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Religion in the Teaching of Modern World History: Observations and Suggestions

David M. Fahey

Miami University (Ohio)

    For world historians religion should be more than a topic to be started on Monday and completed on Wednesday. It is related to all sorts of world history themes, notably ethnic or national identity. What do we mean by religion? It is more than theology and worship. When Catholics and Protestants kill one another in Northern Ireland, it is unlikely that conflict over defining the eucharist is the basis for the murders. Although courses on what Europeanists call pre-modern history rightly emphasize the importance of religion, courses on modern history are much more selective, even arbitrary, in acknowledging the role of religion. 1
    K-12 curricula and those who teach them may be ahead of college professors in recognizing the importance of religion in world history. In a 1998 online essay at the website of the Council on Islamic Education, Susan L. Douglass argues:

One of the most frequent critiques concerning [teaching about] religion is that world history survey courses often avoid the subject of religion in the modern era. Several state standards documents [in the United States] reflect the need to redress this omission, which gives the impression that secular modernity has supplanted religion.

Once the basic unfamiliarity with religious traditions has been overcome, historical discussion can develop beyond the initial sense of the exotic to proceed toward understanding the role of change in interpretation and practice in societies across the globe.1

    I have done most of my own world history teaching in a survey course for the period from the late 1400s to the present. After reading a variety of textbooks, I have come to realize that religion is more mentioned than studied in the teaching of modern world history. For this period economic history dominates, in part because of the effort to explain or explain away the rise of the West and in part because a present-minded field wants to historicize contemporary globalization. For the most part, intellectuals in the West are largely or entirely secularized in their personal lives. This circumstance may incline them to minimize the importance of religion in recent times and identify modernity with secularization. Moreover, competition for time is intense in the teaching of modern world history. How much should go to religion and how much to industrialization, science and technology, nationalism and an array of other Western-based secular ideologies, transoceanic imperialism, and subsequent decolonization? 3
    Perhaps things are beginning to change in religion's favor. As I have already suggested, world history is a present-minded field. Fear of Islam has shaken confidence in the secularization model. Allah may not be dead. 4
    In the same month that a Harvard committee recommended that undergraduates should be required to study religion ("reason and faith"), a Yale professor published a brief article, "Religion's Return," in the TLS, 13 October 2006. Lamin Sanneh presents statistics, both absolute numbers and percentages, that world historians should not ignore. In the twentieth century the world's population grew enormously but unevenly as the share of the population living in Europe shrank relative to other regions. As one aspect of this, the Muslims of the world grew from less than 200 million in 1900 to 1.3 billion in 2006, while Christians grew more slowly from 558 million to 2.15 billion. Yet in Africa, where Muslims outnumbered Christians by four to one in 1900, Christians came to outnumber Muslims by 1985. Such changes make it easier to understand the geographical shift of Christianity. In 1900, 82 per cent of all Christians called Europe or North America home while by 2005 only 35 per cent did. 5
    My students bring to the classroom an uneven knowledge of religion—even of the religions they call their own. In response I compromise between simplification, perhaps oversimplification, and an emphasis on the diversity within what are often called the great religious traditions—Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism—internal divisions which matter or don't depending on one's perspective. The Protestant Reformation means something different in world history than in European history or the old Western Civ survey. 6
    I realize that as a generalist I know little. An AHA pamphlet on Finding Buddhists in Global History (1998) contends that nineteenth-century Western scholars created what they called Buddhism based on inappropriate analogies with Christianity. The author, Jonathan S. Walters, argues that until recently there was nothing that we should call Buddhism, only Buddhists who in practice and belief differed enormously. Although such critiques humble me, the limits of my own knowledge and the limits of what I can expect of students in a survey course require that I paint with a broad brush. 7
    For instance, what can I reasonably expect my students to remember about Islam five years after they have departed my classroom? That Islam is monotheistic, that Muslims regard Muhammad as the final prophet and believe that he received from God the revelations that make up the Koran (or other spellings), that there are many divisions within Islam but that anyone is a Muslim who utters with conviction the prayer that "there is no God but God and that Muhammad is his prophet," that Islam began in the Middle East among the Arabs but today most Muslims aren't Arabs and don't live in the Middle East, and that Islam is one of the largest world religions and continues to grow. I would like my students to learn and to remember a little more—for instance, about Muslim attitudes toward the other Abrahamic religions and the history of the so-called veiling of Muslim women—but I would be satisfied with my original short list. 8
    Old theories of the relation between religion and economic progress are being reworked. For instance, Max Weber regarded ascetic Calvinist Protestantism as responsible for the spirit of capitalism, while historians now often depict Christianity as a whole as sympathetic toward capitalism and not simply Calvinism. Historians once blamed Confucianism for the lack of economic progress in China, but now historians and others frequently credit Confucianism with helping to create the cultural context in which the East Asian economic tigers flourish. And, no, Confucianism isn't exactly a religion—at least as Westerners define religion.  9
    Religion often is presented within regional history, part of the description of a region of the world where a particular religion predominates. Escaping this set of regional boxes, C.A. Bayly offers a comparative approach for the "long" nineteenth century in "Empires of Religion," a chapter in his Birth of the Modern World, 1780-1914 (Blackwell, 2003). It describes the interaction of major religions upon one another and the application of new technologies. A PBS documentary film compares or at least puts side-by-side "fundamentalists" in recent world history. A segment of the People's Century series called "God Strikes Back" looks at Iran and the United States and, more briefly, India and Israel. 10
    Framing religions geographically creates a further problem, obscuring movement from one part of the world to another. For instance, many centuries ago Christianity changed from being an eastern Mediterranean religion to a European religion (so-called Christendom). Its current "southernization" locates most Christians near the equator or south of it. The sociologist Philip Jenkins popularized the term "southernization" in his book The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (Oxford, 2002). The on-going battle over gay and female bishops which divides the Anglican communion illustrates a revolution in Christian demography by pitting a small liberal Episcopal church in North America against a much larger, much more conservative Anglican church in African countries that once had been part of the British Empire. 11
    Pentecostalism, with roots in Kansas and Wales and Los Angeles around 1900, now boasts impressive strongholds in Africa and Latin America and has begun to win adherents in Russia and China. As recently as 1970, the number of Pentecostals worldwide was somewhat over 72 million. Experts predict that by 2025 Pentecostals and other charismatic Christians may approach 800 million. Few world history textbooks even mention the Pentecostal/charismatic movement although its explosive international growth should inform our understanding of modernity. Unfortunately, it seems that many textbook writers in the world history field think that Islam is the only religion that matters today. 12
    Obviously religion can be a touchy topic for students with strongly held beliefs. In one of my classes I asked students to give brief presentations. An evangelical student offered to talk about the coming of Christianity to Russia. I expected to hear about Kievan Russ in 987. Instead he told the class about recent American missionaries. When I asked the student about the Russian Orthodox church, he was puzzled. He identified Christianity with his own faith and only with his own faith. Of course, students sometimes challenge what I say. A Nepalese student questioned my statement that the Buddha probably had been born in northern India. The student argued that before today's modern borders had been drawn, the Buddha's birthplace in what then was Nepal. This disagreement over a detail of political geography sidesteps the more interesting question—that is, why most people in both India and Nepal are Hindus and not Buddhists. 13
    Spotting inconsistency, clever students might try a different front for criticizing my class, the assigned textbooks, and the vast majority of all books and articles written as world history. World historians denounce Eurocentrism as something analogous to original sin, but at the same time they employ a Eurocentric dating system. Whether styled BC and AD or, euphemistically, BCE and CE, it borrows from a religious conception of time that became standard in medieval Europe and then in the rest of the expanding West, with other parts of the world eventually falling in step in order to join the dominant scholarly discourse. 14
    In my helter-skelter reflections I have argued that religion should be an important part of any course in modern world history, and I have acknowledged that teaching about religion in such a course isn't easy. In part the problem is the same that confronts teachers for any aspect of world history. Who among us can claim expertise about all the world's religions? If we have the knowledge, how can we present it in the time available? 15
    The special problem is the sensitivity of the topic, at least in the United States. Yes, a few other topics can arouse emotion, for example, the enslavement of black people. So can the failure to discuss topics submerged in a patriarchal narrative, such as the subordination of women and the existence of sexual minorities. For the most part, however, students yawn through potential sources for conflict, for instance, what might be construed as a quasi-Marxist interpretation of economic globalization and European imperialism they are likely to encounter in a modern world history course. At least a minority of American students is more likely to feel deeply about religion than about capitalism. 16
    I hope that my brief observations and suggestions will encourage other teachers of modern world history to tell World History Connected how they incorporate religion in modern world history courses. I for one need the benefit of their experience.  17


Biographical Note: David M. Fahey teaches at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. His bibliographical essay, "World History: An Emerging Field of Study," appeared in Choice, October 2006. For several years, he was a list editor for H-World. I first saw this quotation at the website for the Religion in World History—2003 ORIAS Summer Institute.


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