Religion now hottest topic of study for U.S. historians – AHA survey

December 31, 2009

nypl 1Religion has become the hottest topic of study for U. S. historians, overtaking the previous favourite — cultural studies — and pulling ahead of women’s studies in the latest annual survey by the American Historical Association. Younger historians are more likely than older ones to turn their sights on faith issues.

The proportion of U.S. historians working on religious issues now stands at 7.7%. If that seems low, compare it with the more traditional fields in the study of the past — political history (4.6%), military history (3.8%) or diplomatic history (3.8%). Cultural studies stood at 7.5% and women’s studies at 6.4%.

Among the reasons cited by the AHA were:

  • Interest in the rise of “more activist (and in some cases ‘militant’) forms of religion.”
  • An “extension of the methods and interests of social and cultural history.”
  • The impact of the “historical turn” in other disciplines, including religious studies.
  • Increased student demand for courses on the subject.
The AHA report has some interesting quotes from professors in the field:
  • “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.”
  • “I came to recognize that (expressions of faith) were woven into just about every aspect of life, not separate subjects I could leave for another time or someone else,” said  University of California at Berkeley historian William Taylor. “My ongoing research and writing about religious matters continues to be carried out in this spirit—not as a field apart, but as integral to my reckonings with how people then understood their lives and acted upon those convictions.”
  • Jeanne Kilde of the University of Minnesota said “students in the late 1990s began coming to class with questions about religion” due to its influence on recent elections, growing attention in the media and an increase in public displays of religion.
nypl 2Given this blog’s focus in religion in the public sphere, this general trend of growing interest in religion isn’t anything new to us. What is interesting is that this is spreading in academia. A hat tip goes to The Immanent Frame blog, which also ran its own series of reactions from historians to this news. Here’s a sample from David A. Hollinger at Berkeley:  “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.”
(Photos: New York Public Library, 14 Dec 2004/Mike Segar)
6 comments

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The seculisation thesis is alive and well.

As society becomes more modern and educated, religion is swiftly losing its authority and relevance in the world. What power religion holds in society is limited and falling.

To some extent, this loss has been masked by a variety of factors.

The primary one being that the various faiths simply chalk a believer under their scoreboard, without caring how strong a believer that person actually is. For all they know, that ‘believer’ is simply an atheist who choses to identify under a religion rather then be labelled as faithless.

The second factor is that many who genuinely associate with the religion only do so to that bare extent. Large proportions of so called ‘faithful’ don’t think in line with doctrine, don’t go to church and don’t really care about religion assuming they think about it at all. Yet the church counts them as faithful.

The third factor is that over the last few years, religion has increasingly turned to the uneducated poor, particularly those in third world countries. Many are being taught to believe in a deity before they even know how to read. Millions of uneducated people just waiting to be exploited by any religion wanting cheap conversions.

Put it all together, and religion is on the decline. And the further it goes, the uglier it gets. And the more it will be reserved for the exploited, poor and uneducated.

Posted by Anon86 | Report as abusive

Religion, The Worlds terminal cancer.

Posted by ehross | Report as abusive

Organized religion is very different from personal perception. Governments and historians always forget this. Science and Perception have the same falsification muscle. Some scientists are better at detecting baloney. Some realize what they don’t know or cannot prove doesn’t necessarily mean it may or may not exit.

Posted by dewittdale | Report as abusive

[...] Among the reasons cited by the AHA were: * Interest in the rise of “more activist (and in some cases ‘militant’) forms of religion.” * An “extension of the methods and interests of social and cultural history.” * The impact of the “historical turn” in other disciplines, including religious studies. * Increased student demand for courses on the subject…. Read this in full at http://blogs.reuters.com/faithworld/2009  /12/31/religion-now-hottest-topic-of-st udy-for-u-s-historian… [...]

According to the latest survey of the American Historical Association, religion is now overtaking cultural studies, the previous favorite among U.S. historians, as a topic of study. I welcome this trend. I think it’s really important to study religion, but not because it’s a venerable institution, but rather because that may lead to a better understanding of the consequences of its pernicious teachings.
I hope this effort leads historians to perhaps explore the role religion has in creating the state of mind some people have that leads them to economic difficulties, social strife, or war. Sure, you could argue that many people find solace in religion in difficult times, but any student of history should go deeper into the root causes of human misery: did religion have anything to do, perhaps, with the Iraq-Iran war? How about the Thirty Years War? Does religion play any role in the oppression of Muslim women? Did religion play any role in poisoning the minds of millions of Christians prior to the Holocaust? How about in Rwanda?

Gabriel Wilensky

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Posted by gwilensky | Report as abusive

Before i can even start to share my views on Religion, can someone please shed some light on the origins of religion vs the facts of carbon dating which tell a story of the time when life began in the seas with single cell organisms such as amoeba and later Dinasours and such.When was the world created?is it by divine power or other theories?

Posted by Dyl | Report as abusive

Religion just like politics is losing its grip because trust is being lost (i think).Religion still holds a lot of power in developing countries with the exception of maybe America.I see it as playing a roll in peoples lives where hope in other things has failed.To me religion should be included under a topic such as ‘Coping Mechanisms’.The world is ever changing and facts or truths about certain things keep coming out – thanks to the freedom of information act.Peoples belief in a lot of things is being corroded.Some people who are losing faith need to understand that if religion is a coping mechanism then there are other alternatives – religiouse or non religiouse of filling the void that adresses issues of the soul.The soul in itself is a grey subject of discussion – which divides religon and science.Who fully understands out of their own understanding what the soul is??? Therefor lets agree to disagree and tackle the important – which is the effects of religion.I have often said – Religion is like a chefs knife, which when used by a Chef can help creat some tasty dishes but in the hands of a Killer can result in the taking of life.As a coping mechanism Religion becomes a tool which an individual uses or needs to deal with day to day issues affected by economic,political,social,e.t.c factors.The use of drugs is on the increase – to me thats a coping mechanism,practising Yoga or Tai Chi, or simply going to the gym or watching your favourite sport (e.g football) are coping mechanisms as all these can make one to ‘religiously’ participate in them for one to feel a sense of belonging, relaxation or distraction from day to day vectors and vagaries that STRESS our day to day lives.It is therefor imperative to tackle the root causes (such as social injustice,lack of jobs, past history e.t.c) that cause people to think, behave and congregate into different social groups or gangs instead of wasting time on plucking the leaves and cutting off branches that can only grow back with time.

Posted by Dyl | Report as abusive