Big History and Religion


Kelly Baker

So, my ever dutiful spouse found this interesting post while perusing FindLaw, and he passed it on to me (I get everything he finds even remotely history related. Perhaps, I should start using him as a research assistant). The post is about "big history" books, like Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel and where to find such books. The concept of big history is relatively new to me, likely because I am more firmly planted in the realm of Religious Studies. Big history also seems to be a form of history for more popular audiences.

Big history supposedly handles the big historical questions about the development of humanity. Diamond's book is a key example because of his attempt to understand how some human cultures came out on top in exploration and domination. My favorite chapter in the book deals explicitly with animal husbandry, which provides an excellent description of how much easier horses are to domesticate versus the wily and more clever zebras. Diamond's book was fascinating in his dissection of the development of germ resistance and the value of settled, agragrian cultures for the development of technology as well as creative arts.

The books cited in the post seem to focus on the sociological and the scientific to explain human development. Since I am new to the concept as I mentioned earlier, I wonder what place religion plays in big history. To our diligent readers, what do you make of big history? Do these authors directly handle religious expression, organization and creation? Moreover, is the big history approach useful for new understandings of the place of religion in human life?

Also, how is big history different from the humanistic tradition? I teach humanities from time to time, and big history seems to be a very similar tact to the way I teach my early civilizations and modern civilizations classes. What do y'all think about the applicability of these big approaches to religious history and religious studies? Moreover, how would we approach something as unwieldly as big history since most of us are trained so specifically?


Edward J Blum at: August 11, 2009 at 12:12 PM said...

One of my former colleagues at SDSU, David Christian, is one of the most prominent authors in world and "big" history. I think anyone interested in the subject should start with his amazing _Maps of Time_. Sure, it seems like science to me and not history, but that's just because I'm trained in little history.

Kelly Baker at: August 11, 2009 at 1:04 PM said...


Thanks for the recommendation. I will add _Maps of Time_ to my ever expanding reading list. I wonder also about the scientific nature of big history. Some of the works mentioned in the FindLaw post definitely veer that way.

Kevin M Schultz at: August 11, 2009 at 2:27 PM said...

I love big history, but it's interesting to me that it's often not written by historians (Diamond is an anthropologist, for example). I think historians are trained to learn about the contingency of events, the specific times and places when things arise and why, and the distinctions within periods of history and the communities that act within them. Even if those communities are national in scope, this training doesn't lend itself to big history.

Or perhaps it takes an outsider perspective to see the patterns. That's why two of the most interesting books written about American history in the past two decades--That Noble Dream and the Holocaust in American Life--were written by Peter Novick, an historian of Europe! Just a thought.

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