Comparison is held to be one of the central methods of the academic study of religion. While many ostensibly engage in the comparative act, often overlooked is what it actually means to do this. What is comparison? Why engage in it and for what purposes? Can there be such a thing as a valid or invalid comparison?
This book starts with the premise that while there are good comparisons and bad comparisons, what is common to both is the sheer artificiality of the enterprise. It then develops an analytical framework for using the method in the context of religious studies. After briefly tracing the history and genealogy of the category, Hughes draws on his extensive work in Judaism and Islam to argue that comparison can be a useful method, but only under strictly controlled conditions.
Published: Oct 26, 2017
|Introduction: A Personal Journey in and through Comparison||Aaron Hughes|
|To What Can I Compare Thee?||Aaron Hughes|
|Further Reading||Aaron Hughes|
What is so helpful and, indeed, even unusual about Aaron Hughes’ Comparison is not only that it gives us a razor sharp critique of one of our most common methods of performing analysis, but also that it suggests tangible ways to do it better. Add to this the fact that his observations and recommendations are applicable to everyone who counts themselves a student of human behavior, and we have a book that is as useful as it is incisive.
Professor Leslie Dorrough Smith, Avila University
I know of no other book that does the same job as well. Jonathan Z. Smith’s classic Drudgery Divine is in the same neighborhood, but it is a collection of lectures, not a primer, written for scholars, not students, and it focuses more on a particular exemplum than on the meta-issues. Hughes’s book really is a proper primer on comparison. (It would also serve well as a vade mecum for students reading Otto, Eliade, et al. for the first time.) I would—indeed, I expect that I probably will—use Hughes’s Comparison as a text for upper-level undergrad or graduate courses on theory and method or (in the spirit of Hughes’s exhortation) on particular regions or traditions. Inasmuch as Hughes is especially preoccupied with criticizing phenomenology, I—as one who works on ancient Judaism and Christianity—would probably have to supplement with J. Z. Smith’s criticisms of claims to religious uniqueness. But no single book can hit all targets, and this book hits its chosen targets very skilfully indeed.
Hughes’ brief and accessible consideration of the role of comparison in the study of religion is worth the careful attention of anyone who studies new religions. It forces a careful (re)consideration of what we are trying to accomplish with our fundamental categories.
The strength of Hughes’ work is its exposure of the dubious ends of comparison.
Journal of the American Academy of Religion
Comparison: A Critical Primer is a useful and engaging up-to-date survey of methods in comparative religion, a critique of their inadequacies, and a description of a path forward through more nuanced and informed kind of comparison that emphasizes specialized knowledge and theoretical acuity and privileges specificity and context.
Religious Studies Review