Creation Myths of Religious Studies: Starting Over Near a Dead Tree Vs. an Evolving Garden with Old and New Roots

In the first section of this three-part post—introduced here and based on my article in the Encyclopedia of American Religion—I broached evergreen questions about the definitions, scope, and methods of the academic study of religion (ASR) or Religious Studies. I described these as a “more like a framework for debate than a foundation for consensus” but tried to be non-polemical about the contours of the arena hosting the debates. Maybe that was a little dry for a blog post, but before you decide to click ahead, let’s recall the stakes of this debate: the winners control most of the resources that pay scholars to research whatever is deemed important about “religion” and to teach it to students. Everyone has a dog in that fight, however jaded they may be about religion and/or the ivory tower. 

In this second section, it is harder to tell a concise story without offering informed judgments about contested interpretive debates. Where did ASR come from, historically, as the disciplinary and organizational structure? What were the most important historical contexts? What was the balance of continuity and change? As a price for concision, you’ll have to trust my word that some participants in this debate are more illuminating than others.  

We have noted that the academic study of religion (ASR), as it exists today, crystallized as a field in the 1960s and 1970s. Some ASR people err on the side of telling stories about the field being created nearly ex nihilo shortly after a 1963 Supreme Court decision in Abington v. Schempp, which dealt with Bible readings in public schools. Meanwhile another vocal group of scholars, sniping from ASR’s margins or with both feet planted outside, tell a related story with the heroes and bad guys reversed—a story about decline caused by pernicious secularization. Neither spin is entirely wrong, but both overplay parts of the story in ways that can distort our understanding of present issues. 

In Abington v. Schempp, a case that was decided around the time of related rulings that restricted school prayer, the court found it unconstitutional for public schools to teach any single religion (in a sense of indoctrination)—but commendable to teach about religions. The key background context was the consolidation, after a century of massive Catholic and Jewish immigration plus a tide of mobilization for civil rights, of an emerging sense that the US religious culture was “Protestant/Catholic/Jewish” and “pluralistic” with a respected place for African American churches—as contrasted with earlier assumptions about a “Christian nation” tilted heavily toward white Protestants. Also emerging as a key context, but on a slower timetable, was counter-cultural fascination with selected Asian ideas and/or so-called New Age approaches. Such pluralizing trends evolved after a 1965 change in US immigration law led to a marked increase in U.S. Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims, although Christians from Asia and Latin America continued as a clear majority of new immigrants. 

Starting Fresh in a Newly Cleared Space

In many ASR creation narratives, the field’s paradigmatic departments emerged fresh in this context, built within public universities that had little or no previous religion curricula. Moreover, such new departments displaced and marginalized programs in historically Protestant colleges and divinity schools, or at least served as vanguard models for the older programs’ internal transformation, however incomplete at first. Informed by such a judgment, we might imagine ASR like a mushroom rapidly growing on the trunk of a fallen Protestant tree, or at minimum the sudden flourishing of young plants that had long struggled in the shadow of such a tree. 

This story is misleading unless we pay attention to organic changes in the pre-existing forest—with some trees down, others missing a few limbs, but many steadily growing. Even most of the fallen trees were not killed; their roots kept sending up new offshoots as the gardeners debated which ones to prune. Abington v. Schempp seemed to imply the dubious Constitutionality of many college Bible courses—but these, not coincidentally, often changed overnight into courses about the Bible (however much this represented significant change.) Meanwhile existing faculty naturally engaged with emerging issues such as post-Holocaust theologies, the black freedom movement, the counter-culture, and global trends like decolonialism and migration. In this context the American Academy of Religion (AAR) came into being in 1963 as a name change and expansion from the National Association of Bible Instructors (NABI), a more pedagogically-minded cousin of the Society of Biblical Literature which has held joint international meetings with the AAR in most years since then. The AAR’s flagship Journal of the American Academy of Religion was renamed in 1966 from the Journal of Bible and Religion. No doubt these were significant shifts. Still we could easily overestimate how much changed on the ground in the 1960s, as compared to changes that were already evolving within a world of professors who studied religion.  

Jeremiads for a Noble Fallen Tree

Many scholars, paradigmatically the evangelical historian George Marsden in The Soul of the American University (Oxford University Press, 1994) have lamented a declining commitment to instill religious knowledge and values through US higher education, of which the changes in NABI were only one example. What Marsden called “soul” was heavily weighted toward Protestantism—although Catholic curricula in Catholic schools have never been trivial—and frequently it was overtly normative. Scholars in Marsden’s camp recall this in a nostalgic voice, mingled with defiance insofar as they valorize pockets of resistance. Their story begins from a baseline of a Protestant establishment and charts a decline caused by secularization—beginning with the growth of research universities in the late 1800s and increasing with the expansion of public education after World War II. 

We should not overstate how thoroughly Christian theology was infused throughout earlier curricula, since education prioritized broad liberal knowledge and classics as well as theology. Nevertheless, scholars in Marsden’s camp correctly note that prior to an 1854 law that funded public land-grant universities and the subsequent rise of the modern research university, religious groups (mainly Protestant before the 1800s) founded most US colleges, and often these schools originated as seminaries. College presidents were typically clergy and curricula often featured a capstone class on moral philosophy that was conceived as an integrative matrix for the curriculum. Mandatory chapel was common well into the twentieth century. 

By the 1960s, most private colleges still had some ties with their founders, although these were loosening and being renegotiated to varying degrees. Most schools still offered, and many required, at least a few overtly Christian courses. Public universities often sponsored endowed “Bible chairs” and/or allowed clergy to teach college classes for credit. Such teachers were not always regular faculty, but rather grounded in a multifaceted network of campus ministries and pre-seminary training. If we view the ASR of the 1960s against this baseline, it is easy to see the change toward the specialization of knowledge, rise of science, stress on professionalism, and reduced centrality of Protestant values—however much one welcomes or laments the change. 

Redesigning a Garden as New and Old Trees Grow 

Importantly, however, it is possible to get most of these changes into focus, especially those related to scholars’ intellectual approaches, without any need to be standoffish or nostalgic about zero-sum losses. We can map transformations that—on balance, unfolding variably from case to case—involved constructive overlaps and smooth transitions between past work and emergent ASR. A wide range of scholars based in both public and private schools moved in this direction: for example, using the best emerging historical methods (shared across ASR and non-ASR historians) to understand traditions, using the best emerging (also shared) social science theories to assess current issues, and so on. To assume that all “theological” or divinity school scholars remained static in nineteenth-century postures would be as misleading as positing that no anthropologists revised their approaches during the same time frame.   

After 1960, establishment divinity schools like Yale and Harvard picked up strong competition from ASR programs in public universities like Indiana and North Carolina. Often overlapping ASR units and seminaries co-existed in the same private schools. Although this did not unfold without conflict, usually some pockets of the divinity faculty were more-or-less indistinguishable from their “purer” ASR colleagues and vice-versa. In such evolving forms the older institutions by no means disappeared or ceased to wield strong influence as nodes in ASR networks. As we will discuss below, one curricular track within the University of Chicago Divinity School was often touted as the leading proto-ASR program, well before the 1960s.  

In a creation narrative attentive to such diversity, there is no one tree rotting amid brand new growth. Rather the core image is of maturing trees, some with broken limbs or new offshoots, in a garden that is being redesigned. The majority of ASR people since the 1960s have neither tried to start ex nihilo nor wasted much time on laments for the old garden. Rather they have taken a new configuration of the garden for granted and cultivated the older roots they found most important alongside the new growth.      

Cinderella’s New House on Wider Foundations

For some in ASR, the above story is not sufficiently triumphal about new growth and sadly half-hearted about digging up and burning older roots. They want the newer ASR programs to claim victory in a two-party war that requires everyone to choose a side: ASR vs. its “theological” Other. But this cohort, too, has a story to tell about historical roots that reach back behind 1960. Here one might imagine a broad-minded Cinderella, pioneering in a rustic cabin amid the establishment trees prior to the early twentieth century—sometimes a Protestant herself yet a dreamer envisioning a house built on wider and stronger foundations. In this cabin our hero perseveres modestly, until in the 1960s a mushrooming growth stage begins. The cabin (partly salvaged, partly outlawed by the Supreme Court) is rebuilt on a wider foundation. What had been a marginal subset of theological education sets the rules in a new “scientific” house.

Often mentioned as an early Cinderella in such stories is the Oxford-based scholar of Hindu scriptures, Friedrich Max Müller, who popularized a slogan often repeated in ASR: “He who knows one [religion], knows none.” Max Müller worried that prior to the nineteenth century, the academic study of religion in Europe and the US focused heavily on Christianity, although of course Jewish rabbinic study thrived in its own institutions and Christians studied selected Jewish texts. Although scholars did acknowledge Islam and Judaism, most studied these traditions none too thoroughly, sympathetically, or accurately. Beyond this, they lumped all other religions into a catchall category of paganism—with partial exceptions for Greek and Roman mythology and the natural religion of “noble savages.” All too often their knowledge of “pagans” represented little more than ignorance and/or Protestant fantasies projected on a blank screen. The pioneers of ASR sought to replace such ill-informed bias with accurate knowledge and enlightening inter-religious dialogue.   

The case of Max Müller helps us grasp why language skills for studying and translating ancient Asian religious texts—previously little known in the West—became a default way for an emerging ASR to set priorities and attain focus, in practice. Scholars assumed that canonical texts unlocked the traditions’ core meanings, which sharply delimited the range of data to worry about and made the study of contemporary practice secondary. For example, Max Müller never traveled to India. His career also illustrates the centrality of British colonialism (and by extension other colonialisms) for understanding how such texts became available in the West, why Westerners suddenly cared about them, and how their study was financed. These questions remain relevant today in an era of corporate globalization.

In the late 1800s, Max Müller and kindred philologists (including many who were transforming Biblical studies in comparable ways, while commanding greater resources in US academia) built a loose alliance with pioneers in the sociology and anthropology of religion.  Across this spectrum many shared a sweeping evolutionary mindset. They were at pains to distinguish their work from narrow theological study and unreliable missionary reports, and (as cited in Eric Sharpe, Comparative Religion, xxi) they saw themselves not only as “a Science which compares the origin, structure, and characteristics” of world religions, but also as judges of “[these religions’] relative superiority and inferiority when regarded as types.” 

By the mid-twentieth century, as such approaches became widely disavowed, ASR often shifted toward the somewhat more focused and less normative “phenomenology” of scholars such as Eliade.  This became known as the “history of religions” although it was often quite abstract and ahistorical compared to work by practicing historians. This approach was roughly equivalent to what Europeans more often called “comparative religion,” with the word “history” signaling its breadth of interests and its self-conscious distancing from theological study.

Until the middle third of the twentieth century, this cohort remained a minority amid people treating religion in US universities, although with non-trivial strength in some places including the University of Chicago’s history of religions program. But a range of factors converged around the 1960s to enable change. This was an era of expansion in US higher education, fueled by the GI Bill, the baby boom, and economic prosperity.  As previously noted, a “pluralist” approach to US religion gained momentum: the US religious mainstream was recast as “Protestant/Catholic/Jewish” with help from the Supreme Court while Cold War propaganda stressed religious freedom. A combination of factors—evangelical growth, the civil rights movement, Asian immigration (the factor that ASR heavily stresses), and an influx of Latinx immigrants—all in different ways de-centered the old liberal Protestant establishment. In this context ASR built a coalition between old-style philologists studying both Asian and Jewish/Christian texts, sociologists and anthropologists who chafed under their home fields’ relative disinterest in religion, and emergent parts of the older liberal Protestant departments—especially parts with robust comparative interests and scholarly methods shared with kindred disciplines. Together, they staked a claim to a solid share of resources and began to build “Cinderella’s new house” and/or “the gardener’s evolving garden” on ASR-scale foundations.   

Looking Ahead

And we’re not done yet! In part three, to which I will link here when it is ready, I will still have dogs in the fight for even the most jaded readers, since I will take up debates about present and future directions for the field.

 MBE standard notice: The time I spend on this blog is not in addition to a Twitter and FaceBook presence, but an alternative to it.  If you think anything here merits wider circulation, this will probably only happen if you circulate it. 

4 thoughts on “Creation Myths of Religious Studies: Starting Over Near a Dead Tree Vs. an Evolving Garden with Old and New Roots

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