The study of history has long been connected to the history of religions. For many religions, the very fact of historical study is heretical; for other religions, historical thought is integral to religious practice. We cannot speak about religion without also thinking about its many histories. To start, what is religion? Is it a belief system, a set of cultural values, of ritual practices, and a source of identity? Is it an attempt to explain our place in the cosmos? Or is it all of these things at once? Is its proper role to transcend earthly life or to transform it? Answers to these questions vary across time and place and even in the same time and place, depending on the groups and individuals who answer them. Religion has been an instrument of liberation and an instrument of coercion. Religious identities have been a matter of choice and a tool of control. Religious institutions—ruled by men and, more rarely, women—have developed sometimes in collusion with and sometimes in antagonism to government power. Religions have been a basic factor of human history in all places and times, and remain so in our own world today. They have been some of the most important forces shaping knowledge, the arts, and technology.
Historians are particularly interested in the context in which religions initially arose and then their subsequent development, especially how they changed when they entered new societies. How have various religious traditions influenced one another? How have they changed over time? What are the relationships between religion and culture, politics, and economics? Why did religion emerge? Why does it endure? Why do some fight in its name? Why do others invoke its name to refuse to fight? Is religion personal? Universal? Political? These are among the many fundamental questions that Yale’s historians, who teach about all the world’s religions from antiquity to the present, explore in the classroom.