Proving its continuing relevance to readers of the Immanent Frame, the online news site Inside Higher Ed is devoting considerable attention to religion. Two of its five most commented on stories in 2009 focused on the place of crucifixes at a Catholic university and the teaching of evolution at a Seventh-day Adventist institution. In the past year, the word “religion” has appeared in 99 items.
Three of the most recent dispatches focus on a trifecta of problems in the academic study of religion.
The first reports on David Smilde and Matthew May’s working paper on “The Emerging Strong Program in the Sociology of Religion” [pdf]. While noting the renewed vitality of the sociology of religion, the article gives ample attention to Smilde and May’s critique of the sub-discipline’s pro-religiousness, as well as sociology’s privileged treatment of Protestant America. In the words of sociologist Darren Sherkat, “We’re talking about the superiority of white, conservative, Protestant Christianity.” From this perspective, sociology has a Parson Thwackum problem, defining religion as “the Christian religion; and not only the Christian religion, but the Protestant religion.”
Second, if Adam Kotsko’s essay on the teaching of Christianity is to be believed, religious studies departments face the opposite problem, namely, “an increasing desire to take an exclusively sociological or historical approach to Christianity, rather than what I would call, at the risk of being misunderstood, a ‘theological’ one.” While distancing himself from approaches that proselytize or endorse particular religious traditions, Kotsko laments the disappearance of normative discourse from religious studies.
Last but not least, Kevin M. Schultz and Paul Harvey comment on what Inside Higher Ed calls a “religious revival” in the discipline of history (discussed here at the Immanent Frame). While commending their fellow historians for paying more attention to the topic, they argue that religion is both “everywhere and nowhere,” building on Jon Butler’s 2004 article on the “jack-in-the-box” problem in American religious history. A summary of a much longer article just published in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, it criticizes scholars for failing to integrate religion into the main narratives of history.
What’s the biggest problem in the academic study of religion? Depending on which edition of Inside Higher Ed you consult, the answer could be very different. Rather than a sign of weakness, such varied approaches are a sign that this online publication is doing its job.