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  • Writer's pictureWalter

The Dangers of the Legacy of Comparative Religion

Modern society has a political, social, economic - and of course a religious - history that has shaped it thus far. On the subject of religion, and for purpose of our studies, findings have allowed scholars to observe, dissect, and diagnose today’s modern society by digging into historical roots to assess current social conventions. In short, today’s assumptions regarding norms, postulations, and theories have a strong historical past embedded within them. The academic world of the nineteenth and early twentieth brought forth eager scholars who wanted to examine new cultural discoveries that opened a floodgate of territories never explored before. Prehistoric findings provided new perspectives as well as evidences that showed their current civilization had a past, and that modernization altered the familiar pre-Enlightenment worldview where “philosophers defended true religion as something independent or a self-evident tradition.”[1] In other words, the new findings reconceptualised the European idea of themselves as “the West against the rest.” The discoveries brought up new research methods of classification that left (assumed to be unintended by some) a strong watermark which served as a legacy for future generations of academic work on comparative religion (world religions) where, not surprisingly, comparisons still reflect the religious prejudices and self-centered cultural views of those who undertake the task.

This essay aims to first highlight the dangers of the legacy of comparative religion / world religions by observing issues associated with definition, hierarchies, misrepresentations, self-evident categorization, essentialization of others, and selective accounts that fit political intentions. In brief, the reality of world religions today and its “stubborn facticity of these categories that seems to conform European academics.”[2] As a conclusion, this paper will intend to offer a perspective on how we can mitigate the dangers of that legacy when deconstructing the categorization of religions, today.

One of the legacies from the modern comparative religion and classification of world religion involves the presumption that religion is a universal feature of human cultures and the common view that “many people nowadays would consider it as self-evident or under the certainty that religion was always there”[3] as part of history. However, and after careful considerations from scholars assessed for this essay, (i.e. Brent Nongbri) religion is “not a universally applicable face-value concept that matches a natural discursive field in every culture throughout history.”[4]Furthermore, the study of religion as an academic discipline has progressed under the assumption that the subject itself has always been out there; this position essentializes the place of “religion” as an intertwined part of history. The essentialization of categorization of religion raises questions concerning points of interest of those involved in such decisions, or when put it question: Who is doing the defining and why? Aaron W. Hughes offers a short answer by stressing that a “definition [of religion] becomes a prerogative of the dominant and protects the interests of the dominant”[5] and comparisons, by extension, is the conceit of the powerful. Nongbri addresses a similar outcome, though not as blatant, and underlines that “the various groups that populate the World Religion model are largely the result of political factors.”[6] Though this seems acceptable for a scholar of political history, I fail to see a black-or-white statement sentencing all scholars whose works obey or mean to follow a personal political-theological convenience. Though there are personal and political motives involved in areas such as religion and its categorization, I prefer to step outside this binary claim (political or non-political) since there can be a much wider spectrum of reasons and intentions behind an academic paper. When research is examined, when the implausible is excluded and the plausible is put into a probable order, does not the researcher leave (at some point) the area of just facts? As Kippenberg puts it, “when historians write history, they are constrained to select some facts from the mass of historical data and to ignore others.”[7] In other words, there is always a subjective decision that favours x, for example, over y or z, and this task is not foreign for a scholar of religion. From this, can we affirm that the world-religion model is “largely” the result of political factors? What about involving a combination of further issues such as linguistics, geographic divisions, economics, or views on ethics? Hughes engages in comparison and definition underlining that “comparison, begins with the acknowledgment of difference where, frequently, the individual engages in [that] comparison understands his or her own tradition to be the normative one or somehow representative of the correct way of doing things.”[8]Meaning that there is always an implicit value judgement in comparative analysis and this comparison bestows a hierarchical ranking of classifications.

As underlined earlier, we find the importance of “categorization” at the heart of the comparative enterprise of classification of religion, which intersects political narratives inherited from historical processes entangled with subjective (personal) utility. In the words of Smith: “comparison provides the means by which we revision facts as ourdata in order to solve our theoretical problems.”[9] With that said, an extension of the legacy of comparative religion and classification of world religion relates to the dangers of hierarchical divisions. The implicit judgement within the comparative analysis establishes, by extension, what practices are considered normative, or “what practices and beliefs are [considered] deviant for a host of political and ideological reasons [and] becomes constructed as a non-normative.”[10] In other words, the presence of orthodoxy establishing itself as the dominant voice that sustains its theological, racial, and hierarchical dominance by downgrading “otherness.” The dominant role played by scholars and their objective of “classification of the world’s ‘great religions’ is beyond doubt a European initiative”[11] deeply linked to forceful colonialist impacts of European empires and their illusory goal as a global authority. This last remark does not just imply territorial occupations but moreso a cultural and religious supremacy that, to this day, has left remains of crisis of identities in native[12] communities. A quick observation at a typical textbook on Great World Religions designed for today’s classrooms almost in all cases showcase Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, and Judaism, and also typically consider among their number Confucianism, Taoism, and the count goes on. These systems of categorization suffer the remains of those primordial classifications where the hierarchical set still enjoys an almost verbatim hierarchical taxonomy. However, the danger here goes beyond the inheritance and beyond its variations. This classification yet shows an east-to-west language as well as the use of language that needs closer analyses (i.e., “great” world religions).

Categorizations, misrepresentations, definitions, levels of importance, or the use of adjectives such as “great” have been closely associated with, and “given its justification by, a racialized notion of ethnic difference.”[13] What seems less compelling is to find sections in today’s textbooks where categories of religions that are perhaps not so “great” or, better yet, sections under the category of “little traditions,” “aboriginal spirituality” and/or “new movements,” which “usually tend to go by certain generic-low-case names (shamanism), mostly with a particular place marker attached.”[14] Again, the nuance within the classificatory system and its intent of differentiation fails to depart from its earlier structures. In spite of attempts to depart from initial systems of classifications, contemporary academia still recycles hierarchies of religions inherited from that past with racial and theological traces. The inter-faith comparisons, then and now, additionally carry an essentialization (i.e., Abrahamic family), though apologetic, where the argument implies that they “share similar revelatory notions and a common quest for truth and justice.”[15] In other words, a bad comparativist can offer, by using historical misrepresentations of different circles of faith, a theological, though apologetical, discourse that fits an assumed and self-evident reality that all great world religions share a common truth. Moreover, there is little self-reflection and even less desire to establish for readers what the geographical and historical parameters should be.

As previously highlighted, classification of “religion” raises as a result of European essentialization of others. This led it to become a self-evident category within the World Religion Paradigm where comparative methods are reduced to “oversimplified” reifications of themselves that often suits the agenda of the comparativist. Again, the selective accounts that fit dogmatic intentions. It is crucial to pay close attention to the “oversimplifications” attached to the categorization per se; the common - and highly misleading - full statements such as: Buddhists believe that in only to remove suffering one must remove desire; Muslims follow the adhan[16] five times a day; Christians believe in the Trinity, and so on. These are examples of generalizations and apologetic compromise comparativists keep recycling, with a recurrent one-size-fits-all discourse of generalizations that mislead readers. One of the most dangerous legacies of comparative religion and world religions can be observed when “social groups are replaced with religions; the latter implies that there is specificity within all religious groups that exist beyond precise temporal or geographical locations.”[17] Furthermore, assumptions inherited from an ancient past can be freely manipulated by a comparativist’s imagination because that past does not impose a threat. As a side note, this danger can also be extrapolated in other fields such as history or politics where partisan, oversimplified, or misrepresented facts are reduced to conform a project suitable for profit. These comparisons heavily rely on language for their narratives. Choice of words, the tone on descriptions, or the timeframe, “construct our objects of study as opposed to vice versa;”[18] the accounts to draw comparisons among religions all follow similar models under the assumption that they all share a similar essence, purpose, or narrative. In short, the model inherited from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries of comparative religion ignores the fact that “each one of the communities listed possessed its own set of concerns that, in turn, were responsible for structuring their understanding themselves.”[19]

I have discussed the dangers of the legacy of comparative religion / world religions by highlighting five key areas: the definition of what constitutes religion, who defines it and for what reason; the hierarchical divisions, dominant role played by scholars and their objective of classification of the world’s religions from the European initiative; the misrepresentations and oversimplification, the classificatory system that in spite of its attempts of departing from the initial systems of classifications, still misrepresent groups under similar biases discourse of generalizations (one-size-fits-all) and distortions inherited from past classifications; and finally, the choice of words, where comparisons among religions use similar descriptive models under the assumption that they all share a similar essence, purpose, or narrative. With that said, what remains to be offered is a final question: How can we mitigate these dangers?

Hughes offers a modern comparative enterprise, Masuzawa steps aside from the fundamental problem of violations between historical science and theology to rather focus on whether or not the world religious discourse can be enlisted and trusted, and Nongbri underlines a re-descriptive project in order to offer a definition or theory of religion. I could borrow Nongbri’s claim and assert that “I am neither a prophet nor a prescription writer”[20] to offer a solution to how do we move forward concerning the study of religion. But after a close examination of what has been offered throughout this essay, there are features a scholar ought to mind when studying different circles of faith, and this means ending the essentialist project of trying to find the definition of religion.

First, primordial ideas of religion initiated from the sixteenth to early twentieth centuries must be critically dissected from a historical, political, sociological, and theological multi-disciplinary standpoint to acquire a closer look that could answer “who is doing the defining and why? In order words, keeping a closer eye on the activity of defining and what constitute religious or not.”[21] We extensively discussed the roots that brought the discourse of world religions into life as a result of a wide spectrum of predicaments “that confounded European Christianity at the end of the nineteenth century,[22] which included tumultuous difficulties concerning identity and imperial position. In short, differences and similarities among religions also served as an opportunity for modern Europeans to work out the problem of their own identity. Thus, new strategies should include more than putting Christian absolutist as a sole base to respond to criticism, but should also apply thorough historical investigations. We might consider the possibility that a moderate Christian could acknowledge this past and how much s/he has benefited from it in today’s world as a member of that circle of faith. Of course, if only that individual recognizes it under an ideal objective world. In other words, there must be a historical awareness.

Second, the cultural oversimplification or, as underlined earlier, the one-size-fits-all assumption of a homogenous cultural presence even within a group that shares a common language or citizenship. To lessen the dangers of these assumptions, Hughes encourages “to pay attention to contexts,”[23] which I find acceptable, though I could suggest going further. If there is something that has been assisting me navigate the multicultural world of immigration, is to always keep present that there is no such a thing as pure culture, and to separate the individual from his/her background to solely address behaviour. The act of focusing on particular groups to understand peculiarities from within aims to eliminate past models that undermine diversity, which is at the core of such descriptions. Hughes does see how the “traditional phenomenological model theorises by assuming sameness and deprives social actors of both, their humanity and their autonomy.”[24]

Third, the trustworthiness of sources and the removal of apologetic language of influence. Comparisons ought to focus in “transforming comparative religion into something rigorous and systematic,”[25] which is necessary for a clear counterpoint from classic comparativists of the past that often depicted religious groups by contrasting them in an essentialized manner. This was done with the aim of transforming comparative religion, or as Hugues underlines: “to be rehabilitated, it is necessary to remove it from the hands of apologists who seek to insulate their own chosen concept of religion using the pretext of scientific objectivity.” Put simply, comparison must avoid the often equally apologetic language of influence and borrowing that recycles the idea of religions as monolithic entities, or what Hughes tags as “tendency to speak in plural”[26] when referring to religious groups:

... the goal ought to be able to undermine or destabilize identity not further reinscribe it. Then, comparison has to be able to appreciate and account for this instability [non-monolithic view]; failing to do so, it becomes a method that simply replicates what one considers to be the self-evident and the status quo–this is something that comparative religion is in danger of becoming if it has not largely become that already, and this is the main reason that many are increasingly mistrustful of the term and/or method.[27]

In short, the task remains in unravelling identities within a particular group to provide an understanding of interactions among its members instead of fixating on intersecting religious groups by simple contrasts. Perhaps we will not see the profound changes from the inherited order of comparative religion (or) world religions soon because they are, as mentioned at the beginning, watermarks deeply inserted within the discourse of comparative religion. However, and after assessing a number of ways to mitigate the dangers of the legacy of comparative religion, those proposals ought to show us that nothing is unique under a comparative proposition. Furthermore, individuals inside a religious group interact, religions do not.

Comparative religion cannot remain at a superficial level of analysis. A model of comparison should raise questions that involve human interactions between the social actors as well as to dig out meanings in their social life; the community’s meaning that might not necessarily respond to religious connotations, as assumed by a scholar of religion (the fictional imagination of the writer). Kippenberg quoted vis-à-vis “literary imagination and fiction in the scholars of religion’s writing,”[28] by stressing that “cross-cultural comparisons are of limited value except to draw attention to one’s dataset,”[29] or the importance of the records and language. Summing up, a successful religious comparative must involve immersion in languages, texts, tradition, and theory, which implies that the absence of any of them may not fit into an accurate comparative study. To move forward from the dangers of the legacy of comparative religion, it needs wide-range perspectives from a selected group and to take into consideration the interrelationships between a social worldview, a way of social life, and a view of the social order.”[30] A small and confined comparative study provides a more effective, reliable, and accurate account that moves away from simplistic and theologically inflected narratives.

[1] Hans G. Kippenberg, Discovering Religious History in the Modern Age, translated by Barbara Harshaw (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002 [1997]), 193. [2] Tomoko Masuzawa, The Invention of World Religions: Or How European Universalism Was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005) xiv. [3] Brent Nongbri, Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept. New Haven: (Yale University Press, 2013), 24. [4] Nongbri, Before Religion, 158. [5] Aaron Hughes, Comparison: A Critical Primer (Sheffield: Equinox Press, 2017), 28. [6] Nongbri, 129. [7] Kippenberg, Discovering Religious History, 189. [8] Hughes, Comparison, 29. [9] Hughes, 46. [10] Hughes, 31. [11] Masuzawa, The Invention of World Religions, 282. [12] Native is used for non-European residents of other regions as applied those days. As communities have migrated from one point to another, it is hardly use just for we describe today as “indigenous.” [13] Masuzawa, 3. [14] Ibid., 4. [15] Hughes, 43-44. [16] The call to prayer. [17] Hughes, 54. [18] Ibid., 55. [19] Ibid. [20] Nongbri, 154. [21] Ibid., 155. [22] Masuzawa, 326. [23] Hughes, 99. [24] Ibid., 98. [25] Ibid., 51. [26] Ibid., 52. [27] Ibid., 53. [28] Kippenberg, Discovering Religious History, 187. [29] Kippenberg, 59. [30] Hugues, 82.


Hughes, Aaron. Comparison: A Critical Primer. Sheffield: Equinox Press, 2017.

Kippenberg, Hans G. Discovering Religious History in the Modern Age. Translated by

Barbara Harshaw. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002 [1997].

Masuzawa, Tomoko. The Invention of World Religions: Or, How European Universalism Was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

Nongbri, Brent. Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013.

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