Chapter 8. Comparative Religion

How have the world’s religions influenced each other?

An image of a buddha statue surrounded by lights, a person lights a candle.
Photo by Julie Ricard on Unsplash

10.1 Cross-Cultural Examination of Religion

A tool that anthropologists use to closely examine cultural adaptations, cultural evolution, and the migration of culture, is the cross-cultural approach. The cross-cultural approach compares more than one cultural belief, tradition, or practice in order to identify differences and similarities that exist across groups. As we have seen in this course, anthropologists place no more importance on the major religions of the world today than we do on the ones practiced by small or isolated or even ancient groups. Because we set out to document and understand religious variation among humans, it only makes sense that we would want to examine the full range of that variation, not just a few of the most widespread examples. However, we also recognize that there is some value to singling out the major world religions in order to identify traits they have in common while similarly recognizing the major differences that arose due to environmental factors, historical events, etc. The following lesson will compare and contrast the beliefs, myths, and traditions of the world’s major religions in an attempt to offer a holistic picture of the world’s dominating belief systems.

10.2 Religions Change Over Time

In “The Essentials of Hinduism,” Swami Bhaskarananda writes,

  • The other major approach is the diffusionist approach. Diffusionists argue that religions spread, or diffuse, across the globe because people spread them. We do so by sharing our beliefs and practices with others, who sometimes adopt those beliefs and practices as their own. We also bring our beliefs and practices with us when we move to new places. Today, diffusion is always happening, and with globalization and mass migration, world religions are spreading more than ever. With technology, we are able to share our religious and spiritual world views more than ever. The diffusionist approach is often criticized because it over-simplifies the way that religions spread. In its extreme form, diffusionism implies that spiritual innovation never happens. Rather, one or two civilizations came up with religious ideas and spread these ideas to everyone else. However, innovation does happen.

10.3 The First Religion

Students often ask, “Who were the first humans to have religion?” But, in fact, religion may predate humanity as we know it. How do we know this? Human ancestors are called hominins. Two hominins, dating back 500,000–30,000 years ago show evidence of burial. Homo heidelbergensis buried their dead in dug pits with symbolic items such as a pink handaxe that would shatter if used. Neanderthals also buried their dead in specific body positions with symbolic artwork and grave goods. Since these hominins had brains the size of ours and the capacity for language and dreams, it is proposed that they also could have had the first ideas of spiritualism or an afterlife (Currier, 2015; Larsen, 2019). This leads anthropologists and archeologists to ask: was this burial ritual an early form of religion?

10.4 Mesopotamian Religion and Judaism

So, when we try to identify the “first” religion, it can be quite challenging since each element of our modern definition of “religion” has culturally evolved throughout human and pre-human history. For this reason, it makes sense to next focus on the first written religion. With the emergence of the first written language, humans began to record their religious stories and ritual guidelines; this written form of religion offers anthropologists and archeologists clear evidence to examine.

  • Believe that humans were fashioned from clay
  • Both tell a flood story
  • Both tell a plague story

10.5 Hinduism

Hinduism is the only major world religion with no known founder and with no single holy text. Unlike Catholicism which has a singular authority (the Vatican) Hinduism is not defined by one ruling organization that defines the religion. In this way, Hinduism is considered to be a particularly adaptable religion whereby different regions of India will recognize, celebrate, and worship the divine in regionally specific ways. Hinduism is the most ancient major religion of the world and is the third-largest, today.

10.6 Ancient Egypt’s Brief Monotheism

The Ancient Egyptians were ruled by pharaohs who were viewed as divine and, therefore, as religious leaders. The religion was, traditionally, polytheistic (meaning that they believed in multiple divine beings). However, the most interesting case to examine anthropologically is the case of the pharaoh Akhenaten (also known as Amenhotep IV) who temporarily forced Ancient Egypt to become monotheistic during his reign. And, interestingly enough, some anthropologists and archeologists point to this historical occurrence as the beginning of permanent monotheism in other major world religions (David 1998).

10.7 The Influence of Zoroastrianism

Ancient Persian civilization traded extensively with Ancient Hindu civilizations and, as a result, the two cultures influenced each other. Interestingly enough, the philosophies of Ancient Persian society similarly spread across the globe to heavily influence the Abrahamic religions, as well.

10.8 Buddhism

It’s believed that the story of the Buddha begins in the year 560 BCE in a region that is now called Nepal (part of Ancient Hindu society). A figure called Queen Maya was believed to have had a dream of a white elephant informing her that she was pregnant. Upon calling a diviner to interpret the dream, the diviner told her that she would have a son who would either become a great spiritual leader or a great king. As the child’s father was already a King, the couple expressed a preference for their child to become a great king. In response, the diviner told the couple that they needed to shield their son from all suffering in order to prevent him from taking the path of spiritual leadership.

  1. Siddhartha then sees an old person and is shocked because he had never before realized that people age.
  2. Then, Siddhartha sees a dead body and is horrified because he had not previously been made aware of death.
  3. Finally, amidst all of this shock and suffering, Siddhartha sees a monk who is peacefully meditating. Siddhartha resolves to enter a journey of spirituality in order to find a solution to stop the suffering of people.
  1. We suffer because we cling to ideas, people, things, etc.
  2. Only by not clinging can we stop suffering
  3. There are eight ways to stop clinging called The Eightfold Path
  1. Right thought
  2. Right speech
  3. Right action
  4. Right livelihood
  5. Right effort
  6. Right mindfulness
  7. Right concentration

10.9 Christianity

Jesus is believed to have been born in the year 0, 560 years after the Buddha is believed to have been born. It’s interesting to note that the stories surrounding both Jesus and Buddha originated along the Silk Road (a trade route that connects all of Eurasia and played a role in the spread of culture and ideas across cultures).

10.10 Weber and the Protestant Work Ethic

Religion impacts many facets of a culture and society. Since Anthropology employs a holistic approach to understanding culture, this approach can be used to examine the way that Christianity has impacted other elements of modern Western culture. Sociologist and economist Max Weber (1864–1920) argued in 1904 that Protestantism (a mainstream form of Christianity) and capitalism are such uniquely compatible worldviews that each augmented the other’s influence upon Euro-American civilization and led to the establishment of each as the dominating characteristics of much of the “western” world (Weber 2001). These arguments are outlined in his work, “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism” and we refer to the idea as the Protestant Work Ethic.

  • The church’s celibacy requirements
  • The worshipping of saints as near gods
  • The powerful position held by the Pope (Beverley 126–127)
  • The Protestant Reformation (16th century, Martin Luther) glorified work. This social schism rejected traditional ideas surrounding knowledge, power, and spirituality.
  • Any work viewed as “sacred’/ a calling
  • Work is suddenly viewed as a service to society.
  • This new attitude allowed a desire for wealth.
  • This idea overcomes previous issues regarding wage and time
  • Pre-capitalist workers were unwilling to work more hours after reaching their desired income.
  • Capitalist workers are willing to work more hours if they are paid a high wage
  • In Weber’s view, this was not a uniquely “Western” trend — but the two cultural forces are so compatible that both Protestantism and capitalism flourish. The two established themselves as the dominating forces in both the United States and in Europe.

10.11 Islam

In Islam, followers believe that God sends signs to humanity intended to remind us of our obligations to live a good and pious life. In this religious tradition, God sent down a series of human beings to help guide humanity in a righteous path but that we continuously forget our obligations to each other, the planet, and to God. And, so, God has sent down multiple people to help get humanity back on the right track.

  1. Prayer, which requires followers to pray 3 or 5 times a day depending on whether one is Sunni or Shia.
  2. Alms-giving, where all Muslims donate a portion of their income to charity,
  3. Fasting, when Muslims do not eat or drink from sun up to sun down during the month of Ramadan
  4. Pilgrimage, where Muslims are required to visit the holy site of Mecca once in their lives, which is called the Hajj.

10.12 Comparing and Contrasting Religious Influences

Let’s wrap up by comparing and contrasting the beliefs of the religions that we have discussed in this chapter.

  • Both Buddhism and Christianity preached nonviolence while living in violent societies, and it was a radical idea at the time.
  • Both Buddhism and Christianity rejected material wealth and undermined the ruling powers of their society.
  • Both Buddha and Jesus are believed to have had prostitutes as friends which reveals a common cultural oppression of women and a revolutionary new idea to overcome oppressive class structures.
  • Both religious figures started their spiritual journey at age 30.
  • Both mothers gave birth during a journey, with Mary traveling to Jerusalem, and Buddha’s mother returning to her hometown.
  • It’s believed that Buddha died at age 90 from food poisoning. In the story, one of Buddha’s followers accidentally undercooked a fish and served it to him. Rather than dying dramatically, it’s believed that Buddha calmly explained to his distraught followers the lesson: everything eventually dies.


Ambalu, Shulamit, et al. The Religions Book: DK Publishing, 2013.


This is part of “Beliefs: An Open Invitation to the Anthropology of Magic, Witchcraft, and Religion.” This chapter is written by Amanda Zunner-Keating, Sarah Etheridge (College of the Canyons), and Ben Shepard for Los Angeles Valley College. Edited by Brian Pierson (Pierce College) and Madlen Avetyan (Los Angeles Valley College). Research Assistance from Phillip Te. Recorded by Amanda Zunner-Keating. Published under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Cultural Anthropologist in Los Angeles

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