Religion and the Academy

 As a result of the overdue reaction to curricular neglect of the “non-Western” world, this disinterest in religion particularly affected scholarship focusing on European and American culture. Because religion informs so much of it, ignorance of this intellectual archive has skewed the humanities. There have been exceptions to this general pattern. Many universities established religious studies departments, and in some cases Jewish studies programs, in the last three decades of the twentieth century; however, these had the paradoxical effect of isolating the study of religion from other disciplines by concentrating the study of religion into autonomous departments or separate programs. The result is that scholars immersed in the work of a particular artist or thinker whose contributions depended on Jewish or Christian motifs or categories can lament that colleagues in a given discipline have only a rudimentary understanding of this figure, though she is central to their research. How do we ensure that the deep humanistic tradition embedded in these religious traditions survives and remains a resource for work in the various disciplines?

Since the end of the last century, the reemergence of religion in the academy has been widely noticed. By 2005 Stanley Fish could report in The Chronicle of Higher Education: “When Jacques Derrida died I was called by a reporter who wanted to know what would succeed high theory and the triumvirate of race, gender, and class as the center of intellectual energy in the academy. I answered like a shot: religion.” Four years later, in 2009, the American Historical Association noted widespread interest in religion, especially among younger scholars. The social sciences have been similarly affected. In February 2010, a study of patterns in the sociology of religion noted “a steady increase of research that portrays religion as an independent variable having causal impact, accompanied by a steady decrease of research portraying religion as a dependent variable caused by something else.”

Often the renewed interest in religion has focused on the contemporary world, where the presence of religion is unmistakable, or on the distant past, notably on the Middle Ages, and more recently, antiquity, where it is impossible to bracket religion. But the intellectual and cultural implications of modern religion need greater study. Current efforts to reintegrate religion must overcome not only ever more specialized research but also a religious tone deafness widespread among academics. Because there is more knowledge for us to integrate and our specialized trajectories are narrower, the barriers to learning and integrating another scholarly domain, beyond cursory references, have risen, even as in many cases personal interest has waned.


            Mark W. Roche

            Director of the Mellon Initiative in Religion across the Disciplines