The Challenge of Comparative Religion

An excerpt from Chapter 1 of The New Sciences of Religion: Exploring Spirituality from the Outside In and Bottom Up (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010)

Buy the book on AmazonReligions themselves tend to be uncomfortable with the label "religion," suggesting that they are merely one among many. "Authentic" Christianity, for instance, invites its followers to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, the Lord and Savior, and "by no other name" shall salvation be achieved (Acts 4:12). It makes an exclusivist claim, although we could point to other scriptural sources and interpretations that would argue within the Christian idiom against this very exclusivity.9

There is simply no such thing as "generic religion," which puts a damper on the proposed scientific study of religion. The twentieth-century Harvard philosopher and atheist George Santayana (1863-1952) notes:

All religion is positive and particular. Any attempt to speak without speaking any particular language is not more hopeless than the attempt to have a religion that shall be no religion in particular. . . . Every living and healthy religion has a marked idiosyncrasy. Its power consists in its special and surprising message and the bias, which that revelation gives to life. The vistas it opens and the mysteries it propounds are another world to live in: and another world to live in -- whether we expect ever to pass wholly over into it or no -- is what we mean by having a religion.10


An Analogy to Linguistics

Let's turn Santayana's analogy between particular religions and particular human languages upside down, recalling also our discussion of Goethe's aphorism. Instead of supporting his extreme particularist conclusion about religions as incommensurate, the analogy to human languages actually provides a new way to think in universal categories about diverse religions.

While all human languages are idiosyncratic, there is, nevertheless, the field of linguistics that allows us to talk about the common grammatical structures of different human languages. True, one cannot practice linguistics without using a specific human language to discuss the philosophy and structure of language. English linguists speak in English as they compare Chinese and Russian. French linguists speak in French as they compare Hindi and Arabic. Chinese-, Russian-, Hindi-, and Arabic-speaking linguists are happy to return the favor in comparing English and French. All of them use the same concepts and terminology -- nouns, verbs, tense, phonemes, semantic meanings, semiotic codes, and so on -- and apply these concepts universally to deciphering the universal regularities of particular human languages.

Nor are these particular living human languages ever really isolated islands unto themselves. Languages evolve over time, and this often involves significant borrowing from other languages. Furthermore, while something is surely lost in translation, every living language can be translated. The term for "dog" or "god" in various languages is particular, seemingly arbitrary, but the objects that they universally reference are real, explicitly in the case of the dog and perhaps implicitly in the case of the god. The diversity of human languages is surely idiosyncratically evolved, but it would be strange to declare chauvinistically that the only valid way one can order a cup of coffee is in German. Eine Tasse Kaffee, bitte! The implication here is that there is a universal "grammar" of religions, that they are not fundamentally incommensurate, and that we can go beyond the peculiarities to decode common patterns, structures, and functions.

Religions in this view are minimally systems, like human languages, that systematically code and transmit information. The British philosopher John Bowker also uses this definition: "At their most basic level, religions can best be understood as systems organized (in very different ways) for the coding, protection and transmission of information (some of it verbal, but a great deal of it, in the religious case, non-verbal)." This seems to me an accurate and purely descriptive account of religion, but Bowker goes on to suggest that religions are "discoveries of human competence," "proved to be of worth," and "tested through many generations."11 This positive assessment of religion will be explicitly challenged by many of the theorists and scientists we encounter in the following chapters, who will claim that religions are inventions of human incompetence of little worth and now proven to be fundamentally wrong in detail.

The analogy to human languages is also illuminating on another level because it can account for the variety of religions in the world today. The idea of creating a universal human language, Esperanto, is and was a misconceived idea because it would necessarily become merely one new particular language among the many. So too is a religion of all religions, which would simply be a new particular religion, as in the case of the Baha'i faith. A science of all religions, not unlike linguistics, may be a possibility, though we might be forced to employ a particular religious idiom (and practice) in order to plum the deeper semantics of the phenomena. As Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913), the founder of modern linguistics, successfully proposed, we can separate the regular structure of a language -- langue -- from the meaningful uses of the language in everyday situations -- parole. This distinction between the semiotics of language and the semantic reference of language can be only a temporary move, however, because we cannot understand how languages arise and evolve over time without understanding their semantic uses in living cultures.12 Here, then, is our analogy between the semiotics-structure of religion and the semantics-meanings of religion. An adequate science of religion can only temporarily ignore the questions of meaning and reference, if we are to understand fully the phenomenon, its origins, uses, and evolution.

This brings us to the idea of particularist universalism in religion, a concept that I will return to at the end of this book. The idea is again by analogy to human languages and linguistics. The ultimate truth of religion will best be explored inside a particular religious idiom, much as we live, love, learn, work, and dream within one particular human language at a time. And while it is possible to be bilingual and multilingual, it is not possible to speak two languages simultaneously. This discussion of particular idiosyncrasies and universal truths of religion, however, must be postponed, until we complete the first stage of this phenomenological inquiry.

The Universal Grammar of Religions

I will now make a bold assertion, which many will find implausible. There is more functional diversity within a great tradition than between great traditions. By way of example, I am asserting that there is more functional diversity of beliefs and practices among Christians than between Christians in general and Buddhists in general. Of course, Christians and Buddhists do not share the same foundational stories and scriptures, so they disagree about dogma and doctrines. If, on the other hand, we undertake a phenomenological and functional analysis of religions, we will discover many commonalities in the range of actual practices and the "structures" of actual beliefs.

Western appropriations of Buddhism tend to focus on meditative practices and supposed lack of belief in supernatural deities, but this completely obscures the actual practices of the vast majority of Buddhist around the world. By far the largest branch of Buddhism is known as Pure Land Buddhism, in which believers devote themselves to a particular bodhisattva in hope of sitting out eternity in a hedonistic heaven through the grace and supernatural intervention of the bodhisattva. It turns out that the god-like bodhisattva has made a Jesus-like sacrifice on our behalf. During my recent stay in Sri Lanka, I witnessed many of these "Mahayana" practices at Buddhist temples and homes in an ostensible orthodox Theravada country. Technically, the bodhisattva is not a Theravada concept, but in practice, lay Buddhists in Sri Lanka, with the support of the monks, make offerings and recite prayers in the hope of superhuman assistance in their daily lives and future incarnations. This feature seems to me to be functionally equivalent to Pentecostal Christianity, Bhakti Hinduism, and devotional Islam, and everywhere throughout the world ends up being the most popular form of religiosity.

Buy the book on AmazonSimilarly, scholars of religion and apologists for specific religions have tended to draw a sharp divide between the monotheism of the Abrahamic faiths, the "Western religions," and the polytheism and nontheism of "Eastern religions." Here, too, I think we miss the point. In practice, the monotheistic traditions often elevate Satan to a force independent of God, thus reverting to what is technically a heresy and turning themselves into something more akin to Zoroastrianism, with its concept of the dueling deities of Light and Darkness. Furthermore, the monotheistic faiths include a whole apparatus of angels, archangels, and saints, which further blurs the lines with polytheism. In his book God: A Biography, Jack Miles offers a psychohistorical reading of the Hebrew Bible and concludes that we have traded many gods with many personalities for a single God with multiple personality disorder.13 Hinduism, in theory, is more accepting of this ambiguity, even as it affirms its own kind of transcendent unity in the notion of Brahma. "The Truth is one, but the wise man calls it by many names" is the classic verse from the ancient Rig Veda (1.164.46).

The diversity of world religions is perhaps analogous to what we now know about ethnic diversity and genetics. If we trace the genetic diversity of humans through our mitochondrial DNA, which is transmitted only on the female side, it turns out that we may have more in common genetically with someone of another race than with someone in our own race. It turns out that most of the phenotypic differences between different races╤skin color, eye color and shape, hair color, and so on --have been only recently been acquired in the evolution of humanity. As recently as seventy thousand years ago, humanity may have experienced sudden catastrophic climate change due to the eruption of Mt. Toba in Indonesia, which reduced the human population to as little as ten thousand breeding pairs. We are all descendants of these survivors. Most of our racial and genetic diversity as a species is thought to have developed after this earth-shattering event.14

I am arguing again that the new sciences of religion should be understood as something akin to the field of linguistics; they are seeking the "grammatical" structures of religion in general based on a careful analysis of particular religions. We can also study the evolution of particular religions and their family trees, just as we study the evolution of languages. Only then can we engage in philosophical speculation about the nature of religion as such and whatever universals might be deduced or implied. Based on the biological and anthropological commonality, there is a lot of exciting work to be done, but this must also embrace textual, theological, and philosophical analyses. It is time for the intellectual pendulum to swing forward toward a study of the universality of religions, though in doing so, we cannot ignore the differences and the concrete particulars.


9. It is not the case that Christianity and other religions necessarily reject the validity of other faiths, even as they might argue for their own superiority over other approaches. Part of the genius of Hindu civilization is its ability to absorb and incorporate many diverse religions and incompatible philosophies into its synthesizing spirit. Jews understand themselves to be a chosen people with a special covenant with God, but this is not to say that God does not also relate to other peoples and faiths. Islam also affirms the diversity of faiths as part of God's plan: "We have created you male and female, and have made you nations and tribes that you may know one another. The noblest of you, in the sight of Allah, is the best in conduct" (Qu'ran, Sura 49:13). These are complex texts and traditions, so other verses and examples also can be cited to contradict this implied inclusivity. At this stage, I need only note that particular religions recognize and sometimes affirm the legitimacy of other particular religions. Concerns about orthodoxy and heterodoxy are historically mostly matters internal to particular traditions, not so much between traditions.

10. George Santayana, Life of Reason, vol. 3, Reason in Religion (New York: Prometheus Books, [1905-06] 1998).

11. John Bowker, The Sense of God (Oxford: Oneworld Publications, [1973] 1995), x.

12. Paul Ricoeur, Interpretation Theory: Discourse and the Surplus of Meaning (Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 1976).

13.  Jack Miles, God: A Biography (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995).

14. Stanley H. Ambrose, "Late Pleistocene Human Population Bottlenecks, Volcanic Winter, and Differentiation of Modern Humans," Journal of Human Evolution 34, no. 6 (1998); Ambrose, "Volcanic Winter, and Differentiation of Modern Humans," Bradshaw Foundation, Accessed June 12, 2009.

Join Metanexus Today

Metanexus fosters a growing international network of individuals and groups exploring the dynamic interface between cosmos, nature and culture. Membership is open to all. Join Now!