New insights from a sweeping analysis of religion

The Phenomenon of Religion: A Thematic Approach
By Moojan Momen

Occasionally, when the research on a particular topic is inconclusive, scientists go back and do a fresh analysis of the combined results of previous studies.

The method, called "meta-analysis," has most often been applied to health studies. Researchers go back and sift through old data on heart disease or cancer in an effort to gain new insights.

The process sometimes leads to entirely new conclusions. By standing back and looking at the whole, researchers sometimes detect previously unseen patterns.

In the social sciences, the topic of religion is anything but resolved. It has been endlessly studied - by theologians, sociologists, psychologists and individual seekers everywhere - and yet there remains wide disagreement over key questions about religious phenomena. Are mystical experiences the result of a divine process or something internal to the human mind? Are religions basically similar in their essence or are they fundamentally different? Is God to be found in all things or does the Creator stand above and apart from all things?

In "The Phenomenon of Religion: A Thematic Approach," Moojan Momen has done something akin to performing a meta-analysis of the entire field of religious studies. In some 500 pages (626 pages with notes and index), Dr. Momen has undertaken a sweeping survey of religious phenomena and experience across the globe and throughout history.

He analyzes various aspects of religion and religious phenomena as a series of themes, including chapters on "The Concept of Religion," "Pathways to Religious Experience," "Suffering, Sacrifice and Salvation," and "Fundamentalism and Liberalism." The themes, Dr. Momen writes, were chosen to consider three main aspects of religion: its central experience, its conceptual aspects, and its social effect.

His survey is comparative in nature. Dr. Momen examines what six major independent world religions - the Bahá'í Faith, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism - have to say about each theme, and/or what their followers have come to understand or experience. He also considers what secular theorists, from sociologist Max Weber to psychologist Sigmund Freud, have had to say about religion.

On this point alone, Dr. Momen has provided an enormous service. Even if one simply takes "The Phenomenon of Religion" as a resource on comparative religious studies - and the book would certainly excel as a text for any college-level course on that topic - the sweep of its approach, the depth of its analysis, and the clear, lucid and essentially dispassionate nature of Dr. Momen's writing style make it an outstanding reference for anyone concerned with religion as an aspect of the human experience.

Yet, as so often happens with other forms of meta-analysis, in the reconsideration of what others have said, written, and concluded about religion, the book also ends up providing some important new insights in and of itself.

Among the key questions it approaches, as Dr. Momen indicates in his introduction, is whether the great religions of the world - and the experiences of their followers - are fundamentally similar, or utterly different. Dr. Momen, who is himself a Bahá'í, notes that religious scholars are largely divided into two camps on this issue, and he unambiguously states that he is in the first.

In undertaking a comparative survey of religious phenomena across so many themes, throughout history, and considering so many aspects of humanity's response to religious experience, all presented with a high degree of objectivity, Dr. Momen ends up providing the reader with powerful evidence that religions are at their heart and soul fundamentally the same.

This is especially true, Dr. Momen writes, at the individual level. "The religious experience of the individual as described in many religious traditions from around the world is broadly similar," writes Dr. Momen, who has published widely in the field of world religions. "The experience can be described in many different ways, but its essential features include a feeling that the experience has saved or liberated the individual and, usually, an element that transforms the life of the individual."

Once social expressions of religion are considered, Dr. Momen writes, there is greater diversity. "We human beings create the intellectual and cultural worlds that we call reality. Each of these cultural worlds sees reality in a different way."

In the end, Dr. Momen makes no claim to having arrived at any overriding theory or unified theoretical framework to explain religious phenomena. Nevertheless, the book itself - by dint of the information presented - reveals that there are indeed significant patterns and similarities among the religions, whether in their histories, the experience of their followers, or their impact on the societies around them.

In the chapter on comparative religious history, for example, Dr. Momen notes that although "the histories of the various religions have taken very different courses and, because they appeared at such widely varying places and times, they have shown markedly different features, there are some common themes."

He then proceeds to outline those themes in the text and in a startlingly simple table, entitled "Lives of the Founders of World Religions," showing that most of the Founders were preceded by a forerunner, had a precipitating vision of enlightenment, called a gathering of initial disciples, underwent a period of solitude, emerged to break with the previous or surrounding religion, made public declarations to contemporary rulers and leaders, experienced both internal and external opposition, and, at some point, undertook or were forced into a migration or exile.

Throughout the various chapters, Dr. Momen shows similar commonalities. The book indicates that all or most of the six religions have common ethical principles (illustrated by the universal teaching of the Golden Rule); that most have experienced a tension between fundamentalism and liberalism; that all religions hold out the promise of a future savior or returning prophet; and that the followers of most religious communities often share similar types of experiences and activities, such as rituals, mystical insights, and programs of proselytization.

This is not to say that Dr. Momen has not given due regard to the differences among the religions. He clearly delineates some of the basic distinctions between the "theistic" religions of the West, which place God above all things, and the "monistic" religions of the East, which do not differentiate the "Ultimate Reality" from human reality.

"In the Western religions, the transcendent reality is given the name of God and is thought of as a personal, omnipotent, omniscient Being," writes Dr. Momen. "God as the Creator is usually conceived of as being wholly other than His creation….

"In contrast, the Eastern religions, Buddhism, Taoism and Hinduism of the Advaita school, have no concept of God as a person; rather their concept is of Ultimate Reality as a process, a truth or a state of being," Dr. Momen writes.

Indeed, fair-minded to the end, Dr. Momen does not offer any over-arching conclusion that religions are the same, that God is one, or that He even exists. Nevertheless, presented with so much information, assembled in such a wide sweep of disciplines, readers are likely to draw their own conclusions. And the evidence of patterns across all religions is quite compelling.