Comparing Religions


Religion is a vastly diverse and powerful phenomenon in human culture. It is a key determinant of worldview, culture, morality, behavior, beliefs, and ritual practice. As such, it is an important object of study in its own right. However, the comparative study of religions is a relatively new enterprise. Moreover, many of the earliest approaches to this field made the mistake of evaluating different religions normatively. This approach was valid in its own time and place, but it created the danger of mistaking a normative evaluation of different religions for the task of accurately describing them.

A more accurate and fruitful approach is a phenomenological one. This avoids the problem of judging different religions objectively and instead studies them from an insider perspective that seeks to understand their inner workings, their effect on people’s lives, and their evolution over time.

One of the most influential phenomenological approaches was developed by Durkheim. He argued that religion is a social function that promotes cohesion and solidarity and prevents radical change by acting as a conservative force. For example, if someone is bereaved by the death of a loved one, religion can help them to cope with their grief by providing hope that they will see their lost loved ones in an afterlife.

Other phenomenological approaches to religion have gone further. They have rejected the notion of thing-hood or object-hood and have focused on functional definitions of the term, for example in Paul Tillich’s definition of religion as whatever a person’s dominant concern is that serves to organize their values (whether or not it involves belief in supernatural forces or cosmological orders). Some scholars have also criticized the concept of religion by arguing that its modern semantic expansion went hand in hand with European colonialism.

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