Krista's Journal: Engaging with Others in a Plural World

October 12, 2006

We spend the majority of this radio hour with Peter Berger, and receive a sweeping and penetrating view of religious energies alive in the world today. Berger is a visionary scholar who charts cultural watersheds. He described the "culture wars" and globalization before these notions had entered our popular vocabulary. He has a special interest in religion. But, early in his career, Peter Berger was part of a wide circle of influential thinkers who predicted that religion would lose ground in the modern world. He calls this the biggest miscalculation in his long and distinguished career as a sociologist. In his 1999 book, The Desecularization of the World: Resurgent Religion and World Politics, he declared, "The assumption that we live in a secularized world is false. The world is as furiously religious as it ever was." He was called prophetic after the September 11th terrorist attacks.

The truth is, most of the world never became secular in the first place, as Berger freely concedes, and even to speak of "de-secularization" is misleading. Western and Northern Europe, with its large non-religious citizenries, is not the rule but the exception. Though for a number of decades, a "secular intelligentsia" has held influence in the U.S. and globally, Berger suggests, this never reflected the sensibility of our culture as a whole. Sweden is arguably the most secular country in the world and India the most religious, he says, and proposes this analogy: America became a country of Indians ruled by Swedes. In any case, our age is marked by the reassertion of religious and spiritual perspectives, by renewals and dramatic growth in multiple faiths in many cultures. Some of the most passionate new religious globally — young Muslims in Turkey, for example — are the children of secularized intellectuals.

Peter Berger's view of the world ranges widely from Pentecostalism in Latin America, to Islam in Indonesia, to the Orthodox traditions of Eastern Europe and Russia. After a lifetime of keen observation and many large-scale studies, he continues to be surprised and intrigued by the variety and vigor of the human religious impulse. After a recent three-year project he led with Harvard's Samuel Huntington (who generated the idea of a "clash of civilizations" between the West and extremist Islam), he says that he was most struck by the creativity of religious people across the world. From his perspective, religion is a key aspect of "cultural globalization." Faith and religious rituals become more, not less, important as people grapple with their identity and anchor their moral and cultural bearings in the face of change and dislocation. Software engineers in Bangalore, for example, garland their computers in Hindu rituals even as they compete aggressively and impressively in the global economy.

Still, let's be honest: the phrase "globalization and the rise of religion," dropped into polite conversation, especially in circles of the aforementioned secular intelligentsia, is likely to spark alarm. Which makes it all the more fascinating that Peter Berger, who knows the complexity of culture and religion in the world as well as anyone, often uses words like "cheering" to describe this phenomenon. We're well-versed from the news these days in the dark side of religious energies. Berger sees the effect of religion in the modern world in a spectrum, some of it frightening but much of it as gentle, moderating, and positive in effect as it is passionate.

Religious ideas that are aimed primarily at changing individual hearts and minds, after all, do end up changing societies. Pentecostal evangelists in historically Roman Catholic countries are not setting out to reform political and economic structures. But their populist ethos and empowering theologies, Berger points out, alter social perceptions and expectations. The Pentecostals in Latin America remind him of Max Weber's famous observation of the early 20th century, that Protestant Christianity had infused its faithful with an ethic of hard work and exalted worldly industry as an expression of vocation, thereby fueling the spirit and success of capitalism. "Max Weber is alive and well," Peter Berger likes to say, "and living in Guatemala."

Berger also counters the common idea that globalization in general and religious passions in particular are making the world paradoxically more divided, more tribal. He emphasizes that today, to a degree unimaginable in previous periods of human history, every conceivable belief system and lifestyle is rubbing up against every other. And he acknowledges that religious fervor can be a way to flee from the complexities of the modern world, to create a sectarian haven in isolation from and opposition to others.

But Peter Berger is relatively hopeful that people on every continent might choose another option: that of engaging with different others in the newly plural world. He sees people in many cultures discovering that it is possible to retain one's own identity and beliefs while maintaining rich and informative dialogue with others. Most importantly, he says, this dialogue happens across fences and kitchen tables in suburban America, and rural Asia, not just in conference rooms where academics and diplomats meet.

Most helpful in this thought, for me, is the reminder that even globalization — this seismic realignment of our world — is being created, and will be formed, by human contact, human relationship, human conversation. Paradoxically, these one-on-one connections can be more immediate and effective in a global world than they ever were before.

Recommended Reading

Image of The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations
Author: Jonathan Sacks
Publisher: Bloomsbury Academic (2003)
Binding: Paperback, 224 pages

We read short passages from this book in this week's program. Jonathan Sacks is the chief rabbi of Great Britain — officially, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth. This is one of the most thoughtful and helpful reflections on the content and spirit of religion, with all of its positive and destructive potential, that I have discovered.

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is Director of the Institute on Culture, Religion and World Affairs at Boston University, and author of many books including Many Globalizations.

is Ernest L. Arbuckle Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School. She's the author of World Class: Thriving Locally in the Global Economy.