February 20, 2013

Post-Westphalianism Versus Homogenization Theories of Globalization and Religion, by Jillian Scott

Religion is not, in Beyer’s model, something that attempts to respond to this process. Rather it is an integral aspect of globalization.

Post-Westphalianism Versus Homogenization Theories of Globalization and Religion

By Jillian Scott.

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 20 February 2013 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Peter Beyer on Religion and Globalization (18 February 2013).

In a recent podcast interview with The Religious Studies Project’s Chris Cotter, Peter Beyer discussed the relationship between globalization and religion, a topic which is highly relevant to the current state of society. Professor Beyer became a recognized authority on the subject when he published his book Religions in Global Society (2006).  As discussed with Cotter, Beyer’s most current research focuses on adolescents living in diaspora in Canada and explores the new influences of globalization as those in the diaspora community reform their religious faith in a new setting. Many theories of globalization present it as a process of homogenization. Albeit a slightly passé way of discussing the modern world, many scholars do agree that the worldwide tendency has been moving towards a single identity. This of course includes the religious identity in homogenization theory; as the local becomes absorbed by a dominant outside culture. However, Beyer’s new research has made a major empirical discovery: “the way religions are being reconstructed are radically different depending on which religion you are talking about” (2013). This is not a single dominant religious identity as is the case argued by the homogenization theory. Rather, there appears to be multiple identities present and these are dependent upon which religion is discussed. This is extremely relevant and interesting. Yet I find that the premises on which Beyer builds his understanding of globalization, and therefore his theories, to be quite unusual.

Here, Beyer defines globalization as the process of the world becoming a single place with global awareness. Although not a terribly controversial understanding, where Beyer differs from many other scholars is found in how he understands how globalization began. In his theory, globalization, as we understand it today, is a guaranteed product of the progression of human history. His discussion begins in the middle ages when human empires sought to conquer the world and make it a uniform place. Beyer refutes the argument made by scholars under the homogenization theory. They postulate that the mechanisms under the homogenization theory are a new product of humanity generated by modern technology. Beyer differs and argues they have been around for quite a while, perhaps since the dawn of humanity, and how they manifest via empires or the internet is how they differ. Religion, more frequently than not, was a motivating factor for many of these ancient empires (Beyer, 2013). Religion is not, in Beyer’s model, something that attempts to respond to this process. Rather it is an integral aspect of globalization.

In my own research on religion and globalization I have encountered many different definitions and understandings of how globalization emerged. Making a generalization of many different hypotheses, I typically discovered that most academics tend to describe globalization as a modern phenomenon that is a product of mass media and technology. A compelling example is found in modern acts of terrorism. In his article, “A Plane Wreck with Spectators: Terrorism and Media Attention,” Bernhard Debatin argues that “the global media system—the infosphere—created a worldwide synchronization of attention, thus establishing an extraordinary order of time and life” on which the attacks of September 11th, 2001 could be staged (165). For Debatin, people all across the world are all hyper-aware of each other, and immediately knowledgeable of actions in several different nation-states, through the influences of mass media.  Media here is the main homogenizing factor that dominates globally. Globalization cannot occur without the radical upheaval of the information and technology industries. In this, the process of globalization creates a worldwide stage, on which everyone acts.

Challenging these theories, Beyer utilizes a very pragmatic and refreshing view of how globalization and other such terminology has evolved within academia. His framework for globalization is very similar to his understanding of academia. These two seem to be intrinsically linked. He acknowledges that the basic premise of any scholar’s work is an attempt to describe the world as we perceive it around us. As our understanding of the world changes, so do our descriptions. Before “globalization” there was “modernization” and before our current understanding of religious pluralities there was the secularization thesis. And in between these epochs there was “post-modernity” and “post-secularism”.  Very down to earth, Beyer laughingly says that academics assign the prefix “post” to past ideologies when we don’t quite know what we are describing. Ironically he calls his theory post-Westphalianism. The Westphalia treaties resulted from a diplomatic congress ending the Thirty Years War as well as the Eighty Years War. These treaties initiated a different system of political order in Europe. After the treaties nation-states emerged under a single sovereign government. The sovereign governments were independent units and encompassed all aspects of national rule over the personal writ—including the religious. Within the single societies, single religions evolved. Religious ideas became tied to ideas of nationality.  In post-Westphalianism the nation-states begin to dissolve in the face of globalization. Therefore religious identity becomes more fluid and plural.

Despite the difference of opinion as to where or when globalization began, most scholars concur that the majority of people live in a modern world of awareness that causes them to re-evaluate themselves. Not just against their immediate social community, but against any other that can be found anywhere in the world. Within the post-Westphalianism framework, religions and religious beliefs serve as a key demonstration of the breaking down of nation-state walls. In his current research, Beyer seeks to understand how everyday religious identity and action become influenced in a diasporic generation, which is simultaneously heavily reliant on technology. This adolescent religious reconstruction demonstrates that many young people do attempt to align their beliefs with other influences that are found outside of their immediate community. Frequently, these are found in the ‘left-behind’ culture. However, Beyer has also discovered that these same people are reconciling their faith with an abstract construction of what it means to be a “Muslim”, “Christian”, or “Hindu”. This construction is a product of global awareness and it becomes its own presence within the religious communities. Most people are aware of this construction, not as an artificial presence, but as actual influences this comes to affect the way they replant their religion. Since Beyer argues that religion Is a key factor in the globalization machine I would have appreciated hearing more about how this is affecting the way we analyze religious diaspora communities.

Although Cotter did ask very pertinent questions there are a few I would like to add myself. Is there any indication that people not living in diaspora communities have this same understanding of how their religion should be lived? Admitting that this research is extremely specific to Canada; can you make an educated guess as to how things may be evolving in the US? UK? Australia? Finally, how does religion as a part of the process of globalization, as opposed to an aspect of culture responding to this global change, alter our academic understandings?  Despite these few questions, I found the interview quite enlightening and it was really enjoyable to listen to Beyer explain his current research.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

About the Author:

Jillian Scott recently finished her Master’s degree in Religious Studies at the University of Edinburgh. Her dissertation was entitled “Ritualized Terrorism: Symbolic Religious Violence and the Secular State in a Globalized World”. Originally from San Francisco, California, Jillian lives in Edinburgh and continues to study the relationships between religion, violence and international relations. She has also written Meeting at the crossroads of public and private: sexuality and religion for the Religious Studies Project.


  • Beyer, Peter. Religions in Global Society. New York: Routledge, 2006. Print
  • Beyer, Peter. “Religion and Globalization.” The Religious Studies Project. The Relgious Studies Project, 18 Feb. 2013. Web. 18 Feb. 2013.
  • Debatin, Bernhard. “A Plane Wreck with Spectators: Terrorism and Media Attention.”Communication and Terrorism: Public and Media Responses to 9/11 (2002): 163-74. Print.
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