December 11 2023

Josh Patterson, PhD, Research Fellow, American Academy of Religion
Rob Townsend, PhD, Codirector, Humanities Indicators, American Academy of Arts and Sciences

students walking along campus courtyard on a fall day

This article is the first in a series that will unpack and contextualize data on religion departments collected by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences Humanities Indicators project and written in collaboration between the American Academy and the AAR. Various data sources are noted along with numerous links to reports and indicators maintained by the Indicators.

As religious studies departments start to contend with the effects of the pandemic, recent studies provide critical insights into the state of the discipline on the eve of the crisis. Noting these prior shifts will be helpful to contextualize the many changes likely on the horizon, as the pandemic, directly and indirectly, alters the material conditions that surround the academic study of religion. Recent data collected by the Humanities Indicators and US Department of Education show the far-reaching impact of the 2007 recession on religious studies and the humanities more broadly. Many researchers have noted that US higher education has not sufficiently recovered from early-recession cuts and was already ill-prepared for another economic downturn. Since the recession, there have been a number of resulting or concurrent changes in state and institutional funding and student choice. We hope these data prompt reflection on a number of critical questions relating to the future of the academic study of religion.

To begin at the institutional level, an initial data point to note is that the number of institutions awarding degrees has been fairly stable in recent years. Between 1999 and 2011, the number of colleges and universities awarding at least one religion degree grew from 510 to 596. From that peak in 2011, the number declined 4% to 571 in 2017 (the most recent year with data; Fig. 1).

Fig. 1 Number of Institutions Awarding Bachelor’s, Master’s, or Doctoral Degrees in Selected Humanities Disciplines, 1999 to 2017

Source: IPEDS Completions Survey from Department of Education, tabulated using the NCSES Data Tool at

Karin Vélez explains how the 12th century myth of the flying house of Loreto, which tells the story of the home of the Virgin Mary flew away from the Holy Land and settled on the coastal town of Loreto, Italy, served as narrative grounding for the expansion of Catholicism through varied, voluntary, independent devotional movements across the world.

Vélez is assistant professor of pre-1800 global history at Macalester College and the author of "The Miraculous Flying House of Loreto: Spreading Catholicism in the Early Modern World" (Princeton University Press, for which she won AAR's 2019 Award for the Best First Book in the History of Religions.

Photo of Elias Bongbmba with text, "An interview with Elias Kifon Bongmba 2020 Ray L. Hart Service Award Recipient"

AAR is pleased to present an interview with Elias Bongmba, recipient of AAR's 2020 Ray L. Hart Service Award which recognizes AAR members' whose dedication and continuing efforts of service to the AAR have been exemplary. Bongmba is Harry and Hazel Chavanne Professor of Christian Theology and Chair of the Department of Religion at Rice University. His service extends beyond his participation in various AAR steering committees, committees of the board, and juries and into his native Cameroon and across Africa, where he has lectured and advised national and educational institutions on social justice issues, including poverty, gender, disability, and homosexuality. 

Bongmba will be formally presented the Hart Award on December 3, 2020, at 6 PM Eastern during AAR's Annual Business Meeting (A3-400). All members are invited to attend this session during the Virtual Annual Meeting to celebrate Bongmba's contributions to the field and to learn more about the ongoing work of the AAR.

You have contributed your time and energy in so many ways to the AAR, including on AAR's International Connections Committee, as a member of the Graduate Student Award Jury, and as a steering committee member of several program units. What are some of the highlights of your AAR service?

Serving the AAR has been a privilege for me because those opportunities gave me insights into the AAR's work from different angles. The International Connections Committee allowed me to work with colleagues from outside the United States who attend the Annual Meeting. The committee's programs extend a warm welcome to the United States and work with our colleagues to enhance the annual meeting experience and establish in-person connections with our colleagues from around the globe. One of my most cherished memories was joining colleagues from southern Africa who have several academic societies for the study of religion, and a big Joint Societies conference every three years that brings people from around the world to share their appreciation for the hospitality they received at the AAR and SBL that year. The research universities of southern Africa send many participants to the Annual Meetings, and it is always a pleasure to go to their panels to learn from the research that is taking place in that region. The yearly reception for international scholars at the Annual Meeting remains a highlight of the committee's work. It brings scholars together to connect, discuss shared research interests, and explore ideas for future meetings. It was a joy to work with the International Connections committee and the AAR staff on the Africa Focus at the AAR and SBL Annual Meetings in 2006.

This is a the second post in called A Proven Practice, an initiative of AAR’s Teaching Religion Program Unit and Committee on Teaching and Learning to collect and share faculty pedagogical techniques that have shown promise in the transition to online learning as a result of COVID-19. Do you have a successful technique to share with colleagues? Submit it for publication. Read Part I of A Proven Practice.

Synthesizing Student Discussion Posts to Facilitate Critical Reflection

I teach World Religions at a medium-sized regional public university in a writing-intensive upper-level undergraduate course taken mostly by non-majors. Each week I assign chapters from our textbook as well as short articles and documentaries (these often serving as a way of complicating the textbook’s presentation of a given tradition). To guide student engagement with the assigned material, I give students two discussion prompts. They are required to write an original post and a response post totaling approximately 600 words. I identify which of the two prompts generate the most posts and compose a longer post of 1200–1500 words in which I quote from each of the students who posted on that prompt (making sure to write students’ names in bold), comment on the developing discussion, and offer additional resources (e.g., documentaries, music, further readings, etc.). Students are not required to respond to this longer post, but I have heard back from students anecdotally that they appreciate the synthesis because often times it is “annoying” to sift through 20–30 original posts from their classmates.

Text of image: "Conversation with Geraldine Heng, 2019 AAR Book Award Winner" with cover of Heng's book, "The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages"

Geraldine Heng discusses the obstacles in conceptualizing race in premodernity and the evidence for racialized thinking in the European medieval period. Heng is professor of English and comparative literature, with a joint appointment in Middle Eastern studies and women’s studies at the University of Texas at Austin. She is also the founder and director of the Global Middle Ages Projects.

In this interview, she talks with Kristian Petersen about the research in her book "The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages" (Cambridge University Press, 2018), which won AAR's 2019 Award for Excellence in the Study of Religion in the category of Historical Studies.

This is a the first in a series of posts called A Proven Practice, an initiative of AAR’s Teaching Religion Program Unit and Committee on Teaching and Learning to collect and share faculty pedagogical techniques that have shown promise in the transition to online learning as a result of COVID-19. Do you have a successful technique to share with colleagues? Submit it for publication! Read on for Part II of A Proven Practice.

Flexible Live Discussions in Distance Education

In the spring of 2020, I taught a course entitled “Women’s Spiritual Experiences.” The primary aims of the course were to explore and reflect upon the depths and complexities of women’s spirituality across centuries, continents, and religious traditions. Functioning as a capstone in an undergraduate general-education curriculum, this course attracted students from a variety of majors. While I previously taught the course in a traditional manner, this past spring I “flipped” the classroom. Thus, the majority of content, quizzes, and written assignments were accessible via Moodle and completed independently by students. This structure allowed for our weekly gatherings to be a site of thoughtful question-asking, creative expression, and generative discussion.

Interview with Kristian Petersen

The construction and use of the fetish framework in European social theory is the focus of J. Lorand Matory's book, "The Fetish Revisited: Marx, Freud, and the Gods Black People Make." In this conversation, Matory explains how social theorists based in Enlightenment principles deployed simplistic interpretations of Afro-Atlantic religious traditions as a way to prove to their European audiences the similar "foolishness" of European political, economic, and religious policies.

Matory is Lawrence Richardson Professor of Cultural Anthropology and the director of the Sacred Arts of the Black Atlantic Project at Duke University. His book, "The Fetish Revisited," (Duke University Press, 2019), won AAR's 2019 Award for Excellence in the Study of Religion in the category of Analytical-Descriptive Studies.

Jessica Vantine Birkenholtz talks about the textual and limited iconographic history of the mysterious Nepalese Hindu goddess Svasthani. Birkenholtz's book documenting her research into the goddess and the puranic texts that develop around her, "Reciting the Goddess: Narratives of Place and the Making of Hinduism in Nepal" (Oxford University Press, 2018) won the AAR's 2019 Award for Excellence in the Study of Religion in the category of Textual Studies.

by Cecily Hill, National Humanities Alliance

National Humanities Alliance logo

As of this writing, colleges and universities around the nation have closed their doors; most have shifted to online learning. In-person public programs are on pause, indefinitely. For the majority of us, large components of our work have come to a screeching halt, while we have had to abruptly shift to scores of new personal and professional challenges.

At the National Humanities Alliance, we are continuing our work to document the impact of the humanities in a variety of contexts, but with a particular eye toward how humanities organizations and institutions are serving their communities and constituencies during this challenging time. We are also using this time to support humanities faculty, practitioners, and organizations as they plan for the future.

Lee H. Butler, Jr., PhD, Distinguished Service Professor of Theology and Psychology, Chicago Theological Seminary

Lee H. Butler, Jr. and Charles H. Long together

Dr. Charles Houston Long was born in Little Rock, Arkansas, during the time of legislated segregation. While his formative years were lived during a time of deep racial tensions, his personhood was nurtured within a crucible of Black intellectual excellence. He attended the premier Black school in Arkansas’ segregated public school system, Little Rock Dunbar Junior and Senior High School and Junior College. When the Dunbar school was being established, Black community leaders were committed to an institutional structure that would prepare students for college alongside a curriculum to provide students with labor-force skills. Recognized for its outstanding faculty and rigorous curriculum, Dunbar was the first Black school in Arkansas to be accredited by the North Central Association of Schools and Colleges in 1931. Because education was regarded as one of the pathways to full citizenship, Dunbar Junior College placed emphasis upon educating people to become teachers. It is not coincidental, therefore, that Charles Long became a great scholar-teacher and a fierce advocate for intellectual rigor. He always looked for the sweat in a scholar’s work.