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Patterns in Comparative Religion

by Michael Pye

PHILTAR Religion

This short introduction will help the user of the data base to develop a conspectual view of the many religions which are otherwise treated individually.

We know nowadays, more clearly than ever before, that there are very many different religions throughout the world. Since there are many religions, it is natural for us to ask what they have in common, and how they differ. However, while it is easy to ask many questions about religions, there may not always be easy answers to our questions.

Some religions are widespread throughout the world, being found in many different countries. The most important examples of very widespread religions are Buddhism, Christianity and Islam. However, when we look at these closely we see that they are divided into many varieties. In Sri Lanka and in South-East Asia the tradition of Theravada Buddhism is established and Buddhism in these countries shares a common set of particularly ancient scriptures known as the Pali Canon. In Mahayana Buddhism, however, other scriptures are held in strong esteem. Even within Mahayana Buddhism we can see major differences, for example, between the strong simplicity of Chan or Zen Buddhism, the devotional faith of Pure Land Buddhism in several varieties, and the mysterious detail of Tibetan Buddhism, or of the Shingon Buddhism of Japan. In the case of Christianity the Orthodox churches of Greece, Russia, Romania and elsewhere are closely related to each other, but they are rather different from the western or "latin" Catholicism. Dissimilar to both of these major Christian traditions are the numerous forms of Protestant Christianity found all over the world, examples being Methodism, the Baptist churches, and Pentecostalism. The Muslim world also has its share of variations. The most prominent division is that between the Sunnites and Shi'ites, but within these two streams there are further variations. The various forms of Buddhism, Christianity or Islam usually consider themselves to represent the true tradition, from which others have in various ways departed. And indeed some of these varieties are so different from each other that they might almost be regarded as different religions. So the question of orthodoxy, or authenticity arises.

Other religions are found mainly in one society or country. Important examples of these are Confucianism (China), Shinto (Japan) and Hinduism (India). Though these religions have an especially long and illustrious cultural history, there are other religions of this type which are, individually, less well known. These are the primal religions of small-scale societies, that is, the local religious traditions of various kinds which are found all over the world and which regulate the life pattern of the peoples concerned, for example in most of the countries of Africa and Latin America, in Indonesia, and in many parts of Asia. Prominent among these are the traditions which we sum up, for convenience, under the name of "shamanism". Even if we restrict the term shamanism to the peoples of North Asia, especially Siberia, there are important parallels in South-east Asia, in Africa, and in the Americas.

Other religions, while specific to one particular ethnic group, have spread widely through the world in the course of that people's history. The most obvious example of this is Judaism. Other examples are the religion of the Parsees and of the Sikhs. To some extent these religions are open to converts from other ethnic groups, or they convey a message which addresses humankind in general. At the same time the relationship to ethnic identity is quite important in these cases.

The fascinating religions of ancient cultures have often died away with those cultures themselves. Examples here are the religions of ancient Egypt, of ancient Greece and the Roman Empire, and of the sophisticated cultures of South and Central America such as the Incas, the Aztecs and the Maya. In some cases we have been bequeathed a rich mythological literature or astonishing monuments such as the pyramids of Egypt or Central America. Religions which have disappeared still exercise strong fascination on our imagination, stimulating us to think about the nature of the universe and the passage and destiny of human life within it.At the same time new religions have been born through the centuries and are still coming into being today, as a form of answer to the apparent needs of the time. Think here, for example, of Sikhism in the Punjab, Theosophy in India and in Europe, Scientology in America, Umbanda in Brazil, Won Buddhism or the Unification Church in Korea, Tenrikyo or Byakko Shinkokai in Japan, Cao Dai in Vietnam, Cargo Cults in Melanesia and New Guinea, Mario Legio in Kenya, Maria Lionza in Venezuela, the Kimbanguist church in the lower Congo region, and so on. They address recurrent questions in human experience, while at the same time, because they are new, they may seem to threaten the established order of things and are therefore quite controversial.

The overall number of religions is far greater than those mentioned here. Almost every country has its own special kinds of religion, whether new or traditional, as well as its own varieties of some of the well known religions mentioned above. It is not surprising that people often ask how this variety of religions is to be regarded. What are the similarities, the differences and the relationships between them?

For many people, the standpoint of their own traditional religion or personal faith will provide a starting point for thinking about these questions. Sometimes, therefore, the many religions are seen as alternatives or even rivals. Sometimes they are seen, rather, as additional options for the individual, and sometimes they are seen as variants of a single religion which is common to all humankind. Depending on the standpoint, it is quite common for people to regard religions other than their own as partial but more or less inadequate revelations or teachings. The real thing, the final truth, is then regarded as the teaching taught by one's own religion. This is often the position taken by religions which teach the unity of all religions, such as the Baha'i or the Unification Church. This understanding may be satisfactory for those who have reasons for holding one of the specific faiths mentioned, and there are quite a few other examples. The three major religions, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam, all regard themselves, according to most interpretations, as offering the clearest, the most complete, or the final teaching which humankind requires. In this context, however, we are not adopting the standpoint of any one religious faith or teaching. Rather, since there are many different standpoints of this kind, we will try to stand back from them and think the matter over a little more independently.

It will be better for the moment, therefore, to ask in what ways religions can be compared or classified within the general history of religions or the comparative study of religions. The comparative study of religions, as developed in modern times, has worked in different ways.Let us think about some of these ways briefly here. There are three important questions to be asked.

The first question is: Is there an outline structure which religions share, or mostly share? To put it another way, what is the "shape" of religion? What are the basic features of any religion, and how do they fit together? These are questions about the general morphology of religion. This question is really the starting point for other questions. For example, if we can agree that one important aspect of religion is what people do, then we can go on to ask about what they do in more detail, and to make comparisons. But what are the other aspects of religion? Is there a stable picture which we can hold in our minds in this respect?

The second question is: Can the various parts of different religions be compared with each other? For example, is prayer in one religion like prayer in another religion? Do people have the same kinds of feelings when they go to various religious buildings? What sorts of people have a special role to play in religion: monks and nuns, priests, shamans, prophets? Are these the same, or similar, in various religions? The comparison of particular parts, or elements, which seem to recur in more than one religion is called typology. To be even more clear, we may call it the typology of elements. Though it seems very attractive to see similarities in this way, we must remember that the elements compared in this case are only parts of religions which in themselves consist of many elements and are therefore altogether more complex. This leads into the third question.

The third question is: Are there different kinds of religions? To put it another way, what happens when we compare whole religions with each other? Can we conclude that some religions are of one particular kind, and that others are of another kind? This may be called the general typology of religions. It may also be helpful to think of it as a holistic typology, that is, a typology of religions as systems complete in themselves.

These three kinds of question have often been confused in the story of comparative religion. However, this is not the right place to go into scholarly polemics. Instead, it will be better to illustrate here in a little more detail what is meant by these questions in comparative religion. In conclusion a few books by well known authors will be named, in which widely based comparative studies have been undertaken.

First then, let us consider more fully the question of the morphology of religion. While religions may vary in their avowed goals and in the way in which they conceive of and present the meaning of their activities, there is nevertheless a basic structure which can be found in every religion. This is patterned according to four basic aspects, or dimensions, namely:

  1. the conceptual aspect (what people think, believe, or have in mind)
  2. the behavioural aspect (what people do)
  3. the social aspect (the way people are grouped with each other, or relate to others)
  4. the subjective aspect (what people feel)
These four aspects may be significant for other realms of life, such as sport, politics or business. However they are all aspects which are present in some way in every religion. If one of them is overlooked, something important will be lacking in our understanding of a religion.

From time to time people have thought that the most important thing about religion is to be found above all in just one of these aspects. For example, some older dictionaries define religion as "belief in supernatural beings", thus emphasising the conceptual aspect. Leading thinkers about religion have often assumed that its basic characteristic is the relationship between humankind and God. Clearly, this reflects the ideas of one family of religions, namely Judaism, Christianity and Islam. However, this characteristic is not typical of Jainism or Buddhism. It has often been said, for example of Hinduism or Judaism, that they are "a way of life", a statement which emphasises the behavioural or social aspect of religion. But most religions would claim in some sense to be "a way of life". And this does not mean that the conceptual aspect of religion is unimportant. Indeed there are most important conceptions such as Torah (in Judaism) or karma (in Hinduism) without which the way of life of the people would be very different. In other discussions about religion, we hear about the importance of what people feel or experience subjectively. These may be feelings of devotion, joy, ecstasy, mystical awareness, or inward peace. But in all these cases, the careful student of religion will notice that there is also a conceptual accompaniment to the subjective aspect, and also in some sense a social and a behavioural aspect. To conclude, all four aspects are important in the morphology of religion. In order to think a little more about each of these main aspects of religion, we will now proceed to the typology of elements.

We may begin to think about the typology of elements by looking a little more closely at some of the details of the conceptual aspect of religion. We can notice at once that there are various kinds of myth in different religions: myths of origin and creation, myths of salvation, myths about the end of the world. But there are also non-mythical doctrinal patterns, often of great complexity and beauty, ways of thinking about the meaning of human life which overlap and interact with each other. The various ideas about God, gods and goddesses, or high spiritual beings, are a part of the wide field to be explored here. Moreover there are also other ideas such as "karma", "justice", "rectitude", "love" or "compassion", which are of great importance in defining religious systems. Finally, it is well known that those who think about their own religion often work hard, conceptually, to establish what they believe to be the correct interpretation or to offer a more appropriate interpretation for the time in which they live. Thus we might consider an initial typology of religious concepts as follows:

  1. narrative concepts such as myth and legend,
  2. focusing concepts of the divine or "the numinous",
  3. underlying value concepts such as karma, justice and love, and
  4. interpretative concepts such as "orthodoxy", "guidance", or "consensus" (as in Islam).
The picture is sure to become more interesting, the more we look at it. For example, any of these three types might be taken up and organised into a doctrinal system, or not. At the same time, each of the four initial types can be considered in further detail: various kinds of myth, various kinds of divinity, various value concepts, and various approaches to the controversial question of interpretation. The other fundamental aspects of religion, the behavioural, the social and the subjective aspects, can all be further studied in the same way.

Let us consider next, very briefly, the aspect of behaviour. This can be broadly differentiated into explicitly religious behaviour and religious behaviour in the context of daily life. First just one example of religious behaviour will be explored, namely prayer and meditation, in order to illustrate the way in which the characteristics of different religions overlap. It may at first seem to be quite obvious, in the context of one religion known to us, what prayer is, or what meditation is. Moreover prayer and meditation might seem to be rather different from each other. At the same time there are some interesting connections between the two. Both prayer and meditation are forms of ritual behaviour which, in different situations, are more or less tightly structured. The word "ritual" means here that the behaviour is being carried out in the form of a learned pattern and with a specific intent. At the same time, experienced practitioners may not feel themselves to be constrained by the learned form, so that the ritual aspect is weakened.

In many religions prayers are offered to ask for benefits such as healing, protection or general prosperity and well-being. Prayers for rain, for example, are found in many different countries and religions. At other times and places prayers may be offered in order to avert disasters such as storms or flooding. In other cases, however, prayers are understood to be more like a kind of conversation with revered spiritual beings, leading into a feeling of communion with them. When prayer is moved on to this plane, the prayer has less to do with the daily, physical needs of the persons making the prayer. Rather, the spiritual being who is addressed moves into the centre of attention. To give some specific examples, Japanese Shinto prayers for benefits in this life are not very different from some kinds of petitionary prayer in Christianity. But on the other hand other kinds of prayer in Christianity are more like the devotion (bhakti) addressed to a particular divinity such as Vishnu or Kali found in some varieties of Hinduism. From this we can see that, while people may pray to different gods and goddesses about different things, there are some similarities in what they are doing. But there are also different kinds of prayer within one single religion.

Let us move on to consider meditation. The experience of relating to a god or goddess is known to occur not only in prayer, but also in meditations as practiced in various religions. However gods are not always important in meditations. Some meditations are rather a process of self-examination, of self-realisation or of self-knowledge. Once again the religious person as such becomes the centre of attention, though in a different way from before. Buddhism, especially Mahayana Buddhism, includes both kinds of meditations, that is to say, meditations with and without divinities. On many occasions, the wonderful figure of a Buddha or a Bodhisattva plays a central role in meditation. However meditation can also be structured around the analysis of one's own physical body or breathing processes, or on the relationship of thought processes to non-discrimination or emptiness. Similarly, in religions for which the concept of God is of central importance, such as Christianity or Islam, silence itself may be regarded as the purest form of prayer. This is known as contemplation, which may be regarded as a form of meditation. With prayer and meditation therefore we have an example of two closely related types of religious behaviour which we can distinguish, but which also share some characteristics.

Though one theme has been considered in a little detail here, we should not overlook that there are many varieties of religious behaviour, whether ritualised or not, which are important in the typological study of religion. Not all religious behaviour has the appearance of a ritual. We must realise that religious behaviour is often a part, even an important part, of daily life. That is to say, people behave in a certain way towards other people, during their normal activities, because they have learned to do this through religion. They have learned their behaviour in the context of the religious teaching which they wish to honour in their lives.

The social forms of religion also provide a wide field for comparative study. Some religions provide a symbolic system which provides meaning for the life a complete society, that is, a society which is also integrated in the other main features of life such as economics, custom and law, learning and socialisation. Small-scale societies in general will usually be found to have, or to have had, a socially integrative religious system with regular features such as a myth of origin, care of ancestors, rites of transition, and calendrical economic rituals. In more complex societies, however, we find other religions which display the social form of a limited community with a special interest, existing as best it can in a social environment which may be hostile. The difference between these two types is quite important. At the same time the picture is not at all simple. Among the well-known religions of the world we can easily distinguish between the ethnically oriented Brahmanism/Hinduism, Confucianism, Shinto or Judaism on the one hand, and the inter-ethnic religions such as Buddhism, Christianity and Islam on the other hand. But the religions in these two groups have participated in both of the sociologically distinguishable types in different historical situations.. Since many centuries, however, more complex societies have found room for alternative religious groups within society as a whole, though these have often been regarded as a threat in the first instance. Both Buddhism and Christianity, now widely established, were once regarded as a threat to the societies in which they arose. When considering the social forms of religion, much attention has also been paid to the various kinds of office or function assigned to special individuals such as priests and priestesses, priestly kings, prophets, monks, nuns, shamans, mediums, administrators, gurus, and many more. There are also other questions which have come to the fore. For example, much attention has been given recently to the various ways in which religion has been transposed into different positions in modern, complex societies. Attention has been drawn, for example, to "civil religion" (especially by Robert Bellah), "invisible religion" (especially by Thomas Luckmann) and "implicit religion" (especially by Edward Bailey). These all refer to dimensions of religion which have social force without having formal, visible religious organisation. The typology of the social forms of religion, therefore, should have the following preliminary headings:

  1. social forms of the religions of integrated, small-scale societies,
  2. social forms of religions forming voluntary communities within wider society, such as churches, temple organisations, and so on,
  3. the religiously conceived social identity, relations and functions of individuals, and
  4. the social forms of religion which is not explicitly organised or advertised as "religion".
The subjective aspect of religion can also be thought about typologically. This was understood a long time ago by William James who taught us a lesson with the very title of his famous book The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902). He argued that people's feeling about religion can be quite varied, depending on their personality. Some people have a positive, uncomplicated attitude about what seems to them to be a beneficent, providential God, while others experience spiritual agonies which need to be resolved through a religious process. Thirdly there is the mystical tradition which, in western religions, is characterised subjectively by the sense of union with God. Unfortunately the author of this book was not familiar with the religious traditions of Asia, or other parts of the world. However the idea was developed in other ways by Rudolf Otto's equally famous book in German Das Heilige (1917). This became well known all over the world in the English translation The Idea of the Holy (1923), but we should notice that the book is only partly about the "idea" of "the holy". More importantly it is about the "sense" of the holy or the sacred. Otto called this the "sense of the numinous", and believed that this could be found in religious experience all over the world. An important contribution in drawing attention to features of religious subjectivity in more wide-spread areas of cultural history was made by Mircea Eliade, for example in his book Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy (English translation from French, 1964). This book illustrates that we cannot be content with thinking about religious subjectivity from within one culture only. In a different way, the same point was also made by Ninian Smart with his book Reasons and Faiths (1958), in which he gave a much more balanced view of western and Asian religious subjectivity. Now that a better inter-cultural perspective has been achieved a more balanced typology of religious subjectivity is coming into view. At the broadest level of definition three types can be distinguished. These are:
  1. the correlational type, in which a sense of relationship to transcendent divine being is paramount,
  2. the integrational type, in which a sense of closeness, integration or unity with the divine is paramount, and
  3. the departure-oriented type, in which the sense of giving up attachments to material life and to conceptual constructs is paramount.
Within these types there are further variations and they are sometimes found in combination with each other in a particular religion. Third to be considered is the question of the general typology of religions, that is to say, the question of a classification of religions which groups them into different kinds. In thinking about this question, we are not considering whether a religion is especially good, not so good, or even in some way bad. These are matters about which people must reflect and debate in other ways. The question here is: Are there different kinds of religions, whatever we may think about them. People studying religions soon come to realise that there are indeed many kinds of religions. It has also often been declared that there are just a few main types with many variations. People interested in religious ideas may sort out religions according to what their leading ideas are: theism, monism, pantheism, etc., while people interested in sociology may emphasise features relating to society: state religions, civil religion, popular religion, and so on.

However, in a general typology of religions it is more appropriate to take account of several aspects. At the most general level of differentiation there seem to be two major kinds of religion. These will be explained briefly below. Each of these kinds can be differentiated further in various ways. Moreover there are many examples of mixed cases, religions which for historical reasons have taken on some of the characteristics of the other kind. The two main kinds have a distinctive social base, and therefore they were hinted at a little while ago. But they also have other divergent features which are related to the other categories of religion. Here they will be presented very simply, so that there will remain plenty of room for further discussion of this question by those who are interested.

The first major type of religion is the natural religion of a particular society. As regards the social aspect, it is very clear that such religions are there for all members of the society in question. Usually they are more or less obliged to take part in it. As explained above, all small-scale societies have such a religion, and for them its main features are a myth of origin, care for the ancestors, rites of transition, and calendrical economic rituals. Here the conceptual and behavioural aspects of religion are to be found. As far as the subjective aspect is concerned, the most important feeling is the sense of relation with the deities who are responsible for what happens in the world, whether beneficial or threatening. Thus this type of religion is, in the aspect of subjectivity, correlational. This kind of religion may be called "primal religion". The expression "primal" means that historically it has a certain priority, and that the basic aspects of religion can all be found within it.

The second major type of religion can be given various names. We might call it "salvation religion", "critical religion" or "guidance religion". These religions are founded by special religious leaders who have a distinctive message to give, over against the usual assumptions of the society in which they live. The major religions of the world belong to this type. But so,also, do a very large number of smaller religions which preach a special way of life to their members. When they first arose, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam stood in contradiction to their surroundings.

During the complex history of humankind, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam established themselves as major religions. As a result, they adapted themselves to various social and political pressures and adopted some of the functions of primal religions. In many societies they became the dominant religion, and in some periods of history they have been more or less compulsory. Not surprisingly, in such situations these religions then come to provide the usual rites of transition which every society needs. At the same time it is interesting to see that some of the well-established "primal" religions have given birth again and again to salvation religions or guidance religions. So we see that there are Hindu or Shinto "sects" which offer a universal message of salvation or guidance. These religions however are optional or voluntary. They have their own special teachings, their own social forms, and their own modes of subjective religious feeling. Since changes of this kind, called "crossovers" can be observed in both directions, the general typology of religions therefore becomes more complicated than at first appears.

In conclusion it must be said that the comparative study of religion is a rich field for study and reflection. We should not jump too hastily to conclusions! While learning about particular religions in various countries, we should also begin to think aboout the ways in which they are similar to each other, and the ways in which they are distinctive.

This introduction has also been published in a longer version which gives more information about some of the relevant specialist literature in the field.