Prof Talk: William D. Hart, Religious Studies

This week, The Mac Weekly sat down with new religious studies professor William D. Hart to discuss his values and journey to Macalester.

TMW: To start off, how long have you been teaching at Mac and what courses are you teaching this semester? WH: This is my first year teaching at Macalester. In fact, I just arrived in town a month ago, on Aug. 14. I’m still adjusting. The courses I’m teaching this semester are “Martin and Malcolm,” which is a course about Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X and their complex roles in the Black Freedom struggle, and the role that their religious commitments played in their civil rights and liberationist work. The second course grows out of my research and it is titled “Human Sacrifice.” It is a course that looks at the category of human sacrifice as a comparative category that we can use to make sense out of both human sacrifice as a religious practice, and as something that occurs in state- craft, in activities such as warfare, capital punishment and so on.

Where were you before Mac and what brought you here? Well, [what] brought me here was a great job opportunity and an opportunity to come to a great college. I’ve taught at large institutions; I taught at Duke University from 1994 to 2001 and the University of North Carolina for 14 years. I have been teaching for 21 years at various kinds of institutions and this was an opportunity to teach at a private liberal arts college, something I have not had a chance to do, something I’m very much looking forward to doing.

What brought you to religious studies? I think that my attraction to reli- gious studies is probably not that different from [that of] many faculty members who enter the field. I initially had devotional interest in religion … I began to study the topic and over time, those devo- tional motivations for studying religion morphed into more schol- arly interest for studying religion. It became clear to me that religion interacts and impinges upon virtu- ally every aspect of society from politics, to identity, to the way economies work. So, in a way, you could study all of society—all of culture—by studying religion. It is a way for me to study the interrelations between many aspects of culture and society.

Do your religious beliefs connect to lessons and conversations with students? I think that the study of religion is no different than the study of any other topic. That is, it doesn’t matter what topic you are studying; you come to the study of that topic with a history. So, your approach to that topic is going to be biased or it is going to be colored by the history that you bring to the study of that topic. It really doesn’t mat- ter what the topic is. You can never approach any field [of] study from a position of absolute neutrality. That doesn’t exist, so I would say the same thing with respect to any kind of personal or private reli- gious commitments I might have.

It seems like most of the classes you teach are not just about religion but also about history— Well, it’s not about religion as religion may be popularly thought of, and certainly not about reli- gion conceived in a narrow way. Religion is part and parcel of all of culture, and not some isolated phenomenon that takes place in particular kinds of places on par- ticular kinds of days, but the fact [is] that it is a very broad phenom- enon that has its tentacles in every aspect of society.

You said that religion fits into every part of society. How does it fit into science? Well, that’s an interesting topic and it tends to get so stereotyped in various kinds of ways. There is no doubt that right now, the dominant way of thinking about the relationship between religion and science is to see religion and science as antagonists. There is no doubt that that certainly is one way of telling the story and I think it is an important way of telling the story … But that’s one way of thinking about the relationship be- tween science and religion. If you look at science and religion in the early modern period, the most im- portant scientists were deeply reli- gious people, even people who we might regard as having supersti- tious views. For example, Newton. Some people regard Newton as the most important scientist who ever lived, more important than Ein- stein and people who came after him. His discoveries were so ba- sic and so foundational that he is unsurpassed when it comes to im- portant contributions in science. If you read Newton, you will see that not only was he deeply religious, but he also believed in things like alchemy and the cult and so if you relied on the current debate around issues regarding religion and sci- ence, Newton would be somewhat of a quack.