The Coming Challenges

January 1, 2013

A leading yet underreported issue that I have tried to bring attention to with this blog is that social change on a global level has apparently weakened the nation-state. I realize that this is a major claim with countless consequences that will take scholars decades to understand, but scholars such as Mark Juergensmeyer have been alleging this reality for years.

One of the main consequences that I associate with the weakening of the traditional state is the likewise weakening of secular politics. This weakening has created a “political” vacuum, and, within this vacuum, religious politics have had a worldwide revival. I believe this is due in no small part to the fact that the internet is changing religion on a global scale.

The Internet

The remarkable growth in computer technology has allowed for the electronic mediation of religion across the globe. The ramifications of this religio-electronic globalization are still being debated, but internet studies indicate that very little in the real world isn’t reproduced online, and very little of what is online seems to have no offline foundation. This means that people do online pretty much the same as they do offline, but they work within a global space instead of their traditional local spaces. The internet has removed boundaries and made borders irrelevant.

Not only is religious information disseminated online, but the internet is commonly used for evangelism and proselytization, which are standard religious activities. The internet is therefore used as a tool for the expansion of religious knowledge and also as a tool for religious practice. The scholar Douglas E. Cowan has pointed out that the internet is also an excellent venue for religious antagonism and countermovement (Cowan 2004).

What does this all mean? The internet and other tools of globalization work as equalizers. They give everyone an equal access to information and an equal ability to make their voices heard. The nation-state no longer has the agency it once had in disseminating and controlling what information its masses consume. There are blatant exceptions to this of course, such as China. And in no way am I suggesting that access to the internet is universal. A digital divide exists (Norris 2001) where there are internet haves and internet have-nots. Africa’s population, for example, still has glaringly few internet users.

As I’ve said, religious actors are filling the political vacuum created by modernity. What I mean by a political vacuum is that the traditional nation-state’s power is splintering as hundreds of ethnicities and countless communities seek autonomy. As the nation-state loses its ability to influence these groups, other entities such as religious actors are filling the void with their new-found ability to influence using mediums such as the internet. To analyze the beliefs and actions of these actors is an examination in both comparative politics as well as comparative religion. Many non-state actors are responding in a religious way to a political situation, and they are using the internet and other forms of media to transmit their responses.

The nature of these lightening-fast communications, being culturally influential yet also prolific and often quickly forgotten, makes much of a religious actor’s internet exchanges useful for only a particular period of time. Furthermore, the nature of such communication creates the problem that there is so much information to sift through, that critical data is being overlooked and ultimately lost to scholars and analysts alike.

Students of both religious studies and political science will have to grapple with the new reality that modernity and globalization are creating. But one will not be able to study either of these disciplines without also employing the other. The nation-state has weakened to an unprecedented level. The implications for future conflicts and religious inspired terrorism are daunting.

I’ll attempt to cover some of these implications in future posts.

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