Globalization and Indigenous Culture
[Table of Contents]

The Information Age and the Globalization of Religion

INOUE Nobutaka

1. Impact of the "Information Age"

The so-called "information age" is gradually spreading its influence to the realm of religion, namely, in the methods religions use for teaching, proselytizing, and in belief systems. Particularly noteworthy developments include the fact that it is now possible for any religion to spread beyond national borders, allowing even small new religious movements to engage in overseas proselytization activities, and leading to new, hitherto unseen religious developments. This rapid acceleration of the "information age" is now producing a phenomenon which can be called the "globalization of religion."

Although it is impossible to estimate how this process will develop in the future, it is likely that religious information will increasingly circulate in ways different from those formerly known, new types of religious organization will be formed, and the contents of their activities and teachings will experience a more turbulent rate of change than before. In this sense, religion overall is facing a great turning point.

To discuss these issues, however, I would like to begin by describing my perspective on the meaning of information age. While this expression is often heard, its contents frequently differ depending on the user. In particular, different individuals and differing areas of special interest often reflect differing concepts of when the information age properly began, and what it signifies. And if the question is extended to the essential nature of "information," we become embroiled in even thornier difficulties.

In any event, it cannot be denied that our "information environment" has changed drastically over the past twenty years. We can begin our discussion by keeping in mind the main characteristics of this change. By "information environment," I here mean first, the method of information propagation, namely the so-called "hardware" and its technology; second, the geographical and social reach or expanse of the information propagation, and third, the quantity and content of information being propagated. In regard to these three points, the "information age" clearly signals great qualitative differences from preceding periods. And since this development is undergoing constant and rapid evolution, it is impossible to predict what kinds of influence will impact our society hereafter. It is impossible to deny, however, that the appearance of new styles of communication stemming from the development of new technologies and media are having a decisive effect on current social change. Massive amounts of information can now be transmitted instantly, accurately, in multiple formats to multiple destinations, and this technological progress is even now changing our own social systems. And the influence of this development inevitably extends to religious phenomena as well.

The decisive change in our means of communication was signaled by the invention and popular dissemination of the computer, with the result that one could claim that the most apt keyword expressing this situation is "the age of the personal computer." We also see on the one hand the development of audio-visual mass media such as broadcast satellites, while on the other hand the continuing spread of personal communication media such as personal portable telephones. And on top of these phenomena, the world of "multi-media" is now expanding at a rapid pace.

To these developments, the first direct response by religious groups can be observed in their methods of proselytizing activities. Many religious organizations now utilize so-called "new media" in their proselytization activities.

Another remarkable feature of the information age is the new geographical and social extent or "reach" of information. It is noteworthy that even information formerly limited to professionals or specialists can no longer be kept as the exclusive preserve of closed societies, namely, particularistic social strata, professional associations, or members of certain organizations. In this sense, geographical and social boundaries are being broken in numerous ways and places. Information formerly the preserve of a limited membership of certain closed groups is now increasingly obtained through a variety of means by "outsiders." This trend is visible in academic fields, journalism, enterprise activities, and even national secrets, and the new world of the "Internet" will accelerate the trend. These developments involve factors which imply clear changes in previous concepts of "group" and "organization." And religious groups will be forced to adapt.

We should also note a changing trend in the contents of information and communication. With the development of new means of information exchange, and establishment of "networks" differing from the traditional social networks, the information exchanged tends to be of a more diverse nature, and it is pregnant with the potential to even change people's categories with respect to the objects of knowledge. For example, we will likely see increasing numbers of people possessing more advanced specialist knowledge than professional experts in the field. In the matter of religion, it becomes possible that those not trained as religious professionals might easily possess more abundant religious knowledge than priests, monks, or ministers. I provisionally label this phenomenon "changing intellectual places," and feel it likely that the trend toward such intellectual reversal of positions will increase in the future.

Within this condition of a qualitative change in information, the control of information will become an increasingly heavy concern in carrying out one's purposes, whether that purpose be political, economic, or cultural in nature. Namely, in increasing cases, it is becoming more decisive to know how to collect and use more relevant information, than to know how to meet more people, deepen one's communication with them, and develop mutual confidence, and as I shall point out below, there are signs that this fact is becoming true even for the sacred realms of religion. Viewed in these terms, we are forced to admit that the information age is leading the way to a monumental transformation in human culture.

2. The Globalization of Religion

Next, I want to discuss various religious transformations in the information age from the viewpoint of globalization. First, regarding the concept of globalization: this expression is encountered frequently, but just as frequently with different meanings. Some use it to mean much the same as "internationalization," while others define it as a kind of "borderless" phenomenon. Roland Robertson has provided a fruitful definition for globalization in regard to the religious realm, and I must confess that I have been influenced by several aspects of his discussion on globalization in recent years. And I share Robertson's idea that the concept of globalization should be clearly distinguished from that of internationalization.

Although the processes of internationalization and globalization occasionally overlap and involve some of the same characteristics, it is more appropriate for purposes of analysis of the current situation to define them as two essentially different process. Namely, internationalization should be understood, literally, as the process of deepening mutual relations among nations, while globalization is unique in that it often violates or transcends the concept of, or boundaries among, nations. Accordingly, we can state that the modern world simultaneously contains both these processes, which proceed individually while delicately intersecting at certain points.

Of the two, the phenomenon of globalization is most striking in the fields of economic and scientific technology. The financial market continues to grow more borderless day by day, while new technology is shared through the world almost instantly. The topic I treat today, however, is the one of far more conservative cultural phenomena like religion. Full-scale globalization in the field of cultural phenomena is still in its infancy, though incipient signs can be found in every aspect of daily life. What perspective is most apt for considering globalization in this sense?

Globalization in cultural phenomena occurs with different characteristics depending on the specific area of culture involved. It is likely that globalization will occur in a different way in areas decisively concerned with language, for example, national literature and scripts, from areas not so crucially concerned, such as the artistic fields of music and dance. And the precise form globalization will take in the case of religion is not yet clear. Regardless of the difficulties involved in making specific predictions regarding the direction of coming change, cultural globalization will share certain characteristics of other globalization processes, namely the weakening or disappearance of borders between nations, societies, and ethnic groups, and simultaneous unfolding of events on a global scale. And it must be added that the principle according to which these things will unfold is that of competition in a free market.

When this vision of globalization is applied to religion, we can suggest that we will see steady change from the conventional form of religion linked intimately to the histories and cultures of respective nations and ethnic groups. Instead, the activities of individual religious groups will take on the increasing characteristic of free competition on a global scale. Further, there is also the possibility of witnessing great transformations in the traditional structure of the historical religions.

The phenomenon of a religion's expanding without ties to a specific nation, society, or ethnic group is not, in itself, new. Religion is fundamentally is endowed with just such powers of survival. But what I wish to emphasize here is the fact that the concept of globalization concerns the situation after the branches and sects of so-called "world religions" --- namely, Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism --- have established their religio-cultural spheres throughout the world. Everywhere in the world one can observe the deep connection between religion and the state or ethnic group, and various religious structures --- together with the characteristics originally held by the religion or sect --- have often undergone great transformations in the process of developing within specific nations or ethnic groups. For example, the same Mahayana Buddhism has developed substantially different social functions in the neighboring countries of Korea and Japan. In this way, each region of the world can be defined by a distribution map of its main religious groups, while at the same time, the religion within each nation and ethnic group has come to possess its own unique characteristics.

In this context, the globalization of religion can be understood as a process of realignment in this global religious situation, a process which involves the following three facets: First, it implies the inevitable transformation of individual religious organizations; second, it can be expected that new characteristics will be produced in the contents of doctrines, rituals, and practices; and third, globalization will be accompanied by changes in the human beings supporting religions, particularly in their intellectual perspectives. In the following section, I want to discuss these three points while considering concrete examples, primarily from Japan, Asia, and the United States.

3. Transformations in Religious Organization

The first question I want to consider here is what kind of organizational forms will take primacy in globalization. One type which has already appeared is seen in the concept of "multinational religion" studied by Nakamaki Hirochika. While the concept of a "multinational" religion was obviously borrowed from that of a multinational corporation, it is not merely a form of analogy, but rests on the notion that the same current global conditions influence both the economic activities of the multinational corporation and the proselytizing activities of the religious organization. In the same way that it is natural for a corporation with global strategy to become a multinational, it is characteristic for a religious group with a global perspective to go the multinational route, regardless of whether the group is traditional or quite new.

In terms of organizational characteristics, I would describe a multinational religion as a group organized around modern systems of proselytization, with semi-independent operation of the organizations in each country in accordance with the unique cultural and social situations of the respective country, but also characterized by the presence of mutual organic relations between the various national branches, and oriented toward continual enlargement of the organization as a whole. A prototypical multinational religious group of Japanese origin is Soka Gakkai, while the Church of World Messianity, Sukyo Mahikari, and Perfect Liberty can also be included as groups in the process of multinationalization. Soka Gakkai is organized globally under the name Soka Gakkai International (SGI); this umbrella organization comprehends individual country groups like "Soka Gakkai of France" or "Soka Gakkai of America" which in turn maintain mutual relations as sister organizations. While it is true that the Japanese Soka Gakkai organization functions as a central headquarters, each national organization undertakes its activities in response to the unique conditions of its respective host country.

In Japan, the emergence of religious groups at a "pre-multinational" stage was clearly apparent in the period immediately following World War II. Some groups had engaged in international activities in the prewar period, but most were directed at expatriot Japanese or Japanese emigrants in the Americas, and at expatriot Japanese in those Asian countries over which Japan had established political or military control. Many Japanese emigrated to Hawaii and the Americas in the prewar period, and they and their descendants wanted to maintain the same religious rituals they had known in Japan. On the other hand, many Japanese were also present in Korea, Taiwan, mainland China and other Asian countries. The Japanese government wanted to establish Shinto shrines in colonized areas, and many Buddhist priests likewise began missionary activities there. As a result, many Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples came to exist in Korea and Taiwan during the period of colonization, and the great majority of adherents at these religious institutions were Japanese.

After Japan's defeat in World War II, the Japanese religious groups that had existed in Asia disappeared almost completely, while they continued to exist in the Americas. This difference was obviously because the religions had not been accepted by the natives of the Asian countries. Later, however, after Japan entered its period of high economic growth in 1955, religious groups engaging in overseas proselytization gradually increased, and at present, a total of some twenty groups (including some of very small scale) engage in some degree of overseas proselytization. And these groups include a considerable number of non-Japanese members. In addition to the Americas, these groups are active in various countries of Europe and Asia, and a limited part of Africa.

A great factor in the increasing overseas activities by Japanese religious groups can be tied to Japan's growing economic clout, but it is noteworthy that it is the new religions, and not the established sects of Buddhism and Shrine Shinto that are at the forefront of this overseas activity. With the exception of a limited number of Zen organizations, the traditional established groups of Buddhism and Shinto tend to focus their efforts on Japanese expatriots or ethnic Japanese. In contrast, the proportion of non-Japanese in the new religions continues to grow. The great majority of the Japanese new religions have the latent potential to become multinational.

On the other hand, multinational religious groups of foreign origin are also present in Japan; one example is the Unification Church from Korea. The Unification Church is increasing its membership in Korea, Japan, the U.S. and other countries. The Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints) can likewise be included in this category. Both the latter began their activity in the nineteenth century United States, going on to become multinational in orientation only in this century. It is likely that the U.S. produced the first multinational religious groups, and that because of the high incidence of ethnic groups and their religions.

Rajneesh's movement, which originally started in India in the 1960s is often considered to be another multinational religion. And recently, several Taoist sects from Taiwan have spread to Japan, most of them from the branch called in Japanese ikkando; it is not yet clear whether these Taoist movements will follow the path of multinationalism, although they retain the potential. It may be worthwhile to consider that the spread of Asian religions to Japan may serve as springboard to the globalization of those religions in the greater Asian region.

In addition to the multinational type of religion, the "networking" type of organization also holds the potential for future growth. The network religion operates not so much by advancing with overseas propagation and the establishment of branch organizations, but rather by seeking global sympathizers with socio-religious activities promoted by the religious group, thus aiming at the fostering of participation in various kinds of social movements, including peace movements, environmental-protection movements, and social reform movements. In this case, enlargement of the group organization itself is secondary to participation in the movement. While such groups are relatively rare, the peace movement promoted by Byakko Shinko-kai can be considered one example.

Similarly, a growing movement with interest in the "spirit world" (seishin sekai) has been apparent in Japan since the 1970s, and seeks to enhance innate human "spirituality," as influenced by the various "new age" movements which began in the United States. This movement likewise has the potential for global expansion.

With the advent of the multimedia age, it is likely that we will see the appearance of additional new forms of electronic communication based on computers. Religious information is already being exchanged using electronic mail or "e-mail," and it is said that Aum Shinrikyo attempted to use this kind of media. While we cannot predict the future of computer communications, a "shapeless organization" based on such computer communications is not beyond the realm of possibility. And the possibility also exists for the emergence of "stateless religions" existing without clear country of origin or headquarters.

4. Transformations in Doctrine, Ritual, and Activity

What will globalization mean for the transformation of religious doctrines, rituals and practices? The most likely aspect of change is a combination of various elements from different streams, a phenomenon which I would like to describe as "neo-syncretism." Neo-syncretism is at base a variety of syncretism, though I offer the "neo" in respect of its unique features as part of the information age.

The phenomenon of syncretism is entirely natural within societies where multiple religious traditions coexist. The syncretistic relationship existing between Shinto and Buddhism is well known in Japan, while syncretism existed between Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism in China, and between Buddhism and Hinduism in wide areas of South and Southeast Asian countries. What is the difference between these classical forms of syncretism and "neo-syncretism"? The most important difference I wish to suggest is the fact that in neo-syncretism, doctrines and rituals are amalgamated intentionally and aggressively, merely on the basis of available information, and without the necessity of any actual contact between the religious groups involved.

Syncretism is a broad characteristic of the Japanese new religions, most of which are based elements taken from both Shinto and Buddhism. Most new religions of the Meiji period (1867-1912) can be understood as being based on doctrines and ceremonies taken from earlier conventional established religions, adapted for the current climate. But in recent years, increasing cases can be seen of new religions borrowing elements from Christianity, "primitive Buddhism," Theravada Buddhism, American "new age" movements and other religious traditions with origins decidedly outside of the pattern of conventional established religions in Japan. In extreme cases, the doctrines appear as little more than a "patchwork" concoction without coherence, yet it is this form that can be viewed as prototypical "neo-syncretism."

The influence of the religion of Ômoto is likely a crucial factor in the incidence of neo-syncretism in many recent new religions. Established toward the end of the nineteenth century, Ômoto grew to its greatest extent between around 1910 and the 1930s, espousing the basic doctrinal tenet that "all religions are one" or "all religions have the same origin." The idea that all religions have a common base is shared by many recent new religions, and it is likely that this idea has had the effect of weakening any reluctance to adopt elements from a variety of external religious traditions.

At the same time, it should be noted that one effect of the "information age" has been to make it easier to gain access to information regarding the teachings and activities of other religions. Even those without professional religious training can easily gain information of this kind, making it easier to form new religious movements without the necessity of being bound to a single tradition in one's own society, merely by adopting personally appealing elements from a variety of sources.

Similar phenomena can be observed in the new religions of the United States. According to my understanding, when the term "new religion" is applied to cases in the United States, it ordinarily is accompanied by the implication that it includes elements of foreign origin. In particular, the term is used to refer to religions involving a Christian base with the addition of elements borrowed from Hinduism, Buddhism or other Eastern thought. These kinds of movements occurred primarily on the United States West Coast in the period following World War II. The "People's Temple," notorious for its collective suicide in Guyana in 1978, was led by Jim Jones, who was said to have been strongly influenced by Chinese Maoist thought.

On the other hand, many countries in East and Southeast Asia have historically been open to syncretistic movements. In many areas, Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, Confucianism and Taoism have been blessed by a cultural ambience allowing long periods of coexistence. In this situation, it will be an item of interest whether and to what degree "neo-syncretistic" religions become conspicuous in the future.

5. Transformations in Intellectual Environment

How will the globalization process change the situation of those concerned with religion? Here, the intellectual environment of the people involved is crucial. The information age has had a momentous effect on changing the intellectual environment, since one important meaning of the information age is that increasing numbers of people become not just consumers of information, but transmitters of information in their own right. If the only revolution were one of technology and hardware, we could not call it the "information age." When the majority of people cannot utilize the technical innovations involved, the technology itself tends to be used by one segment of information transmitters exclusively as a means of controlling the masses of information receivers.

The condition of popular culture might be called a supporting pillar of the information age, and it promotes the globalization of religion as well. By "condition of popular culture" I mean that the overall intellectual level of the populace is raised, promoting standardization and preventing a limited intellectual elite from monopolizing access to information. Within this situation, religious information likewise cannot be monopolized by religious professionals. Every individual now has a chance to be a transmitter, receiver, and mediator of religious discourse. Here, one will see increasing numbers of individual emerging from the popular background to become religious leaders, preaching a message not only simple enough to be accepted by other ordinary people, but delivered in such a way that those adherents can easily turn around and transmit the message to others.

Within this situation, the authority and power of control which religious organizations have traditionally possessed will tend to be weakened and transformed. In the process of religious globalization, a "user-oriented religious market" will emerge in addition to the conventional "producer-oriented system," and the very distinction between "leader" and "follower" will likely become increasingly ambiguous.

Some additional explanation: my uses of the economic expression producer-oriented system refers to the way we typically think about conventional religious groups. The core for the social functioning and historical continuity of a religion is the church for Christianity, or the sangha in Buddhism, the umma of Islam, the shrine in Shinto, and the various group headquarters of the new religions. In this context, the church symbolizes the authority of the religion; the doctrines are based on traditions which churches have maintained, while priests, monks, and ministers have attempted to interpret religious information to the believers. The role of believers is merely to accept this situation.

The "user-oriented religious market," on the other hand, refers to a situation in which each individual, in response to his or her personal values and sensibilities, considers, selects, and tries out those elements which he finds most attractive and suitable from the mass of competing religions. From the perspective of the producer-centered orientation, such behavior is assessed as a lack of religious seriousness, or a wavering of faith, but from the standpoint of the religious user, it is only logical to attempt to select what one determines to be the best of several alternatives.

As suggested earlier, the distinction between transmitters and receivers of religious information is likely to become increasingly ambiguous. Within the Japanese new religions, a common phenomenon is for an individual who was once a member of one religious group to later become the founder of his or her own movement. Other groups frequently adopt a system whereby each new member is expected to act as an active minister for the group, a system which I call the "all-member proselytizer" system. In short, it is not unusual for new members to be expected to devote themselves to proselytizing activities after a relatively short period of formal training. These tendencies have contributed to increasing unclarity in the boundary between "producers" and "user"" of religion. This trend has been accelerated by the trend toward "intellectual popularization" which has proceeded in Japan.

And most recently, increasing examples can be seen of religions which being transmitted without reliance on any specific individuals engaged in missionary activities. For example, Japanese new religions frequently gain foreign members by the informal efforts of Japanese lay members who are sent to work at companies or factories in other Asian countries. This is partly another evidence of the "all-member proselytizer" system at work, but it can also be understood part of the process of global expansion of religious movements without reliance on a professional clergy.

This trend can likewise be witnessed in the case of Saibaba, the leader of an Indian religious movement which became widely popular in Japan after it was introduced in a book authored by a young Japanese scientist. In short, the key to religious success frequently lies less in the quality of one's credentials as a religious professional than in one's ability to successfully manipulate the media.

This situation likewise reflects the declining authority of religious professionals within the traditional established religions. One effect of the information age will be the increasing loss of prestige by religious professionals such as monks, priests, pastors, and ministers. We are now entering an age in which small groups of religious professionals will no longer be able to monopolize religious information. Lay believers now have increasing ability to avail themselves of the central core of religious traditions, even those esoteric elements formerly unavailable except to specially authorized clergy. And as a result, those religious authorities which were formerly sustained by their role in maintaining an esoteric religious core will suffer a general loss of prestige. Needless to say, this loss refers to the overall authority which conventional religious organizations have maintained, and it is on quite a different plane from the dignity and prestige of each religious professional as an individual, since it is obvious that both reputable and disreputable clergy have existed in every religion and every era.

In sum, the information age is resulting in diminished distance between religious professionals and lay adherents. In fact, it is no longer the exceptional case to find ordinary people who possess a deeper understanding of Buddhism or Shinto than professional Buddhist monks or Shinto priests. This tendency will likely increase in the future, and it cannot be entirely explained by the apathy of individual members of the clergy. Rather, it is the result of the fact, as I have suggested above, that the information society tends to erase the distinction between such specialists and the lay population. The significance of this development is that the traditional, historical religions will likely find it increasingly difficult to develop systems for training their next generations of religious professionals. Within the process of globalization, many religions are confronting the relativization of their own significance, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to make the claim of unique religious legitimacy for a single group. As the information age progresses, growing numbers of people will view religion through more critical, relativizing lenses, but limited to the Japanese case, it would appear that traditional religions are responding to this situation in an inarticulate way.

6. Conclusion

The globalization of religion should be understood as an inevitable historical process, and it is not my purpose here to make a value assessment of its desirability. If, however, the trends which I have described in the foregoing continue to progress, certain negative effects will naturally be exerted on society. For example, we may expect the appearance of more groups like Aum Shinrikyo, and if groups engage in criminal and anti-social activities like Aum, it can be viewed as symptomatic of certain dangers posed by the information age.

The doctrines of Aum Shinriky were a hodgepodge adopted from a variety of existing religions. They exhibited neo-syncretistic traits by adopting the Christian concept of Armageddon while piously insisting that they were followers of primitive Buddhism. They also used video taped propaganda messages to inculcate new acolytes with the Aum worldview, an application of modern information technology to proselytizing activities. Finally they engaged in overseas activities, mainly in Russia following the collapse of the communist government, and it is said that they quickly attracted between 30,000 and 50,000 followers, a line of activity which can perhaps also be considered a typical strategy in the age of globalization.o

On the other hand, the easy connection between religion and crime is one indication of the dangers inherent in the information age. Aum sought young people with top minds in natural sciences, so group leaders collected electronic data regarding recent top college graduates in certain scientific fields, and engaged in proselytization focused on those graduates. As they sought ways of producing poisonous gas, they used electronic communications to amass scientific and technical data. They easily engaged in activities that previous Japanese new religions had never imagined. Although a great difference naturally lies between the possibility of an activity and actually engaging in it, the Aum affair illustrates the easy potential for a group to launch out on such a direction in the context of the information age. In short, criminal activity is another object of globalization.

The globalization of religion presents numerous problems outside those involved by the Aum affair. As the traditional religions lose their overall legitimacy and authority, the social integrating role of religion will be weakened. Particularly for social groups like the nation and traditional communities, religion may come to foment more tension than integration.

As increasing elements of foreign culture and religion are introduced to Japan from the United States, Korea, India, and Taiwan, the Japanese population's linkage to traditional religion is weakened, particularly among the younger generation. For example, traditional religious observances celebrating New Year are decreasing, while those centered on Christmas or other religious holidays of foreign origin are becoming more popular. One sees increasing unconcern with the Buddhist seasonal holidays of setsubun or higan, and more with St. Valentine's day and Halloween. Needless to say, the latter are not being accepted as "religious" rituals, but only as a kind of non-everyday event or secular festival. And this fact points out another aspect of the process of globalization, namely the increasing fuzziness of discrimination between the realms of the religious and non-religious or the secular. Since religion enjoys a different status in different places around the globe, the concept of religion itself is forced to undergo transformation as part of the process of globalization. These processes, however, should not be understood merely as a breakdown of tradition, and which must therefore be inhibited. The globalization processes do not proceed in specific fields or areas, but function as a rearrangement of world systems. As a result, the globalization of religion should be understood as one part of this process. Because it is only one part, it may be characterized by certain idiosyncrasies unique to it, but not so great that it cannot be described by the overall principles governing the globalization metaphor.

Globalization makes it inevitable that the form of missionary activities, human relationships, and the content of religious information communicated will be transformed. The most important point, then, may be to emphasize that the nature of the globalization process itself needs to be more widely perceived and understood by more people, particularly those of its aspects which threaten to generate negative results for our societies.

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$Date: 2001/05/15 05:58:52 $