By Emma Ekpunobi

It has been said that religion provides an organized picture of the universe. In doing this, it establishes an orderly relationship between man and his surroundings. We can safely assert that all religions perform this major function irrespective of the societies-where they are found. However, such an assertion is limited and can be discarded as soon as someone points out the negative functions of religion in societies. For example, as practiced in some societies, religion facilitates the
disintegration of relationships. The above illustrates the importance of approaches to the study of religion. What one gets out of the study very much depends on one’s approach to it.
In order to amplify the importance of approaches to the study of religions, we shall examine this quotation credited to late Bishop Stephen
If we are prepared to understand religion in terms of a man’s total reaction to the totality of life, we may be led to regard the primitive peoples as among the most religious people on earth, If on the other hand, we look for certain signs or ideas of higher religion, we may deny them almost any religion at all.
Please do not mind the derogatory term this respected British writer uses to describe the traditionalists. We should rather understand “primitive’ as being close to original stage. Likewise we shall work with the assumption that there are neither “low” nor “higher” religions. Neil’s statement shows that the same phenomenon can be examined via two approaches. Each of the approaches may yield a different result. If we adopt the “totality” approach then we see much but if we adopt the “signs or ideas” approach we shall see nothing. This suggests that our approach, or means of study determines the outcome of our study. We shall examine the following popular approaches to the study of comparative religion:
1. The Historical Approach
2. The Enumerative (or Frazerian ) Approach
3. The Hypothesis of Unity Approach
4. The Ethnographic (or Particularist) Approach
5. The Limited Comparative Approach
6. The Categorical Approach
7. The Thematic Approach
8. The Eclectic Approach.
The course on Comparative Religion used to be called the History of Religion. The course sought to identify the origin of religions. It examined different theories about the origin of religions and traced the development of religious ideas.
It is claimed that we can know the essence of a thing when we know its roots and origins. In the same way, we can evaluate religious phenomena if we can trace their development. The historical development of religions can show us a lot about how religion is molded by human cultures. It can also reveal to us how human cultures influence religious ideas.
One major limitation of the historical approach is that not all religions are historical. Most people do not know the history of their religions. Many societies are not literate. Where they are literate, there are no sure ways of verifying the authenticity of their records. We know that most scriptures are statements of faith. They are not historical records. They should not therefore be relied upon for accurate historical development of’ the religions.
In the context of African Traditional Religion, Mbiti (1969 p.23) argues that each African people has its own history but the African concept of time prevents them from knowing what their history is. Africans do not have a historical view of the world. The Swahili word ZAMANI is used to refer to the macro-time beyond the experienced past.
Zamani is the graveyard of time, the period of termination, the dimension in which everything finds its halting point. It is the final storehouse for all phenomena and events, the ocean of time in which everything becomes absorbed into a reality that is neither after nor before.
A factor that the students who adopt the historical approach must put into consideration is cross-cultural contact. No society is an island to itself. People travel and they share religious ideas as they meet. Culture is not static. It is always in motion. Changes due to actulturation, meeting with other cultures, are common. It is in this sense that we cannot describe African Traditional Religion as primitive. There are aspects of it that have undergone drastic changes. For example, white cloth is a prominent feature of shrines. We know that the Traditionalist does not manufacture such materials in his culture. The cloth is imported yet it is very much part of the religious symbol used by the Traditionalist.
The historical approach has the main advantage of helping us to know the origins and development of religion. These provide the criteria for us to judge and evaluate, religious traditions. Unfortunately, not all religions have history. Where we assume there are histories, we find it difficult to know which aspects of the religious phenomena have been influenced by outside or foreign culture. Where there are no written accounts, oral tradition be unreliable. People who produced scriptures do it for their faith and not the preservation of historical records.
To enumerate is to count or to mention one by one. As an approach to the comparative study of religion, it is to mention different items, traditions, beliefs and practices. An enumerator groups his material in one way or another. A classic enumerator was Sir James Frazer, the author of “The Golden Bough.” He enumerates many facts gathered from different countries and social groups.
The enumerator classifies the items collected and arranges them side by side. For example the enumerator’s table enables him to identify the similarities between religions. However the enumerator does not go beyond listing the observed phenomena. It is often a directory of unconnected terms. We need to discover the meaning of the observed facts, It is not enough to make a list and stop there. We need to find out what the observed facts mean in their contexts. The enumerative approach is an invitation to find out the real meaning and to make comparison.
The approach that seeks to identify similarity in all religions is called the hypothesis of unity approach. The hypothesis is that a thread of unity holds all religions together.
Mahatma Gandhi who is credited with advocating the unity of religions said:
The need of the moment is not one religion, but mutual respect and tolerance of the devotees of the different religions. We want to reach not dead level, but unity in diversity. The soul of religions is one, but it is encased in a multitude of forms. The latter will persist to the end of time
It is possible to identify this soul of religion which is same in all religions. How important are the multitude of forms to the soul of religion? We know that each religion is shaped by the society in which it exists. The symbols understood by the society are used to represent religious facts. Since societies differ structurally, culturally and environmentally we need to acknowledge such differences in our study of religions. We cannot assume that the soul of religion is same therefore its practice in all the societies will be the same. In order to bring this fact nearer home, we still illustrate with Christianity. We can say that the soul of Christianity is “love for God and fellow human beings.” Stretch your mind to multitudes of denominations in Christianity. They express their faith in many different ways. While some hold fast to symbols like the crucifix, others abhor-the use of any type of symbol.
The container that carries a religion is as important as the religion itself. A meaningful study of religion will reveal how both interact to influence each other. This approach of deciding on the soul of religion and looking for it in all religions is useful. However its main limitation is that the societies in which religion are expressed are as important as the religions themselves. It is necessary to study the societies too.