Olivier Roy’s book argues that religions are becoming increasingly homogenised and commodified in the face of market-driven secularisation and technological advance, says PAUL SIMON
Holy Ignorance: When Religion and Culture Part Ways, by Olivier Roy (Hurst Publishers, £14.99)
OLIVIER ROY’S main argument in Holy Ignorance — that most major religions have become detached from their initial host culture and geography — is pretty conventional.
From their foundations on, the world’s two largest faith systems, Christianity and Islam, were focused on proselytising to groups other than Jews and Arabs alone. But where Roy’s book is more interesting is the evidence that the author provides as to how both secularism and technology have accelerated and deepened this deculturation and deterritorialisation process.
Applying the language of market economics, Roy sets out to show how these processes result in both the simplification of faiths and their standardisation, leading more fundamental interpretations such as Pentecostalism and Salafism to assume increasing dominance.
Among its many features, Salafism eschews a focus on specific sacred spaces, with Roy arguing the possible exception only of Mecca. A mosque becomes a place of worship only when used specifically for that purpose.
Pentecostalism, because of the primacy it gives the Holy Spirit, is likewise less anchored to precise locations that are accorded heightened faith significance.
Both these interpretations’ essential universality and rootlessness have, of course, been amplified and distributed via social media to create almost virtual communities which have more relevance to their adherents than many of their physical religious communities.
But even other interpretations have become detached from their initial, specific geography — everything form Neo-Sufism and Western Buddhism to the rapidly expanding Korean Protestant church.
In the case of the latter, there has been a clear shift from an ethnic to a multiethnic church. Its services are in English and it has an attractiveness to those of non-Korean heritage.
At the same time, the number of markers designated to demonstrate adherence to a particular faith system have also been reduced to a handful of outward attributes, mainly items of clothing, including the saffron robes of Buddhist priests and, more obviously, the hijab.
These in part have been the result of the interplay between faith and host systems, especially secular ones, where Roy identifies a process of negotiated accommodation or “formatting” as opposed to outright hostility
Roy is at his strongest in analysing French developments, where he shows that this formatting of faiths into more standardised offerings is frequently due to the consensus seeking between the authoritative and legal authorities and the various communities, as opposed to an aggressive secularism, the latest prohibition of the hijab notwithstanding.
In this accessible and unfussy translation by Ros Schwartz, which includes a helpful glossary, the author ultimately sees formatting and globalised communications as being the cause of both an internal homogenisation and an external uniformalisation of the faith systems.
It is beyond the scope of Roy’s book to fully consider what these processes mean for both class politics and those religions which have failed to play the formatting game and ride the wave of globalisation.
But it is clear that faith is yet another aspect of life that is being commodified, not by any internal changes but rather via the pressures placed upon and the opportunities presented by capitalism in both its state and internationalised forms.
The opium of the people is becoming just another global commodity.