Comparative Religion

Comparative Religion

COMPARATIVE RELIGION. The term comparative religion broadly signifies the study of all traditions and forms of religious life, as distinguished from the study or exposition of just one. Ideally, and more specifically, it is the disciplined, historically informed consideration of commonalities and differences among religions. Indeed, such cross-cultural or global perspective is entailed in the notion of an academic study of religion.

Comparison is a fundamental mental activity: grouping some things together under a common class or pattern, but also noticing how the examples vary in relation to each other. Such connections and relationships are the basis of thought and science. Without them, there are only isolated, contextless facts. It is on the basis of comparison that generalizations, interpretations, and theories are formed. Hence, comparative frames can create new ways of perceiving and organizing the world.

One cannot generalize about religion on the basis of a single case, just as geologists do not construct geological science on the basis of the rocks that simply happen to be in one's backyard. The local rocks, like the local religions, are themselves instances of certain universal chemistries and patterned formations. Accordingly, without identifying these recurring factors it is not possible to know what any particular religious tradition or phenomenon has in common with others and, consequently, how it differs from them.

At the same time, the comparative enterprise has been used for many different purposes. Thus, while cross-cultural perspective has been considered one of the great achievements of religious studies, it has also come under criticism as a source of distortion and cultural bias. Indeed, a whole range of religious and scientific motivations have driven comparative religion, and that has made it an area of controversy. For example, it has been used to demonstrate the superiority of one's own religion; to show that all religions are "the same"; to demonstrate that one can understand each religion from its own point of view; or to simply map a variegated landscape of different traditions. Likewise, it has been used to demonstrate any number of competing theories about the origin and nature of religion. Insofar as it has taken an even-handed approach to all religions, religious conservatives have perceived it as a relativizing of belief, and hence a threat to religious convictions.

While travelers and theologians have always formed views about other peoples' religions, the notion of an academic field of comparative religion emerged in the late nineteenth century in European and American universities, reflecting scholarly goals. It addressed the need to synthesize the enormous amount of information that was accumulating about the religions of the world, past and present, including new knowledge about non-Western traditions. This involved not only analyzing commonalities, differences, and types of religious life, but also postulating stages of historical or evolutionary development. This entry gives an overview of some salient points in the history of comparative religion (see Sharpe's Comparative Religion: A History, 1986, for a comprehensive account) and then addresses issues that had surfaced by the beginning of the twenty-first century.

Some Religious Versions of "Comparative Religion"

The nineteenth-century founders of academic comparative religion faced provincial, heavily biased Euro-Christian maps about "other" religions. For example, until the early nineteenth century, Western culture still divided all religion into four kinds: Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and paganism. In that schema, everything outside the biblical traditions was "idolatry"—the supposed worship of false gods, or idols—and Christianity was given a place of automatic superiority to Judaism and Islam. Likewise, other religious cultures have also conducted the study of religions through the standard of their own faith.

Historically, and to take a Western example, Christian theologians developed specific strategies for explaining the existence of other religions. These ranged from outright negative accounts (other religions were the work of demons) to relatively positive ones (other religions resulted from an innate human capacity to know God, even though the special revelation of Christ was the fulfillment of that capacity). In between were a host of "historical" explanations: polytheistic religions were originally monotheistic, traceable to the sons of Noah, but deteriorated due to human depravity; religions that appeared "like" Christianity must have borrowed or received the ideas through historical contact; other gods were simply deified kings and heroes and hence not really gods at all. Allegorical interpretation was another form of comparison. Here the gods and myths of other religions could be construed as containing "signs" of Christian truths; for example, Athena could be said to stand for God's wisdom.

In the latter third of the twentieth century, the notion of interfaith dialogue gained some currency, featuring a "listening" stance toward other religions, and not merely a prejudging position that stereotypes others. Wilfred Cantwell Smith (1916–2000), an influential Christian comparativist and specialist in Islam, emphasized that the comparative study of religion needed to responsibly describe the living qualities and values of other peoples' faiths in a way that those persons themselves would be able to recognize.

Alongside such views of other religions, another religious approach existed, one that could broadly be called universalism. In that version of comparison, all religions refer to the same underlying spiritual reality, manifest through varying cultural forms—just as water remains water regardless of what it is called in different languages. Even in the world of ancient Greece, there was a well-known doctrine of "the equivalence of the gods." Thus, the fifth-century BCEhistorian Herodotus could report that the gods of Egypt were basically Egyptian names for Greek divinities. In the Far East, Buddhists commonly interpreted native Chinese and Japanese gods as "manifestations" of cosmic buddhas. Universalism remains a popular form of comparative religion for those interested in sameness and unity rather than difference.

The Rise of Academic Comparative Religion

From the mid-nineteenth century, in contrast to explicitly normative approaches, an academic version of comparative religion emerged. This was made possible by expanding knowledge of non-Western religions and preliterate cultures, and also by evolutionary rather than scriptural views of human history. An influential advocate was F. Max Müller (1823–1900), a German-born and Oxford-based scholar of the Sanskrit language, sometimes regarded as the "father of comparative religion." Müller, who edited a fifty-volume translation series titled The Sacred Books of the East (1879–1910), made a particularly strong case that the study of religion should outgrow in-house Western mappings and take into account the great civilizational religions of Asia. He also advocated that comparative religion is to any one religion as comparative philology is to the study of any particular language, and as comparative anatomy is to the anatomy of any one species. He applied to religion what the poet Goethe said of language, that "he who knows one, knows none" (Müller, 1872, p.11). Thus the study of one religion could shed light on the study of another. Müller outlined a broad program that included learning about a religion through its own writings, grouping religions according to regional and linguistic patterns, exercising critical historical methods, understanding the nature of religious and metaphoric language, and avoiding the common tendency to compare positive aspects of one religion with negative aspects of another.

Another of the best known of these premodern comparativists was the Scottish classicist and anthropologist James G. Frazer (1854–1941), particularly through his work The Golden Bough, first published in 1890 and later to grow to twelve volumes. The work is a vast compendium of worldwide patterns of ritual and myth—motifs that Frazer interpreted as marking stages of human thinking prior to the age of science. A primary theme of the book is the renewal of the world through ritual or symbolic deaths, deaths that in turn lead to the rebirth of nature or society. Frazer examined the topic through cyclical rites of succession to sacred kingship, but also through the symbolisms of seasonal festivals, mythologies of "dying and rising gods," rites of scapegoating and expulsion, and related themes such as sympathetic magic and taboo. He also held that once some of these patterns are understood as ways that the "archaic" human mind worked, then particular historical practices and beliefs, otherwise obscure, might become intelligible. The field of anthropology, in sharp contrast, went on to focus on field studies of particular cultures and tended to reject the grand, armchair approach to comparison represented by Frazer's encyclopedic lists of parallels.

As students of religion aspired to develop an academic field, they began to map their subject matter not only historically but structurally. From the end of the nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century, so-called phenomenologies of religion tried to catalog and describe every kind of religious phenomenon, including types of objects of veneration (e.g., sky, sun, fire, ancestors) and kinds of ritual practice. What a Linnaeus had done for the botanical world was now to be done for religion: its many species or "classes of phenomena" needed to be named and organized. By the latter part of the twentieth century, after the age of these encyclopedic collections, creative comparative work tended to focus on particular topics, such as origins myths, evil, mysticism, sacrifice, pilgrimage, rites of passage, theology, violence, women's rites, and the body.

Theories of religion, whether of a sociological or psychological kind, all engaged in identifying recurrent patterns and typologies in religion, though not necessarily under the banner of "comparative religion." Examples can be seen in the psychological archetypes of the school of C. G. Jung (e.g., the Great Mother, the Hero, the Trickster); or Max Weber's typologies of ways that religions reflected social values in various cultures; or Claude Lévi-Strauss's "structuralism," which identified patterned binary oppositions in the language of mythology. In the field of religious studies per se, arguably the most influential comparativist of the last generation was the Romanian-born scholar Mircea Eliade.

Mircea Eliade(1907–1986)

Eliade's "history of religions" approach at the University of Chicago (he joined the faculty in 1956) produced a notable generation of scholars oriented to cross-cultural, thematic studies and provided an expansive, creative vision about the cultural importance of a global, comparative perspective. Eliade's "new humanism" represented the culmination of the classic tradition, but also an approach that many of the newer generation in the last two decades of the century either contested or tried to modify.

Eliade's work had exceptional range. He was equally interested in the elite and popular forms of religious culture, projecting a fascination with the sheer variety of "modalities of the sacred." He sometimes likened this diversity to the many creative universes constructed by the arts. His view was that religions are not just philosophical beliefs, but inhabited, engaged worlds defined by ways that the sacred is perceived and ritually enacted. Nonreligious worlds lack this dimension of sacrality. Eliade was well known for his descriptions of thematic ways that religious cultures symbolize their worlds through representations of sacred space, sacred time, and natural symbols, and his ideas here may be summarized briefly.

Many religious cultures endow certain spaces or objects with the function of being "the center of the world," an "axis of the world" (axis mundi), or an "opening" to the world of the gods. These become sites of orientation and ritual, linking "heaven and earth." The comparison of religions shows innumerable such centers of the world, side by side, each absolute for their respective believers. A grand-scale example would be the great Muslim shrine, the Ka˓bah, in Mecca, the place toward which Muslims face in their daily prayers and toward which they are faced at burial.

As with space, religious cultures ground themselves in their own sacred histories. In the "great" times of origin, the gods or ancestors created all the significant religious institutions and teachings that adherents still live by and that they still rehearse. This is not just chronological time, but a world that can be accessed periodically and continually re-presented through ritual and festival times. In this way, one's present world is reconnected to its origins. To this extent, religious people live out of the archetypes, laws, and narratives of their past, whether in oral or scriptural form.

Eliade also held that sacrality is expressed through and incorporated in various symbolisms of the natural world. These include the transcendence of the sky, the fecundity and periodic renewal of the earth and its vegetation, the power of the sun, the waxing and waning cycle of the moon, the durability of stone, and the solubility and regenerative qualities of water—all described at length in his comprehensive Patterns in Comparative Religion (first published in French, 1949). In turn, however, these universal or archetypal values were to become a point of criticism, namely, that they were too ahistorical and "Platonic."

Objections to Comparativism

Eliade's work, and that of all who drew generalizations from cross-cultural materials, elicited a set of issues about the nature of the comparative enterprise. In a benchmark critical essay published in 1971 in History of Religions, Jonathan Z. Smith challenged the lack of methodological foundation and control for what usually passed as comparison. Indeed, in the last two decades of the twentieth century, where an age of specialization was replacing an age of generalization and a postmodern ideological climate challenged Western metalanguages, comparativism came under full suspicion—even though global, multicultural "understanding" was emerging on another, popular front. A number of critical issues surfaced and may be summarized under five points.

The first criticism is that comparison suppresses cultural difference. It can do this in two ways. The first is by imposing a false, superficial homogeneity on all its examples. Universal patterns, with their preestablished meanings, are then allowed to override specific contexts of meaning. In this sense, the distinctiveness of religious cultures would seem to remain elusively off the comparative grid, for the representation of others is reduced to only those points that illustrate and replicate the scholar's own categories, themes, or molds.

An example of the issue of cultural difference is pointed out in Jonathan Z. Smith's critique (To Take Place, 1987, pp. 1–23) of Eliade's attribution of the "center of the world" motif to the totemic pole of the Australian Arunta. Eliade had interpreted the pole as a kind of portable "world axis" that could be carried from place to place, allowing the tribe to remain "at the Center." Smith argued that a more careful examination indicated a different contextual orientation. He tried to show that aboriginal Australian notions of space were based on memorialized ancestral "traces" and "tracks" rather than constructed, hierarchic edifices, and thus differed from the kinds of Near Eastern imagery Eliade had based his category on. The latter featured notions of a "Center" based on strong political centralization and significant ritual templates about constructed vertical relations between upper and lower worlds, such as city-state temples. Smith concluded that "the 'Center' is not a secure pattern to which data may be brought as illustrative; it is a dubious notion that will have to be established anew on the basis of detailed comparative endeavors" (p. 17).

Another form of suppressing differences is the kind that has a "colonialist," politically hegemonizing function. Critics here are concerned about a conceptual imperialism exercised by one culture, religion, gender, or class on others. It is charged that the comparativists' maps can subordinate, obliterate, or render invisible the subjectivity and voices of others. Generalizations about initiation rites, for example, might in fact be based entirely on male examples, and descriptions of "origins" mythologies may only draw illustrations from the traditions and interests of the socially elite classes.

A second criticism of comparativism is the argument of incomparability. Religious phenomena, it is claimed, are indelibly embedded in unique sociocultural settings. If removed from those wholes—plucked out, so to speak, and set alongside similar pieces from other cultures—they will lose their original meanings, meanings that are always linked to local and contextual behaviors. An alternative approach would be to build a specialist's knowledge of a particular religious tradition, through its own self-representations and categories. In this sense, area specialists have always been wary of comparativists encroaching on and decontextualizing their subject matter.

A third objection to comparative work stems from the postmodern challenge to the very notions of objectivity and neutrality. Many would deny that there are such things as objective cultural "facts." It would follow that comparativists cannot draw valid generalizations simply by lining up supposed data, because all cultural descriptions and patterns are ultimately invented, or at best imagined, by the scholar.

A fourth kind of criticism is that comparativism has typically been too theological in the way it organizes its material. While it is not surprising that many scholars interested in religion have religious interests themselves, Eliade's work and that of the phenomenology of religion tradition have often assumed that religion is ultimately based on a general divine reality that is then manifest in various forms. Consequently, religious life is represented as a kind of encounter with divine revelation. Critics with a naturalistic view of religion take this to be an unwarranted reference to a metaphysical foundation of all religion. Instead of taking an outsider's analytical viewpoint, the comparativist is thus accused of simply assuming or replicating the language of religious insiders.

Finally, and in contrast, there is the argument that comparative religion is not objective enough: it is merely descriptive and not explanatory, and thus lacks scientific value. In order to contribute to cumulative knowledge, as opposed to just positing individualistic interpretations, comparativism would need to show in a testable way how specific religious ideas and practices recur and vary in relation to specific social and historical conditions. The challenge here is not just to assert commonality or difference, not just to list parallels, but rather to explain them, and the charge is that comparative religion scholarship has yet to incorporate and apply the canons of empirical and analytical methods.

Reconstructing Comparativism

Important critiques of comparison meant that the method and rationale of cross-cultural descriptions have had to be defined and controlled more carefully and plausibly. Hence, the post-Eliadean period has seen several emergent articulations that attempted to address, if not remediate, some of the problems just listed.

Aspectual, Limited Comparative Focus

One element of a reconstituted comparativism has been to secure greater definition of the act of comparison itself. Thus, focusing on and controlling the exact, stipulated point of analogy, the comparativist should acknowledge that the objects—the things compared—may be quite incomparable in other respects and for other purposes. As Fitz John Porter Poole put it in the seminal article "Metaphors and Maps" (1986), restrained comparison "does not deal with phenomena in toto or in the round, but only with an aspectual characteristic of them.… Neither phenomenologically whole entities nor their local meanings are preserved in comparison" (pp. 414–415). Comparisons, like all explanations, maps, and generalizations, are necessarily abstractions, and no comparative pattern covers the complexity of the objects to which it applies. For example, to describe or explain someone as a Canadian does not pretend to assume that the person's individual complexity, special voice, or "difference" is accounted for under that generic trait. Nor is the individual's particularity obliterated by such a trait designation: it is simply not addressed. Apples and oranges may not be "the same," but they do share some common aspects—for example, they both are round, edible, and belong to the class "fruit." Canadians, or sacred space, or "the paradigmatic function of myth," are also such classes.

One outcome of this approach is that large-block, essentialized comparisons, such as Asian versus Western religion, can give way to specific, controlled analogies between particular kinds and aspects of religious behavior. For example, research such as that of Barbara Holdrege in Veda and Torah (1996) breaks down the otherwise stereotyped difference between Hinduism and Judaism by identifying common aspects of these two traditions. Hence, both are "textual communities" that have codified the norms of orthodoxy in the form of scriptural canons; both are cultural systems concerned with blood lineages and intergenerational transmission of tradition; and both involve regimens with strict regulations concerning purity, impurity, and dietary laws. Again, these traditions are not "the same," but they do have significant patterns and points of resemblance.

Affirmation of Differences

Comparison involves not only connecting two or more examples to illustrate a common factor, but also showing how the examples differ in relation to that factor. The differences then reveal the variability of the pattern in cultural contexts. In turn, the many variations enrich understanding of the pattern and can lead to differentiating the pattern into its subtypes. Thus many kinds of sacred space or origins myths can be identified.

Using culturally defined topics as a basis of comparison, such as "God," or "Saviors," privileges those religious ideas by making them the standard. But what if the unit of comparison lies at the panhuman rather than cultural level? Are there not common forms of human behavior shared by all societies? New lines of comparativism have therefore looked for species-level continuities of human behavior and cognition. For example, in The Implied Spider (1998) Wendy Doniger advocates a "bottom-up" rather than a "top-down" approach, meaning that instead of assuming commonalities regarding broad culturally infused topics such as sacrifice or "high gods," comparativists could find certain shared panhuman factors such as gendered sexuality, body, desire, and procreation and their concomitant story motifs or shared human problems, and then identify individual diversity in relation to them. This variety is endless, even among individuals in given cultures.

Human universals, here, do not refer to preexisting, ahistorical meanings but to shared predispositions and kinds of social behaviors found in all cultures. For example, humans not only sleep, procreate, and eat, they also form societies that fashion laws and moral orders, create "histories," perform periodic rites, and endow objects and persons with special charisma or authority. Cultures will improvise on these common social dispositions in their own manner and with their own contents. Thus religious groups articulate "pasts" and "origins," but each of these histories is different and comprises its own worldview; and every religion has a kind of sacred moral order, but what it is that constitutes order and its violation will differ. Likewise, members of every religion remember their past in periodic rites and festivals, but the content of what is recalled is different in every case, revealing what is of value to that particular group. For example, the content of major annual rites may variously have to do with the sacred authority of a social hierarchy (e.g., kings, emperors, ancestors), or the display of ideal military values, or the prestige of the religious founder. In this sense, cultural difference is not suppressed but showcased.

Debates about the relation of particularity and commonality will continue. Also evolving are more clearly defined protocols of comparison and fresh theoretic frameworks for synthesizing cross-cultural material. The emerging global orientation of the study of religion in higher education will provide a setting for those developments. Just as comparative perspective contains the risks of distortion, it also has the potential to add new contexts of intelligibility to the history of religions, and to foster intercultural understanding.


Carman, Jon B., and Steven P. Hopkins, eds. Tracing Common Themes: Comparative Courses in the Study of Religion. Atlanta, 1991. Shows various ways that comparative topics and perspectives can be addressed in college religion courses.

Doniger, Wendy. The Implied Spider: Politics and Theology in Myth. New York, 1998. Example of how the "webs" of universal human dispositions can contextualize individual variations.

Eliade, Mircea. Patterns in Comparative Religion. Translated by Rosemary Sheed. Cleveland, Ohio, 1958. A classic, encyclopedic account of recurrent types of religious symbolism.

Eliade, Mircea. The Sacred and the Profane. Translated by Willard R. Trask. New York, 1959. Widely read summary statement by the best-known comparative religion scholar.

Frazer, James G. The Golden Bough, abridged ed. New York, 1963. First published in 1922. Frazer's own abridgment of his twelve-volume work on ritual and mythic motifs.

Holdrege, Barbara. Veda and Torah: Transcending the Textuality of Scripture. Albany, N.Y., 1996. A major compara-tive study of Judaism and Hinduism, showing some profound commonalities.

Jay, Nancy. Throughout Your Generations Forever: Sacrifice, Religion, and Paternity. Chicago, 1992. Exemplary comparative study of the role that gender plays in the institution of sacrifice.

Jones, Lindsay. The Hermeneutics of Sacred Architecture: Experience, Interpretation, Comparison. 2 vols. Cambridge, Mass., 2000. Chapters 10 to 12 of volume 1 address two distinct, complementary, often sequential modes of comparison: synchronic morphological comparison and diachronic historical comparison.

Jordan, Louis Henry. Comparative Religion: Its Genesis and Growth. Edinburgh, 1905. Comprehensive survey of comparative religion scholarship at the turn of the twentieth century.

Martin, Luther H., ed. "The New Comparativism in the Study of Religion: A Symposium." Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 8, no. 1 (1996): 1–49. Debate on the function of comparison by scholars representing different approaches.

Martin, Luther H. "Comparison." In Guide to the Study of Religion, edited by Willi Braun and Russell T. McCutcheon, pp. 45–56. London, 2000. Reviews the critical role that theory plays in the uses of comparative religion.

Müller, F. Max. Lectures on the Science of Religion. New York, 1872. Seminal charter statement advocating the comparative study of religion as a new field of study.

Neville, Robert Cummings, ed. Ultimate Realities: A Volume in the Comparative Religious Ideas Project. Albany, N.Y., 2001. A major collaborative consideration of the processive nature of comparison and the vulnerability of comparative categories to correction and specification.

Numen: International Review for the History of Religions48, no. 3 (2001). The entire issue is devoted to essays on new approaches to comparativism.

Paden, William E. Religious Worlds: The Comparative Study of Religion. 2d ed. Boston, 1994. Overview of common patterns of religious "worldmaking" and the ways those patterns are exemplified through different cultural values.

Patton, Kimberley C., and Benjamin C. Ray, eds. A Magic Still Dwells: Comparative Religion in the Postmodern Age. Berkeley, 2000. Essays by fourteen scholars on the importance of comparative perspective in relation to the challenges of postmodernism.

Poole, Fitz John Porter. "Metaphors and Maps: Towards Comparison in the Anthropology of Religion." Journal of the American Academy of Religion 54 (1986): 411–457. Cogent analysis of the epistemological basis of comparative method by an anthropologist of religion.

Saler, Benson. Conceptualizing Religion: Immanent Anthropologists, Transcendent Natives, and Unbounded Categories. Leiden, 1993. Extensive review of resources for conceptualizing comparative categories.

Sharpe, Eric C. Comparative Religion: A History. 2d ed. La Salle, Ill., 1986. A richly informative account of the general development of comparative religion as an academic field.

Smart, Ninian. Dimensions of the Sacred: An Anatomy of the World's Beliefs. Berkeley, 1996. Outline of comparative themes by a well-known figure in the field.

Smith, Jonathan Z. "Adde Parvum Parvo Magnus Acervus Erit." History of Religions 11 (1971): 67–90. Now classic essay calling for more serious attention to the methodology of comparison.

Smith, Jonathan Z. Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown. Chicago, 1982. Chapters 1 and 2 review and pose critical issues about comparative method.

Smith, Jonathan Z. To Take Place: Toward Theory in Ritual. Chicago, 1987.

Smith, Jonathan Z. Drudgery Divine: On the Comparison of Early Christianities and the Religions of Late Antiquity. Chicago, 1990. Addresses issues of method in comparison, by way of a critique of Christian interpretations of Hellenistic period religions.

Wach, Joachim. The Comparative Study of Religions. Edited by Joseph M. Kitagawa. New York, 1958. Midcentury classic.

Waldman, Marilyn Robinson. Prophecy and Power: A Comparative Study of Islamic Evidence. Cambridge, Mass., 2004. Though focused on Islam, addresses broad questions about the comparison of religions as a strategic sociopolitical act as well as an academic method.

William E. Paden (2005)

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