Review: Religion Enters the Academy
James Turner. Religion Enters the Academy: The Origins of the Scholarly Study of Religion in America. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2011. 124 pp. ISBN 978-0-8203-3740-1.
In Religion Enters the Academy, James Turner traces the earliest American formulations of religious studies as a discipline distinct from European forbears in both motivations and eventually practice. This short book, based upon Turner’s George H. Shriver lectures at Stetson University, moves from colonial contact, to American “disinterest” in what Turner terms “non-European religions,” to American surveys of world religions, to William James as the narrative’s culmination (7). The aim is to display the “specifically American background of the academic study of religion” (7). Turner begins by examining European encounters with indigenous peoples in the New World. He points out that the “Spanish invaders” showed “great curiosity” as well as “confusion and contempt” when encountering the “religions” of Native Americans (8). The English colonists ignored the question of religion until the eighteenth century, and French missionaries learned languages to communicate and to convert. In spite of these early encounters often fraught with violence and intolerance, Turner argues that “the American response to any and all non-European religions before 1800” could be categorized as “nearly utter disinterest” (12). What becomes clear is that Turner’s formulation of disinterest exists in the realm of study rather than lived interactions between colonists and Native Americans, which was anything but disinterested. This scholarly disinterest transformed into interest in the hands of deists, seekers of the universal qualities of religious truth. Yet deists were also not disinterested. They sought to criticize Christianity by turning to other examples of religion globally. When rare discussion of non-European religions by Christian ministers (like Cotton Mather) appeared, Turner writes that it “repeated traditional, abstract censure of treacherous Muslims and benighted heathens” (18). Americans before 1800 lacked desire for the study of religions, but they did not hesitate in their condemnations or caricatures of “non-European religions.”
Turner appears bothered by this lack of interest in what we now term “world religions,” especially from the intelligentsia of the American Enlightenment. “Enlightened inquirers,” he notes, “ought to have hungered to know of the religions of any and every non-European culture” (21). Turner continues, “They utterly failed to live up to our expectations” (21). Perhaps they fail to live up to the author’s expectations of intellectual life and curiosity. What remains, according to Turner, is that some Americans, particularly Christian ministers, were interested in comparing Christianity and world religions for less vaunted scholarly aims. These efforts sought to glorify the supposed material and spiritual riches of Christianity compared to the poverty and decline of “non-European religions.” Interested comparison occurred for more sectarian goals rather than academic ones.
The comparative streak continued through many authors of early world religion texts in America. The Unitarian Hannah Adams, for instance, compiled a dictionary of world religions with three revisions that began as a “compendium of Christian disputes” but included Catholicism, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, paganism, and Native American religions (27). Her Alphabetic Compendium (1784) proved to be “the first American attempt to survey religions throughout the world” (28). Yet Turner is dismissive of Adams, as he is later of Lydia Maria Child, as an amateur, who proves not quite scholarly enough to be labeled a “pioneer” of the academic study of religion (31). To do so would “seriously . . . overestimate her competence” (31). To further his critique of Adams, Turner notes that her motivation for writing was problematic as she attempted to sort out Christian disputes and schisms. Her obvious Christian leaning overshadows her compilation of the first American survey text. Intriguingly, religious attachment does not seem quite as unsettling in Turner’s valorizing descriptions of male Transcendentalists who sought universal truth in other religions to see “how their doctrines fit with Christian teaching” (38). While male Transcendentalists were not engaged in “disinterested scholarship,” their approaches “ultimately had big consequences for learning” (39). Yet he does not make the same comparison of Adams or Child. Turner further suggests that the Reverend James Freeman Clarke’s work was “far more erudite” than Child’s work because “he did not need to write quickly to keep his pantry full” (47). Clarke appears as a “more serious student of religions” (47). Thus, the Unitarian and Transcendentalist approaches become the central component of Turner’s argument as well as the more likely beginnings of the academic study of religion, which is an interestingly gendered position. Historian Bonnie Smith writes poignantly of the assumptions about male historians as professional and female historians as amateurs in The Gender of History(1998), which Turner, unfortunately, appears to replicate here in his claims about the seriousness of male compilers of survey texts.
In Turner’s genealogy, liberal Protestantism becomes the basis of the earliest American academic inquiries to world religions. It should be noted that these early scholars employing disinterest or engaging other religions respectfully still held views of Christian superiority. Even as world religions emerged as an academic study, the “anxieties and hopes of a liberalizing Protestantism” remained firmly entrenched (55). This characterization of the American study of religion is a tantalizing glimpse of the religious impulses latent in the study of religion. What might this argument suggest about the development of the study more largely in the U.S.? How might this claim relate to current discussions of the study of American religions in particular?
The strongest part of Religion Enters the Academy is the brief history of the professionalization of religious studies as a discipline in the late nineteenth century at Harvard, Princeton, Boston University, and the University of Chicago. Turner ably documents how the study of comparative religion was “closely tied to academic world of Christian theology and biblical studies” (63). The American Academy of Religion, the author reminds us, was founded in 1964 emerging out of the National Association of Biblical Instructors (63). The earliest moments of this budding discipline focused on ideas and scriptures, which meant that religions with texts mattered more. Non-textual or “primitive” religions only became significant in their relationships with scriptural traditions. The early distinctions between words and practice, history and anthropology, still resonate in the academic study of religion today, refracted through an endless variety of subfields and methods for study. That legacy, however, is not Turner’s concern. His work ends with a meditation of William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) as groundbreaking because of the focus on individual (interior) religious experience, which is becoming a much more strident conversation in the twenty-first century than it was in the early twentieth.
Overall, Turner’s volume is an intriguing study of the origins of religious studies in America and its relationship to liberal Protestantism that might be of use to any religious studies scholar. His reflection proves suggestive of current conversations about what “religious studies” is—or if the discipline should exist at all. However, Turner’s renderings of interest, disinterest, and engagement left this reader more frustrated than enlightened as the singular focus on “academic” approaches ignored the ways in which “religion” as a category was worked out in encounters in everyday life. Americans were seldom disinterested as they engaged each other and labeled what could count as “religion.”