Similarity and Difference in the Study of Religion

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Page author: Luke Burns

This page created on: 14/09/2021

Last modified: 14/09/2021


In religious studies, scholars sometime swing between two extremes: a unifying human spirituality or a multiplicity of irreconcilable traditions - but a third way is also possible.

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In religious studies, scholars sometime swing between two extremes. Those who look for similarity in different religions lean towards the idea of a perennial philosophy – a recurring, innately human spirituality that exists prior to culture, and is then sculpted by it. Wherever you find religious expression, they would argue, if you chip away the surface labels, you’ll find the same basic experiences.

A well-known proponent of this idea was Mircea Eliade, who claimed that religious systems were windows onto the sacred, a non-normal aspect to reality which occasionally could be glimpsed, or else might break through in the form of a hierophany (literally: a divine revelation).

Others focus on the exclusivity of different religions, stressing the difference between them, often taking fundamentalist approaches to a tradition. For these scholars, even if there are points of agreement between (for example) Christianity and Confucianism, they are fundamentally different – products of different cultures, with different aims, methods, and histories.

A third way exists, which aims to reconcile these two extremes – looking for both similarity and difference. Like any human endeavour, religion is human, and so there will of course be similarities of purpose, expression, and experience. Yet, traditions emerge out of unique cultural and psychological realities, and cannot be equated. The surface differences are real, and matter to the people who adhere to those traditions.

Whether you focus on similarity, difference, or a synthesis of the two - how you approach religious plurality will deeply impact what discoveries you make and how you account for the structures and patterns within religious activity.

The benefit of the third approach (similarity and difference together), and the reason I would recommend it, is because it aims to (as far as possible) start with observations and build up theories around them – this is good! The other two start with theories, and look for observations that match – a recipe for bias and misinterpretation.

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Photo by Conscious Design on Unsplash

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