The study of religion is too important to be left in the hands of believers.
So claims David A. Hollinger, a professor of American history at the University of California at Berkeley, in his response to religion emerging as the hottest topic of study among members of the American Historical Association (AHA).
Perhaps surprisingly, leading evangelical scholars voiced general agreement with his basic premise.
"The practice of history is best served by many historians working from all their separate angles," said Rick Kennedy, president of the Conference on Faith and History (CFH) and a professor of history at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego. "What is good about the new surge in religious history is that something that was neglected is now gaining its rightful place."
Barry Hankins, resident scholar at the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, said he shared Hollinger's sentiments, "as long as the understanding of faith is not left only to unbelievers."
"The trick for insiders is to think critically about their own tradition, while the trick for outsiders is to try to develop a feel or affinity for the group he or she is studying," said Hankins.
In an annual survey of AHA members, 7.7 percent of respondents selected religion as one of three areas of interest. That topped the 7.5 percent who chose cultural history, ranked number one for 15 years.
Maxie B. Burch, author of The Evangelical Historians, points out that self-identified believers such as George Marsden, Nathan Hatch, and Mark Noll have helped propel wider academic interest in religious history with their outstanding scholarship.
"Particularly within the larger academic, intellectual world, these guys have helped to legitimize ...