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...