Why Religion Is Hard For Historians (and How It Can Be Easier)

Kathryn Lofton
2019 Modern American History  
History is a word for a certain kind of reasoning: reasoning about time, about human agency, and about material records that can provide information about humans as marked by time. For many scholars—not to mention many of those outside the academy—such reasoning is antithetical to the word religion. No matter how many books prove incontrovertibly that the authors of the Talmud engaged rigorously with Greek philosophy, or that Islamic philosophers contributed to the formation of modern
more » ... of modern scientific practice, or that evangelical readers engaged significantly with Biblical criticism, scholars of religion have not (and perhaps finally cannot) upend the common perception that religion is not a site of reasoned thought, but rather a space where reason is suspended. "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," David A. Hollinger opined in response to reports about the flurry of scholarly interest in religion as an effect in the modern United States. It is a good quip, but one that portrays the historian as an axiomatically rationalist hero, swooping into medieval confusion in order to give clarifying accounts of the truth behind puzzling theologies, curious myths, and archaic rituals. Hollinger suggests that religious people or religious historians cannot do this work. Believers by his lights are not to be trusted with the reasoning history demands.
doi:10.1017/mah.2019.26 fatcat:cpl6jp3otjhbzazwnndvbnbdhy