Although it is possible to trace the origin of comparative religion to the sixth century Greek thinker Xenophanes, who noted that different peoples tend to depict God in their own image, it was not until the nineteenth century that the study of comparative religion began in earnest. Under the influence of evolutionary theory a number of scholars found what they believed to be evolutionary links between various religious traditions. Chief among these were F Max Muller, E B Tylor, and J G Fraser. The discipline gained rapid academic recognition, and chairs were established in various institutions, particularly the new universities of North America. In Britain the subject tended to serve the needs of the empire and was closely linked to the study of Asian languages. In Germany it took the form of the history of religions, which was seen as an adjunct to Christian theology.
In the United States, under the influence of institutions like the University of Chicago, it became an important element in the expression of the American liberal consensus. As an undergraduate subject comparative religion became highly popular in the late 1960s and early 1970s, with the result that new religious studies departments were opened in many universities in Britain and North America.
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Similarly, prayer to God in Christianity and meditation in Buddhism may look similar, but the object of each exercise is very different. Such a religion as Theravada Buddhism, in fact, presents a strong argument against crude forms of comparative religion because of its rejection of the importance of belief in God and denial of the existence of an individual self. As a result of considerations like these, the study of religion as a universal phenomenon with a variety of different expressions has become increasingly complex. Some scholars still retain a desire to find an underlying unity, while many others have abandoned this quest in favor of the study of a particular religious tradition which they recognize to be unique.
(Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)
E J Sharp, Comparative Religion; M Eliade and J M Kitagawa, eds., The History of Religions; N Smart, Reasons and Faiths.
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