Peter Beyer, Religion and Globalization. London: Sage, 1994.

Doug Padgett (


This work investigates the implications of theories of global change for the study of religion generally and, through a series of case studies, applications of those theories to specific religious movements. In particular, Beyer is interested in the seeming contradiction of the persistence of conflict between social units within a globalizing world that is more and more becoming a "single place." The first half of his book, the introduction and four chapters, is taken up with theoretical definitions of religion as a social system and the position of that social system with regard to other systems. The second half of the book, five chapters, explores applications of Beyer’s theorizing to a wide range of world religious particularities.

Beyer introduces his readers to the idea of globalization in religious phenomena with the example of the fatwah issued by the Ayatollah Khomeini condemning Salman Rushdie to death. For Beyer, the speed and range of the event (one to which he returns several times throughout the book) are illustrative of the character of today’s world and religion’s place within it. Both the speed and the range are functions of contemporary communications technology, which makes rapid communication possible over virtually the entire surface of the globe. In Beyer’s estimation, effective barriers to communication between radically different and distant socio-cultural groups no longer exist. For this reason, Beyer argues that the global system must be the primary unit of analysis, even for phenomena as highly specific as religions. But globalization for Beyer is, as for others, most immediately a question of power, of the direction of change and who controls it. Ultimately, what the Rushdie affair and others show is that two burdens are borne by globalization: the relativization of particularistic identities--here, specific religions--and the marginalization of religion as a mode of social communication in favor of other modes, the political and the economic.

Beyer’s understanding of religion begins with just this notion of all aspects of culture as communication, which he derives from the work of the sociologist Niklas Luhmann. For Luhmann, social systems are not groups of people but the lines of communication between them. The specific character of religion as communication is that it is immanent, between people, but its subject is always, symbolically and otherwise, transcendent beyond the world, concerned with managing and giving meaning to the indeterminacy of life. For the purposes of his analysis, Beyer limits his investigation to "systemic religion," which he refers to (in the conclusion) as "institutionalized, organized, specialized forms of religion that [usually] have religious professionals associated with them"(225).

Theories of globalization present a more difficult task for Beyer, as he must not only establish what globalization is, but religion’s place within it. He explores the problem in various ways through the rest of the first part of the book. Beyer rests his analysis upon the work of Luhmann primarily, but also that of Immanuel Wallerstein, John Meyer, and Roland Robertson. Using Luhmann, Beyer resolves the theoretical debate of whether globalization is a homogenization of all particularities under a common social rubric or a simpler transformation of context in which particularities survive, but differently. For Beyer, the answer is both.

Chapter one investigates the current work in theories of globalization including the above scholars. While finding specific problems with all four, Luhmann’s approach is favored in that it tends to avoid the political or economic "monism" of Robertson or Wallerstein, but may be seen to incorporate acceptable points of Wallerstein, Robertson, and Meyer. The heart of Luhmann’s theory lies in the modern development of functional differentiation, in which modernity engenders a variety of sub-systems dealing with particular aspects of social communication, each with its own internal assumptions and logic. These systems are not in concert but may pull in different directions.

Chapter two begins to lay the groundwork for a discussion of religion by examining the manner in which globalization supports new and existing particularities through this systemic tug-of-war. Using Wallerstein and Luhmann, Beyer investigates more thoroughly the shift from stratified differentiated to functionally differentiated structures in early modernity. Through this shift, the position of socio-cultural particularities becomes more ambiguous, but nevertheless remains important. Under this analytic rubric, we see how social particularities are an intrinsic part of globalization, not simply victims of the process and that, in discussing these particularities, we must be sure to include all forms of groups, including religious ones. Here Beyer begins to show how religion may be seen as a functional subsystem and not simply a particular cultural "ecology of themes." For Beyer, the analysis of religion must include both--it operates in the socio-cultural particular and global contexts.

Chapter three is the heart of the theory section of the book. Here, Beyer takes up the oft-worried issue of the privatization of modern religion and, in doing so, the issue of religion’s influence as a social system of communication in a globalizing world. Basic dichotomies attending religion are discussed here, beginning with the public and private and extending to pure and applied and liberal and conservative. Regardless of its political face, religion is finally seen to have public and private trajectories resulting from globalization, depending upon whether one is examining religious function or performance. The tendency towards privatization in both liberal and conservative circles is seen to have obvious public ramifications which are discussed in the case studies in Part II.

Moving closer still to the case studies, chapter four is more specifically concerned with religion’s future influence in a global society, in particular through anti-systemic social movements. For Beyer, religion and social movements share a relatively marginalized status as compared with the dominant systems of communication, the political and the economic. Beyer does not think religion will become more powerful as a global subsystem, but, as the dominant subsystems have left large areas of social life undetermined, even in chaos (what he calls "residual problems"), Beyer believes religion still may make its influence felt. Here he states what he has implied all along: that socio-cultural particularities, religions among them, are more than systems of meaning--they is also bases of power in the global competition for benefits.

In the second part of the book, Beyer takes the discussion out of the abstract and into the particular. In five chapters, he illustrates the manner in which three conservative religious movements and two liberal ones may be seen as historical manifestations of theoretical ruminations. Given the orientation of globalization towards the future and, thus, the unknown, such theories are difficult to test. The best that can be done, notes Beyer is to give historical examples which might verify the theories. Thus, he claims not to prove the theories, but to give them added evidentiary weight.

He does so by discussing the Christian Right in the United States, the Latin American liberation theological movement, the Iranian Islamic revolution, new religious Zionism in Israel, and religious environmentalism. His analyses are wholly based upon secondary literature, with the exception of the last, but are full and coherent. He has chosen his cases after a variety of considerations and attempts to achieve a balance of political leanings and between First or Third World movements. Most importantly he has sought movements in which an inherent religious influence is brought to bear on other systems, particularly the political or economic.

The theoretical portions, written in the labored, opaque style of all contemporary theory, are extraordinarily evocative as abstract reflections on an immensely complex set of topics. But in considering this abstractness, the definitional limitations surrounding the analysis and the specifically political intent of all the groups under consideration, one is left with the sense that Beyer does not completely cover the necessary territory. The tortuous language of the discussions also occasionally left me suspended in mid-page, temporarily unable to make the leap from one subject to another. Clear examples were avoided because they would come later. The case studies are interesting and illuminating and far more clearly written than the early portions. Nevertheless, they only serve to convince that Beyer’s theories resonate through a limited sample of politically motivated social movements--a small part of world religion by all estimations.

What is missing throughout Beyer’s work is a sense of the embeddedness of religion in life, of religion in the home, without priests, without articulation, as a system of more subtle political and social activity. There is no ritual here. The reader is left without a sense of non-institutional religious life, of local variation, of religious life as daily practice, and, most tellingly, or of religion from an other than Middle Eastern origin or European development. Missing is sense of religion without belief, which, I would suggest, is formidable error.

Despite these criticisms, Beyer’s work should be immensely valuable to scholars of transnational or global religious situations. Unfortunately, after reading and re-reading Beyer, I was finally left with a sense of curious disjuncture, as one might be after spending time on an ancient scripture in a dead language: I know something is there, but I am still not sure what--and I will need a better dictionary to find out. That is not his fault, but that of my own background. Ultimately, this work is not intended for the scholar of a particular religion, nor even for the generalist in history of religions. It is very clearly a work in the realm of world systems theory, whose language and assumptions are painfully different from those of my own discipline. Nevertheless, I believe scholars of both religious studies and anthropology of religion would do well to begin an investigation of this area of the social sciences.