The following excerpt is from "Religious History and the Historians Craft: An Interview with Amanda Porterfield," Conducted by Randall Stephens, Historically Speaking (June 2009).
Amanda Porterfield is Robert A. Spivey Professor of Religion at Florida State University. She has published essays and books on topics ranging from 17th-century Puritanism to late-20th-century American religious awakenings. She is also interested in the comparative study of Christianity and other world religions. In 2001 Porterfield served as president of the American Society of Church History. She is co-editor, with John Corrigan, of the journal Church History: Studies in Christianity and Culture. Porterfield’s Healing in the History of Christianity (Oxford University Press, 2005) spans the centuries, from the time of Jesus to the present. Historically Speaking editor Randall Stephens spoke with Porterfield about her work and the state of the field.
Randall Stephens: What first interested you in the study of American religion?
Porterfield: In high school I was assigned to do a project on Zen Buddhism. I went to the Zen Buddhist temple in New York City, read D.T. Suzuki, and came back to my class and had everyone sit on top of their desks cross-legged while we chanted the chants that I had heard. It’s interesting to think back on this. There aren’t many religions you could do something like this with. You couldn’t celebrate the Eucharist with your class. I became fascinated not only by the ideas contained in the world’s various religions, but also by religion as a medium through which individuals and cultures express themselves. I think about religion as a way to learn about people.
Stephens: Are you particularly interested in the dramatic and theatrical elements of religion?
Porterfield: I am. Let me give you an example. I grew up in the Dutch Reformed Church, a denomination established by Dutch immigrants to New York in the 17th century. The most moving part of the service, which was in an imposing, really massive stone church, was when the ushers, distinguished men in dark broadcloth suits, marched up with the offering plates during the Doxology. This placing of the money on the altar was for me the heart of the church service. Yet it plays only an indirect role in Dutch Reformed theology. Maybe it was just a tradition in my particular church. But the way those gorgeous men in their beautiful suits marched up together with these brass plates holding people’s envelopes full of money—that will stay with me as long as I live.
Stephens: I’m intrigued by your discussion of neuroscience and religion in your book Healing in the History of Christianity. Neuroscientists like Andrew Newberg at the University of Pennsylvania and Michael A. Persinger at Laurentian University in Canada study religion from a neurobiological perspective. How has such recent work shaped religious studies and religious history?
Porterfield: I think this research has produced some very valuable insights. But if you go whole hog, say, into cognitive science, I think you’re throwing the baby out with the bathwater. What neuroscience does tell us—and this is extremely helpful—is that the placebo effect really does work. This enables us to say that religious healing, whether it’s being done by a Native American shaman or a Catholic saint in 13th-century France, makes people feel better. We can take religious healing seriously. In other words, it’s not just a fiction.
Stephens: But wouldn’t someone who felt they’d been healed by religious power think that the placebo effect was a fiction?
Porterfield: It depends on the individual, of course. But I asked a psychologist this question once, and his response was that the biological openness to hope is so great that it can’t be overridden by skepticism, or at least can’t always be overridden by skepticism. And at some level that makes sense to me. We can perform rituals of hope without believing in them absolutely, and still derive hope from them. Robert Orsi is particularly good on this point. >>>