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April 22, 2002

Halle Seminar examines religion, globalization

Lailee Mendelson is communications coordinator for the Office of International Affairs


By the time the Halle Faculty Seminar assembled in December 2001, its chosen topic had taken on a sudden urgency. Titled “Religion and Global Civil Society,” the seminar—planned well before Sept. 11—has brought together Emory faculty for an interdisciplinary exploration of religion’s role in globalization. It is a role that is now vividly understood to include fanaticism and terror.

The seminar is an initiative of the Halle Institute for Global Learning. According to Halle Distinguished Professor Tom Remington, this year’s participants are looking at religion as it functions both constructively and destructively.

“Faiths are cross-national forces in that they create commonalities of doctrines and values for believers in many different countries,” said Remington, the seminar’s director during its first four years. “We are interested in the degree to which religion is a force in building a global civil society versus the degree to which religion forms new boundaries, tyrannies and hatreds.”

In an effort to advance this year’s seminar and produce a published volume, Remington, then-Provost Rebecca Chopp and interim Director of the Halle Institute Tom Arthur decided to invite a distinguished visiting scholar to lead it.

Several faculty recommendations led them to Mark Juergensmeyer, professor of sociology and director of global and international studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Juergensmeyer is the author of several books on global religion and politics, including his most recent, Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence.

According to Juergensmeyer, the complex relationship between religion and globalization can be thought about in several ways. “Traditional religious communities are ambivalent about the cultural dimension of globalization,” he said. “In some cases they despise it. Groups such as Christian militias and the al-Qaeda network violently rage against what they regard as a new world order promoted by U.S. capitalism.”

In other cases, Juergensmeyer said, religious communities are more cautiously critical and actually participate in global society by learning to adapt to the multicultural environment of large urban centers such as New York, London or Atlanta.

“Yet another aspect of global religion,” he said, “are the shared values and spiritual sensitivities that emerge in pluralistic societies and in the virtual communities formed through the Internet and other forms of electronic communication.”

The seminar is exploring globalization and its weakening of national boundaries by shedding disciplinary ones; this year’s offering includes faculty from the schools of law and theology, as well as the departments of sociology, political science, psychology and religion.

Each participant works on an individual research project. Frank Lechner, associate professor of sociology, is examining religious rejections of globalization. “What is the significance of these religious activities and voices?” Lechner asked. “To what extent do they make a difference?”

On a more local scale, project partners Elizabeth Bounds, associate professor of Christian ethics, and Bobbi Patterson, senior lecturer in religion, are interested in the many refugee families now living in the Atlanta suburbs of Clarkston and Avondale. They will be studying the effects of displacement on the religious traditions of these families, who have fled conflicts in countries such as Vietnam, Somalia, Bosnia and Sudan.

“What has brought us around the table in this seminar are the effects of religion on the globalizing process,” Patterson said, “particularly since religious traditions are often at the root of conflicts but at the same time can hold out some potential value systems that make for possible understanding and possible action for the common good.”

As an example of the latter, Bounds and Patterson will follow the opening of a charter elementary school in Avondale that will serve the refugee population. The school was created in large part due to the support of religious communities in Atlanta.

“What this seminar shows,” Bounds said, “is that the old academic divisions between national work and foreign work aren’t going to hold up anymore.”

The Halle seminar will culminate in an international conference to be held at Emory next fall. Past seminar papers are available online at