Ranking Religions?


Charles Orzech finds that museums dedicated to showcasing the world’s faiths reveal their own history and biases

By Gerry Boyle ’78
September 2, 2020

The idea was to create museums to document the world’s religions, representing the different manifestations of humanity’s spiritual life with respect and tolerance. A worthy endeavor?

Yes and no, says Professor of Religious Studies and chair of the Department of Art Charles Orzech.

Book cover of Museums of World Religions, Orzech

In his recent book, Museums of World Religions, Orzech, who is trained in comparative religion and has written extensively about Buddhism, takes a close look at five museums that take their cues from the comparative-religion agenda of the 19th and 20th centuries. Comparative religion arose with other comparative disciplines—for example, comparative anatomy–at the end of the 19th century, he points out. Comparison, whether of mammalian anatomy or structures of religious ritual, could be used to emphasize similarity or difference.

Despite the fact that all five museums are now deeply involved in education to promote religious tolerance, Orzech “had this nagging feeling [about] the field of comparative religion, that it had this unseemly background, and that these museums were, in a sense, the follow-on to something that had begun in the nineteenth century as part of the imperial project.”

Unseemly? That might seem an unexpected description of institutions created with the intent of showcasing religions on a sort of equal footing. But Orzech found that the five museums in question portray religions in ways that reflect the biases and perspective of the dominant religion of their culture. This comes as no surprise, but museums organized around categories such as ‘prayer,’ ‘liturgy’, and ‘life cycle rites’ (conception, birth, coming of age, marriage, death) are still haunted by a project developed in concert with colonial and imperial conquest.

The museums are located in Germany, Russia, Scotland, Taiwan, and Canada. They were established from 1927 (Religionskundliche Sammlung in Marburg, Germany) to 2001 (Museum of World Religions in Taipei). One might expect that museum curation would be very different across a 75-year span, but Orzech’s inspection found wide-ranging presentations that in some ways belie the notion that the museums, operating under a loose umbrella philosophically, are related at all.

He makes a side-by-side comparison of the museums in Germany and Russia, the State Museum of the History of Religions, for example, and notes that they were founded just five years apart on diametrically opposite sets of principles.

The Soviet-era museum was part of an anti-religion movement that saw churches closed and even sacked. The Communists’ goal was to educate museum-goers about the evils of religion while protecting the striking artifacts of their “misguided” faith. (The world-class collection now numbers more than 200,000 objects.)

Meanwhile, the German museum was founded by Protestants who saw their mission as promoting religious tolerance. The liberal heroes in this museum comparison? Not so fast, says Orzech.

The colonial backdrop to this world-religions enterprise manifests in, well, unseemly ways. Comparisons are always made with some aim in mind, and the very notion that you can compare religions, that they have different versions of the same beliefs and rituals, was often employed to elevate some traditions and denigrate others. Max Muller, founder of comparative religion, bluntly described the point of the enterprise as “classify and conquer.”

Once a religion has been defined in terms of its similarity to others (especially to that of colonial rulers), its own significance can be diminished. That’s doubly dismissive when a sort of Darwinian analysis is applied, Orzech found, as museum displays were often arranged to imply a developmental timeline of religions.

Some of those 19th- and early-20th-century exhibitions were overt about this view, showing that white people worship a transcendent Christian “God,” but other people, usually of color, were depicted as worshipping false gods and idols. “They [were said to] worship these material objects, these fetishes.” Thus a hierarchy of races was mapped onto religion and comparison was used to distinguish ‘us’ from ‘them.’

Such overtly discriminatory presentations are no longer found, but the comparative-religion enterprise is still fraught with biases, which Orzech’s research spotlights as he carefully inspects museum design, exhibition spaces, and the ways that objects are arranged and described.

In St. Petersburg, the museum expends tremendous resources for outreach and education on religions that exist in the Russian republic, he said. Education about Islam is clearly a priority. And yet, the room exhibiting Judaism and Jewish traditions is situated in a developmental narrative about the rise of monotheism and early Christianity. “Judaism is not represented anywhere else as a modern phenomenon,” Orzech said. Overall, there has been progress, he said of the Russian museum, “but it still has those areas that are haunted.”

In Taipei, where the museum was planned with the guidance of comparative-religion scholars from Harvard, there are 10 religions lined up for comparative purposes. But the museum, which was founded by a Buddhist monk, is “built in a way that [reflects] Buddhist religion and certain Buddhist ideas about a kind of universalism. All religions ultimately end up at this Buddhist vision of things,” he said. “It’s fairly overt.”

Overt to Orzech, at least, who visited the museums multiple times, and while he brought the knowledge of a scholar, he also was careful to take a step back. “I tried to imagine myself as a nine-year-old child, without the narrative structure. I’m in this room and there are these things and some of them are big and some of them are little. Some are statues and some are two-dimensional.”

Colorful, drab, model buildings and churches, “What would I make of it? There are a whole host of questions that open up.”

In the end, the most effective way to compare religions may be to hear from the people who practice them. At Le Musée des Religions du Monde in Nicolet, Québec, there is a video display of interviews with five teenagers—a Muslim, a Jew, a Protestant, a Hindu, and a Buddhist. “They tell you about their religion,” Orzech said. “It’s extremely effective and yet it’s extremely local.”

That may be one of the more innovative approaches to world-religion storytelling, but the larger state of affairs is that past efforts to represent religious beliefs aren’t easily swept away.

“You have this interesting thing going on,” Orzech said, “where these institutions have moved away from their colonialist roots, and yet there are still the echoes of that whole structure.”


Le Musée des Religions du Monde, Nicolet, Québec
Religionskundliche Sammlung, Marburg, Germany
Museum of World Religions, Taipei, Taiwan
State Museum of the History of Religions
St Mungo Museum of Religious Life and Art, Glasgow, Scotland