the world's major religions were formed during the Malthusian era of human economics, or before the Industrial Revolution permeated Western societies, shifting people from a just-getting-by paradigm to "how do I deal with abundance?"

Survival economies demand a strict code, but with abundance comes a choice: "Do I adapt the ancient rules to this economic liberation or do I reject it as social evil?" For, once the go-forth-and-multiply logic is disrupted, then long-held strictures regarding marriage, family, sex, homosexuality, etc., are suddenly put in jeopardy.

Almost like the oil "curse," the abundance "curse" provides successful individuals with their own source of funding, independent from the collective. Worse, abundance allows for "chosen families," replacing the previous iron logic of "given families." Unhappy with your family circumstances? Then upgrade like you switch jobs.

This is where globalization's economic connectivity generates revolutionary social change, unleashing personal freedom that is stunning - even perverse - by historical standards. The upside, of course, is the commensurate unleashing of personal creativity. Progress thrives off such genius, thus triggering the virtuous cycle by which more freedom is granted. Once society enters this realm, the logic of political pluralism is easily obtained.

As society divides between economic winners and losers, the temptation for the latter is an end-times ideology that promises deliverance from these unacceptable circumstances. Such fundamentalism pursued peacefully presents no problem: They live apart from the evil world.

But, when challenged by globalization to globalize itself, the fundamentalist impulse is often conflated with political liberation. And, if the state standing in the way can be accused of spiritual infidelity, either because it encourages decadence through modernizing economic connectivity and/or persecutes the faithful, then it's logically tarred as the local devil backed up by the distant devil of globalization-mongrelized America.

Thus we live in revolutionary times, even though, in an economic sense, history really has ended. It's precisely because there's little debate over globalization - outside of freaked-out America - that so much social tumult unfolds right now.

Religion has always been a demand function - i.e., adapted to people's needs. In the Malthusian era, such adaptation was glacial because economic conditions were largely unchanging. But, with the West's age of abundance, people's conditions and thus spiritual needs changed with stunning speed. The bourgeoisie needed a bourgeois God.

Globalization's sequencing challenge seems clear: economic connectivity, done well, triggers abundance; that secularizing dynamic triggers religious awakening and even radicalism, as well as rising nationalism; to exploit the progressive political impulses of that awakening, a religious marketplace must be encouraged; until achieved, democratic elections are more likely to result in illiberal outcomes than true pluralism.

So, how to navigate the highly charged middle sequence between economic connectivity and political pluralism?

Based on the American experience, there seem to be two answers: (1) encourage nondenominationalism among the major sects of a country's dominant religion or among the competing religions; (2) allow the religion in question to maintain its social model of separatism while subjugating itself to the secular state.

The first example pertains to the evolution of Protestantism in America, while the latter speaks to the effective nonevolution of Catholicism and the recent emergence of socially conservative evangelicals. In both examples, believers accept the "two kingdoms" thesis, meaning both heaven and hell can wait on life. In the latter examples, a certain fundamentalism is internalized, allowing the believer to pursue life on his or her own terms within a wider, more secular world.

Globalization is defined by the spread of rules - across networks, throughout markets and even spiritually among individuals. Governments remain the main codifiers of these rules, but they face much competition thanks to globalization - religions chief among them.

American awakenings share a history of triggering mass social reform. The same can and should be true of globalization's current awakening.

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