Distinction in travel journalism
Is independent travel journalism important to you?
Click here to keep it independent

23 Jan, 2000

Globalisation Will Make Religion Even More Relevant

Originally Published: Jan 23, 2000

When the United Nations Human Development Report for Thailand was issued in late 1999, various commentators leaped upon it with great gusto for post-mortems on the causes and consequences of the recent economic crisis.

But on Page 17 of the HDR was a comment that caught my eye, one that went to the heart of the problem and which could well open up a long-overdue examination of a deeper cause — the role of plain, old-fashioned greed.

Said the report, “Thailand’s rapid economic transformation and the increase in disposable incomes have also spawned consumerism and an attachment to material possessions that have given rise to tensions with traditional values and system of beliefs.

“The Buddhist system of values and beliefs, embraced by more than 95 per cent of all Thais, has traditionally accorded central importance, not to material possessions and rewards, but rather to spiritual development, sanctity of life, compassion for others, respect for nature, social harmony, and the importance of compromise. This tradition forms a rich foundation of social and cultural philosophy.

“The tradition is under sustained assault by consumerism and materialism. It is an assault that has undermined the foundations upon which Thai society has traditionally been built as well as weakened the place occupied by local cultures.

“It finds concrete expression not only in the erosion of the role of religious and monastic institutions in the mainstream of the nation’s consciousness but also in such social problems as vandalism, drug addiction, the spread of HIV/AIDS, and cultural alienation, all of which are becoming more severe with the passage of time and the further the nation travels along the narrow path of modernisation.”

The report said this erosion of traditional Buddhist values is most clearly reflected in the deteriorated and still deteriorating state of the environment. It went on to identify numerous problems ranging from forests depletion to pollution of coastal-zones.

Most surprising is that the linkage between a people’s drift from basic religious/cultural values and its economic decline is being taken up in reports that have so far confined themselves to examining economic problems as being the result of purely economic miscalculations. Could the study of such crises being shifting to a new plane and stirring more debate about the role of greed — one of the seven deadly sins — in creating them?

As the report is about Thailand, it correctly draws up the country’s majority Buddhist heritage for its conclusions. But warnings about unadulterated pursuit of riches at the cost of just about everything else are not exclusive to Buddhism; they are present in every religion and in fact comprise the strongest set of warnings in the Bible, the Quran, the Gita and the Guru Granth Sahib.

Indeed, the twins philosophies of materialism and consumerism and their linkage with globalisation and development appear to be coming under much more global scrutiny. Yes, it is important to trade and do business because it means jobs and under-writes livelihood, but when magazines like The Economist write obituaries on God in one issue and pay tribute to “Almighty Alan Greenspan” in the next, it becomes obvious who the new God is and what the priorities are from a Western perspective.

In the October-December issue of ‘Info on Human Development,’ the publication of the Federation of the Asian Bishops Conferences, executive secretary Brother Anthony Rogers wrote, “The need to deepen the religion-cultural heritage of our people is indeed our main challenge today.

“Asia being the cradle of the world’s major religions has much to contribute to the area of human development which is rooted in our cultures and traditions wherein we can harness the innate spiritual insight and moral wisdom for the new being of all.”

For bishops to be joining the debate is intriguing in itself. But clearly emerging between the lines is an even deeper debate on how globalisation and the western definition of “development” is over-writing the socio-cultural makeup of the East. ‘Economic development’ is clearly being seen as different from ‘human development.’

In the same issue, Maori human rights activist Manuka Henare wrote, “(Development) is not our word. It is the word of dominant groups who would use it to serve their economic and political interests and their religious, cultural and philosophical purposes. This worldview is dominated by the economy and its marketplace. It is no mistake, therefore, that the fundamental focus of globalisation is the global economy with its associated regional economies.”

He notes that indigenous peoples such as the Maoris see an “economy” from an entirely different perspective. “A Maori understanding of an economy comes into being from our history in the Pacific and our understanding of Creation and its purpose. This economy is another system for establishing sets of social and cultural relationships….Maori thinking on economic activity has a strong ethical and spiritual basis.”

An even sharper essay came from Confucian writer Tan Chee Beng who predicted that “the recent upsurge in Western hostility towards China will merely encourage more Chinese to look to their own cultural resources….”Liberalisation, by ignoring a religious way of life, has led to overwhelming concern with materialism. The ‘religious’ vacuum will have to be filled.”

Hence, he forecast, globalisation will make religion even more relevant. “Viewed in a positive light, religion offers hope and meaning for people in what is a fast-changing world, and provides a morally appropriate response to an increasingly materialistic world. In these contexts, religion has always been relevant to the human world, and it is even more relevant today.”

From a negative perspective, Mr Tan argued that “religion has also been used by different interest groups for political purposes, and will presumably continue to do. It has always been a convenient front for imposing dominance, but also for resisting it, as is evident in Islamic responses to Western dominance.”

The UN’s Human Development Report noted that Thailand’s economic reconstruction will require the usual political and economic formulae all too well bandied around in the policy manuals. However, it said that there must be “still greater determination to safeguard and actively promote the Kingdom’s rich cultural heritage and the value systems upon which it is based and to which it gives expression.

“The articulation of a cultural imperative is essential for the maintenance of a distinct identity in an age of globalisation and for resisting the powerful forces that contribute to both cultural alienation and cultural homogenisation.” That means providing the young “with a proud reminder of their roots as well as a source of inspiration.”

O ye gurus of globalisation, take heed!