Comparative Religion is the academic study of world religions to determine differences, similarities and points of equivalence.
Most scholars cite Max Müller (1823-1900), Sir E. B. Tylor (1832-1917) and Sir J. G. Frazer (1854-1941) as the most important figures in the birth of comparative religion. And some will also mention Joseph-Francois Lafitau (1681- 1746).
But this can be misleading because as far back as Xenophanes (6th century BCE) we find writers comparing different religions. Plato and Aristotle also discuss diverse worldviews. And, as S. G. F. Brandon points out, several lesser known ancient Greek and Latin writers realized the importance of discerning similarities among different religious beliefs.¹
In the 19th century scholars of comparative religion tended to believe that their work was objective. They also assumed that mankind evolved from primitive to advanced states of being. Moreover, Christian biases were often present. Ruldolf Otto (1869-1937) is often criticized in this regard.
More recently, far more subtle Christian biases can be found in the works of Mircea Eliade and C. G. Jung. Before the second Vatican Council Catholic theology studied other religions mostly to demonstrate their allegedly misguided or, worse, demonic status.
The notion of objectivity was challenged by poststructuralism in the 1960’s to 1990’s—that is, the very idea of scientific and (most forms of) absolute truth were questioned.² But this kind of thinking isn’t terribly new. It’s been present for centuries with figures like Friedrich Nietszche and Pontius Pilate.
Therefore Pilate said to Him, “So You are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say correctly that I am a king. For this I have been born, and for this I have come into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.” Pilate said to Him, “What is truth?” (John 18: 37-38).
Today the poststructural perspective has permeated religious studies. And a recent branch of ‘postmodern theology’ offers compelling arguments for the deconstruction of Biblical and related religious assumptions.
Meanwhile, comparative religion usually involves theory and methodology courses to grapple with issues of subjectivity and interpretation vs. objectivity and truth. And also, a sociologist might argue, to try to legitimize itself as a “scientific” enterprise, which usually increases eligibility for grants, funding, and the like.
¹ S. G. F. Brandon ed., Dictionary of Comparative Religion (1970: 202).
² Ironically, some second-rate historians still talk about historical records as if they “prove” (rather than suggest) this or that point of view.