Comparative Religion

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Although it is possible to trace the origin of comparative religion to the sixth century Greek thinker Xenophanes, who noted that different peoples tend to depict God in their own image, it was not until the nineteenth century that the study of comparative religion began in earnest. Under the influence of evolutionary theory a number of scholars found what they believed to be evolutionary links between various religious traditions. Chief among these were F Max Muller, E B Tylor, and J G Fraser. The discipline gained rapid academic recognition, and chairs were established in various institutions, particularly the new universities of North America. In Britain the subject tended to serve the needs of the empire and was closely linked to the study of Asian languages. In Germany it took the form of the history of religions, which was seen as an adjunct to Christian theology.

In the United States, under the influence of institutions like the University of Chicago, it became an important element in the expression of the American liberal consensus. As an undergraduate subject comparative religion became highly popular in the late 1960s and early 1970s, with the result that new religious studies departments were opened in many universities in Britain and North America.

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In its crudest form comparative religion makes the assumption that all religions are essentially one. Thus the ten commandments of Judaism, the teachings of Jesus, the four noble truths of Buddhism, and various Hindu moral codes are compared to show that they all contain a common denominator such as the command to love one's neighbor. In a similar way it is often argued that despite apparent differences, all men worship a supreme being. However, serious study of various religions has revealed more disagreements than agreements. Thus, while it may be true that English housewives and African women in Uganda carry umbrellas, this information tells us very little about the actual life style of the women involved. Using an umbrella to protect oneself from the rain is not the same as using it to avoid the glare of the sun.

Similarly, prayer to God in Christianity and meditation in Buddhism may look similar, but the object of each exercise is very different. Such a religion as Theravada Buddhism, in fact, presents a strong argument against crude forms of comparative religion because of its rejection of the importance of belief in God and denial of the existence of an individual self. As a result of considerations like these, the study of religion as a universal phenomenon with a variety of different expressions has become increasingly complex. Some scholars still retain a desire to find an underlying unity, while many others have abandoned this quest in favor of the study of a particular religious tradition which they recognize to be unique.

I Hexham
(Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)

E J Sharp, Comparative Religion; M Eliade and J M Kitagawa, eds., The History of Religions; N Smart, Reasons and Faiths.

The individual articles presented here were generally first published in the early 1980s. This subject presentation was first placed on the Internet in May 1997.

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