Gods in the Global Village: The World’s Religions in Sociological Perspective


Lester R. Kurtz

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    Dedicated to Jeannie Kurtz and the memory of Merwin Kurtz, my first teachers

    About the Author

    Lester R. Kurtz is professor of Public Sociology at George Mason University, where he teaches the comparative sociology of religion, peace and conflict, social movements, globalization, and social theory. He lectured regularly at the European Peace University and was previously director of religious studies at the University of Texas at Austin. He holds a master’s in religion from Yale Divinity School and a PhD in sociology from the University of Chicago. He is editor of the three-volume Encyclopedia of Violence, Peace, & Conflict (2008), coeditor of Nonviolent Social Movements: A Geographical Perspective (1999), and coeditor of The Web of Violence: From Interpersonal to Global (1996), as well as the 2-volume Women, War, and Violence: Typography, Resistance, and Hope (2015). He is the author of numerous books and articles on religion and conflict, including The Nuclear Cage: A Sociology of the Arms Race (1988) and The Politics of Heresy: The Modernist Crisis in Roman Catholicism (1988), which received the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion’s Distinguished Book Award. He is currently working on books titled Gandhi’s Paradox and Gods and Bombs.

    Dr. Kurtz is the past chair of the Peace and Justice Studies Association as well as the Peace, War, and Social Conflict Section of the American Sociological Association, which awarded him its Robin Williams Distinguished Career Award in 2005. He has lectured in Europe, Asia, Africa, and North America and has taught at the University of Chicago, Northwestern University, Delhi University in India, and Tunghai University in Taiwan.


    The Buddha is said to have argued that if a house is on fire we should not sit around debating how to put it out but should set to work immediately. A scholar’s inclination, however, is to think carefully about a problem before writing about it, let alone acting on it.

    Humanity’s common house is on fire in a very real sense: Even after the end of the Cold War and its reign of nuclear terror, we live in a time of acute crisis, especially in the age of terrorism and the widespread war against it as well as numerous civil conflicts around the world. Despite our technological advances and abundant natural resources, millions of people—especially children—die of starvation every day and millions more are malnourished. Wars and various armed conflicts between religious and ethnic communities plague the planet, which is still booby-trapped for self-destruction with thousands of nuclear weapons. Peoples around the world find their familiar societies being torn apart by a rapid globalization of the economy and culture of the human community that is producing a dizzying pace of change. Earth itself has been seriously abused by civilization, and it is not clear that we have the will to stop further damage, let alone repair what we have already done.

    This book focuses on a central aspect of that common crisis—the relationship among the major faith traditions that inform the thinking and ethical standards of most people in the emerging global social order. It would be a better book if I spent another 25 years revising it, but the topic’s urgency justifies this preliminary attempt to use sociological tools to assess the state of religious life in a globalizing world. Trying to synthesize the material in this book has been a humbling experience, and I hope that my readers will accept it in the spirit in which it is offered—as a tentative analysis, a first step in a process that will require more research and more action. This new edition provides a more accurate picture of the human communities’ religious beliefs and practices than the previous attempts. One major addition is a chapter on indigenous religious written by Bonnie Mitchell-Green, who is well versed in Native American traditions.

    Since Max Weber’s plea in 1918 for a value-neutral sociology and the professionalization of academia and the social sciences after World War II, sociologists have been divided about the manner in which they may properly address social issues—or whether these issues should be addressed at all. Mainstream sociology, especially in the United States, has tended to favor the objective, dispassionate approach avoiding both personal biases and political positions according to the canons of science. Alongside this trend, however, a more critical sociology has persisted since the founding of the discipline, gaining added momentum in the 1960s, when questions were raised about not only the morality but even the possibility of objectivity in the study of pressing social problems. Gods in the Global Village falls clearly in the latter camp; it employs the scientific model to investigate religious life but does not pretend to be entirely value free. The pursuit of objectivity by bracketing one’s own biases is important—it is the truth we are after, rather than evidence to bolster our own prejudices—but we always start the quest with our own presuppositions, and they determine the trajectory of our inquiries. It is necessary, therefore, to begin our argument by outlining some underlying assumptions.

    A major assumption of this book is that all knowledge is shaped by the social context of the knower; therefore, both religious traditions and our studies of them are shaped by the context in which we construct them. That is not to say that the pursuit of objectivity is not valuable—we must always try to overcome our own biases in our pursuit of the truth—but that we will never fully attain it. We cannot know the world in and of itself but only as it is filtered through the categories of the mind. Like other scholars, sociologists cannot pretend to be objective because their biases, explicit or implicit, will shape their work; nonetheless, all scholars should attempt to transcend their social and disciplinary contexts. This apparent relativism does not mean that there is no absolute but only that our knowledge of it is always imperfect.

    A second assumption is that religious pluralism will be a necessary precondition of the global village for the foreseeable future. The question that faces us as a human community is not “Which religious tradition is true?” or even “Is any religious tradition true?” but rather “How can we enable the various religious and secular traditions to coexist peacefully on the planet?” Mahatma Gandhi believed that even tolerance was inadequate—we must learn from and respect others, even our enemies.

    A third assumption is the belief that the sociology of religion—itself a pluralistic discipline—can provide invaluable insight into the most pressing problems of our time. That is not to say that sociologists should therefore lead the way in solving these problems (as Auguste Comte thought) nor that they should simply loosen the soil for contemplative thought (as Max Weber contended). Rather, sociologists should use their analytical tools to assess the role of religion in the global community and become involved in the lively debates about the future of humanity that will ensue.

    Finally, in the classroom, I believe it is important to inform my students of my biases from the beginning so that they do not have to play guessing games. I will do the same here, because I think my background shapes what I see and how I interpret it. I am the son of a United Methodist preacher in Kansas, from a long line of clergy ancestors. I became politically conscious in the 1960s under the instruction of my parents, who took me on a civil rights march in Wichita, Kansas, when I was in junior high school. I continue to be a practicing Christian although I have reinterpreted some of the church’s doctrines in my own way and leave the details of theology to some anticipated future revelation in which, as the Qur’an puts it, God will inform us on all that wherein we have differed. My comparative study of the world’s religions, along with time spent living in India and Taiwan, has further shaped my personal beliefs, as did 2 years working on a master of arts in religion at Yale Divinity School. My wife Mariam (named after the mother of Jesus) is Muslim, and my family regularly attends the United Methodist Church, as well as participating in religious ceremonies from various faiths. At our Muslim wedding at the Abraham mosque on the eve of an interfaith conference, I declared “I believe in one God and Muhammad is God’s messenger.” The story about our wedding in an Istanbul newspaper reported my comment about claiming dual citizenship, Christian and Muslim (although not without controversy). I am convinced from my own experience and intellectual inquiries that cultural innovation comes from combining opposites at crucial moments in history and that one’s personal and intellectual lives can complement and enrich each other. Humanity’s current quagmire requires cultural innovation and spiritual quests that—like Joseph Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces—move beyond the ordinary routines of conventional life in search of new insights and benefits for humanity. The astute reader will detect all of these shaping influences in the pages that follow.


    As the author of this book, I am responsible for its errors; its correct insights are only partially mine. The list of contributors to the work’s form and content would fill several hundred pages and would include everyone from my family to authors whose work informed me to teachers both past and present. Others to single out are the editors of the Sociology for a New Century series, starting with the first round’s Larry Griffin, Charles Ragin, and especially Wendy Griswold, whose guidance was invaluable. Of the SAGE team, Steve Rutter became as much a valued friend and colleague as a publisher, as did Rebecca Holland. I am grateful for Ben Penner, then David Repetto, who picked up the banner and encouraged me, and for Annie Louden followed by Maggie Stanley, who patiently called in all the chapters and details. Editor Victoria Nelson reshaped every page of the first edition with care as Taryn Bigelow did for the second, Megan Markanich did on the third, and Rachel Keith did for this edition. Finally, hundreds of students—especially Katharine Teleki—energized this project in many ways, as did friends, colleagues, teachers, and strangers from around the global village, notably S. Jeyapragasam, Yuan Horng Chu, Steven Dubin, Christopher Ellison, Robert Herrick, Fred Kniss, Juan Linz, Edgar Polome, Edward Shils, Gideon Sjoberg, Teresa Sullivan, David Tracy, Stephen Warner, Andrew Weigert, Robert Wuthnow, and now my new colleagues at George Mason University. Finally, I thank my family, Mariam, Amina, and Brian, for their patience while I revised the manuscript, and Amani Kurtz, who inspired me to add a section on Greek religion!

    I give special thanks to those who reviewed the book:

    • Valerie J. Gunter, Indiana University of Pennsylvania
    • Clark D. Hudspeth, Jacksonville State University
    • Ahmad Khalili, Slippery Rock University
    • Riad Nasser, Fairleigh Dickinson University
    • Claude A. Perrottet, University of Bridgeport
    • Kiran Sagoo, University of Hawaii at Manoa
    • Mary Sawyer, Iowa State University
    • Gerhard Schutte, University of Wisconsin–Parkside
    • Darren Sherkat, Vanderbilt University
    • Mark Shibley, Loyola University
    • Anson Shupe, Indiana University–Purdue University Fort Wayne
    • Kristen Wenzel, Sacred Heart University (2nd edition)

    —Lester R. Kurtz

  • Notes

    Chapter 1

    1. I am grateful to Sheldon Ekland-Olson for his insights on this matter.

    2. Robert Wuthnow (1987) outlined four major approaches in this emerging field in his important work Meaning and Moral Order: Explorations in Cultural Analysis. At the risk of oversimplifying his rich discussion, I have briefly summarized his arguments in the following discussion.

    3. Most people have only one death, at least per lifetime, out of the countless events of the life course, and will seldom if ever have religious visions. The frequency of sexual intercourse varies significantly, but people have sex much less often than they engage in other activities they consider less significant.

    Chapter 2

    1. Weber typically surrounded this typology with a series of caveats, admitting that it “may be sketchy” and seeming to imply that its main purpose was to show “how complicated the structures and how many-sided the conditions of a concrete economic ethic usually are” (1922–1923/1946, p. 267).

    2. This idea is commonly held, but the subject of considerable controversy.

    3. Throughout this work, I will use the terms BCE (before the Common Era) and CE (Common Era) to refer to time periods traditionally called BC (before Christ) and AD (anno Domini, “in the year of our Lord”). This compromise position acknowledges the widespread adoption of the so-called “Christian calendar” while moving away from its ethnocentrism.

    4. From the Vammika-sutta of the Pali text Majjhima-Nikaya, quoted in Gard (1962, p. 120) and in Buddha (1954, p. 180).

    5. Because a threefold confession of faith is a central ritual in Buddhism, the formula is then repeated twice (quoted in Gard, 1962, pp. 53–54).

    6. Quoted in Ch’en (1964/1972, p. 474), who excerpted these quotations from Tokiwa, 1966.

    Chapter 3

    1. Quotations from the Bible are taken from the Revised Standard Version.

    2. Although this online essay is on a site designed essentially to convert Muslims to Christianity, which would make it immediately suspect as an objective intellectual source, I find the arguments Ibrahim puts forth interesting and intellectually compelling.

    3. Quotations from the Qur’an are taken from Thomas Cleary’s (2004) translation.

    Chapter 4

    1. This spelling, with a capital P and a capital W, is standard among most tribes.

    2. For a critical analysis of the problems with the text of the speech, see Low (1995), who contended that the original publisher probably heard the speech but in a language he did not understand, and that various versions published later, “embellished with stereotypes and romanticized tropes of nature, more accurately [reflect] the projected hegemonic mythology rather than an accurate record of historical events” (p. 418).

    Chapter 5

    1. I am grateful to Poorno Pragna for his insights into the Vedic traditions.

    2. Apparently the fifth precept, the rule against drinking intoxicants, is not considered serious enough for expulsion. Additional rules require either a formal meeting of the order to consider the violation or a confession of guilt. A wide range of practices evolved, however, as the Sangha was organized throughout Asia.

    3. I have taken the Ten Commandments from the Authorized King James Version in order to use the traditional “Thou shalt” formulation lost in the new, but more accurate, translations.

    4. Aaron, who is left in charge, has a wonderful account for Moses, which seems to be an effort to avoid responsibility for the events: They handed him the gold, and “I threw it into the fire, and there came out this calf” (Exodus 32:24). What is remarkable here and elsewhere in the Hebrew scriptures is how details reflecting badly on the heroes are retained in the accounts.

    5. I am indebted to Christopher Ellison’s insights on this topic and rely heavily on Ellison and Bartkowski (1997) for the discussion that follows.

    6. I am grateful to the students in my spring 2011 Sociology of Religion class at George Mason University for an excellent and informative discussion about this topic that helped shape some of the issues and how I framed them.

    7. In this section, I am indebted not only to the authors cited but also to Howard Miller and Douglas Laycock, former colleagues at the University of Texas.

    8. This is suggested by Yvonne Haddad (1988) in “Islam and the Transformation of Society,” a paper delivered at the University of Texas at Austin.

    Chapter 6

    1. The discussion that follows draws heavily from my discussion of these issues in The Politics of Heresy: The Modernist Crisis in Roman Catholicism (Kurtz, 1986).

    2. I am grateful to Teresa Sullivan for this way of articulating the problem.

    3. The term culture wars comes from the kulturkampf of the Enlightenment period of 18th- and 19th-century Europe and is used effectively by Hunter (1991) in his analysis of conflicts in contemporary political culture in the United States (cf. Kurtz,1994).

    4. See Echo Fields’s (1991) discussion of Christian traditionalism (“fundamentalism”) along these lines, as well as more theological explanations, but with a similar tone, in Harvey Cox (1984).

    5. See Guth’s (1983) review of the movement’s history and strategies.

    6. The first two observations are my own and from Crippen (1988). The others are from Hunter (1991, p. 299ff).

    7. For a brief summary of these developments, see Nanji (1988). For a more detailed discussion of the intellectual issues, see Marty and Appleby’s (1993) three-volume edited collection evaluating fundamentalism.

    8. The following account is taken from Hiro (1989, pp. 232–235).

    9. From “Revive Native Religion” (1947), quoted in Assimeng (1978).

    10. This view is not universal, although there is considerable truth in it. Renato Poblete (1970), for example, claims that there was little struggle in the transition from the indigenous religions to Christianity.

    11. It is telling that when Gutiérrez was delivering a lecture series in Austin, Texas, as a world-famous visiting theologian, he quipped while struggling with the microphone, “I am not exactly a modern man.”

    12. The conventional wisdom is that liberation theology emerged from the grassroots poor of Latin America, an assumption challenged by Madeleine Adriance (1986). Certainly its key spokespersons, like Gutiérrez, are college-educated elites, but many come from poor families and others live and work with the poor, listening to and articulating their perspectives on the Christian tradition.

    13. The following discussion relies heavily upon Gutiérrez’s (1973) important A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation, as well as a lecture series he delivered at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary from October 24 to 26, 1983. See also Berryman (1984); Boff and Boff (1986); Chopp (1986); Ferm (1986); Gutiérrez (1977, 1983); Lernoux (1982); Novak (1986); and Segundo (1976, 1985).

    Chapter 7

    1. Sectarian organizations are religiously zealous and tend to have somewhat rigid doctrines and minimal tolerance for alternative theologies.

    2. On the importance of religious belief in decisions to join, see Clark (1937); Glock and Stark (1965); Smelser (1963); and B. Wilson (1959). The emphasis on interpersonal bonds and networks can be found in Bainbridge (1978); Lofland (1977); Lofland and Stark (1965); and Snow, Zurcher, and Ekland-Olson (1980).

    3. The concept comes from the purported “mind control” techniques used on American prisoners held in Korea and China during the Korean War. These prisoners were said to have become sympathetic to their captors’ belief systems (see Anthony, 1990, pp. 299–300, who considered the brainwashing argument a hoax, used first as an anticommunist propaganda tool during the Korean War and again in the 1970s and 1980s against new religious movements [NRMs]).

    4. Barker (1988, p. 175) and Bromley (1988, p. 204) both estimated that about two thirds of the coercive deprogrammings of Unification Church members were successful.

    Chapter 8

    1. Portions of this section were previously published as Kurtz (2005b), “From Heresies to Holy Wars: Toward a Theory of Religious Conflict” in Ahimsa Nonviolence, which is available from http://works.bepress.com/lester_kurtz/31, and in S. Jeyapragasam (1993), Communalism: The Crisis in India and the Way Out; they are both used by permission.

    2. I am grateful for this insight to comparative religions guru, the late Ninian Smart.

    3. This quotation is from the Dhammapada (n.d.), retrieved from http://www.unification.net/ws/.

    4. Psalm 18:39–40 (retrieved from http://www.mechon-mamre.org/e/et/et2618.htm)

    5. Gandhi used the Gita as a spiritual guide for his daily life and translated it into Gujarati, publishing it on March 2, 1930, the day he marched to Dandi from Sabarmati. While in Yeravda prison, Gandhi received a complaint from a member of his ashram that the Gita was very difficult to understand. Consequently, the Mahatma (a title popularly bestowed on Gandhi meaning “Great Soul”) wrote a series of letters (one for each chapter of the Gita) giving his interpretations (see V.G. Desai’s translation into English [Gandhi, 1930/1987]).

    6. This is an unpublished statement from Father José Blanco (personal correspondence, 1995).

    7. An earlier version of this section was published as “Solving the Qur’anic Paradox” (Kurtz & Kurtz, 2005), which is available from http://works.bepress.com/lester_kurtz/10/.

    8. A fatwa is a legal decision made by an established religious authority in Islam. The text of this fatwa and a list of endorsing organizations were retrieved from http://www.cair.com/AmericanMuslims/AntiTerrorism/FatwaAgainstTerrorism.aspx

    9. If interested, please see my review (Kurtz, 2005b), which is available from http://works.bepress.com/lester_kurtz/31/.

    10. This is from a traditional Sunnah source about the life of the Prophet (Abu-Dawud, n.d.).


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