Can we compare religions? Brian Zahnd

I know Brian Zahnd and found his courage here both refreshing and honest:

But am I suggesting that we should engage in an objective study of comparative religions? No. In fact, I think such an undertaking is impossible. Not inadvisable, but literally impossible. You can only experience a religion by being a believer within the faith and practice of that religion. Religion cannot be approached objectively. The very nature of religion prevents this. For example: One can be thoroughly versed in the teachings of the New Testament (a scholar even) and be well acquainted with Christian theology and worship, church history and practice and still not believe. Which is to say it is thoroughly possible to be an expert on Christianity and not be a Christian. Bart Ehrman would be an example. (And Bart Ehrman would agree.) Or to say it another way: I could become an expert on the Koran and Islam, but that alone would not make me a Muslim. Faith is the essence of religion, not empirical knowledge. We cannot study religions like we do insects. Well, we can, but being an expert on grasshoppers does not make you a grasshopper. And being an expert on Hinduism doesn’t make you a Hindu. Religious faith is a subjective experience — not objective empirical knowledge.

Which is to say you don’t know what it means to be a Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Jew, Christian…until you are one! And to be one, is to not be the other. So comparison becomes impossible.

The modern, sloppy notion that we can mix-and-match religions like we do pants and socks is utter nonsense. The modern person who says, “I’m a Buddhist-Hindu-Muslim-Christian” is in reality a secularist wearing religious accessories. The truth is they know virtually nothing about what it means to actually be a Buddhist or a Hindu or a Muslim or a Christian.

The nature of religion based in faith makes the comparative religion project ultimately impossible.

To be an adherent of a religion is to believe, and faith is not an object of empirical inquiry.

I believe Jesus is risen from the dead. But I cannot prove it.

(I do believe the resurrection is the most reasonable explanation for the empty tomb and the rise of Christianity, but it cannot be proven.)

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  • Tim

    “The modern person who says, ‘I’m a Buddhist-Hindu-Muslim-Christian’ is in reality a secularist wearing religious accessories.”

    I agree with that.

    “Which is to say you don’t know what it means to be a Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Jew, Christian…until you are one!”

    Fair enough, but we can still objectively consider these religions even if we don’t have access to the subjective experience of belonging/adhering to them. Thinking along similar lines, if we couldn’t objectively study other people groups without belonging to then anthropology would be impossible.

  • SSG

    There is a point here that should be considered (namely, that there is a distinct form of experiential knowledge that lacks the intersubjectivity of other forms of knowledge) but does that make comparison impossible? A counterexample that comes to mind would be that converts seem to beable to compare the exexperiential knowledge they had with what they have now. So, comparison might be harder than we think it is, but it is not impossible.

  • Marshall

    I say that one’s religion or any applied philosophy must be grounded in personal experience of how it works in the world, so I agree that an “analytical philosophy” study doesn’t open the door to a relationship with God. But people do change/progress over a period of time, so there’s no reason why an individual can’t have “insider” experience of more than one religion. I spent some time seriously doing a Buddhist practice, and I think prepared some good ground for a Christian life … one reads about Thomas Merton. If you think that God is real and alive in the world, then perhaps the antagonism between religions can be overstated. None of them are *completely* wrong. Spinoza said something related, eg (Ethics, part II, Prop. IV): “The idea of God, from which an infinite number of things follow in infinite ways, can only be one.”

  • Much to agree with Zahnd about here. I agree with Scot that its refreshing. But…

    While we can’t know the experience of believing a certain way, is that all that religion is? Religion is also some objectively assertable beliefs and some observable practices. Religion as ‘subjective experiential belief’ vs ‘objective beliefs and practices’ seems like a false choice to me. ‘Able to know everything about a religion’ vs ‘completely unable to know anything’ also seems like a false choice.

    I’d like to think that I can really dialogue with my Muslim friend and understand a great deal about what he believes. I agree with Zahnd that I won’t know what it is to experientially Muslim but surely I can learn something. Won’t the very act of dialogue produce comparison? If we’re to proclaim Christ won’t that mean that we’ll have to distinguish following Him from other religious options?

  • Of course we can objectively compare religions, and here are some books that will provide some of the intellectual tools needed to do so in an intelligent manner. Each of these authors is presenting what amount to theories of man in history, which includes the expression of human experience in “religion.” They are all relatively brief. The titles may be somewhat misleading to those who aren’t familiar with this type of thought–they are not to be taken in a popular sense. None are apologetic in nature.

    First, two by Mircea Eliade:

    The Myth of the Eternal Return: Cosmos and History

    The Myth of the Eternal Return makes both intelligible and compelling the religious expressions and activities of a wide variety of archaic and “primitive” religious cultures and relates them to later developments in “philosophy” and “religion.” It amounts to a theory of human nature as expressed religiously.

    Myth and Reality (Religious Traditions of the World)

    This is a more systematic presentation of the ideas presented in Myth of the Eternal Return, but each book has merits all their own.

    One by Christopher Dawson:

    Progress and Religion: An Historical Inquiry

    Progress and Religion was perhaps the most influential of all Christopher Dawson’s books, establishing him as an interpreter of history and a historian of ideas. It has been described as a brilliant work of synthesis, for in this single volume he outlined his main thesis for the history of culture, which was his life’s work. Anthropology, sociology, philosophy, religion, and history formed the backdrop for the key idea of his thought—namely, that religion is the soul of a culture and that a society or culture which has lost its spiritual roots is a dying culture. To Dawson, a return to the Christian culture that had formed Western civilization was the only remedy for a world adrift.

    And two by Eric Voegelin:

    The New Science of Politics

    Politics in the Aristotelean sense: the study of man in society. Although short it can be tough sledding for many, but well worth the effort for serious readers.

    “A lodestar to thinking men who seek a restoration of political science on the classic and Christian basis . . . a significant accomplishment in the retheorization of our age.”—Anthony Harrigan, Christian Century

    Science, Politics, and Gnosticism

    A much easier read than The New Science of Politics.

    Eric Voegelin (1901–85), arguably one of the most provocative and influential political philosophers of the last century. In these essays, Voegelin … attempts to resolve the intellectual confusion that has resulted from the dominance of gnostic thought

  • I’ll be blunt. Some of what Zahnd wrote above is right on the mark. But most of this is nonsense.

    Yes, we should discuss the experience of religion. Yes, we should give a kind of preference to reports coming from insiders. This is one of Krister Stendahl’s Three Rules of Religious Understanding: when trying to understand another religion, you should ask the adherents of that religion.

    But there is nothing to indicate that religious experience cannot be effectively communicated to outsiders. We routinely report our experiences to our fellow humans, and see a value in doing so – we believe that something of our experience of a thing can effectively be described to those who have never experienced that thing. There is no reason to think that religion is so completely different from anything else that people do, that the religious experience cannot be communicated as effectively as any other experience.

    Nor is there anything to indicate that an outsider’s experience of a religion cannot itself communicate something valuable about that religion. This is the value of interfaith dialog, performed properly and with the right spirit. To argue otherwise would be to dismiss some terrific writing about Christianity, by people like Joseph Klausner, Amy-Jill Levine, Paula Fredriksen, and the many contributors to the Jewish Annotated New Testament.

    Moreover, there’s nothing to indicate that all adherents of a particular religion experience that religion in the same way, or even that all adherents of a particular religion experience the same core or essential stuff. (Once you start the journey down the road of subjectivity, it’s hard to find a good place to stop.) If you’re a Christian, you experience what it’s like for you to be a Christian. The person one pew over may be experiencing something different.

    Zahnd is right: religions are difficult, perhaps even impossible, to compare. But this is largelya matter of asymmetry, and Zahnd himself (unwittingly) proves. Zahnd writes that “faith is the essence of religion”, but this is not so. Faith may be the essence of Christianity, but it’s certainly not the essence of Judaism as I experience it from the inside, and I suspect that faith is not the essence of other religious experiences. The key to understanding a religion from an outsider’s perspective is to understand that religion on its own terms.

  • DMH

    Good to see a post in the comparative religions category… even if it’s discouraging it.

    “faith is the essence of religion” I too thought this was problematic. Faith may be a big part (but not the whole) of Christianity but not necessarily of all the other religions. The concept of “other faiths” misses the complexity of the subject.

  • @ DMH

    excellent, incisive.

  • Luke

    I agree we can’t compare the existential nature of various religions without participating (a helpful reminder) but we can certainly compare the associated worldviews, implications, history, dogma, etc. We can make propositional statements about them all. We will not have the insiders perspective, and this we cannot compare, but to assert that since we have various experiences, we cannot compare at all would be like saying I cannot compare my upbringing with that of my wife’s. We had very different upbringings and I won’t understand experientially at all what she experienced, (excluding sympathetic events and analogies) but we are able to make comparisons. I know religions and upbringings aren’t exactly analogous , but I think the idea stands. It depends on the categories compared.

  • yes, luke, and there is the fact of our common humanity. cultures differ, certainly, but underlying them all is a common human nature, so that there IS a basis for understanding other expressions of the human perspective on reality and the human issues that involves. that is the perspective of all the authors i cite, above.

  • I imagine that people like Zahnd who think that religious belief is an essentially incommunicable experience think that their position–if widely adopted–will lead to a more tolerant world. I think there’s no basis at all for that hope.

  • Dear Mark,

    We can compare religions as objective outsiders, but religion is inherently a subjective experience (this is what I mean by faith). An objective outsider can know the nuts and bolts of a religion, but cannot know what it means to be an adherent (that kind of knowledge is apprehended only subjectively).

    “All truth inheres in subjectivity.” -Søren Kierkegaard

    Religious faith is certainly communicable (this is what I do), it’s just not empirically verifiable.


  • “We can compare religions as objective outsiders

    Fine. That’s good enough for me and, I suspect, most others who have commented critically.

    An objective outsider … cannot know what it means to be an adherent (that kind of knowledge is apprehended only subjectively).

    I have great difficulty with that statement. As I said, we all, as humans, share a common human nature. The experience of individual humans is therefore not totally sui generis. An “objective outsider” is also a human subject, and so it is possible to imaginatively experience what other individuals experience, because as part of our common humanity we share subjective experiences such as needs and temptations that are common to all. The need/temptation to belong, the need for total certainty, can be vicariously experienced but ultimately rejected. Of course there isn’t a one to one correspondence between your experience and my sympathetic understanding of it based on such communication, but due to our common humanity there is enough correspondence for meaningful understanding–if the effort is made. We remain free to refuse to make the effort.

    “All truth inheres in subjectivity.” -Søren Kierkegaard

    I take that to mean that truth is not known except by a knower–a self conscious subject. To that extent, ALL truth, all knowledge, is subjective, i.e., inheres in a subject. Even “scientific truths” are subjective in that sense. In that sense, for example, a book of Euclidean geometry isn’t knowledge and isn’t true in the absence of a self conscious subject who experiences the book’s contents.

    “Religious faith is certainly communicable (this is what I do), it’s just not empirically verifiable.”

    Nor is the statement “Religious faith is … just not empirically verifiable” empirically verifiable. It’s not clear to me where that gets you. Religious faith doesn’t need to be empirically verified for us to speak meaningfully about it. Nor is empirical verification the sole measure of truth.

    More to the point, perhaps, for most believers, adherence to statements of religious belief–e.g., Jesus is risen, God exists, etc.–while not empirically verifiable can be more or less reasonable, highly reasonable or totally unreasonable, based on factors that often include empirically verifiable elements.

    In one of the books that I recommended (above) Eric Voegelin offers as an example of Marxist faith the notion that there is an essence of history, a sort of global whole, that is knowable to humans. Voegelin rejects that Marxist faith proposition on the grounds that time extends into the indefinite future so that history as a whole can never be known. That Marxist faith proposition is totally unreasonable. OTOH, the Christian belief in Jesus as a real person rests upon a complex of evidence–much of it material in the form of writings, archaeological artifacts, etc.– that, taken as a whole, is widely considered to be highly reasonable. In fact, it is unreasonable to deny it. Is it certainty of the 1+1=2 variety? No. But that’s just the nature of human experience. The main point, however, is that belief in such propositions of religious belief are analogous to propositions of even scientific belief (many believed at one time that Newtonian physics was a virtual blueprint of reality), so that these various human experiences are communicable. Not perfectly, flawlessly, but usefully. Thus, we can understand, within tolerable limits, what it might mean to be a Marxist true believer–indeed, many have survived the experience and have communicated it.

  • Amanda B.

    I loved this article. Of course, we can evaluate some things about a religion from an outsider’s perspective–different doctrines and teachings that either attract us, repel us, convince us, or don’t make sense to us. We can make every effort to understand our neighbors of differing religious viewpoints, and to a large degree empathize with them in it. But on the whole, religion isn’t, and can’t be, primarily an intellectual pursuit.

    The reason I became, and remain, a Christian, is not because I stood back, objectively evaluated every religious and philosophical option, and decided that Christianity was the most logical choice. I’m a Christian because I’ve had experiences I can’t argue with. I’ve talked to and heard from God. I’ve seen the changes in my heart and life that correlate with what the Bible claims will accompany faith in Him. I’ve even seen a small handful of miracles, brought forth through prayer in Jesus’ name.

    I still have questions. There are still things I don’t understand. But to deny God’s existence at this point, or to deny the saving grace of Jesus, would be as absurd to me as denying the existence of my own parents. Even with as many things that do just “make sense” to me about Christian practice and dogma, it is the experiential knowledge of God that keeps me following Jesus.

    Religious comparisons tend to be done from a secular standpoint (as if that is a neutral one), but a simple mental apprehension of doctrine is not at all the same as experiencing the religion. I think Zahnd is bringing a much-needed perspective to the table. “Refreshing” is definitely the word I’d use. It seems to me that most people in the public sphere today believe it is best to evaluate religion completely apart from preexisting faith–Zahnd is reminding us that such a thing is not really possible. For that, I’m grateful.

  • DMH

    Some agreed upon definitions of terms might be helpful to the conversation, but that’s probably for another post. Speaking of other posts… maybe a good follow up would be to ask; What is the best way to compare/contrast/think about other religions?, and what is their relationship to Christianity?

    Or Scot, if you’re still out there… you have John doing pastoral stuff, RJS doing science stuff, Jeff Cook did some philosophy stuff,… How about bringing in a Comparative Religions person for a short stint?

  • What is the best way to compare/contrast/think about other religions?, and what is their relationship to Christianity?

    That would be fascinating. We could start by discussing the relationship of Protestantism to Christianity. For example, Eric Voegelin (a Lutheran) in his The New Science of Politics (see above) defines the “Reformation” as the breaking in of gnosticism to the institutions of the West. He also has an illuminating discussion on this topic in the chapter titled “Gnostic Revolution–The Puritan Case.”

  • I disagree with the author here: “To be an adherent of a religion is to believe, and faith is not an object of empirical inquiry.” The idea that faith and belief is the primary element of religion is a particularly Western Christian way of looking at things. Many religious traditions, including those we assume emphasize beliefs, such as Mormonism, actually emphasize other things, such as ritual, ethics, and sacred narrative. By understanding other religions from our frame of reference rather than their own, we end up with a reified misunderstanding and lose credibility. Can we be completely objective in contrasting religions? Of course not, because all knowledge is subjective and situated. However, we can attempt an insider’s perspective (emic) first before our outsider’s (etic) contrast.