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Post-Westphalianism Versus Homogenization Theories of Globalization and Religion

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.

References:

  • 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.

Religion, Violence, and Cognition

…it could be more conceptually misleading to talk about ‘religious violence’ than it would be to talk about ‘violence involving religion’.  Whereas the former can appear to refer to a distinct category, the latter phrasing implicitly reminds us that human violence is the broader category and that sometimes religious considerations can be involved in that, among others.

Religion, Violence, and Cognition: Why We May Have to Think More Broadly About Violence-Enabling Mechanisms

By Kevin Whitesides, University of Edinburgh

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 21 November, 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Brian Victoria on Zen Buddhist Terrorism (19 November, 2012).

In his RSP podcast interview, Dr. Brian Victoria provides a great deal of food for thought on both the relationships between religion and violence and why it is important for scholars of religion to understand these realms in a subtle and nuanced way, especially in light of the remarkably un-nuanced manner in which these topics are typically treated in mainstream and popular media sources.  However, rather than provide a detailed response to the interview, I prefer to simply riff off of some of the issues that came up during the podcast bringing an emphasis of my own on the relationship between violence-enabling mechanisms within religion and human cognition more generally.

One interesting thread that Dr. Victoria developed during the interview is the contextuality of doctrinal hermeneutics, that the very same doctrines which can be interpreted in ways which promote or enable what he referred to as the ‘bright side’ of religion (social welfare, psychological well-being, in-group cohesion, etc.), when interpreted from within a different socio-cultural context, can be utilized as a means to motivate religiously-inspired violence.  A religious admonition toward ‘non-harm’ (ahimsa) in Buddhism or ‘Hinduism’ can be used to promote pacifist renunciants in one context and righteous warriors in another.  In that sense, those who aspire to the goal of eliminating or significantly decreasing religious violence have a monumental task on their hands.  It is not a matter of simply locating the particular types of religious doctrine which enable violence and attempting to remove them (were that possible or desirable), leaving a nice, pure altruistic essence in their absence.  It is the human interpretive capacity (as well as the capacity to act in correspondence with those interpretative beliefs) which is the underlying factor.  The concept or doctrine which is being interpreted is a secondary or incidental component to that more basic cognitive capacity for interpretive justification.  The concept of jihad in Islam can be used as a potent symbol for the inner struggle of personal, social, and spiritual development or it can be a potent symbol for catalyzing violent action in a physical struggle with an outside force.  The particular interpretation which is utilized at any given time will largely be a result of the unique contextual factors which guide and constrain the interpretation and, thus, do not result from any inherent feature of Islam.

Further, as scholars of religion, with an occasionally myopic eye toward our subject matter, it is important that we remember that it is not solely or even primarily the realm of ‘religion’ in which these kinds of interpretive gymnastics occur.  The same cognitive-interpretive mechanisms which allow different religious individuals or groups to interpret the same doctrines or beliefs in different ways, depending on the larger socio-cultural contexts in which they are embedded, are indeed active cognitive components in our daily lives.  Humans, generally, tend to have a variety of self-serving cognitive biases which allow us to interpret situations in ways that support our own conscious and unconscious goals, where, were we faced with the same situation given a different context, we might interpret the situation very differently to serve different contextual goals.  One example of such an interpretive twist that many people may be able to identify with upon reflection (there will be exceptions) can be found in the difference in experience between driving a car and being a pedestrian.  Many people may have had the experience, as a pedestrian, of getting frustrated with drivers for failing to give them the right of way to walk.  Similarly, the very same people, while driving a car, may get frustrated with pedestrians for not giving them right of way to drive.  The relevant issue here is very much aside from the legal consideration of which party is legitimated by the culture as actually having a ‘right of way’.  What is important here is that as a pedestrian we get annoyed with drivers and as a driver we get annoyed with pedestrians.  In other words, given the same exact circumstance, the interaction between a pedestrian and a car, which role you happen to be in at any given time may very well influence how you interpret the situation.  There will, of course, be exceptions to any such generalization (as is the nature of statistical significance), but my hope here is to provide an example that can begin to help us wrap our head around the context-driven aspect of interpretation, and to begin to realize that this is not a feature that is unique to religion or to instantiations of religious violence.  It is something that we all typically engage in on a daily basis.  Our contexts influence how we interpret nearly everything.  The stakes just aren’t always as high as they are when it comes to violence.  Personally, I don’t find it shocking to consider that religious beliefs can (but need not) enable violence and can be used to justify violence as a positive action.  On the contrary, I would actually find it incredibly shocking if the same interpretive lenses that we use to make nearly all of our decisions in life were not also utilized in the face of issues of such large stake as choosing when and for what reasons to participate in war and violent behavior.  In making those choices, both consciously and unconsciously, the values that we hold highest (religious or otherwise) will always be utilized among our primary means for justifying our positions and behaviors.

Making a point to similar effect, Prof. Jay Demerath has also suggested, in an earlier RSP podcast, that we cannot, as some are wont to do, simply assume that we can eliminate religion and thus eliminate the problem of violence.  Demerath calls our attention to a continuum of attributions of ‘sacredness’ among which we find both the religious sacred and the secular sacred.  Now, given how highly loaded and contested the term ‘sacred’ is in our discipline, we may choose not to use that particular word.  However, there is a more important point which Prof. Demerath is making which we should be careful not to lose in debating the merits of various terminologies (perhaps Ann Taves’ continuum model of ‘things deemed special’ [Taves 2009] could provide a less contested and more social-scientifically acceptable alternative framework).  The point is that the very same cognitive, hermeneutic enabling mechanisms that exist within ‘the religious’ can also be found in the so-called secular.  Whereas my own example of pedestrians vs. drivers is fairly mundane and would typically not qualify as involving something ‘sacred’ under any typical secular or religious banner, Dr. Victoria mentions nationalism (he also refers to ‘tribalism’) as an example of a potential secular enabling mechanism for violence, in which a group or nation is ‘sacralized’ or deemed special.

What is important to notice here is that, in such an approach, we do not posit a sui generis essence to ‘religion’ in which it is viewed as some reified thing which in itself is the enabling mechanism.  Instead, we can recognize that, as far as cognitive enabling mechanisms for violence are concerned, religious enablers only represent a particular range on a much wider spectrum of potential sources of hermeneutic support for violent action.  In our disciplinary emphasis on ‘religion’, as a specialized object of study within culture, we must be careful to refrain from suggesting that there is a unique type of ‘religious cognition’ which is distinct from other human cognitive processes (a reversion to a sui generis approach), when what we are actually dealing with are the same basic cognitive processes but applied to an issue involving religion instead of an issue involving traffic.  We might even suggest that it could be more conceptually misleading to talk about ‘religious violence’ than it would be to talk about ‘violence involving religion’.  Whereas the former can appear to refer to a distinct category, the latter phrasing implicitly reminds us that human violence is the broader category and that sometimes religious considerations can be involved in that, among others.

One further linked reflection is a position which, in the interview, Dr. Victoria associates with Christopher Hitchens: that the will to violence is inherent in religious belief.  I don’t know Hitchens’ work intimately enough to corroborate that this is not a straw-man recapitulation of his views, but even if it is not, it is still a sentiment that is to be encountered in some (‘New’?) atheistic rhetoric and is worth briefly considering.  The claim that the will to violence is an inherent aspect of religion seems to parallel the cognitive fallacy which social psychologists refer to as the ‘fundamental attribution error’ (FAE).  The FAE is a well-established cognitive bias of which all of us are guilty at various times (likely on a daily basis).  This cognitive ‘error’ has to do with how we characterize other people, and it occurs when we observe another person’s behavior and attribute that behavior to them as if it were an inherent feature of their personality, part of their fundamental disposition, rather than a response to a particular contextual situation.  Alternatively, in addition to the FAE, we also typically enact a ‘self-serving bias’ in which we much more easily recognize our own behaviors to be contextually influenced.  So, there is a general human tendency to attribute the behavior of others to an inherent aspect of their personality, while at the same time we have a similar-but-opposite tendency to recognize how our own behavior is affected by circumstance.

By analogy (at minimum), we can see a tendency among some atheists, in the face of religious violence, to assume that it is “religion” which is to blame, when what we are really dealing with is not a behavior that is an inherent feature of religion, but a behavior which becomes enabled and justified by a concept which happens, in some circumstances, to be a religious belief.  A football match may, given suitable enabling circumstances, result in fan riots, but most of us do not consider that rioting is an inherent aspect of football.  We know that it is something that erupts in certain contexts given certain social and cultural animosities and disputes.  There may be a minority of football fans for whom rioting is a fundamental feature of their relationship to the game and that minority may have a major influence on the ways that the public perceives football, but we know that they do not represent the essence of the fan-base, even when media attention becomes predominantly focused on them.  Demonstrating both the FAE and the self-serving bias, many atheists find violence involving religion to reflect a fundamentally violent nature to religion and, yet, when faced with examples of secular or non-religious violence, the same individuals will be much more likely to note the contextual factors which resulted in that violence and will be clear that the contextual factors mitigate us from considering violence an inherent part of atheism.

Again, as above, we find that such an attribution of inherent violence-enabling qualities to ‘religion’ ignores the problematisation of ‘essentialist’ definitions of religion which scholars have made such efforts to attempt to overcome.  There is even a sense in which Dr. Victoria, himself appears to fall into a very similar trap: early in the interview he says that “we make a great error if we think that this problem is unique to any single faith… it is, in a sense, built into all major religious traditions.”  He, then, later states that he differs from “someone like Christopher Hitchens” who “believes that the inclination to violence is built into religion itself; and my position is that, no…it has been used that way by the tribe and nation.”  This appears to be an inconsistency on Victoria’s part.  He himself initially refers to the inclination to violence as “built into” “all major religious traditions” but, also, later suggests that it is wrong to believe that “the inclination to violence is built into religion itself.”  I get the impression, however, that he is, rather, playing the role of a cynical optimist, suggesting that religion up to the present has tended to have recourse to doctrinal hermeneutics as a way of  justifying violence but that it need not necessarily do so in the future.  If Victoria is indeed imagining a possible but as-yet-unrealized religion without recourse to doctrinal violence enabling mechanisms, I applaud his optimism, but find it unlikely that our basic human cognitive capacities to justify our goals will be superseded anytime soon.  Even in the absence of religious enablers, humans will still find interpretive means to justify violent actions.

About the Author:

roundtable discussions.

References:

Taves, Ann. Religious Experience Reconsidered: A Building-Block Approach to the Study of Religion and Other Special Things. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.


Brian Victoria on Zen Buddhist Terrorism and Holy War

“One must note the feature of religion that keeps it on the front page and on prime time: it kills.” Martin Marty

An uncritical reading of this statement from the eminent scholar in the mainstream media, and should not discourage scholars from taking seriously the issues that it raises.  Is there something particular about religion which makes it a more potent ‘violence enabling mechanism’ than other factors? Are some religions more likely to inspire violence than others? And why should scholars even care? In this interview, Chris discusses these issues and more with Professor Brian Victoria, who, in addition to his scholarly credentials,  is a fully ordained Zen Buddhist priest.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us.

The interview proceeds in two sections. First of all, Professor Victoria delineates his understanding of Holy War, which are expanded upon more fully in his freely available article Holy War: Toward a Holistic Understanding. Discussion flows from Karl Jaspers’ idea of the Axial Age and a movement from ‘tribal’ to ‘universalistic’ religions,  through to the potential connections between religion, nationalism, and threat perception, with potentially controversial examples from contemporary conflicts in Iraq, Israel and Palestine being cited along the way. The interview shifts its focus to the specific example of violence associated with (Japanese) Zen Buddhism, providing a stark contrast to its (admittedly positive) stereotypical reputation. How could the precept ‘there is no self’ be connected to violent acts? And what about the widely known idea of karma? You’ll have to listen to find out…

We have also published a response essay to this interview entitled Religion, Violence, and Cognition, by our very own Kevin Whitesides. Listener’s might also be interested in our previous interview with Jolyon Mitchell on Religion, Violence and the Media, and Zoe Alderton’s response to this – Anzac and Awe: Religion, Violence, and the Media in Australia.

Dr. Brian Victoria is Professor of Japanese Studies at Antioch University where he has been Program Director of Japan and Its Buddhist Traditions since 2005. He trained at the Sôtô Zen monastery of Eiheiji and is a fully ordained priest in that sect. He is also the author and co-author of numerous books and articles on Zen, including “Zen Master Dôgen“, Zen at War”  and Zen War Stories. The Japanese language edition of “Zen at War” served as a catalyst for Myôshinji, the largest branch of the Rinzai Zen sect, to publicly apologize for its role in support of Japanese militarism during WWII. During the program in Japan, Brian teaches Development and Doctrine of Buddhism. Together with other program instructors, he also supervises a select number of student field research projects.

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Post-Westphalianism Versus Homogenization Theories of Globalization and Religion

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.

References:

  • 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.

Religion, Violence, and Cognition

…it could be more conceptually misleading to talk about ‘religious violence’ than it would be to talk about ‘violence involving religion’.  Whereas the former can appear to refer to a distinct category, the latter phrasing implicitly reminds us that human violence is the broader category and that sometimes religious considerations can be involved in that, among others.

Religion, Violence, and Cognition: Why We May Have to Think More Broadly About Violence-Enabling Mechanisms

By Kevin Whitesides, University of Edinburgh

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 21 November, 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Brian Victoria on Zen Buddhist Terrorism (19 November, 2012).

In his RSP podcast interview, Dr. Brian Victoria provides a great deal of food for thought on both the relationships between religion and violence and why it is important for scholars of religion to understand these realms in a subtle and nuanced way, especially in light of the remarkably un-nuanced manner in which these topics are typically treated in mainstream and popular media sources.  However, rather than provide a detailed response to the interview, I prefer to simply riff off of some of the issues that came up during the podcast bringing an emphasis of my own on the relationship between violence-enabling mechanisms within religion and human cognition more generally.

One interesting thread that Dr. Victoria developed during the interview is the contextuality of doctrinal hermeneutics, that the very same doctrines which can be interpreted in ways which promote or enable what he referred to as the ‘bright side’ of religion (social welfare, psychological well-being, in-group cohesion, etc.), when interpreted from within a different socio-cultural context, can be utilized as a means to motivate religiously-inspired violence.  A religious admonition toward ‘non-harm’ (ahimsa) in Buddhism or ‘Hinduism’ can be used to promote pacifist renunciants in one context and righteous warriors in another.  In that sense, those who aspire to the goal of eliminating or significantly decreasing religious violence have a monumental task on their hands.  It is not a matter of simply locating the particular types of religious doctrine which enable violence and attempting to remove them (were that possible or desirable), leaving a nice, pure altruistic essence in their absence.  It is the human interpretive capacity (as well as the capacity to act in correspondence with those interpretative beliefs) which is the underlying factor.  The concept or doctrine which is being interpreted is a secondary or incidental component to that more basic cognitive capacity for interpretive justification.  The concept of jihad in Islam can be used as a potent symbol for the inner struggle of personal, social, and spiritual development or it can be a potent symbol for catalyzing violent action in a physical struggle with an outside force.  The particular interpretation which is utilized at any given time will largely be a result of the unique contextual factors which guide and constrain the interpretation and, thus, do not result from any inherent feature of Islam.

Further, as scholars of religion, with an occasionally myopic eye toward our subject matter, it is important that we remember that it is not solely or even primarily the realm of ‘religion’ in which these kinds of interpretive gymnastics occur.  The same cognitive-interpretive mechanisms which allow different religious individuals or groups to interpret the same doctrines or beliefs in different ways, depending on the larger socio-cultural contexts in which they are embedded, are indeed active cognitive components in our daily lives.  Humans, generally, tend to have a variety of self-serving cognitive biases which allow us to interpret situations in ways that support our own conscious and unconscious goals, where, were we faced with the same situation given a different context, we might interpret the situation very differently to serve different contextual goals.  One example of such an interpretive twist that many people may be able to identify with upon reflection (there will be exceptions) can be found in the difference in experience between driving a car and being a pedestrian.  Many people may have had the experience, as a pedestrian, of getting frustrated with drivers for failing to give them the right of way to walk.  Similarly, the very same people, while driving a car, may get frustrated with pedestrians for not giving them right of way to drive.  The relevant issue here is very much aside from the legal consideration of which party is legitimated by the culture as actually having a ‘right of way’.  What is important here is that as a pedestrian we get annoyed with drivers and as a driver we get annoyed with pedestrians.  In other words, given the same exact circumstance, the interaction between a pedestrian and a car, which role you happen to be in at any given time may very well influence how you interpret the situation.  There will, of course, be exceptions to any such generalization (as is the nature of statistical significance), but my hope here is to provide an example that can begin to help us wrap our head around the context-driven aspect of interpretation, and to begin to realize that this is not a feature that is unique to religion or to instantiations of religious violence.  It is something that we all typically engage in on a daily basis.  Our contexts influence how we interpret nearly everything.  The stakes just aren’t always as high as they are when it comes to violence.  Personally, I don’t find it shocking to consider that religious beliefs can (but need not) enable violence and can be used to justify violence as a positive action.  On the contrary, I would actually find it incredibly shocking if the same interpretive lenses that we use to make nearly all of our decisions in life were not also utilized in the face of issues of such large stake as choosing when and for what reasons to participate in war and violent behavior.  In making those choices, both consciously and unconsciously, the values that we hold highest (religious or otherwise) will always be utilized among our primary means for justifying our positions and behaviors.

Making a point to similar effect, Prof. Jay Demerath has also suggested, in an earlier RSP podcast, that we cannot, as some are wont to do, simply assume that we can eliminate religion and thus eliminate the problem of violence.  Demerath calls our attention to a continuum of attributions of ‘sacredness’ among which we find both the religious sacred and the secular sacred.  Now, given how highly loaded and contested the term ‘sacred’ is in our discipline, we may choose not to use that particular word.  However, there is a more important point which Prof. Demerath is making which we should be careful not to lose in debating the merits of various terminologies (perhaps Ann Taves’ continuum model of ‘things deemed special’ [Taves 2009] could provide a less contested and more social-scientifically acceptable alternative framework).  The point is that the very same cognitive, hermeneutic enabling mechanisms that exist within ‘the religious’ can also be found in the so-called secular.  Whereas my own example of pedestrians vs. drivers is fairly mundane and would typically not qualify as involving something ‘sacred’ under any typical secular or religious banner, Dr. Victoria mentions nationalism (he also refers to ‘tribalism’) as an example of a potential secular enabling mechanism for violence, in which a group or nation is ‘sacralized’ or deemed special.

What is important to notice here is that, in such an approach, we do not posit a sui generis essence to ‘religion’ in which it is viewed as some reified thing which in itself is the enabling mechanism.  Instead, we can recognize that, as far as cognitive enabling mechanisms for violence are concerned, religious enablers only represent a particular range on a much wider spectrum of potential sources of hermeneutic support for violent action.  In our disciplinary emphasis on ‘religion’, as a specialized object of study within culture, we must be careful to refrain from suggesting that there is a unique type of ‘religious cognition’ which is distinct from other human cognitive processes (a reversion to a sui generis approach), when what we are actually dealing with are the same basic cognitive processes but applied to an issue involving religion instead of an issue involving traffic.  We might even suggest that it could be more conceptually misleading to talk about ‘religious violence’ than it would be to talk about ‘violence involving religion’.  Whereas the former can appear to refer to a distinct category, the latter phrasing implicitly reminds us that human violence is the broader category and that sometimes religious considerations can be involved in that, among others.

One further linked reflection is a position which, in the interview, Dr. Victoria associates with Christopher Hitchens: that the will to violence is inherent in religious belief.  I don’t know Hitchens’ work intimately enough to corroborate that this is not a straw-man recapitulation of his views, but even if it is not, it is still a sentiment that is to be encountered in some (‘New’?) atheistic rhetoric and is worth briefly considering.  The claim that the will to violence is an inherent aspect of religion seems to parallel the cognitive fallacy which social psychologists refer to as the ‘fundamental attribution error’ (FAE).  The FAE is a well-established cognitive bias of which all of us are guilty at various times (likely on a daily basis).  This cognitive ‘error’ has to do with how we characterize other people, and it occurs when we observe another person’s behavior and attribute that behavior to them as if it were an inherent feature of their personality, part of their fundamental disposition, rather than a response to a particular contextual situation.  Alternatively, in addition to the FAE, we also typically enact a ‘self-serving bias’ in which we much more easily recognize our own behaviors to be contextually influenced.  So, there is a general human tendency to attribute the behavior of others to an inherent aspect of their personality, while at the same time we have a similar-but-opposite tendency to recognize how our own behavior is affected by circumstance.

By analogy (at minimum), we can see a tendency among some atheists, in the face of religious violence, to assume that it is “religion” which is to blame, when what we are really dealing with is not a behavior that is an inherent feature of religion, but a behavior which becomes enabled and justified by a concept which happens, in some circumstances, to be a religious belief.  A football match may, given suitable enabling circumstances, result in fan riots, but most of us do not consider that rioting is an inherent aspect of football.  We know that it is something that erupts in certain contexts given certain social and cultural animosities and disputes.  There may be a minority of football fans for whom rioting is a fundamental feature of their relationship to the game and that minority may have a major influence on the ways that the public perceives football, but we know that they do not represent the essence of the fan-base, even when media attention becomes predominantly focused on them.  Demonstrating both the FAE and the self-serving bias, many atheists find violence involving religion to reflect a fundamentally violent nature to religion and, yet, when faced with examples of secular or non-religious violence, the same individuals will be much more likely to note the contextual factors which resulted in that violence and will be clear that the contextual factors mitigate us from considering violence an inherent part of atheism.

Again, as above, we find that such an attribution of inherent violence-enabling qualities to ‘religion’ ignores the problematisation of ‘essentialist’ definitions of religion which scholars have made such efforts to attempt to overcome.  There is even a sense in which Dr. Victoria, himself appears to fall into a very similar trap: early in the interview he says that “we make a great error if we think that this problem is unique to any single faith… it is, in a sense, built into all major religious traditions.”  He, then, later states that he differs from “someone like Christopher Hitchens” who “believes that the inclination to violence is built into religion itself; and my position is that, no…it has been used that way by the tribe and nation.”  This appears to be an inconsistency on Victoria’s part.  He himself initially refers to the inclination to violence as “built into” “all major religious traditions” but, also, later suggests that it is wrong to believe that “the inclination to violence is built into religion itself.”  I get the impression, however, that he is, rather, playing the role of a cynical optimist, suggesting that religion up to the present has tended to have recourse to doctrinal hermeneutics as a way of  justifying violence but that it need not necessarily do so in the future.  If Victoria is indeed imagining a possible but as-yet-unrealized religion without recourse to doctrinal violence enabling mechanisms, I applaud his optimism, but find it unlikely that our basic human cognitive capacities to justify our goals will be superseded anytime soon.  Even in the absence of religious enablers, humans will still find interpretive means to justify violent actions.

About the Author:

roundtable discussions.

References:

Taves, Ann. Religious Experience Reconsidered: A Building-Block Approach to the Study of Religion and Other Special Things. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.


Brian Victoria on Zen Buddhist Terrorism and Holy War

“One must note the feature of religion that keeps it on the front page and on prime time: it kills.” Martin Marty

An uncritical reading of this statement from the eminent scholar in the mainstream media, and should not discourage scholars from taking seriously the issues that it raises.  Is there something particular about religion which makes it a more potent ‘violence enabling mechanism’ than other factors? Are some religions more likely to inspire violence than others? And why should scholars even care? In this interview, Chris discusses these issues and more with Professor Brian Victoria, who, in addition to his scholarly credentials,  is a fully ordained Zen Buddhist priest.

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The interview proceeds in two sections. First of all, Professor Victoria delineates his understanding of Holy War, which are expanded upon more fully in his freely available article Holy War: Toward a Holistic Understanding. Discussion flows from Karl Jaspers’ idea of the Axial Age and a movement from ‘tribal’ to ‘universalistic’ religions,  through to the potential connections between religion, nationalism, and threat perception, with potentially controversial examples from contemporary conflicts in Iraq, Israel and Palestine being cited along the way. The interview shifts its focus to the specific example of violence associated with (Japanese) Zen Buddhism, providing a stark contrast to its (admittedly positive) stereotypical reputation. How could the precept ‘there is no self’ be connected to violent acts? And what about the widely known idea of karma? You’ll have to listen to find out…

We have also published a response essay to this interview entitled Religion, Violence, and Cognition, by our very own Kevin Whitesides. Listener’s might also be interested in our previous interview with Jolyon Mitchell on Religion, Violence and the Media, and Zoe Alderton’s response to this – Anzac and Awe: Religion, Violence, and the Media in Australia.

Dr. Brian Victoria is Professor of Japanese Studies at Antioch University where he has been Program Director of Japan and Its Buddhist Traditions since 2005. He trained at the Sôtô Zen monastery of Eiheiji and is a fully ordained priest in that sect. He is also the author and co-author of numerous books and articles on Zen, including “Zen Master Dôgen“, Zen at War”  and Zen War Stories. The Japanese language edition of “Zen at War” served as a catalyst for Myôshinji, the largest branch of the Rinzai Zen sect, to publicly apologize for its role in support of Japanese militarism during WWII. During the program in Japan, Brian teaches Development and Doctrine of Buddhism. Together with other program instructors, he also supervises a select number of student field research projects.