Mikel Burley – “Different Senses and Purposes of Comparative Philosophy of Religion”

Mikel Burley is Associate Professor of Religion and Philosophy at the University of Leeds, UK. We invited him to discuss comparative philosophy of religion as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

There are various ways of understanding the term “comparative philosophy of religion.” An initial distinction can be made between, on the one hand, a philosophical comparison of different religions and, on the other hand, a comparison of different philosophical views of religion. The first of these understandings is exemplified by Franklin Gamwell when he defines comparative philosophy of religion as critical reflection upon the question, “What are the most general similarities and differences among religions?” (Gamwell 1994, p. 22). The second understanding is exemplified by John Clayton, who borrows from Wilhelm Halbfass the term “dialogic comparison” to specify the comparative analysis of ideas from distinct philosophical traditions that bear upon religiously relevant matters. As a case in point, Clayton compares certain views of the eleventh-to-twelfth-century South Indian philosopher Rāmānuja with those of the eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher David Hume, with particular attention to their respective critiques of the claims of natural theology (Clayton 2006, chap. 5).

The above distinction between two broad understandings of what comparative philosophy of religion amounts to is, however, not a sharp one. One reason for this is that the distinction between a first-order religious claim and a second-order philosophical claim about religion is itself often blurry. When, for example, Rāmānuja argues, against his philosophical arch-rival Śaṅkara, that spiritual liberation cannot consist in a state of pure egoless consciousness because no intelligent person would ever strive to attain a state in which personal existence has been extinguished, is Rāmānuja making a religious point, a philosophical point, a point about human psychological motivation—or all three of these at once (see Rāmānuja 1904, p. 70)? And when Hume, in Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779) gives expression to divergent viewpoints through the respective dramatis personae of Demea, Philo, and Cleanthes, ought we to regard those viewpoints as religious or as philosophical? Again, the distinction remains fuzzy.

Notwithstanding the permeability of the boundary between religious and philosophical positions, one of the most important benefits of a comparative approach to philosophy of religion is the extent to which it facilitates, precisely, the bringing into relief of diverse perspectives. As the pioneering scholar of religion Max Müller famously observed, when it comes to the study of religions, “He who knows one, knows none” (1882, p. 13, original emphasis), a dictum that he borrows from Goethe, who applied it to languages. Müller is not denying that one can have a deep practical knowledge of a religion to which one is personally committed without knowing about other religions; rather, his point is that one cannot know “what religion really is” if one has knowledge of only one (ibid.). In other words, without comparison, one will not be in a position to take a genuinely scholarly view—one might say, a genuinely philosophical view—of the concept and subject matter of religion.

Talk of “what religion really is” might be heard as implying some essentialist metaphysical thesis, as though the question “What is religion?” could be answered only by specifying a concise set of individually necessary and jointly sufficient conditions. But it need not be heard in this way. It could just as readily turn out that “what religion really is” is many things—a plurality, with numerous overlapping features but no universal essence. Yet regardless of whether one’s inquiry takes one in an essentializing direction or a pluralizing direction, the inquiry cannot get off the ground unless one ventures beyond a single religion and begins to think about the category of religion more broadly.

A further distinction to be made in relation to comparative philosophy of religion concerns the purpose of the inquiry. Gamwell’s question, “What are the most general similarities and differences among religions?”, does not, in itself, imply that the inquiry should involve any judgment about which of the religions examined is the truest or the most ethically impressive or the best in some other respect. One possible purpose for the comparative philosophy of religion is to gain a deeper understanding of the particularities of different religious—and also nonreligious—positions without seeking to reach a normative verdict about which is best. Indeed, there is a danger that the urge to reach such a verdict could distort one’s perception of the phenomena, tempting one to accentuate some aspects and downplay others to suit one’s personal preferences. Avoiding such distortions requires concentrated effort and an ethical commitment to do what D. Z. Phillips calls “conceptual justice” to the variety of perspectives that exist. Phillips draws an analogy between this style of philosophizing and the work of a dramatist who authors a play featuring characters with diverse points of view. Although some dramatists may wish to resolve tensions or to present one set of values as superior to all the others, this is not the only option. An alternative approach is simply to lay bare the tensions and conflicts, enabling the audience to understand them more clearly (Phillips 2007, p. 207).

Other philosophers, by contrast, will feel that “merely” deepening one’s understanding of the particularities of divergent perspectives falls short of the crucial task, leaving us “with a sense that the problems themselves have been bypassed” (Cheetham 2008, p. 112). Even those who share this sense, however, should not be too hasty to overlook the potentially transformative consequences of approaches that are not overtly fixated on solving “problems.” For something that comparison can do in a remarkably powerful way is to disclose to us the contingency of many of our assumptions and attitudes. By making a sustained effort to encounter and get to grips with other points of view, whether religious, nonreligious, or ambivalent between religion and its rejection, we open ourselves up to alternative ways of being human. The significance—and indeed the unsettling potentiality—of such encounters ought not to be underestimated.

Works Cited

Cheetham, David. 2008. “Comparative Philosophy of Religion.” In Contemporary Practice and Method in the Philosophy of Religion: New Essays, edited by David Cheetham and Rolfe King, 101–116. London: Continuum.

Clayton, John. 2006. Religions, Reasons and Gods: Essays in Cross-Cultural Philosophy of Religion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gamwell, Franklin I. 1994. “A Foreword to Comparative Philosophy of Religion.” In Religion and Practical Reason: New Essays in the Comparative Philosophy of Religions, edited by Frank E. Reynolds and David Tracy, 21–58. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Hume, David. 1779. Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, 2nd edition. London: n.p.

Müller, F. Max. 1882. Introduction to the Science of Religion, new edition. Oxford: Longmans, Green, and Co.

Phillips, D. Z. 2007. “Philosophy’s Radical Pluralism in the House of Intellect – A Reply to Henk Vroom.” In D. Z. Phillips’ Contemplative Philosophy of Religion: Questions and Responses, edited by Andy F. Sanders, 197–211. Aldershot: Ashgate.

Rāmānuja. 11th century CE. 1904. Śrībhāṣya. In The Vedânta-Sûtras with the Commentary by Râmânuga [sic], translated by George Thibaut. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

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