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What is Comparative Religion?

By Brendan McGuigan
Updated May 17, 2024
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The study of different religions and how they relate to each other is called comparative religion. It examines similarities, differences and the way in which different religions interact and complement each other. Comparative religion plays an important role in modern discourse because various religious groups have found themselves coming into closer contact with one another on both personal and social levels.

Three Major Supergroups

Comparative religion simplifies its task by separating religions into various supergroups, each of which reflects an overarching tradition and encompasses many individual religions. The three major supergroups looked at, which comprise the majority of practitioners, are the Abrahamic religions, the Taoic religions and the Indian religions. Other supergroups include the Indigenous religions, the African diasporic religions, the new religions and the Iranic religions. Within these supergroups, there can be seen a great deal of overlap, and a major area of study within comparative religion is the extent and form of this overlap.

Abrahamic Religions

The Abrahamic religions account for more than half of the world's population, and a great deal of focus is often given to them within comparative religion studies. The Abrahamic religions are those that include the teachings of Abraham, such as Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Some modern faiths and movements, such as Bahá’í, Rastafarianism and the Samaritans, also are classified as Abrahamic religions by many comparative religion scholars. Movements within these larger classes, such as Mormonism within Christianity or Sufism within Islam, are also considered part of the larger class. The Abrahamic religions sometimes might be referred to as Western religions to contrast them with the Eastern religions of the Taoic and Indian groups.

Taoic Religions

Taoic religions are considered to be those that draw their original inspiration from the concept of the Tao, a balancing force that drives the universe. These religions include Taoism, Confucianism and Shinto. Buddhism, an Indian religion, has taken on many Taoic characteristics in East Asia as well, and many Chinese folk religions have melded Taoic beliefs with traditional indigenous beliefs.

Indian Religions

The Indian religions are those that are derived from the Vedic period in India. These religions include Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism and Sikhism. Although the Vedas played an important role in the formation of Indian religions, many of these religions, including Buddhism, rejected the literal authority of the Vedas and instead focused on teachings transmitted by figures of the era.

Comparing and Contrasting

By classifying religions based on their foundational principles and history, comparative religion allows for individual religions to be more easily compared and contrasted. Much of the discussion in this field focuses on intersections between supergroups, such as the merging of indigenous religions with Abrahamic traditions to create entirely novel practices or the gradual drifting of Chan and Zen Buddhism from its Indian roots toward forms that are more associated with Taoic religions. Comparative religion also looks at the development of esoteric faiths and mystic traditions within a religion, such as Sufism within Islam, Gnosticism within Christianity, Kabbala within Judaism, Chakra within Hinduism or Tantra within Buddhism.

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Discussion Comments
By NerdChik — On May 07, 2011

@mariposa - I wouldn't be too quick to say how similar they are. Most of the world religions have come to a lot of conflicting conclusions. I mean, you have one that doesn't have a god (Buddhism) and then there are those that say the only way to happiness and salvation is through god. But, yes, I agree they are both seeking ways to be better people.

By mariposa — On May 04, 2011

I had a world religions class in college that was very interesting and drew a lot from comparative study. It's remarkable how similar they are. They all seem to be looking for something higher to help them be better people (by whatever definition that is).

By StormyKnight — On Oct 23, 2010

That was a very informative article. Great Job WiseGeek!!

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