TeachingRoundtable The Study of Religion and the Teaching of History

AHA Session 267
Sunday, January 6, 2013: 11:00 AM-1:00 PM
Roosevelt Ballroom II (Roosevelt New Orleans)
John W. McCormack, University of Notre Dame
Rachel L. Fulton Brown, University of Chicago
Robert Gimello, University of Notre Dame
Sarah Barringer Gordon, University of Pennsylvania
Brad S. Gregory, University of Notre Dame

Session Abstract

The Study of Religion and the Teaching of History

Roundtable Panel Proposal

            In 2009, religion became the most commonly reported research interest among American Historical Association members. As Yale University historian Jon Butler put it, “[T]he world is aflame with faith, yet our traditional ways of dealing with modern history especially can’t explain how or why.” In recent years, religion has reentered political discourse and the public sphere. Students in both undergraduate and graduate programs flock to courses in Religious Studies, while scholars in a variety of humanities and social science disciplines bring religious questions to their texts and data. The University of Notre Dame has responded to this demand by bringing together distinguished faculty from top research universities to participate in the Mellon Religion Across the Disciplines Initiative. Notre Dame faculty lead working groups investigating the study of religion in Literature, Music, Sociology, International Relations, and History. This roundtable panel will feature members of the History and Religion working group, led by historian Brad S. Gregory and comprising experts in History (North American and European, ancient as well as modern), Theology, East Asian Studies, Islamic Studies, and Law.[1] The speakers will draw on a series of ongoing discussions in 2011-2012 as they bear on the responsibilities we have as teachers of history in presenting the religious aspects of the past to a generation of eager students who are bombarded day after day with new evidence of religion’s power and persistence, for either good or ill.

            Many historical topics present pedagogical difficulties and carry the risk of igniting tensions among students with conflicting viewpoints, but one question animating the group’s work is whether and in what ways religion might offer a unique set of challenges. If religion is entering the Academy and the historical profession in significant new ways, does teaching the history of religion require methods and practices all its own? What is the place of religion in a survey course ostensibly designed to present a period in its totality? What models (institutional history, “thick description,” case studies) of teaching religious aspects of the past are most effective?  Does the very category of “religion,” with its own complex history in Western intellectual culture, bring clarity or confusion? What relief—or additional complications—does a comparative approach offer?  Can we present religious life such that those about whom we speak would recognize themselves in what we say? Is doing so enough for our students? 

The roundtable will include four discussants from this group, who will begin to unravel some of these complicated questions, sharing with the AHA some of the results of the Mellon Initiative.


[1] The members of the working group are: Gerhard Böwering, Yale; Rachel Fulton Brown, Chicago; Robert Gimello, Notre Dame; Sarah Barringer Gordon, Pennsylvania; Brad Gregory, Notre Dame (Convener); Ulrich Lehner, Marquette; John W. McCormack, Notre Dame; Candida Moss, Notre Dame; Mark Noll, Notre Dame; Laura Rominger Porter, University of Notre Dame; Lamin Sanneh, Yale University; Jonathan Sarna, Brandeis University.

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