Religion is a hot new topic for historians

The latest annual survey by the American Historical Association says that younger historians are more likely than older ones to turn their sights on faith issues.


The survey asked members to name three themes of interest to their work, and religion showed up as at least one of three main interests in their studies. Interest in religion in history has supplanted culture which had been the top selection in surveys for the previous 15 years.

Inside Higher Ed says:

The data suggest that those coming into the profession are more likely than their elders to have a focus on religion. According to the AHA, more than half of those who selected religion as one of their key themes received their highest degree since 2000. And almost 40 percent of the AHA members who picked the theme either were graduate students, assistant professors or associate professors — categories that make up only 33 percent of the association’s members.

The association surveyed some of its members working in religion to ask for theories about the revival of interest and heard four common explanations: 1) interest in the rise of “more activist (and in some cases ‘militant’) forms of religion;” 2) An “extension of the methods and interests of social and cultural history;” 3) The impact of the “historical turn” in other disciplines, including religious studies; and 4) Increased student demand for courses on the subject.

Religion in the news was part of the reason: everything from the religious motives of the 9/11 attackers to the rise and decline (or transformation of the American religious right to battles over sexuality in the mainline churches and the globalization of religion have all stirred interest in the topic.

“I think the category has become more popular because historians realize that the world is aflame with faith, yet our traditional ways of dealing with modern history especially can’t explain how or why,” said Jon Butler, a professor of history, religious studies and American studies at Yale University. “The ‘secularization thesis’ appears to have failed and so we need to find ways to explain how and why it didn’t die as so much written history suggests.”

The secularization thesis is that as Western and modern values spread, the need for and interest in religion decreases. What this thesis fails to acknowledge is the anti-modernist expressions within a variety of religions–a thread that appears in groups representing all major religions.

Another area of interest in the both the speed and, often, the violence that attends religious discussion these days. Partly fueled by new communications technologies and partly fueled by the push-back by secularists in response to fundementalism. Louis A. Ruprecht writes in Religious Dispatches:

What happened in the new century, and what has taken up a great deal of our cultural attention in the past decade, is that certain forms of neo-traditional religion became increasingly violent, very fast. This resurgent religious violence has prompted an aggressive, and often violent, secularist push-back as a form of modernist reaction against religious anti-modernism. It is a pendulum swing I am trying to trace here, and my sense is that it has been swinging for a generation, if not longer.

Religion, then, is seen more and more as part of the fabric of human experience and therefore must be understood in its fullness and not just as a side-light, a life-style choice or spiritual hobby.

David A. Hollinger, Preston Hotchkis Professor of American History, University of California – Berkeley told Immanent Frame:

Religion is too important to be left in the hands of people who believe in it. Finally, historians are coming to grips with this simple truth. Why this has happened and with what effects may differ from period to period, continent to continent, and religion to religion….

Having argued in workshops and symposia over the course of many years that religion needs to be studied more extensively (see, for instance, the Journal of American History, September 2003), I found that a major obstacle was fear on the part of my colleagues that they would be taken by others to have bought into all that God and Jesus stuff. Nonsense, was my response; there is room for all honest scholars. What turned the tide? Not my argumentation, which long fell on deaf ears. I suspect the big thing has been the increased role that publicly displayed religious faith has played in American politics during recent elections. Religion is harder to ignore if it keeps coming back and hitting you again and again. Thanks, Sarah Palin (and Rick Warren, and Rev. Wright, and yes, even Barack Obama).

Category : The Lead

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2 Comments
  1. Jonathan

    I didn’t notice this post until today. I followed the link to the survey itself and noted that Religion certainly was the highest topic mentioned but that it garnered only 7.7%, topping Cultural History at 7.5%. That’s hardly earth-shattering in my view.

    As someone with a doctorate in Religious Studies, and fifteen years of college teaching and researching in the History of Christianity, I’m hardly sanguine about the historical profession taking religion seriously. Most scholars trained in departments of history have little awareness or understanding of the century-old development of scholarly approaches to religion.

    Jonathan Grieser

  2. Pangaio

    Yes, I cam to this topic pretty late as well, like the sole comment said. I feel this is very important with the need to make the historical analysis of the Old and New Testaments a great deal more wide spread.

    Pangaio- please sign your name next time. Thx ~ed.

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