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Nepantla: Views from South 4.3 (2003) 423-448

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Notes on Religion and Globalization

Renato Ortiz

My intention in this synthetic and somewhat incomplete text is to consider some topics relevant to understanding the religious problematic in the contemporary world. I won't deal with this theme in its broadest scope, or with particularly complex issues of individual religiosity in modern life; I want, rather, to explore one dimension of this problem: the relationship between religion and globalization. Recent changes challenge us to think not only new themes, but also "traditional" objects in the social sciences, for phenomena that were previously well-known to us often acquire a new character in the present context. My inquiry starts from a premise that, to use geographer Milton Santos's metaphor, insofar as the world has expanded and shrunk it has become a "place." This has implications for religious universes. It is useful to remember that sociological literature has traditionally distinguished between universal and particular religions. Universal religions are associated with the idea of mobility, particular ones with that of rootedness. When Max Weber said that belief in magic is particular, he meant that its reach is limited to the sphere of a locality. I'm convinced that the process of "mondialization" of culture radically transforms notions such as international, national, and local. In this sense, "particular" religions also have their status altered by globalization (as, for instance, in the mobility of the different kinds of candomblé and voodoo that may be found today in Paris, Buenos Aires, or New York, so distant from their original centers). Nevertheless, I decided in this text to limit myself to the so-called universal religions. The reader should bear in mind, however, that this limitation results from an [End Page 423] analytic choice and is by no means evaluative. I don't consider "particular" religions to be outside of history, nor do I think that they are "inferior" or "partial," either in how they understand the world or in how they orient conduct. Conversely, I don't believe in the existence or in the "superiority" of a universalist theology, be it religious or not. My aim, instead, is to understand a set of changes in the status of religious universes in the context of globalization. In this sense, "universal" religions have a heuristic value, for they allow us to explain a series of changes that, in my view, are constitutive of the contemporary world. These notes have also a personal significance for me since I return here to a subject with which I began my intellectual journey, in the field of sociology and the anthropology of religion. Since my most recent publications have been on the problematic of globalization (Ortiz 1997, 1998, 2000), particularly the "mondialization" of culture, I take advantage of this opportunity to revisit a familiar theme, calling attention to some relevant elements, not only for religion, but for our contemporaneity as a whole.


The beliefs generally considered to be universal religions (Judaism, Confucianism, Brahmanism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam) are those whose understanding of the world proposes an ethics in which the individual chooses, with different degrees of self-awareness or self-consciousness, the path leading to his or her "salvation" (Weber 1984 [1921]). Weber contrasted these religions in typical ideal forms to "irrational" magical beliefs (anthropologists rightly contest the adjective irrational when it is applied to the magic-religious realm) in which the elements of choice and of individuation are contained by the demands of local deities and by customary practices. Karl Jaspers (1953 [1949]) believed that universal religions played a fundamental role in the history of human societies, since they represented a kind of rupture with the past.1 Jaspers observes that around 500 B.C. a conjunction of events in several places—the China of Confucius and Lao Tse, the India of the Upanishads and the Buddha, the Persia of Zarathustra, the Palestine of the Jewish prophets, the Greece of the Hellenist thinkers—led to the emergence of an entirely different attitude toward life. For him, the Mythical Age, that is...


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