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University of Chicago 

The history of religions is replacing the search for an essential religion. For a 
long time the bias involved in identifying religion with some particular revelation 
made comparative religion a new form of apologetics. With the rise of the idea of 
social evolution there began the effort to discover, by the comparative method, the 
law of religious evolution and the nature of religion. For many reasons the compara- 
tive method proved unsatisfactory. The present interest is to appreciate the unique 
significance of each individual religion with the consequence that scientific history of 
religions takes primary place. 

Perhaps no branch of study has struggled under so many 
burdening presuppositions and the handicap of so much vague- 
ness as that which attempts to interpret the religions of man- 
kind. A religion is sacred, involving things of unspeakable 
value to a human group; religions are universal, common to 
all races of men in all ages, and yet, after more than half a 
century of laborious study of this precious and universal phase 
of human behavior, scholars have not been able to agree upon 
a definition of religion. There are hundreds of definitions, 
ranging from some so narrow as to be exclusive to others so 
broad as to be empty of definite signification. The theological 
presuppositions inherited by Christian, Jewish, and Moslem 
writers often color their definitions as in India the bias is likely 
to be toward a philosophical or mystical emphasis. Some 
definitions are stiff with dogmatic self-righteousness, some are 
contemptuous, some prejudiced, and many partial. This fog 
of confusion has made uncertain sailing for the religious 
sciences; but a compensation now emerges in that the effort 
of comparative religion or hierology to string the religions of 
the planet on the thread of a definition or a law of religious 
development and to evaluate them in relation to a selected 
standard is giving way to a new emphasis upon the humbler 



task of tracing the historic development of individual religions. 
To be sure, history of religions has always held an important 
position in the science of religion, but a position often pre- 
paratory to that of comparative religion which made use of 
its materials in the quest for the law of religious evolution and 
an interpretation of religion in general. Development, growth, 
and change were never taken radically with the result that the 
search for religion obscured the unique individuality of 

This presupposition of a fundamental religion appeared in 
several forms. The most natural was in the work of the 
apologist who assumed that his own religion embodied the 
truth of man's relation to the supernatural toward which all 
religions were blindly striving or from which they had fallen 
away. Again, it was philosophical and sought in the drift of 
cosmic history to trace the temporal manifestation of a uni- 
versal spirit. Or it was psychological, overemphasizing the 
"psychological unity of the race" and finding in this unity the 
clue to the process of religious development. Finally, among 
men more cordial to evolutionary theory, there was the effort 
to arrange religious data so as to show the stages of the develop- 
ment of religion from primitive origins to the highest forms 
of culture religions. Whatever the emphasis, however, theo- 
logical, philosophical, psychological, or anthropological, the 
comparative method was the tool and servant of all. Now 
comes the era of pluralism; and particular religions, even the 
individual forms and ideas of particular religions, demand that 
they be evaluated and understood in their own unique and 
peculiar significance, and not distorted to fit into a mythical 
concept of religion in general. This means, in a word, that the 
thoroughgoing application of the historical method in the treat- 
ment of religions has begun. 

Critical, objective interpretation of the religions of the world 
is one of the new fruits of modern scholarship. Only students 
of this last generation use the terms "religious sciences" and 


" science of religion " without a sense of strangeness. Previous 
to the middle of the nineteenth century any unbiased and 
open-minded appreciation of all religions was impossible for 
the majority of men. The reason lay in the ancient under- 
standing of religion as a way of salvation revealed by a trans- 
cendent God, embodied in sacred books and mediated by 
special spiritual means to mankind. The true religion was 
designated by the revelation. There could be no easy tolerance 
of false religions. During the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth 
centuries Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, each confident of 
its own revelation, faced each other at the Mediterranean in 
dogmatic defiance. The touch of the Greek spirit in the New 
Learning brought no softening of religious dogmatism and the 
Reformation with its warfare of Christian sects held small hope 
of sympathy for foreign faiths. Yet the new sciences, the new 
philosophy, the new commerce, political changes, explorations 
revealing new lands and religions, could not fail to influence 
thinking men. Historic thought forms became too narrow to 
contain the new world-spirit. The writings of Alexander Ross, 
the Deists, Dupuis, De Brosses, Hume, Herder, and Lessing indi- 
cate a new attitude toward the non- Christian peoples. Until 
the opening of the nineteenth century, however, strict theo- 
logical circles held firmly to the theory of revelation yielding 
to the new knowledge of other faiths only to the extent of 
admitting the possibility of a primitive revelation to all 
peoples which had been lost or obscured among the heathen. 

The middle of the nineteenth century marks the beginning 
of a new era in the study of religions. In the first place, materi- 
als were available to act as a check upon dogmatism and 
a priori, philosophic speculation. The sacred texts of other 
religions were being translated; archaeology had begun to 
yield its precious records; traders, explorers, travelers, and 
scientists furnished reports at first hand from unknown terri- 
tories. The very mass of materials was a challenge to research. 
More important perhaps than the availability of documents and 


data was the growing popularity of the Darwinian hypothe- 
sis in biology which was being taken over by anthropologists 
and ethnologists and soon began to appear in theories of social 
evolution. Then flowered the comparative method by which 
facts were gathered from the ends of the earth and from all 
ages and levels of culture, classified under catchwords and used 
to demonstrate some chosen theory of development. In the 
midst of this intensive study of culture it was inevitable that 
religion should be included in the survey. Comparative 
religion was born and in the hands of Max Mttller, Tiele, de 
la Saussaye, and Albert ReVille claimed a place among the 
empirical sciences. 

It would be a mistake to assume, however, that, with the 
advent of the new science, the traditional theory of a divine 
revelation was abandoned. It was too deeply imbedded in 
Christian theology and in social tradition to be so easily shaken. 
Yet in the works of the late nineteenth century a new attitude 
appears. Omitting the solid conservatives who thrust aside 
the materials of comparative religion with the contemptuous 
remark, "There is no comparison," there were some who made 
selective use of them to demonstrate the superiority of Chris- 
tianity, and others who became advocates of a theory of revela- 
tion in a new form. Accepting with perfect frankness the 
history of religions and the idea of development and change, 
they maintain that the whole process takes place under divine 
guidance and control. Accepted as a philosophy of religion the 
theory retains the values of revelation and yet claims to give 
complete freedom to the study and appreciation of the historic 
development of all religions. This point of view is much more 
common than is generally supposed among writers of the last 
thirty years. A philosophy of religion formulated on the 
basis of religious facts and experience and growing out of them 
is one thing; an a priori philosophy of religion continuing in 
new form an inherited tradition is quite another. The tend- 
ency of the latter is to color, distort, or sanctify historic facts. 


In the hands of a man like Reville the search for the leadership 
of the divine Spirit added a glow to his scholarly treatment of 
the history of religions. In the hands of others it becomes too 
frequently a source of blindness and prejudice. This theory 
has made it possible for Judaism to see in the experiences of 
Israel the special path of God in history. It has inclined 
Moslem and Christian writers to localize the divine interposi- 
tion and guidance in certain great personages and events and 
to make it extremely difficult to deal objectively with these 
sacred personages, records, and events. In a word, it tends 
to erect some particular religion as a standard and to judge 
others in relation to the selected norm. The result is apolo- 
getics rather than the empirical study of religions. 

Apologetics has its own value and justification. No one 
may deny the right of the Christian apologist to use the history 
and thought-forms of other religions in order to demonstrate 
the superiority of his own faith. The unfortunate thing is 
that these writers do not call it apologetics but comparative 
religion. A Handbook of Comparative Religion by Dr. S. H. 
Kellogg, an American pioneer in the study of religions, asserts 
that all religions other than that of Christ must be regarded as 
false. By a comparative study of doctrines, 1 Canon Maccul- 
loch comes to the conclusion that, while there was a real 
preparation for Christian doctrine in every pagan religion, 
Christianity is the final and normative faith. In a handbook 
prepared for the Anglican church under the title Comparative 
Religion by Dr. W. St. Clair Tisdall the reader is given the 
assurance of the divine authority of Christianity, its unques- 
tionable pre-eminence, and its ultimate complete triumph over 
its foes. The Hartford-Lamson Lectures of 1907 were delivered 
by Dr. F. R. Jevons under the title "An Introduction to the 
Study of Comparative Religion." As an anthropologist he 
speaks of the evolution of religion but claims that the task of 
comparative religion is to demonstrate that Christianity is the 

1 Canon J. A. Macculloch, Comparative Theology. 


highest manifestation of the religious spirit. All these works 
are apologetics and should be frankly so named. Scholars 
who have been working to win a place for comparative religion 
among the empirical sciences have a just cause of complaint 
against this appropriation of the name. 

Parallel to this group, often antagonistic to it and inclined 
increasingly to pass over into anthropology and sociology was 
that formidable array of scholars who labored to establish an 
evolutionary theory of religious development. They aban- 
doned all speculative and theological presuppositions and sought 
to discover the origin of religion and the law of its develop- 
ment on the basis of the facts furnished by the study of relig- 
ions. The titles of the Hibbert Lectures illustrate this point 
of view. They read, for example, "The Origin and Develop- 
ment of Religion: Illustrated by the Religions of India"; "by 
the Religion of Ancient Egypt"; "by the History of Indian 
Buddhism"; "by Celtic Heathendom"; "by the Religions of 
Mexico and Peru." The quest was for an understanding of 
religion. Individual religions were merely sources of data to 
reveal the law of religious evolution. The great instrument 
was the comparative method coupled with some theory as to 
the psychic nature of man such as "a faculty of faith," "the 
sense of the infinite," "the psychological unity of the race," 
"religious instinct," or "a religious consciousness." Vast 
stores of material were at hand and labeled under such terms 
as "fetishism," "magic," "taboo," "animism," "totemism," 
"shamanism," "sacrifice," and the rest. It remained only for 
the scholar to arrange the materials to fit his hypothesis in 
order to present a very plausible sketch of the development 
of religion. 

But the case rested upon three assumptions. First, that 
religion is a certain basic thing in all religions and that phe- 
nomena are therefore similar everywhere leaving to the investi- 
gator only the task of discovering the order of their arrange- 
ment. Second, that human nature is a unit producing similar 


forms when brought into contact with external nature. Third, 
that religious ideas and forms are capable of being gathered 
under universal terms owing to that similarity. The effort 
to set forth the law of development resulted in confusion and 
conflict among the investigators. It was soon evident that 
the selected order of development might be entirely subjective 
and that the demonstration was achieved by arbitrary choice 
of a beginning of religion and careful selection from the mass 
of materials to fit the plan. There followed a period of con- 
troversy among the advocates of the various theories. First, 
as to point of origin. Was fetishism the first stage of religion ? 
Or did it begin in an awed respect for the great powers of 
nature ? Was shamanism the earliest form of religious control 
or does taboo mark the first stage ? Was animism the starting- 
point of supernatural dualism or did it begin in reverence for 
the souls of the dead or in the combination of soul and demon 
or spirit ? Or must we push back to a pre-animism or anima- 
tism or even to an original manaism, an awed attitude toward 
the mysterious powers active in nature and in living things? 
Does magic precede religion in the arrangement or is religion 
prior and magic a degradation and later development? All 
theories found advocates and all could be subjectively justified 
by a judicious use of the endless data. 

A second source of difficulty was psychological. The rapid 
development of psychology greatly reduced the significance of 
"the psychological unity of man" and discredited such con- 
cepts as "a faculty of faith," a "religious instinct," and a 
"religious consciousness" as original endowments of human 
nature. This cut under the old confidence that there must 
be a uniform manner of religious development and directly 
attacked the uncriticized use of comparative data since forms, 
apparently similar, might arise from different psychic causes 
and be really different. 

Slowly the comparative method broke down. The classi- 
fication of materials in pigeonholes of general terms became 


impossible with more intensive research. Fetishism was no 
longer one thing but many. Totemism had no significance 
unless it was very carefully specified what, when, and where. 
Ancestor worship had its own peculiar meanings in different 
social settings. The same thing was found to be true of other 
phases of religious activity and thought. It was seen to be a 
fallacy to group phenomena together under a general term 
when an examination of them in their own cultural environ- 
ment might show them to be different. And, because they 
seemed to the observer to be similar, to extract them from their 
own milieu where they had their peculiar individuality and 
make them march with others in the fine of a scholar's theory 
was to compound the fallacy. Moreover it was pointed out 
that a phenomenon at one stage might not have the same 
psychic significance in its later functioning even in the same 
society; borrowed by another group it might have almost 
none of its old meaning and to treat it uncritically as the same 
thing was to miss an important distinction. The arrangement 
of materials in a line of development became a most dubious 
undertaking. Since all races of men have lived a long time on 
the earth it seemed quite possible that the various elements of 
early religions might not represent stages of development in 
relation to each other but might be the accumulated technique 
of ages and exist side by side at the dawn of history. The 
comparative method hoped to draw general laws on the basis 
of widely scattered data apparently similar. It now appeared 
that similar things could not be taken as the same thing when 
they were different. If scientific accuracy demanded that 
every religious idea and form be interpreted with all the thick 
meaning it carried in its own cultural and genetic setting the 
comparative method was robbed, if not stripped, of value. 1 
Its worth, as a source of suggestion as to possible developments 
and contacts, when individual religions were under survey, 
would depend upon a careful, critical appraisal of the local 

1 For a searching critic of method see Frederick Schleiter, Religion, and Culture. 


significance of the data. This cautious and restricted use of 
the comparative method is well illustrated by Dr. L. R. Farnell 
in his studies of the development of the Greek religion. 1 

The failure of the comparative method was first evident to 
the anthropologists. Comparative religion still held its ground. 
After the bad lands of origins were abandoned there were still 
the broad areas of the history of culture religions. Professor 
J. E. Carpenter writes: 

The study of comparative religion assumes that religion is already 
in existence. It deals with actual usages which it places side by side 

to see what light they can throw upon each other It is not 

concerned with origins Just as the general theory of evolution 

includes the unity of bodily structure and mental faculty, so it will 
vindicate what may be called the unity of the religious consciousness. 
The old classifications based on the idea that religions consisted of a 
body of doctrines which must be true or false, reached by natural reflec- 
tion or imparted by supernatural revelation disappear before the wider 
view. Theologies may be many but religion is one. 2 

Thus is maintained the old quest to find religion under the 
manifold manifestations of religious thought and activity 
through the ages. A variant of the quest is found in the work 
of George Foucart 3 who selected the religion of Egypt, owing 
to its antiquity, its long untroubled development and abun- 
dant materials, as the ideal basis of comparison. With 
this all others are compared. Here apologetics is abandoned 
and the exaltation of one religion to the supreme place is not 
the goal. The search is seriously made for the meaning of 
religion and the laws underlying its development. The most 
tireless modern champion of comparative religion, Mr. L. H. 
Jordan, 4 is especially vigorous in his repudiation of the misuse 

1 The Cults of the Greek States; cf. also his "Inaugural Lecture of the Wilde 
Lectures in Natural and Comparative Religion," p. 9. 

2 Comparative Religion, pp. 30, 31, 34. 

3 La Mtthode Comparative dans I'histoire des Religions. 

4 See Comparative Religion, Its Genesis and Growth; Comparative Religion, Its 
Method and Scope, etc. 


of the study in the service of apologetics. But the more one 
becomes detached from bias and from special admiration of 
one religion, the more objectively the data of religions are 
studied, the more it appears impossible to draw them into a 
neat generalization. To appreciate them truly is to see them 
in their peculiar individuality. To set them side by side with 
others in order to look at them serves only to make them more 
distinctly different. Comparative religion loses meaning unless 
one has already some preconceived idea as to the standard of 
religious excellence or some philosophical presupposition as to 
a single cosmic power at work under all the forms. As an 
instrument for discovering the law of religious evolution the 
comparative method is hopelessly inadequate. The compari- 
son of data is meaningless unless some connection can be shown. 
If the effort is to secure an appreciation of the many religions 
of the world that result can be achieved more perfectly by the 
history of religions. If the desire is to explain why certain 
ideas and forms arise under certain conditions that task falls 
under the scope of psychology of religion. If one seeks to show 
how interaction and borrowing have taken place the history 
of the religions concerned will reveal it. If religion, after all, 
is not one but many, a valid religious science will devote itself 
to the conscientious interpretation of each one of the multitude. 
When the comparative method fell into disfavor there still 
remained the hope that the law of religious evolution might 
be discovered by another method, namely, by selecting an 
isolated group and making an intensive study of a single devel- 
opment. This Durkheim attempted for Australia. No gen- 
eralization in regard to religion as a racial product seems 
possible from this method. Even though the data were certain 
and all contacts with other groups assuredly absent what is 
achieved may be the history of a unique and individual reli- 
gious development. This in itself is a very valuable result 
but no inference may safely be drawn from it as to the early 
stages of any other single religion. 


What remains then is the study of religions in all their vast 
variety. History of religions assumes a new dignity. Its 
task is to deal not with religion but religions, each of them the 
product of the life of a human group and claiming to be inter- 
preted in all the richness of its individuality. The given thing 
is human life seeking satisfaction in a specific environment. 
The story of this co-operative quest for the good life in rela- 
tion to varying natural surroundings is the story of the religion 
in its early stages. There are certain basic needs and desires. 
The geographic situation presents advantages, dangers, and 
problems. The slowly expanding appreciation of the cosmic 
powers with which men deal, the slowly developing technique 
of control from rudimentary forms of magic word and rite to 
the sciences, the enlarging conception of the good life from 
fundamental physical needs to the higher spiritual values all 
enter into the story. And each religious development has its 
own distinct individuality not to be lost or obscured by any 
preconceived idea of religion as ideally represented in any 
other group or as formulated by a comparative study of many. 
This demands a sincere and thoroughgoing use of the historical 
method in the treatment of every particular religion and of 
the ideas and forms of every religion and an appreciation of 
their unique significance to the people who use them. If this 
great labor can be carried through it holds out the hope of a 
sympathetic understanding of all religions as products of human 
groups rooted in the earth and striving, not always successfully, 
to achieve a worthful life. Not only will it give an authentic 
vision of the varied gropings of the families of mankind for 
the higher values of life but it will make possible an apprecia- 
tive knowledge of the distinctive religious attitudes, heritages, 
and attainments of the races now intermingling in a narrowed 
world and so, perhaps, open a pathway for the coming of a 
religion of humanity as the co-operative quest of the good 
life of the race.