As European powers expanded into Asia, knowledge of its religions became more soundly based. Changes in European thought also led to some receptivity to ideas from non-Christian religions. In the eighteenth century, the Enlightenment’s emphasis on ‘reason’ and ‘science’ weakened reliance on authoritative ‘revelation’ in religious matters, and a number of people thought that they saw a ‘natural religion’ held in common by people of all cultures, though best expressed in Christianity. In the nineteenth century, advances in geology and Biblical studies led to a weakening of Biblical literalism, and the concept of biological evolution seemed, to many, to cast doubts on the ‘revealed’ Christian account of creation. In this context, the idea of making a ‘scientific’, ‘comparative’ study of all religions came to be advanced (Sharpe, 1986).
These elements came together in the last two decades of the nineteenth century, when there was something of a vogue for (modernist) Buddhism among sections of the middle classes in America, Britain and Germany. Like Christianity, Buddhism had a noble ethical system, but it appeared to be a religion of self-help, not dependent on God or priests. Like science, it seemed to be based on experience, saw the universe as ruled by law, and did not regard humans and animals as radically distinct. Yet for those with a taste for mysticism, such as those touched by the Romantic movement, it offered more than science.