Theorizing Religion in the Global Age: a typological Analysis

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The relativist position

Until recently, relativism was debated mainly in philosophy, so most of the literature about the subject comes from this discipline. There are many forms of relativism, including cultural relativism that is prominent mainly in anthropology. But there is also moral relativism, which is the direct result of a relativist religious position. Relativism claims that there are different moral conceptions in the world, one for each individual for that matter, and that they change from one place to another. The relativists think that there can be no universal moral standards, religious traditions or religious belief applicable to all cultures. One can only judge through one's own cultural code or personal ethics. As a philosophical concept, relativism is closely associated to postmodernism. In matters of morality, postmodernists defend the relativity of values. They are generally anti-dogma and against any form of constraint or control of their ideas. While an intransigent religious position puts limits and constraints, the relativist seeks to eliminate them all. In postmodern morality, all values are considered to be equivalent. An absolute tolerance of all systems of ultimate meaning is the main characteristic of the relativist position. Here again, as in the intransigent position, modernity is accused of all the evils of the contemporary world, especially instrumental rationality. Or course, the discourse of the two positions originates from a different point of view ; but it is similar in the radicality of its approach.
The best example of a relativist position can be found in the New Age Movement. The "Aquarian Conspiracy" feeds on a globalized spiritual supermarket where the supreme value is the integral respect of individual choices. Véronique Vaillancourt (1993) has shown the links between New Age and the postmodern ideals : individualism, the creation of a personal truth, unlimited choice of values and beliefs, a new vision of tradition, anti‑institutionalism, and the primacy of experience. York (1995) has shown the emergence of a network of individuals and groups with a polycentric structure of power, where authority is no longer lodged in one person or group but in many changing spokespersons over a period of time. I have been developing for many years the concept that the New Age is a socio‑religious movement (Geoffroy, 1999a,b 2000, 2001). Beyer (2003) has recently called the New Age a "social movement religion" and Beckford (2003) has made similar links between the New Age and new social movement theory. In a relativist position, there can only be a social movement form that does not allow for any form of institutionalization. If this happens, it is because the group or person is slipping into a pluralist position. Heelas (1996) has argued that many elements of the New Age are still modern, so the movement cannot be closely associated with postmodern ideals. My typology resolves this debate by showing that the New Age Movement is floating between a pluralist and a relativist position on some issues, but that for the most part it has a relativist position that is linked to some of the postmodern ideals. In the state of flux of the multiple modernities in the Global Age, it is only normal that a globalized religious movement such as the New Age moves between the competing definitions of modernity.

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