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Religious revival in a changing world

By John Samuel

New insecurities and alienation that arise out of migration and urbanisation in a globalised world are driving more people to religion as a way of establishing their identities and validating their experiences

There is a revival of institutional religions across the world. In different parts of the world religion has become more visible, both in its institutional form and as an assertion of identity. This increasing prominence of religion and new forms of religious formations can be located in the social psychology of communities and people who are undergoing socio-economic and cultural transitions.  

One of these transitions is the unprecedented migration of communities and the increasing perception that there is socio-cultural and economic inequality across the world. There is an increasing sense of multiple layers and a process of alienation emerging out of multiple levels of ‘dislocations’ of the self, community and identity. The increasing trends of urbanisation, of migrations within and beyond country borders, consumerism and the aggressive construction of images in the context of globalisation of the media, have created a new sense of individual and collective insecurity and alienation. 

However, the relative visibility of institutional religion may be due also   to the increasing role of the ‘image’ industry, rather than true conversion or   transformation of people from one faith to another. Religion has many   manifestations and we often tend to confuse institutionalised religion with   other aspects of religion (personal experience, belief, theology etc). 

The revival of institutionalised religion is partly due to the high visibility it has gained in the media explosion of the last ten years. As institutionalised religions are historically strong in terms of institutionalised resources (money, network, people, structures etc) they can make greater use of the new media, particularly television, to acquire more visibility. The number of genuine Christians (in terms of personal experience of a preferred personal faith) might not have increased, but certainly TV marketing of faith has increased manifold. And the new visibility of ‘images’ can create new delusions and illusions of an accentuated religion without the necessary ‘spiritual’ transformation in the lives of people. 

Then there are new insecurities arising out of social, economic and political transitions and the consequent feeling of alienation they engender.  For example, there is enough evidence that those who belong to migrant communities tend to be more religious. The reasons could be partly sociological and cultural. The same way I feel happy to meet an Indian   or South Asian in Oslo, a Sudanese would like to meet fellow Sudanese. The nodal points of such an identity network often tend to be religious venues. So, Tamil people residing abroad may come to know each other in a temple, Bangladeshis in a Bengali mosque etc. This is to do with relative   marginalisation (in terms of space, cultural comfort zone etc) of migrant   communities.  

There are also economic and social insecurities that arise out of the tension of losing a job or being alone in a multicultural environment. These too add to the quest for a ‘sense of belonging’, and ‘identity’ gets accentuated when one feels marginalised in a given context. So many of the first generation of Malayali migrants often feel more strongly about ‘being a Malayali’ than those who live in Kerala. Hence the proliferation of Malayali organisations in the Gulf countries and elsewhere (and many literary awards and Malayalam blogs etc). This also often takes a religious/denominational (caste, creed etc) dimension among newly urbanised or migrant communities. 

There is a new sense of alienation due to increased ‘individuation’, and the   consequent feeling of being lonely and insecure. This has an age-related dimension -- when one is too young (increased anxiety about jobs) and when one is into middle age (the fear of losing a job, falling sick etc).

This sense of insecurity has something to do with the new consumerism and globalisation of the economy, where expectations about oneself (as a consumer who would like to ‘possess’ certain comforts) and the consequent insecurity that emanates from the new ‘hire and fire’ culture of globalisation creates new insecurity. So here too one often finds more young people and those who cross middle age tending to seek solace in new spiritual markets of various sorts -- from Deepak Chopra to the tele-marketing of pop-gurus of various sorts. 

In the case of countries and communities where there is a social disintegration of erstwhile collective institutional structures (eg tribal communities in Africa, or joint families, or the old neighbourhood parish or temple) there is scope for new network-based identity formation. It is   in such a space that networked religion and cell-churches grew exponentially. This process of social disintegration of erstwhile structures and the process of ‘collective spaces of sharing’ also happened due to the unprecedented trend of urbanisation and the movement/migration of people across countries and the world. So the shifts from joint families to post-nuclear families and tribal collectivism also created new forms of individuation and multiple forms of dislocation and resultant alienation.  

It is in this context that institutionalised religions get transformed into   ‘spiritual’ or ‘solace’ or ‘feel-good’ modules of customised products in the   spiritual marketplace. This network mode of marketing helps to get consumers hooked on psycho-pills of well-packaged and customised religion of various sorts. In the context of Christianity, the Charismatic movement and its network forms ‘customised’, ‘personalised’ and ‘flexible’ modules of packaged and commodified ‘spiritualism’ which is lapped up by a new market of relatively more ‘lonely’ and insecure people. That is one of the reasons why prosperity gospel is doing so well in relatively poor African communities in Africa as well as America. Prosperity gospels and ‘healing’ ministries and ‘miracle’ crusades all work on the new insecurities among people and communities who are in a state of transition. 

We are in the midst of an unprecedented transition in the history of the world and in terms of sociological and cultural shifts. In such phases of transition insecurities and alienation take on new forms -- social, economic and political. This also creates a new sense of inequality. At an individual level, the most convenient thing is to find one's own sense of ‘belonging’ by identifying with communities who have a shared sense of belonging. Such belonging can be based on colour, creed or religion. The biggest and oldest institutionalised structure of belonging happens to be institutionalised religion. Adapted to the new technology, media, and globalised network, institutionalised religion thus ‘services’ its new ‘clients’ by using the same old pill but with new modes of delivery.  

Then there is also a new sense of political insecurity that emanates from ‘accentuated identities’ (majority and minority) that create a sense of insecurity (for example when young Australians find it difficult to find jobs, they may feel that Indians are stealing their jobs and then Indians begin to mobilise on the basis of being Indians).  

Such accentuated identities often become defensive in the minority context. So, a young Muslim in Europe or UK may feel more ‘Muslim’ than the Muslim in Dubai. Christians in Europe may feel ‘less Christian’ than the Christians in India or China. The ongoing war in Afghanistan and Iraq, or the new political tensions with Iran or North Korea, are all a residual accentuation of the post-cold war period of the new geo-politics. And here, too, recent history is replayed in multiple forms of colonialism and imperialism.

Post-cold war politics moved from ‘ideological’ war to ‘identity’-based   contestations in many cases. The political economy of such identities gets   accentuated among migrant communities. When identity, in its soft or hard   form, tends to be the sub-text of macro and micro politics, ordinary people   often fall back on the most convenient and accessible network of identity. So   there is an increasing assertion of ‘Muslim’ identity even among those Muslims who have a rather moderate or liberal approach to religion. There is an assertion of ‘Hindu’ identity where Hindus are in a minority. Such assertions of identity are often cultural defence mechanisms that emanate from social and cultural insecurities and a sense of alienation.  

Infochange News & Features, August 2010