Religion 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.
“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.