Should we compare religions?
This is one of the foundational questions for scholars of religion, and it is the topic of a Friday, Jan. 14 conference at the Divinity School, titled “Comparing Religions: On Theory and Method.” The conference is being held in honor of Martin Riesebrodt, Professor of the Sociology of Religion in the Divinity School and Sociology, who will retire at the end of the year.
For Riesebrodt, the answer is an emphatic “yes.”
In recent decades, some scholars de-emphasized the importance of comparing religions, choosing instead to focus on the uniqueness of religious traditions. The very idea of “religion” as a unifying concept was called into question.
Riesebrodt argues against this view in his most recent book, The Promise of Salvation: A Theory of Religion (University of Chicago Press 2010). Something is lost when scholars only look at religious difference, he said.
“What’s interesting in the uniqueness of everything? Uniqueness has to be related to something that is shared in order to become really interesting,” Riesebrodt said. “If you focus on differences between religions, you end up with philosophical or theological questions, but if you look at why people practice religion and the meaning of those practices, you find surprising similarities across traditions, across time. I find that much more meaningful.”
Riesebrodt’s insistence on the value of comparison is “a breath of fresh air,” said Ohio University professor Loren Lybarger, PhD’02, a former student of Riesebrodt’s and one of the conference organizers.
“He is … an incredibly precise and disciplined thinker who takes very seriously the work of clarifying concepts,” Lybarger added. “He’s been working particularly with the category of religion and trying to address in the sociological realm what has been quite a vexed conversation. He has done a great service to the field of religious studies in helping us think through in sociological terms what religion is.”
The conference will reunite Riesebrodt with many of his former students, including Erin Augis, PhD’02; Mihwa Choi, PhD’08; Randall Reed, PhD’05; Yanfei Sun, PhD’10; and Geneviève Zubrzycki, PhD’02. “I didn’t want it to be a conference on me or my work, but a conference of my former students,” Riesebrodt said.
“Comparing Religions: On Theory and Method” begins at 9 a.m. in Swift Hall. Other participants include Andreas Glaeser and Omar McRoberts, both Associate Professors in Sociology and the College. For more information, visit http://divinity.uchicago.edu/martycenter/conferences/riesebrodt/.