in the Teaching of Modern World History: Observations and Suggestions
David M. Fahey
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.
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
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
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?
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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?
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
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.
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. http://ias.berkeley.edu/orias/summer2003/summer2003links.htm