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From Inside Higher Education (21 December 2009): “Religion is the most popular theme studied by historians, according to a new survey of members of the American Historical Association.”

The association surveyed some of its members working in religion to ask for theories about the revival of interest and heard four common explanations:

  • 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.
    (Inside Higher Education, 21 December 2009)

Religion displaces “cultural history” as the most popular research area for the previous 15 years – the two categories heading out “women”, “intellectual”, “African-American”, “gender”, “political”, “diplomatic/international”, “military”, “science and technology”, and “social” themes in historical research. Looking at these survey categories, however, if they were grouped differently – say if “women” and “gender” history were grouped together, or “cultural” with “social” history – the survey conclusions would differ. But there has at least been a steady increase in the study of religious history since 1992, most of it occurring in the 1990s (before 9/11, not lending much support to one rationale given in the news reports).

“I do believe that the increased attention to religion comes primarily from the obvious inadequacy of the secularization thesis to explain world history since 1945 or, at least, since 1970. Events in the middle east, from the long-standing argument about the founding of Israel to the Iran-Iraq war to the rise of the Taliban to the now several American military ventures there and the political effects of an expanding radical Islamic terrorism, then to American politics since the Civil Rights movement and its conservative “Christian” sequel, all suggest the centrality of religion in making modern events, at least in the United States and many, if not all, areas of the world.”
(Jon Butler)

“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 … 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).”
(David A. Hollinger)