New Patterns for Comparative Religion

Passages to an Evolutionary Perspective

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William E. Paden
Scientific Studies of Religion: Inquiry and Explanation
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , May
     264 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Social evolution is methodological revolution in this tour-de-force of the comparative study of religion. In this anthology of thirteen previously published articles (1991–2010), author William E. Paden (Professor Emeritus, Department of Religion, University of Vermont) presents not only the evolution of his own views on the methodology of comparing religions, but proposes that “comparative religion needs to build a vocabulary that accommodates evolutionary science” (215). In other words, Paden advocates “translating religious patterns into evolutionary patterns” by linking the categories of religious studies with those of “the evolutionary sciences” (216). How this would work, and what this would look like, is still quite theoretical.

Perhaps the more immediate contribution of New Patterns for Comparative Religion might be retrospective rather than prospective. Paden’s review of the origin and evolution of comparative religion as an academic discipline is rich in clarity and insight and would make an excellent  text for graduate courses in religious studies methodology.

Of the thirteen articles, chapter 6, “Elements of a New Comparativism,” and chapter 9, “Comparison in the Study of Religion,” are superb. Paden’s survey of prior scholarship privileges the work of three giants in the study of religion: Mircea Eliade (1907–1986), Émile Durkheim (1858–1917), and Jonathan Z. Smith (b. 1938).

Eliade gets one chapter (chapter 5, “The Concept of World Habitation: Eliadean Linkages with a New Comparativism”), while Durkheim gets three chapters (chapter 1, “Before ‘The Sacred’ Became Theological: Rereading the Durkheimian Legacy”; chapter 2, “Durkheim’s Reconciliation of the Social and the Religious”; and chapter 11, “Reappraising Durkheim for the Study and Teaching of Religion”). Paden notes, “undoubtedly the prime catalyst for both challenging and reformulating the role of comparison in the study of religion has been the University of Chicago scholar, Jonathan Z. Smith” (142).

The subtitle of Paden’s book, Passages to an Evolutionary Perspective, receives attention in chapter 13, “The History of Religions and Evolutionary Models: Some Reflections on Framing a Mediating Vocabulary.” This chapter is worth reviewing in greater detail, since it represents Paden’s methodological proposal most fully and cogently. Paden builds bridges between “the history of religions and the natural sciences” (216), and “comparative religion and evolutionary science” ( 217) using four “conceptual matrices”: (1) behavior; (2) environment; (3) group-level systems; and (4) thematization (217). This is where the comparative study of religion has great potential, according to Paden: “[a]t the evolutionary level of human behavior, comparability abounds” (174).

Briefly, these four interlocking approaches may be described as follows: (1) “Behavior” is the primary mode of analysis, because it is “a common ground between biological and human sciences” (217). (2) “Environment,” broadly speaking, encompasses “religious worlds” that “put an interactive face on the universe” (218). (3) “Group-level systems” incorporate religions, which are “culturally constructed” social environments with “a common origin, symbols of that ancestry, and practices derived from it” (219). Here, Paden sees “a shift from thinking in terms of a world religions model,” to “thinking of religions as on-the-ground affiliations” functionally analogous to a “kinship paradigm” (220). (4) “Thematic bridges” represents Paden’s fourth link between the study of religion and evolutionary science.

The “comparativist’s repertoire of themes” can expand to include “sets of cross-cultural data” otherwise excluded by the “‘world religions’ map,” says Paden (222.) These “theme-based phenomenologies” are analogous to “chemistry’s chart of elements” (223.) That said, Paden has yet to propose what might be called a “Periodic Chart of Religious Elements,” as it were, in which each “element” is a fundamental taxon that takes on both categorical and explanatory functions. Yet the natural and social sciences also offer “thematic frames” with “theoretic pertinence” (224), such that an interdisciplinary matrix may serve as a framework of analysis.

Paden’s novel methodological approach—which he calls “the evolutionary study of religion” (231)—has yet to be exemplified and tested. Notwithstanding this, Paden firmly believes that “the evolutionary model is here to stay” (229). He disclaims any pretension that his essays “constitute a unified theory of religion” (219). They do not. In fact, what Paden proposes is not a theory of religion at all, but rather a general methodological framework for the academic study of religion, which integrates comparative approaches.

In his concluding and summative “Epilogue,” Paden privileges one of the four analytical modes, “Environments,” where there is no separation between precept and praxis, as thinking is a function of behavior within biological, social, and cultural environments—and vice versa. The ecology of any given human environment entails not only physical objects, but also ideas and ideals that populate and animate the shared psychic landscape. “I have come to think of gods,” Paden adds, “as ‘theospheres’” (233).

A methodological goldmine, New Patterns for Comparative Religion offers a new paradigm for the comparative study of religions in which “the enterprise of comparison … is perhaps our greatest claim to originality as an independent academic discipline” (139). This thought-provoking work is recommended for university and community college libraries with substantial holdings in the study of religion. Graduate students and professors of religion will find this title of interest as well.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Christopher Buck is an independent scholar.

Date of Review: 
September 29, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

William E. Paden is Professor Emeritus of Religion, University Vermont, USA.


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