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Comparative Religion

Comparative Religion

Author: Ted Fairchild
Description:

This lesson discusses comparative religion, which concerns itself with the study of the similarities and differences in the religions of the world.

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Tutorial

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Hello and welcome to Comparative Religion. This is a tutorial that will help you think about religions in terms of their similarities and differences. Comparative religion as an academic discipline studies the beliefs, rituals, customs, and traditions of all active religions. A practical starting point for comparing religions is to look at how they're categorized or grouped. The world's religions can be organized into three major groups-- Abrahamic, Indian, and Taoic.

The three Abrahamic religions are Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. They are similar in that they claim the patriarch Abraham as a central figure in their family and spiritual genealogies. So as a starting point for comparison, we have first of all a shared geographic origin and then on closer investigation, we see a shared origin based on genealogy. But if we look in more detail at origin, we find that Judaism and Islam diverge. So what is this separation all about?

Well, it traces back to Abraham and his two sons-- Ishmael and Isaac. Judaism maintains that his second born son Isaac is the rightful heir, heir to the purpose and responsibility in the world invested by God to the Jewish people. In Islam, Ishmael-- Abraham's firstborn son-- is considered the legitimate heir. And when you look yet more closely you will find that this question of family origin relates to questions of spiritual origin and the values, beliefs, and practices that stem from that.

I've been emphasizing this idea of origin for several reasons. In comparative religion, we might want to know where religion begins in people's lives, how it functions in their lives, and how it is maintained or forgotten for that matter. I've also been emphasizing origin at this point because the Western Abrahamic religions share the belief that there is only one god therefore they are grouped together and referred to as the monotheistic traditions.

If we look at our second category of religions-- the Indian religions-- we notice that they don't adhere to a single supernatural deity, one Supreme absolute god. In fact, because of this commonality among the Indian religions they are considered non-theistic, not relating to a single god in the way that the Western religions do. Two examples of Indian religions that share a common geographic origin are Hinduism and Buddhism. And as with the Abrahamic religions, there is a lot of overlapping of spiritual, ideology, belief, and practice and, at the same time, there are many differences.

One point of commonality is that they share linguistic origin. Most of the Hindu and Buddhist sacred texts were written in Sanskrit and Pali, closely related in the family of Indo-European languages. They do diverge, however, in terms of geography, where they migrated to and flourished at certain points in history. And if you study this movement in more detail, you would find many interesting points of difference in terms of practice, ritual, custom, and belief.

But after tracing all that historically, sociologically, anthropologically, et cetera, you might just find yourself back with the question, where does religion begin in a life, in a culture, in a people? But we're getting ahead of ourselves a bit. How can we be getting ahead of ourselves if we're talking about beginnings? Anyway, moving on to our third category of religions, our third group, we have the Taoic religions, the religions of East Asia and these include Taoism, Shintoism, and Confucianism.

What these religions share is a belief in the eternal flow and balance of the universe-- the Tao. Living in sync with this universal harmonizing energy is the goal, to see and live in the reflection of this ordering, balancing force. And again, as with the other two main groups of religion, there are particular differences as well. In the Taoic religions, these variations can mostly be observed in terms of emphasis and priority given to certain principles and practices.

So those are our three groups. We'll do a review in a moment but I want to point out that the question of origin which seems to pose such a problem from within the religions themselves in many cases is something to keep in mind when studying and comparing religions. In other words, how possible is it to step outside of one's tradition when considering that of the other. This is a question about the movement of stepping to the side and bracketing the commitments of one's own tradition to better experience the material that is being studied.

This approach is known as the phenomenological approach, the phenomenology of religion. It emphasizes and gives value to the variety of experiences within the field of religion on an individual, collective, and global level. Investigating the types and forms of experience allows the phenomenologist to bracket unanswerable questions-- ultimate questions about origin for example-- and look at how and in what ways the experience of origin itself is approached on the level of the individual, society, and on the level of religion itself, collectively.

So let's review. Comparative religion is an academic discipline that studies the beliefs, rituals, customs, and traditions of all the active religions. The world's religions can be organized into three major groups-- Abrahamic, Indian, and Taoic. The three Abrahamic traditions are Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The main Indian religions we talked about are Hinduism and Buddhism. And the Taoic religions we referred to were Taoism, Shinto, sometimes referred to as Shintoism, and Confucianism.

We noted some of the differences and commonalities within and between religions and we arrived back at our original question of how best to approach the study of religion. We concluded by suggesting that a phenomenological approach to religion could be useful in studying and comparing religion because it offers experience as a benchmark or common framework to explore the process and purpose of religion in people's lives. Well, that wraps up this session. I hope you learned what you needed to learn. Thanks for being here. Goodbye.

TERMS TO KNOW
  • Abrahamic Religion

    Any of the religions that claim Abraham as an ancestor, namely Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

  • Indian Religion

    Any religion originating on the Indian subcontinent.

  • Taoic Religion

    Any religion originating in east Asia.

  • Comparative Religion

    A discipline that takes as its subject the scholarly examination and comparison of the beliefs, rituals, customs, and traditions of all active religions.