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Religious Organisations in a Global World. A Comparative Perspective

by Margit Warburg (University of Copenhagen)
Preliminary version - Do not reproduce without the consent of the author - A paper presented at The 2001 Conference in London


Globalisation has become the standard term for describing how humanity in these years experiences a historically unique increase of scale to a global interdependency among people and nations. This interdependency is characterised not only by the present, rapid integration of the world economy facilitated by the innovations and growth in international electronic communications, but also by an increasing political and cultural awareness of the global interdependency of humanity. The process of globalisation has its historical roots in Europe in the 1500s, and it took off in the period from 1870 until World War I. It was during this period that all parts of the world began to feel the impact of the international economy, and that for the first time in history it was possible to have instant long-distance communication (telegraph, radio) between people.

Globalisation is a process of change that affects nation states, local communities, industrial companies and individuals all around the globe, and religious organisations are not exempted. Like any other social agent, religious organisations are participating in and affected by globalisation. The current academic discussions of religion and globalisation - with Roland Robertson and Peter Beyer as some of the important participants - have mainly concentrated on the trends towards cultural pluralism and the reactions they provoke from religious organisations. [1] Some of them react positively, accept pluralism or even endorse it, such as some Christian ecumenical movements or the Baha’is. Other groups emphasise the differences and confront the non-believers in an attempt to preserve their particular values from being eroded by globalisation. So-called fundamentalist Christian, Muslim, and Jewish movements are well-known examples.

In another context I have discussed the Baha’i views on and interaction with civil society by using Peter Beyer’s theoretical perspective of liberal versus conservative religious options in relation to globalisation, and I shall not pursue this theme further here. [2] Instead, I shall expand on the issue of globalisation and religious organisations by discussing not only pluralism but also other significant trends associated with globalisation in general.

Rosabeth Moss Kanter’s four trends

In 1995 the sociologist Rosabeth Moss Kanter published a widely-read book on business and the global economy, called World Class. Thriving Locally in the Global Economy. [3] In this book she proposed four trends that she saw as particularly influential in the process of globalisation: Mobility, simultaneity, bypass, and pluralism. I have earlier used Kanter’s approach with its four trends of globalisation in order to make a structural comparison between the societal conditions of new religions in ancient Rome and today. [4] Kanter’s four trends were proposed with the private business and its working conditions in mind. In this presentation I shall generalise her views and argue that the working conditions of religious organisations, like those of other organisations operating in the new global world, are fundamentally affected by the trends listed by Kanter. I shall briefly describe these trends, and I shall then exemplify the visibility of these trends in different religious organisations.

Mobility is the first trend. It means that money, ideas and people move more and more freely across traditional borders. Mobility is a visible token of globalisation. It is evident that mobility is linked to the improved means of communication and the relative drop in costs of long-distance travel. Many new religious movements are characterised by pronounced movement of members in and out of countries, even wholesale migration. An example was Rajneeshpuram, which was transplanted from India to a farm in Oregon in 1981, but after their leader was arrested in 1985, the sannyasins abandoned the farm and left for destinations around the world. [5]

Simultaneity is Kanter’s second trend. It describes the situation that new consumer goods, new technology, and cultural innovations have their break-through almost at the same time at several places in the world. The revolution in electronic communication is a major factor behind this. Many of the new religions from the nineteenth century and the first part of the twentieth century had their break-through in the United States many years before they came to Europe. Today we see new religions rise and fade synchronously at many places around the world, and electronic communication among the believers across continents is a wide-spread phenomenon.

The trend called bypass implies, according to Kanter, that numerous alternative routes of communication are available. The increasing possibilities of bypass make it more difficult for traditional gatekeepers to maintain control. We have seen how authoritarian regimes have crumbled thanks to fax machines, photocopying and other electronic devices that have enabled the opposition to bypass censorship of the mass media. A famous example is that before the Iranian revolution Khomeini’s speeches were distributed in Iran on thousands of audio tapes, enabling his followers to circumvent the censorship of the shah regime effectively.

Pluralism is Kanter’s last trend. In her approach it means that dominating centres are weakened to yield for several, sometimes competing centres. In cultural terms it means that the once dominating majority cultures are not so dominating any more, and this is what we see in the European countries where the position of Christian majority churches is weakened by the upspring of new religions of Christian, Muslim or other background.

ISKCON, Word of Life, and Baha’i - Three Examples of Religious Organisations Experiencing the Four Globalisation Trends

I shall now take three well-known new religious groups and analyse how they are influenced by and cope with Kanter’s four trends of globalisation.

The three groups are rooted in three different major religious traditions: Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam, and they have only little in common with respect to their relations to the society which they are part of. Broadly speaking they represent a world-rejecting, a world-accomodating, and a world-affirming religious group. [6] They are all well-organised which is a prerequisite for drawing an analogy with Kanter’s study of industrial companies and the trends of globalisation.

The three groups chosen are:

By choosing these groups which represent three different attitudes towards society, I wish to show that the four globalisation processes are not abstract mega-processes, but are visible in concrete situations involving these groups. From this we may not only gain a systematic understanding of certain aspects of these very different groups, but this understanding is related to an understanding of globalisation itself.


All three religious groups are strongly engaged in mission, and the mobility among the members is high. ISKCON members move constantly around, both to strengthen mission locally, but also to sustain ailing communities by an injection of fresh members. For example, in 1997 the number of ISKCON members in Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Finland was 230-240 members altogether. [7] However, 44% of them were of alien nationality, and many had been sent from abroad to live in one of these four Nordic countries for periods of three to six months with the purpose of strengthening the local ISKCON communities. [8]

In Uppsala Word of Life runs what is said to be the largest bible school in Europe, and many of the students are recruited internationally. [9] Word of Life also operates affiliated bible schools in the Czech Republic, Albania, Russia, and Tadjikistan and it is about to open a bible school in India as well. [10] This means that many foreign young believers and prospect believers move temporarily to Sweden, while many Word of Life elite believers are sent from Sweden to work abroad.

The Baha’is also move around constantly on mission as well as to fulfil goals in their mission plans to establish Baha’i communities with nine members or more in different localities. I found, for example, that the growth of the Baha’i communities in most of the European countries was sustained by immigration, because new conversions alone could barely compensate for the losses from resignments and deaths. [11]


In the West, ISKCON found many of its first converts in the hippie rock culture, which had a breakthrough in the early 1970s among youths all over the western world. As an example of simultaneity, an ISKCON band chanting the mahamantra came on the BBC "Top of the Pops", and this made ISKCON known all over the West with the words "Hare Krishna" as its popular label.

Word of Life stands for conservative family values and economic-political attitudes similar to the New Christian Right evangelicals of the United States, although they have no formal connections with groups like Pat Robertson’s movement. The New Christian Right started to grow from the late 1970s and gained influence in the 1980s in the USA, and it is an example of simultaneity that a movement expressing similar ideals could suddenly grow in the 1980s in Northern Europe.

But simultaneity can also be consciously orchestrated to demonstrate globality. The Baha’is used this with great effect during their world congress in New York in 1992 which was attended by 27,000 participants from 180 countries. [12] With the help of an electronic network involving eight satellites they had a several hours’ long two-way audio/video teleconference gathering more than eighty countries simultaneously. As the headline went: "Unprecedented broadcast links Bahá’í communities around the world in spirit of love and unity". [13]


An example of bypass is ISKCON’s success in selling their magazine "Back to Godhead" by street soliciting instead of through book stores and newspaper stands. [14] Even though the ISKCON version of the Bhagavad Gita was published by a major western publishing company, ISKCON soon found it more profitable also in this case to bypass the ordinary chain of sales, and to the dismay of the publisher they found a loophole in the contract allowing for this. [15]

Word of Life is engaged in the TV channel Christian Channel Europe, and they distribute TV-programmes five days a week to more than fourty different countries. [16] Like the conservative evangelical groups in the USA they have seen the advantages in bypassing traditional Protestant channels of mission, such as pulpits, assembly halls, and summer rallies.

In the case of the Baha’is, my example of bypass is within the organisation itself. The Baha’is have a developed system of supervising internal critics through a pre-review of all articles and other written material dealing with Baha’i topics. Critics may be summoned to so-called consultations for guidance, and they run the risk of being shunned and even excommunicated as "covenant breakers". This has hit hard on liberal, but otherwise loyal Baha’i academics who feel that such an unscholarly pre-review is an undue interference with their work. The internet has now opened a new opportunity for Baha’i critics to exchange uncensored controversial views, bypassing their formal leadership. This is an inevitable development which has been seen among other religious groups as well, but the Baha’i authorities in Haifa have taken it very seriously and are trying to monitor the conversation on these net groups. [17]


When ISCKON was established in Europe they soon saw that the asrams and the ascetic devotees lacked the base which the asram had in a traditional Hindu society. In response to this, pluralism developed within ISKCON, and this has often resulted in serious conflicts. [18] A reform movement has now developed which advocates the enrolment of members who do not live in the asrams as full-time devotees but raise a family and have normal jobs. This broadens the recruitment base of the European asrams. In opposition to reform there is, of course, an orthodox movement which maintains that ISKCON members are full-time devotees on the standard no-meat, no-sex, and early-morning-rise conditions. Both trends are still accomodated within ISKCON, but this expression of pluralism is clearly a consequence of the global spread of ISKCON.

Word of Life is rooted in Kenneth Hagin’s movement, and the Word of Life University in Uppsala, for example, is affiliated with Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, which is connected to Hagin and the Faith movement. [19] However, the leader of Word of Life, Ulf Ekman, works independently of Hagin, and even within Sweden itself there are other Faith churches that are not belonging to the circles around Ekman. [2O] This is pluralism within a globally dispersed movement sharing the same label, the Faith movement.

The Baha’is have also experienced a move from a highly centralised organisation to slightly more pluralism. The period from 1963 to 1986 was characterised by a considerable centralisation of power at the Baha’i World Centre. During this period the various mission plans were exclusively drafted at the centre, and they contained detailed goals for the expansion of the religion. However, in the mission plans from 1986 to 1992 the goals were for the first time largely formulated in dialogue with the national spiritual assemblies, which for the Baha’is was a clear signal of decentralisation and a small, cautious step towards pluralism within their own ranks.


In this presentation I have shown that three religious groups with different orientations towards society all are participating in and affected by globalisation, as it is characterised by Kanter’s four trends: Mobility, simultaneity, bypass, and pluralism. The three groups I have chosen are all visibly influenced by these trends, which corroborates the view that these are prevailing general globalisation trends affecting many different kinds of organisations. Conversely, by looking at religious groups from the perspective of globalisation, phenomena that might appear unrelated and even particular to some groups may be interpreted as manifestations of globalisation. By looking at Kanter’s four trends we may therefore gain a better understanding of religious groups in a world undergoing globalisation, as well as gaining a better empirical understanding of globalisation itself.

[1] Robertson, Roland and Chirico, JoAnn, "Humanity, Globalization, and Worldwide Religious Resurgence: A Theoretical Exploration", Sociological Analysis, 1985, Vol. 46, pp. 219-242; Robertson, Roland, Globalization. Social Theory and Global Culture, London, Sage, 1992; Beyer, Peter, Religion and Globalization, London, Sage, 1994.

[2] Warburg, Margit, "Baha’i: A Religious Approach to Globalization", Social Compass, vol. 46, 1999, pp. 47-56.

[3] Kanter, Rosabeth Moss, World Class. Thriving Locally in the Global Economy, New York, Simon and Schuster, 1995.

[4] Warburg, Margit, "New Age og gamle dage. Religion og globalisering i dag og i hellenistisk-romersk tid", in Per Bilde and Mikael Rothstein (eds.), Nye religioner i hellenistisk-romersk tid og i dag, Århus, Aarhus University Press, 1999, pp. 39-52. Mikael Rothstein has later briefly referred to Kanter’s trends in a presentation of new religious movements in Denmark. See Rothstein, Mikael, "New Religions in Denmark in the European Context", in Jeffrey Kaplan (ed.), Beyond the Mainstream: The Emergence of Religious Pluralism in Finland, Estonia, and Russia, Helsinki, Finnish Literature Society, 2000, pp. 93-106.

[5] Carter, Lewis, F., Charisma and Control in Rajneeshpuram. The Role of Shared Values in the Creation of a Community, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1990.

[6] Roy Wallis, R.: The Elementary Forms of New Religious Life, 1984, pp. 9-39.

[7] Finn Madsen, Social udvikling i Hare Krishnabevægelsen (Ph.D. diss., submitted 1 Januar 2001), Department of History of Religions, University of Copenhagen, 2001, pp. 225-226. Finn Madsen is thanked for valuable discussion of his study of ISKCON during my preparation of this paper and for his permission to draw upon his yet unpublished thesis.

[8] Ibid., pp. 33-34. The figure 44% is based on interviews with 162 of the 230-240 ISCKON members.

[9] Margareta Skog, "The Faith Movement in Sweden: Some Data", in Eileen Barker and Margit Warburg (eds.), New Religions and New Religiosity, Aarhus, Aarhus University Press, 1998, pp. 171-178.

[10] My Church, Word of Life, Livets Ord [online], Uppsala, Sweden. http://www.geocities.com/Heartland/Ranch/3637/page4.html [Accessed 30th March 2001].

[11] Warburg, Margit, "Growth patterns of new religions: The case of Baha’i", in Robert Towler (ed.), New Religions and the New Europe, Aarhus, Aarhus University Press, 1995, pp. 177-193.

[12] I participated in this event. The congress is described, for instance, in The American Bahá'í, vol. 23, No. 19, 1992.

[13] Ibid., p. 13.

[14] Madsen, op. cit., pp. 98-100.

[15] Madsen, op. cit., pp. 100-101.

[16] My Church, Word of Life, Livets Ord [online], Uppsala, Sweden. http://www.geocities.com/Heartland/Ranch/3637/page4.html [Accessed 30th March 2001].

[17] This is described in Cole, Juan R.I., "The Baha’i Faith in America as Panopticon, 1963-1997", Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, vol. 37, 1998, pp. 234-248.

[18] This interesting example is taken from the concluding chapter in Madsen, op. cit., pp. 193-218.

[19] The Mission of Livets Ord University [online], Uppsala, Sweden. http://www.livetsord.se/university/about/mission.htm [Accessed 2nd April 2001].

[20] Skog, op. cit.

The Spiritual Supermarket: Religious Pluralism in the 21st Century

April 19-22, 2001

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