Recent Books on the Comparative Method in Religious Studies

April 15, 2021

By Robert A. Segal

Suppose one wants to study the French Revolution. One way is to study the event ever more intensely, learning more and more about this case itself. The other way is to study the revolution comparatively, by matching it up with other revolutions. The aim is to see how the French Revolution is both like and unlike, say, the American or Russian Revolution. Comparativists can seek either the similarities or the differences. Those who seek the similarities do not deny the differences but often demote them to mere details. The claim is not that any two or three revolutions—or religions—are the same but that they are akin.  Likewise, those comparativists who seek the differences do not deny the similarities but merely deem them secondary, usually on the grounds that they are vague and abstract.

The comparative method is an attempt not just to identify similarities or differences but to account for them. Whether a comparativist emphasizes similarities or differences is often determined by the home discipline of the scholar. Disciplines that fall within the humanities—literature and history above all—tend to seek the distinctiveness of each case considered. Disciplines within the social sciences—anthropology, sociology, psychology, economics, and political science—tend to seek similarities. They seek generalizations, laws, or theories, much as the natural sciences do. There are, of course, exceptions. For example, anthropologists often emphasize the distinctiveness of the culture in which they do their fieldwork even as they seek generalizations.

The comparative method goes back to ancient times. The most famous ancient comparativist was Herodotus, who used the method to show not the similarities but the differences between Greeks and Persians and the superiority of Greeks. The method, which has been central to the natural sciences since before Aristotle, reached its height in the social sciences in the 19th century with the anthropologists E. B. Tylor and J. G. Frazer and the sociologists August Comte and Herbert Spencer. All of them sought similarities, in the form of laws or generalizations about cultures and societies.

The criticisms of the comparative quest have been almost the same from Herodotus to the present, but they have become ever more severe with the development of would-be universal generalizations. A hundred years ago, the anthropologist Franz Boas maintained that the generalizations offered by social scientists were premature. But this objection simply called for the accumulation of more information, not for the abandonment of generalizing.  The stronger critiques of Tylor, Frazer, Comte, Spencer, and their successors are that these comparativists make generalizations that (a) deny differences, (b) equate similarity with identity, (c) generalize too broadly, (d) take cases out of context, and even (e) generalize at all. This last objection is found above all in postmodernism.

The four books under review take varying stands on the comparative method. In what follows, I will examine the views on comparison and the cogency of the arguments offered in each of four recent books that address the comparative method from different disciplinary approaches: religious studies, political science, theology, and classics.

Apples and Oranges: Explorations In, On, and With Comparison. By Bruce Lincoln. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018. 335 pp. $35 paperback.

Scholars in the field of religious studies, which is Bruce Lincoln’s discipline, vary on the propriety of comparativism. On the one hand, some scholars argue for universal similarities. For example, Mircea Eliade maintains that all humans are religious and that religion serves to enable them to encounter God, or the sacred, in the same way. On the other hand, specialists in particular religions are often like specialists in the French Revolution: they root their studied religion in its own locale and hesitate to engage in comparativism, even to find differences.

Lincoln falls in the middle of these camps. He advocates, not opposes, comparisons, but only as long as they are limited. He limits his examples to only two cases: “The more examples compared, the more superficial and peremptory is the analysis of each” (26). He advocates “weak,” or limited, comparativism and opposes “strong,” or universal, comparativism.

For example, he compares the Middle Persian myth the Greater Bundhisn with Beowulf—two myths from divergent geographical locations and cultures. In the Greater Bundhisn, the Wise Lord Ohrmazd is pitted against the Evil Spirit Ahreman. Where Ohrmazd is omniscient and benevolent, Ahreman is stupid and destructive. Ahreman is motivated by envy, a cosmic trait in turn inherited by humans. In Beowulf, Grendel is like Ahreman. He is envious of Hrothgar, the counterpart to Ohrmazd. The envy of both Grendel and Ahreman sets cosmic war in motion. But there are “significant differences” in the two narratives: “Whereas Ahreman is a demon (and the archdemon at that), Grendel is a monster or, more precisely, the last, most degenerate descendant in the line of the most sinful human” (30). Where Ahreman’s envy is against God and creation, Grendel’s is against a mere king, Hrothgar, and his magnificent hall. The Greater Bundhisn has a dyadic structure and operates at the supernatural level, Beowulf has a triadic structure and ties the human to the divine through the monstrous. The differences outweigh the similarities in Lincoln’s reading.

While this example or any of Lincoln’s half dozen more are rich and detailed, they do not prove his argument for “weak” comparison. Comparativism can certainly be used to seek differences as well as similarities. But differences begin only where similarities cease. The two narratives in his example are different only when they are no longer similar. More important, nothing makes the differences deeper than the similarities. Differences are deeper only to those who prefer them. Undeniably, similarities are as well, but by nature they provide links among many cases that differences never can. 

When Lincoln praises weak comparativism for tending to the “social, historical, and political contexts” (27) of religions, he takes for granted that strong comparativism does not do the same. But surely universalist Marxist explanations, which he himself favors, center on the social context. At the same time there is no reason that strong explanations must focus on the social context. Lincoln ignores universalist psychological theories of religion—notably, Freud’s and Jung’s—that root religion and myth in the mind and see the social context as the sphere where the mind interacts with others. 

In order to encompass as many cases as possible, comparisons, weak no less than strong, must ignore differences—after having sought to convert them into similarities. Similarities are not thereby automatically superficial or differences inherently deep.

Ways of Knowing: Competing Methodologies in Social and Political Research. By Jonathan W. Moses and Torbjørn L. Knutsen. London: Red Globe Press, 2019. 347 pp. $43 paperback.

Lincoln categorizes comparativists by the severity of the comparisons. Strong comparativism seeks universal similarities and downplay differences. Weak comparativism, which he favors, seek less than universal similarities and stress differences. In Ways of Knowing Jonathan Moses and Torbjorn Knutsen, Norwegian political scientists, value similarities and differences equally, but their approach is more philosophical. They contrast the naturalist approach, which seeks similarities, to the constructivist one, which seeks differences. The naturalist view, which is commonplace in political science and goes back to Galileo and Kepler, is that there exists a “real world” out there, independent of observers. It consists of not just specific things, such as individual trees or persons, but also patterns among them. The patterns constitute regularities or laws. One can generalize about what makes all trees trees.

At its most extreme, constructivism, which goes back to Immanuel Kant and proceeds to

Wilhelm Dilthey and Clifford Geertz, denies that a real world exists. More often, it grants the existence of that world but denies that humans, shaped by the workings of either their mind or their culture, can disentangle themselves from the world. Humans still see patterns, but those patterns, or laws, lie as much in them as in the world itself.

Where naturalists focus on the world that we all perceive and so focus on similarities, constructivists focus on the different worlds we perceive. Constructivists seek the “context” of beliefs and practices, and that context varies from culture to culture. As Moses and Knutsen write, constructivists “protest the thesis of a fixed human nature. Instead, they argue that human beings are formed by their context; that they are shaped and coloured by geographical space, historical time, social circumstance and other contextual factors” (198). The focus is therefore on what makes each culture unique. Comparisons can still be made, but only to find differences.

The naturalist approach is equivalent to the scientific approach: “Naturalist social science builds on three broad joists—all of them hewn from the trunk of traditional natural science” (41). Observations, still the core of naturalism, are now recognized as “theory-laden,” which does not, as in extreme constructivism, mean that there are no observations but only that observations are inseparable from theories. Because the naturalist approach is identical with the scientific approach, the goal is to find similarities, which is to say laws: “the ultimate purpose of science is to uncover these regularities and to re-state them as (natural) laws” (41). Differences do not count. Better: they should be turned into underlying similarities. The aim is to explain religion per se. By no coincidence, one chapter in the section of the book on this approach is called “the comparative method”—the method here being equated with the search for sheer similarities.

Moses and Knutsen aspire to bridge the gap between these approaches to social science, but they do not show how the gap can be reduced. All they offer is open-mindedness. They assert that the approaches differ so much that they may run askew and therefore be compatible. But they fail to show how. An example would help.

Meaning and Method in Comparative Theology. By Catherine Cornille. Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley Blackwell, 2020. 214 pp. $44.99 paperback.

Catherine Cornille hails from the field of theology, which is usually distinguished from the field of religious studies by its focus on a single religion. Cornille argues for comparativism in theology, and her goal in writing is to illuminate Christianity, rather than religion, writ large.

Cornille parallels comparative theology to the comparative study of religion, which goes back to Friedrich Max Mueller. Theology starts with one religion. It may use broad, even universal categories, such as puberty rites to understand the Jewish Bar Mitzvah, to use her own example. But the payoff is the illumination of one’s own religion: “The ultimate goal of comparative theology thus involves comparison . . . for the purpose of enriching and enhancing the self-understanding of a particular religion” (10). In other words, one should study Christianity or Buddhism comparatively in order to learn more about it, not about religion. Here is where Cornille differs from Lincoln. For the latter, the comparative study of religion can seek the differences between one religion and another, but the aim is still to understand at least two religions compared and not merely one religion. Cornille uses Buddhism and Hinduism to elucidate Christianity.

Cornille distinguishes between 19th-century and 20th-century comparative theology: “Whereas nineteenth-century comparative theology grew out of religious apologetics and continued to exhibit a strongly normative bent, the new comparative theology has been more indebted to the discipline of religious studies and area studies” (79). The difference between present-day comparative theology and religious studies remains. Comparative theology uses comparison as a means of deciphering one religion only. Still, even Cornille concedes that the difference between present-day comparative theology and religious studies “is at times thin, or not always clear-cut” (18).

Regimes of Comparatism: Frameworks of Comparison in History, Religion and Anthropology. Edited by Renaud Gagné, Simon Goldhill, and Geoffrey E. R. Lloyd. Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2019. 463 pp. $250 hardback.

In Regimes of Comparatism, Renaud Gagné, Simon Goldhill, and Geoffrey E. R. Lloyd, all classicists, amass essays that expose the supposed biases in cases of comparison. The cases cover the world, and the biases vary. To quote Lloyd, “Of course those who engaged in comparing did not always do so with the express purpose of claiming Western, or indeed specifically Christian, superiority, but that was certainly often the covert agenda” (448). Sometimes the bias is that culture X got its beliefs or practices from culture Y. Other times it is that what is compared in culture X is more sophisticated than what is compared in culture Y. Or cultures X and Y turn out to be more alike than had been assumed.

Yet the aim in this book is not, usually, to reject comparisons. The contributors are not postmodernists, for whom comparison is inherently worthless. They seek, rather, to recognize the biases built into comparisons. Whether the biases can be overcome is the question. As Lloyd sums up the essays, “What all of this amounts to is that while comparatism can be and often has been abused, if we practice it self-critically it can indeed be a liberation” (456). The aim is to improve, not to reject, comparisons. The alternative is to give up analyzing anything cross-culturally.

Comparativism has always been idiosyncratic. What religions or beliefs or customs have been compared reflects the outlook of the comparativist. To quote Renaud Gagné, “The more one looks at any one ‘comparative method’, the more idiosyncratic—culturally and historically located—it appears” (2). But the comparative method is not in fact about what things get compared. Any two entities can be compared and in any number of ways. The point is that proper comparison yields generalizations, or laws, from which in turn differences can emerge. (For the classic argument for generalizations in history and the social sciences, see Carl Hempel, “The Function of General Laws in History,” Journal of Philosophy 39 [1942], 35-48.)


All four of these books argue for the comparative method. The four disagree not on the propriety of comparison but on the goal. Lincoln argues for comparativism as the best way to grasp the deeper differences beneath the similarities. Moses and Knutsen advocate equal attention to similarities (naturalism) and differences (constructivism); they aspire to harmonize these approaches. Cornille argues for comparison as the best way to understand the uniqueness of a single religion. Gagné, Goldhill, and Lloyd strive to detect the biases in comparisons and aim to make comparisons fairer. All four books reject the postmodern aversion to comparison and argue that comparison is the key to illuminate religion.

Robert A. Segal is Sixth Century Chair in Religious Studies at the University of Aberdeen.