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Spiritual and Ethical Impacts of Globalization

Paper prepared by Hon. David Kilgour Member of Parliament for Edmonton Southeast and Secretary of State (Latin America and Africa) for Forum 2000 conference "Education, Culture and Spiritual Values in the Age of Globalization"
Prague Castle, Prague, Czech Republic October 15-18, 2000

Is there reason to worry about values as a result of the ongoing globalization? Thomas Friedman seems to think so. In his recent book, The Lexus and the Olive Tree, he dramatizes the conflict of "the Lexus and the olive tree" -- the tension between the globalization system and ancient forces of culture, geography, tradition, and community.

Many people around the world, including not a few in, Canada fear that globalization brings the decay of social values. Canada is a multicultural, spiritually diverse country, very much engaged in the global economy and a country where globalization is much more than a concept; it is the reality of our everyday lives. This paper contains some thoughts on globalization in the spiritual and ethical domains.

The Era of Globalization

In the early 1900s, the American President William McKinley stated: "The world's products are exchanged as never before, and with increasing transportation comes increasing knowledge and larger trade. We travel greater distances in a shorter space of time, and with more ease, than was ever dreamed of. The same important news is read, though in different languages, the same day, in all the world. Isolation is no longer possible. No nation can longer be indifferent to any other."

At that time, he was not using the term "globalization", though he might have; he pretty well defined the phenomenon. Some scholars go much further back. "Globalization is a process that has been going on for the past 5000 years, but it has significantly accelerated since the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991", says Majid Tehraniani. Jerry Bentleyii even suggested a periodization, identifying some notable turning points in the history of globalization, including: the migration of 'Homo erectus' from Africa 500,000 to 1,000,000 years ago; the domestication of horses and the invention of stout watercraft about 4000 B.C.; the invention of the wheel about 3500 B.C.; the domestication of camels after 3000 B.C.; the establishment of well travelled sea lanes in the Indian Ocean after 500 B.C..; the opening of the silk roads about 200 B.C.; the spread of epidemic diseases throughout the eastern hemisphere after 200 AD; the establishment of permanent contacts between the eastern hemisphere, the Western hemisphere, and Oceania after 1492; the founding of global trading companies after 1600; the development of modern transportation and communication technologies after industrialization; and the emergence of transnational corporations and an integrated global economy in the twentieth centuryiii.

We are not involved here with a long-term historical perspective on globalization. Rather are we interested in the culmination of the process reached towards the end of the 20th century, when our world-system has become truly universal. In earlier times our world-system was parochial: local or regional. It became "planetary in the 16th century, but it has become densely interactive only since the age of electronics and the development of the Internet"vv. Only now have we reached the stage that Marshal McLuhan of Canada called "the global village" and some United Nations documents now refer to as "the global neighbourhood".

What is meant by globalization?

The word "globalization" is now used to designate a world order born around 1990: the "globalization era", also called digital age. As Thomas Friedman puts itv: "Today's era of globalization, which replaced the Cold War, is a similar international system, with its own unique attributes". He goes on:

Unlike the Cold War system, globalization has its own dominant culture, which is why it tends to be homogenizing. In previous eras this sort of cultural homogenization happened on a regional scale -- the Hellenization of the Near East and the Mediterranean world under the Greeks, the Turkification of Central Asia, North Africa, Europe and the Middle East by the Ottomans, or the Russification of Eastern and Central Europe and parts of Eurasia under the Soviets. Culturally speaking, globalization is largely, though not entirely, the spread of Americanization -- from Big Macs to imacs to Mickey Mouse -- on a global scale.

He thus underscores what he sees as the American position of cultural hegemony all over the world. I believe globalization cannot be understood as merely Americanization. It is best described in my view as a world-scale condition of interdependence, integration and homogenization due to the speed of technological development, travel and communications.

Interdependence implies that no nation can be indifferent to any other. A run on the dollar on Wall Street has repercussions in Tokyo and in Paris. A group of terrorists in Asia may cause a bomb to explode in New York. The germ that has caused an epidemic in Central Africa may be present on the plane landing in Vancouver.

By integration is intended the planetary free-market of finance and the flow of information across national borders. Cable television is clearly a significant element of it. So is the Word Wide Web and the information highway. Information has replaced territoriality as the primary basis for social interaction; the virtual inter-activeness of computer technology with its e-mail and chat-rooms is substituting for face-to-face contact.

Clearly, the process of globalization has several dimensions. The economic aspect (money markets, multi-national corporations) and the field of communications (the mass media, the internet) come immediately to mind. We might also refer to the ecological aspect - the recent awareness that global warming and pollution are universal phenomena that respect no boundaries - and to the political dimension - international organizations, world government. But in this session of Forum 2000, we are to concentrate on social or cultural aspects of globalization, in particular its impact on ethics, spirituality and religion.

Cultural impact of globalization

If we focus on the cultural consequences of "globalization", we see positive and negative effects. I consider as positive the fact that the interaction of different faiths normally generates respect for each other and even the feeling that to some extent they pursue the same goals. This relativization of one's own creed is in sharp contrast to the prejudices and the intolerance some of them used to maintain while they could remain isolated from each other.

However, some feel globalization also entails a negative impact: a deterioration of moral standards, a decline of religious scruples, a cultural breakdown. Does it really involve spiritual impoverishment and moral decay?

No doubt what most concerns us here is the "cultural homogenization" that globalization can generate. Our community and our identity, our culture and our traditions are challenged in this digital age. Some even feel that globalization will turn people into spiritless robots.

I’ll try to answer three questions in this regard:

1. is globalization a challenge to spirituality and, if so, what spiritual nourishment is to be offered to the population of a globalizing world?

2. is globalization a challenge to world religious traditions?

3. which ethical foundation is to be offered to the population of a globalizing world?

A challenge to spirituality?

The first question is whether globalization is to be considered a challenge to spirituality.

A preliminary remark seems in order here. Spirituality and religion are not the same thing. We all know the great religious traditions of the world: Zoroastrism in Persia, Taoism and Confucianism in China, Hinduism, Sikhism and Buddhism in India, Judaism, Christianity and Islam in the West, and this is obviously not an exhaustive list.

Spirituality is often contrasted to organized religion. Wendy Kaminer wrote: "it is simply religion deinstitutionalized and shorn of exclusionary doctrines"ii. This says what spirituality is not. Trying to come up with a definition of what it is may be more difficult. Reconnecting with one's inner self? or getting in touch with the mystery of the universe? or partaking in the divine? I have my own definition: spirituality is the experience of and/or the communication with the sacred, the supernatural or the divine.

But rather than definitions, let's offer examples. Prayer and meditation are spiritual activities. They involve conversations with the divinity or union with the higher self through relaxation and concentration, recitation of a mantraiii - sacred syllable or verse considered to have mystical or spiritual efficacy, or contemplation.

Some people claim to have had experiences that have transformed their lives by bringing them into contact with supernatural beings, whether their experience is merely religious or mystical.

The 'religious' experience means sensing the presence of a Being, distinct from oneself, with divine attributes, or hearing a voice which one believes to be God's, or seeing a vision of a religious figure, such as that of Jesus Christ. A 'mystical occurrence' is an experience that must be entered into rather than viewed. It is both unified (one is not faced with an object), and timeless (one is not aware of the passage of time). It is usually the result of a long process of fasting or meditation.

Spiritual activities and experiences are deeply personal, strictly private: not only voices and visions but also prayers and meditation. Hence, it is difficult to see how globalization would influence them one way or another.

A challenge for world religious traditions?
Is globalization a challenge to religious faith?

As a preliminary remark, let me observe that the term "religion" covers institutions that are rather diverse. A distinction is generally made between three principal forms of religion.

(1) In Judaism, Christianity and Islam, "religion" means faith in a Supreme Being, assumption of a divinely created order of the universe, acceptance of a creed, obedience to a moral code as set down in sacred Scriptures, and participation in worship of the Almighty.

(2) So-called primitive religions have no religious doctrine or abstract concepts. But the entire natural world produces a sensation of awe and mystery as well as one of intense beauty and peace.

(3) Various Oriental systems of belief and practice - Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism - are considered as "ways of liberation", focusing on a quest for spiritual sense rather than worship of a Supreme Being.

Ignorance - or insufficient knowledge - of these Oriental systems has led some to condemn them as deceptive works of the devil. The more the experience of Christians has expanded in the modern world, the more many have come to appreciate people of other faiths. Indeed, there is a certain degree of convergence between the great religious traditions. George Bernard Shawiiii even understood there to be "only one religion, though there are a hundred versions of it."

Globalization will no doubt have an impact on religious diversity: the number of versions may well decrease. The reason is that religion is very much community-based. Let me quote Al Seckelxx: "With very few exceptions, the religion which a man accepts is that of the community in which he lives, which makes it obvious that the influence of the environment is what has led him to accept the religion in question."

However, apart from the environment, missionaries also play a role: they are sent out to foreign countries in order to convert, and this proselytism is deliberate. This is called "evangelization" in the case of Christianity. Globalization will result in a mixing of creeds that is spontaneous.

Professor Antonio Gualtierix of Ottawa explains the current religious diversity as follows: the diverse great religious traditions function among various peoples to mediate essentially the same relation with the divine. A religious tradition exists within a broader cultural context of which it is often the motivating dynamic and ethos. Anticipating the emergence of some sort of global culture, Gualtieri contends globalization should be matched by a new world religious tradition. Opposing both civilizational imperialism and relapse into cultural insularity, he sees this new tradition as syncretic - a synthesis of traditional items and an original emergent at the same timeii.

In fact, if as some say, globalization is essentially the American cultural hegemony all over the world, faithiii should not feel threatened. In the United States, religious beliefs are not only diverse but very strong and pervasive in people's lives. Fully half of the American people today evidently belong to a church, mosque or synagogue. No doubt separation of church and state is a principle of governance. But the credo "in God we trust" is on the U.S. dollar-bill. "One nation under God" is the official motto. And most State of the Nation addresses and other official speeches are concluded with the words "God bless America", which is also the title of the alternative national anthem.

It would therefore be my conclusion that globalization is not a challenge for the world religious traditions. I would even argue that globalization holds substantial benefits for them.

Surely, an event as Forum 2000 would be unthinkable were it not that we are living in this era of globalization. Progress in transportation allows people of different regions of the world to meet and discuss and understand that in spite of their different labels the devotees of various faiths are very close to each other; certainly we need not demonize and confront and slaughter each other as has often been the case when we lived in isolation.

Which ethical foundation?
Which ethical foundation is to be offered to the populations of this globalizing world?

In this particular gathering, it is probably accepted that religion plays a role either as a foundation of ethical values or, at least, as an influential backing for them. The values that determine human behaviour are most often either explicitly prescribed by religious doctrines or strongly advocated by them.

However, even in a disconnected world, the study of a single religion in the classroom is deemed improper, the separation of church and state being a well established principle of government. Like governments, public schools do not want to be seen as offending atheists, agnostics or followers of other creeds. But what about the study of the great world religions, especially if this study could be permeated by fairness towards all creeds and objectivity towards one's own?

A decade ago, the Canadian writer Robertson Daviesiiii made an appeal for "sensible religious and ethical instruction". He wrote: vvv

The Ontario Court of Appeal has declared that the study of a single religion is unconstitutional and contrary to the rights of pupils who are supposedly adherents of other faiths. The court has said, however, that the study of religions in the plural is legal. I go further and say that it is eminently desirable.

What is unthinkable is that our schools should wholly reject religion, which is an inextricable element in our thought and history.

He went on, asking: "Do we want religious and ethical illiterates?"

The fact that people of different backgrounds and different faiths are able to meet and to discuss these problems together is sufficient proof that various creeds can overcome their differences.

This should not come as a surprise ... Let me give just a few examples.

1) Perhaps the most characteristic and best known saying of the New Testament is the 'love your enemies' phrase. But the Buddha has stated: 'Hostility is never conquered by hostility in this world. Hostility is conquered by love. That is the Eternal Law (Dharmapada 1:5). Are both maxims not very similar?

2) Jesus and the Buddha reach approximately the same conclusion. Buddha: [by not hating, doing good and speaking what is true] you will come close to the gods (Gandhari Dharmapada 280-281). Jesus: [if you] love your enemies, do good, and lend without expecting anything in return, you will be children of God.

3) Both the Buddha and Jesus call for the correct spiritual attitude associated with right actions.

Buddha: 'If someone has heard much but does not follow the moral law, he is not a good listener since he holds the law in contempt' (Udanavarga 22:6) and 'Just as rain penetrates a badly-covered house, so passion enters a dispersed mind. Just as rain does not penetrate a well-covered house, so too does passion not enter a well-developed mind (Dharmapada 1:13-14)

Jesus: 'Everyone who hears these words and acts upon them is a wise man who built his house upon the rock. The rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew and burst against that house; and yet it did not fall, for it had been founded upon the rock .

But everyone who does not act upon my words will be like a foolish man who built his house upon the sand.'(Mathew 7:25-27)

The Golden Rule

Similar conclusions can be reached in the ethical area. But let me first make clear that I am a devout Christian, this entails faith in one God and trust in Jesus Christ as my saviour. It also encompasses respect for the Ten Commandments. When Christians think of ethics, we generally refer to respect for the Ten Commandments.

We Christians might remind ourselves, however, of the way in which, in his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus summed up the whole of the law in two commandments: love God and love your neighbour, insisting that the whole law of the Old Testament could be contained in a single phrase: "You shall love your neighbour as yourself." (Matthew 22:35-40). This way the whole social code contained in the Decalogue was reduced to the Golden Rule.

Variants of this rule can be found in other great religions as well as in ethical approaches that are purely secular. The so-called Golden Rule is the one guideline that is common to most creeds and appropriate to all communities. The golden rule was widespread throughout ancient ethics and religions. It was known in Hindu literature: 'Do not do to others what is unpleasant to yourself' (Mahabarata 5,1517). It appears in Confucianism: 'Tzu-kung asked saying, Is there any single saying that one can act upon all day and every day? The Master said, ‘Perhaps the saying about consideration: Never do to others what you would not like them to do to you' (Confucius, Analects, 15.23). In Judaïsm: 'You shall love your neighbour as yourself' (Leviticus 19:18); in Islam: 'No one is a true believer unless he desireth for his brother that which he desireth for himself' (Hadis 13 - An-Nawawi).

Now Christianity goes beyond the Golden Rule when Jesus said: "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbour, and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you." (Mat. 5:43-44)vv. Even for this teaching a parallel can be found in the doctrine of Taoism: 'To all who are good (to me) I am good; and to those who are not good (to me), I am also good; this way all will end up being good' (Tau The Tjing, 2,49,2).

We know, of course, that the different religious traditions stress diverse values. We speak of Confucian values, of Buddhist values, of Christian values, etc. But these values are distinct mainly in nuances, rarely in essential trends. Therefore they can serve as sound ethical foundations in a globalizing world.


It may be useful to compare globalization in the spiritual and ethical realm with a pattern we are observing in the linguistic field. The growing interconnectedness of the world has encouraged the development of translation software, but has also demonstrated the need for a global language, a "lingua franca," that will enable a sizeable number of literate people around the globe to communicate with each other. As a matter of fact, English has largely been adopted as that language. Does this mean the parallel extinction of other tongues and dialects? The risk exists, obviously. But on the other hand we notice a growing sensitivity to the values inherent in these languages as cultural vehicles. Strenuous efforts are made to promote their survival.

It may also be useful to evoke the political consequences of globalization, which were so eloquently presented by the host of Forum 2000, Vaclav Havel, President of the Czech Republic, in the address he made to the Parliament of Canada on April 29, 1999:

The world of the Twenty-First century ... will be a world of an ever closer cooperation, on a footing of equality, amongst larger and mostly transnational bodies that will sometimes cover whole continents. In order that the world can be like this, individual entities, cultures or spheres of civilization must clearly recognize their own entities, understand what makes them different from others and accept the fact that such "otherness" is not a handicap, but a singular contribution to the global wealth of the human race.

The progress of globalization cannot but have an impact on all aspects of life, including in the spiritual and ethical realm. There doesn't appear to be any reason for misgivings. On the contrary, globalization holds the potential of better understanding through contact and dialogue.


i.. as quoted by Fred W. Riggs in Globalization - Key concepts.

ii.. Ibid

iii.. "Globalization - Key concepts", notes : "When the main links between China and Rome involved long-distance camel caravans travelling over Central Asia, or junks and dhows sailing the Indian Ocean, we can think of the system as loosely netted or having low density. By contrast, in today's world, air travel and cyberspace permit the modern network of global linkages to be extremely dense."


v.. Thomas L. Friedman, The Lexus and the Olive Tree: Understanding Globalization, 1999.

ii.. commentary by Wendy Kaminer in The Globe and Mail of November 2, 1996: God is still not dead

iii.. The Tibetan prayer wheel is the equivalent of the repetition of a mantra

iiii.. George Bernard Shaw, vol 2, Preface p. vii

xx.. Al Seckel, Bertrand Russell on God and Religion (1986), p. 9

x.. Professor Emeritus of Religion, Carleton University.

ii.. According to Antonio Gualtieri in Confessional Theology in the context of the history of religions (1972)

iii.. By faith we mean "the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." (Hebrews 11:1)

iiii.. On December 6, 1996, the Edmonton Sun published a commentary by Jeff Craig on a one-hour retrospective marking the first anniversary of Robertson Davies' death. Craig called him a "literary legend" and went on: "As an essayist and lecturer, Davies earned the mantle of the greatest man of letters the country has known." For decades Robertson was also master of the University of Toronto's Massey College.

vvv.. in a letter to The Globe and Mail, February 14, 1990.

vv.. The same idea is expressed in Mat. 5:38-41: "You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.' But I say to you, do not resist evil; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek , turn to him the other also; Romans 12:14: Bless those who persecute you; bless and curse not; Romans 12:17: Never pay back evil for evil to anyone; Romans 12:21: Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good."

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