From Seminary to University: An Institutional History of the Study of Religion in Canada

Aaron W. Hughes writes in this 2020 book:

* The academic study of religion, for all intents and purposes, began in Germany in the nineteenth century. Its goal was, as indeed it still is, to understand the religions of the globe from an ostensibly scientific (wissenschaftliche) perspective. It was an endeavour that, to be sure, had a number of contradictory aims. It absorbed elements of historicism and so-called higher criticism, for example, yet it also tended to privilege Protestant religious forms. If the former sought to account for
the historical and sociological production of religious texts, the latter made certain assumptions about the scope and nature of “true” or “authentic” religion.

* the story of the study of religion in Canada is, in many ways, the story of Canada itself. Its unfolding reveals the gradual movement from religious exclusion to secularism, from Christocentrism to multiculturalism, and from theology to secular religious studies. It is, simultaneously, the story of geographic expansion and growing national confidence in the face of British and
subsequent American imperialism and influence.

* The colonizers imagined themselves as superior and the Indigenous inhabitants as “heathens” in need of the salvation that the “true” religion would bestow.

* Another strong influence on the study of religion, especially religious texts, in Victorian times was the development and subsequent rise of “higher criticism” in European and American universities. Such criticism was at the time revolutionary and undermined what previous generations had taken for granted. The goal of such criticism was to investigate the social and historical origins of ancient texts in order to understand them in their immediate contexts.1 This would have major repercussions. Higher criticism assumed that the biblical text was, like all texts, the product of human creativity. Unlike religious believers, those who practised “higher criticism” regarded the Bible not as the inerrant word of God but instead as a fallible human document. As we shall see, higher criticism of the Bible often coincided with the new science associated
with Darwin, which radically transformed the way many thought about the human species and the natural world. This union of higher criticism and Darwinism would make major inroads in Canadian universities and set off a chain of often vitriolic accusations and counter-accusations. Such intellectual skirmishes would, in turn, create the epistemic space for the secular study of religion in subsequent decades.

* Canada, unlike the United States, was never seen as a religious haven or refuge for Christians escaping persecution in the Old World. Canada has no myth of origins, nor is there an emphasis here on religious tolerance as reflected, for example, in the American story of the landing of the Puritans. On the contrary, as historian John W. Grant notes, “practically none of the early colonists came to Canada for religious reasons.”1 They instead came to the new colony to get rich through the fur trade
and related commercial activities.

* The relative isolation of Canada, especially when compounded by the dearth of pastoral care, created a situation in which traditional denominations were no longer regarded to be as paramount as they had been in Britain and, indeed, as they still were in the United States. While there may have been “no thought of comity,” again in the words of historian John W. Grant, “in a vast country there was little surplus energy for deliberate overlapping.”4

Denominational differences, then, were much less pronounced in Canada than in other countries. This, along with the subsequent indigenization of churches in a more rural and isolated Canadian environment, led to various unions that might not have been possible in other places.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been noted in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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