Religion’s return to the historical profession

Until recently, I was a historian. I suppose I still am, though I’ve not done any serious historical research in quite some time. But for fifteen years, I taught the History of Christianity in Religion departments. During that time, I worked closely with colleagues from History Departments and my own research was more interdisciplinary than purely “religious” in content. Still I struggled to carve a niche for myself and my discipline both within the Religion Department, and over against medievalists and early modern historians in History Departments. It was actually amusing at times when we were team-teaching Humanities courses to divvy up the lectures.

A recent survey put out by the AHA has gotten considerable press because “Religion” is now the most popular topic for researchers. What most of the articles don’t point out is that it received a total of 7.7% of the responses, beating out “Cultural History” by 0.2%. That’s hardly earth-shattering. One blog post discussing this is here.  I’m especially amused by the quotation from David Hollinger:

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.

That’s quite beside the point. What matters is how one approaches religion, what kinds of questions one asks, what methodology one uses. And how do you assess belief? How do you interpret claims of the supernatural, claims of revelation? These are questions that scholars of religion have struggled over for more than a century. Their answers are not particularly satisfying, but it would be helpful for historians to have some sense of that tradition so they can avoid making the same mistakes.

All this puts me in mind of a plenary session of the Sixteenth Century Studies Conference a decade or so ago where participants were anguished over the decreased investment by institutions in early modern history. Any number of people stood up to say how important it was to teach the Protestant and Catholic Reformations so students could understand where their faith traditions came from. These arguments came exclusively from people trained in social history and teaching in history departments. In fact, that was a primary reason I chose to do my degree in Religious Studies rather than History, so questions of faith could be addressed in the classroom.

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