Comparative Study of Religion

Programme Leaders

Programme Directors: Gavin Flood, Bjarne Wernicke-Olesen
Programme Manager: Bjarne Wernicke-Olesen

Project outline

Comparative religion as a discipline and enterprise has fallen into disrepute, perhaps with some justification, largely because it originated in a colonial context and has been linked to western cultural dominance and even imperialism. But that comparative religion has been problematic within Theology and Religious Studies is not sufficient reason to abandon the endeavour. Indeed, we might argue that with globalization, technologies that proclaim the dawn of the post-human, the rise of spiritualities within secularism that impact upon economies, the rise of religious nationalism, and global religious terrorism, the need for comparative religion has never been more pressing. There have been attempts to revisit comparative religion, but these are problematic because the literal comparison of religions can be so theoretically weak or arbitrary as to be of little value to the wider intellectual community or comparison can cover a hidden, pluralist theology that is unaware of its own presuppositions. Within Religious Studies, that at times has been simply identified with Comparative Religion tout court, there has been a scepticism towards the very category ‘religion,’ and the dominance of understanding religion purely in sociological terms that itself is methodologically sceptical of religious claims. In complete contrast to the sociological approach there is the explanation of religion in terms of neuroscience and evolutionary biology again generally sceptical of religious claims and practices.

There is a need therefore for a new kind of comparative religion, a new approach that does not simply aim at the endless comparison of religious practices and ideas, but that is theoretically and philosophically robust in taking seriously the need to explain religion on the global stage and for the human future. It seeks a repristination of the field through a number of strategies or levels of human experience. First, it operates at a civilizational level, at the level of ‘big history’ that examines patterns of human religiosity across civilizations and over long periods of time. Robert Bellah (2014) has done this kind of work from human origins up to what he concedes as the ‘axial age’. Second, it operates at a level of deep philology focused on text and the explication of text, initially on its own terms as explication that then turns into explanation. Third, such a comparative religion interfaces with other explanatory disciplines particularly the harder biological and neurological sciences but also Anthropology, Sociology, and History, and the expository disciplines of Philosophy and Theology. It seeks to offer accounts of what it is and has been to be human, i.e. anthropology in a classical Kantian sense.

The issues

Every development or advancement in an academic field of inquiry is implicitly comparative. We only know that a particular reading of a text is better by comparison with others, that this interpretation is more convincing, that theory x is more explanatory than theory y, and so on. In the past Comparative Religion has often been taken simply to refer to the academic study of religions per se. But when comparison becomes overt, as a scholarly purpose or intellectual object such as the comparison of texts or traditions, we are faced with difficulties. Why compare? What are the limits of comparison? How do we go about it? How do we cross over wide time frames or spatial and cultural frames, from here and now to then?

With overt comparison – comparative philosophy, literature, or religion – we need reasons for comparison and often when we compare, we are operating with an implicit theory of comparison or theory of our subject matter. If we are performing a comparison of, say, the Odyssey and the Rāmāyaṇa, we are operating with an implicit or explicit thesis such as that the themes or content of both texts derive from a common Indo-European ancestry, or the structures of both texts reflect patterns of narration universal in human communities because rooted in shared processes of human cognition, or whatever.

There is, therefore, a case for developing both the practice of comparative study of religions and its theory, thereby making overt what has been done, in effect, for a number of years at the OCHS. The comparative study of religion went into abeyance with its critique from social constructivist positions, sceptical not only of the category ‘religion’ but of comparison generally in the belief that cultural and social particularity needs to take precedence. The presupposition of the new view would be that comparison tells us not only about religion but also about the nature of the human. The aim of a new approach to the comparative study of religion is therefore not comparison for its own sake, but comparison with a view to exploring provinces of meaning or regional ontologies that have shaped human persons and the societies within which they live and have lived. A new Comparative Study of Religion would be problem driven in highlighting areas of concern such as the global, political importance of religion, what religions tell us about human persons, what the relationship between religion, politics, philosophy and art, is, and what contemporary discoveries about the nature of the human from the harder sciences such as Evolutionary Anthropology or Cognitive Science have to tell us about religions.

The research programme

At Oxford we have the opportunity to develop a new Comparative Study of Religion that is philologically and ethnographically rigorous while developing comparison. We might call this the Oxford School for the Comparative Study of Religion. Such a title marks the distinctiveness of what we do in the comparative study of religions at Oxford including an area of discourse, making the Oxford School for the Comparative Study of Religion akin to other schools within Theology and Religion such as the Yale School of Theology associated particularly with Lindbeck or the Chicago School associated with Eliade. The Oxford School for the Comparative Study of Religion therefore assumes the following:

  • Rigour in textual study and fieldwork as a foundational level that marks out distinctive regional ontologies or provinces of meaning. 
  • The development of comparison of religions at textual level, at civilizational level through history (the longue durée) or ‘big history’ (Christian, Smail) and at the level of the ethnos through ethnography. 
  • The development of the theory of comparison whose purpose is not simply the comparison of religions but the illumination of the human. Indeed, the ultimate telos of the comparative study of religion is understanding the nature of the human, especially in the contemporary world and the ways in which it is rooted in the past. 
  • The Oxford School for the Comparative Study of Religion absorbs current scientific developments from Evolutionary Anthropology and Neuroscience but is non- reductionistic in its acceptance and embrace of complexity. It turns knowledge into meaning (and so is fundamentally hermeneutical). 
  • The Oxford School for the Comparative Study of Religion will develop models of religion in relation to person, society, and nature. 
  • The Oxford School for the Comparative Study of Religion is therefore phenomenological in letting be seen that which shows itself within regional ontologies, but hermeneutical in its interpretation of those regional ontologies within a higher order comparison or theory. It is a form of hermeneutical phenomenology. 
  • The Oxford School for the Comparative Study of Religion is a dialogical research programme open to the otherness of its ‘object’ while retaining its ‘out-sidedness.’ 
  • The Oxford School for the Comparative Study of Religion is language- and communication-centred. This means that there is emphasis on philological study and sensitivity to the historical location of texts as the basis of theory: structurally higher- level reflection is generated from Philology.

A catalogue of problems

The development of research on religion to a large extent mirrors the development of philosophy, e.g. from a philosophy of consciousness to the philosophy of language and the philosophy of the sign. Thus, the Comparative Study of Religion also shares fundamental questions and problems with philosophy such as questions of truth and being, what we can know, the relation of the universal to the particular, etc. The Oxford School of the Comparative Study of Religion would work as an umbrella for a number of exemplary and collaborative research projects, e.g. projects of comparison involving philosophy and deep philology and projects on fields of human transformation in collaboration with the biological and neurological sciences as well as projects on specific religious traditions (e.g. Śākta Traditions or Bengali Vaiṣṇavism in the Modern Period). What these research projects have in common on an analytical level is indeed a shared catalogue of questions and problems pertaining to theory and method in the Comparative Study of Religion. These problems have been addressed by the Philosophy of Science and by important metatheoretical work done within the Study of religion. The aim of this research programme is therefore to address fundamental questions and problems in relation to ground research and research projects in the Comparative Study of Religion such as

  • Universals and relativism 
  • Definition as an analytical strategy 
  • Conceptual models in the Study of Religion 
  • Discourses and analytical levels 
  • Reductionism and explanation 
  • Methodological errors 
  • Knowledge and validation 
  • Correspondence and coherence 
  • Methodology 
  • Normativity 
  • Postmodern critique 
  • Paradigms 
  • Epistemic virtues 
  • The ‘existential’ (e.g. verticality) 
  • A dialogical approach 

Programme outputs

Building on the success of the OCHS and what has already been achieved in Comparative Philosophy and Hindu Studies, the Oxford School for the Comparative Study of Religion therefore intends to articulate its intellectual agenda through publication, lectures, and teaching. Among its initial enterprises will be to provide reading seminars on a) contemporary approaches to the study of religions and b) the comparative study of religions; for those within the School to continue to publish their research under its banner; to produce an Oxford Handbook for the Comparative Study of Religion and in due course to develop a book series and a journal, The Oxford Journal for the Comparative Study of Religion (e.g. with OUP).

Comparative Study of Religion Seminar Series I

TT19, Weeks 2-5, OCHS Library

Convenors: Prof. Gavin Flood FBA & Dr. Bjarne Wernicke-Olesen

The purpose of this seminar series is to understand some more recent developments in the study of religions and to raise critical questions about the discipline or subject area. In particular, we will look at the implications of brain science and evolutionary anthropology  and its relevance for the study of religions and secondly at philological study and its wider application in the religious field. Throughout we will raise questions about the study of religions, how we do it, and suggest ways of moving forward.

Week 2. Brain Science and the Study of Religion

Reading: Armin Geertz, Origins of Religion, Cognition and Culture (Routledge 2014), ‘Introduction,’ ‘Whence Religion’

Week 3. The Importance of Philology

Sheldon Pollock et al (eds.), World Philology (Harvard University Press, 2015), ‘Introduction’

Week 4. Understanding Ritual

Axel Michaels, Homo Ritualis, chapter 8, ‘Meaning and Function’ (OUP 2016) 

Week 5. Phenomenology of Religion

Gavin Flood, The Truth Within, chapter 9 ‘The Historical Self and Comparative Religion’ (OUP 2013