Religions, Comparative Study of
RELIGIONS, COMPARATIVE STUDY OF
"Comparative religions" is understood here in the broader, nondisciplinary sense in order to include some important contributions of the past two decades. While the concept of function, which focused on the relation of religious phenomena to their social and cultural contexts, was a prominent tool in the study of religions throughout the first half of this century, in recent research it has been eclipsed by a concern with "structure," the logical relationships obtaining among religious phenomena within a specific context.
Though he did field work in South America, C. Lévi-Strauss, the leading proponent of structuralist anthropology, is interested primarily in the universal structures of the human mind. He seeks the unconscious framework of relations which underlies superficial facts. Lévi-Strauss characterizes primitive thought, not by its intellectual poverty, but by its demand for order, and has pursued the "logics of myth" in his four volumes of Mythologiques by showing "not how men think in myths, but how myths operate in men's minds without their being aware of the fact." His slighting of context has been criticized, but Lévi-Strauss' bold comparative endeavor merits serious attention.
Mary Douglas, though less concerned with universal structures, has illuminated the conceptions of order which inform beliefs about pollution and taboo in societies as diverse as those of ancient Israel and contemporary Africa. Building on the idea that "dirt" is essentially something that is out of place, she has shown that those beliefs "have as their main function to impose system on an inherently untidy reality." She also argues, in Natural Symbols, that particular visions of the social order will be expressed in characteristic attitudes toward the body in a given culture.
Like Douglas, Victor Turner proposes a theoretical approach which facilitates comparisons of a broad range of data. Enlarging upon A. van Gennep's observation that most rituals display a threefold structure of separation-transition-reincorporation. Turner has concentrated on the qualities of the middle phase. During that "limited period," all structures typical of daily life are suspended; the actors become a homogeneous group, and the feeling of communitas which the ritual engenders confirms both the underlying sentiment of essential equality and the necessity for role-and status-differentiation in society. Turner also discusses how particular symbols can be manipulated to convey ideological messages in rites de passage and other cultural situations.
Georges Dumézil echoes the concern with system in his work on Indo-European mythology. An adherent of la méthode sociologique, Dumézil has found a remarkable coherence of outlook in the mythical literature of ancient India, Iran, Italy, Germany, Scandinavia, and Ireland. He identifies as the principle of coherence the tripartite division of human and divine society into royal, warrior, and cultivator strata. Although the specifically Indo-European character of that ideology has been questioned, the main lines of Dumézil's challenging synthesis remain unshaken.
Among others in sociology, B. Wilson, through his studies on various contemporary religious movements, has influenced comparative studies of religions. Others might be mentioned, but those examples from several disciplines serve to confirm the persistence of a longstanding task for Religionswissenschaft. Despite its periodic claims to autonomy, it has always had and must continue to incorporate the findings of any discipline which seriously attempts the study of religions.
See Also: religion, sociology of; religion (in primitive cultures).
Bibliography: m. douglas, Natural Symbols (London 1970); Purity and Danger (London 1966); ed., Rule and Meanings (Harmondsworth, England 1973). g. dumÉzil, L'idéologie tripartite des Indo-Européens (Brussels 1958); Mythe et épopée 1 (Paris 1968); 2 (Paris 1971); 3 (Paris 1973). e. leach, Claude Lévi-Strauss (New York 1970). c. lÉvi-strauss, The Savage Mind (Chicago 1966); Structural Anthropology 1 (New York 1963); 2 (New York 1976). c. s. littleton, The New Comparative Mythology (rev. ed., Berkeley 1973). j. z. smith, "Birth Upside Down or Right Side Up?" History of Religions 9 (1970) 281–303; "Adde Parvum Parvo Magnus Acervus Erit," History of Religions 11 (1971) 67–90. v. turner, The Forest of Symbols (Ithaca, N.Y. 1967); The Ritual Process (Chicago 1969); Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors (Ithaca, N.Y. 1975). b. wilson, Sects and Society (London 1961); Magic and the Millennium (London 1973); Contemporary Transformations of Religion (London 1976).
[e. v. gallagher]