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Why is religion controversial?

This module focuses on the intricate connections between religion and controversial issues, including politics, tradition, gender, multiculturalism, animism, atheism, violence, sex and capitalism. You will study processes of upheaval and change within religious traditions and some of the complex – and sometimes clashing – local, regional and national perspectives on familiar and unfamiliar controversies. Using a mix of historical, sociological and ethnographic sources, approaches and methods, this module will help you to develop your understanding of the nature and role of ‘religion’ in historical and contemporary societies. You will make significant use of the rich resources available online via the Open University library.

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OU qualifications are modular in structure; the credits from this undergraduate-level module could count towards a certificate of higher education, diploma of higher education, foundation degree or honours degree.

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Module code
Study level
3 10 6
Study method
Distance Learning
Module cost
See Module registration
Entry requirements
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What you will study

The study material for Why is religion controversial? is presented in four illustrated textbooks each dealing with a different aspect of religion and controversy.

Book One: Controversial Figures is about four individuals each from a different religious and cultural tradition. Two of the controversial figures, Jesus and Gandhi, are famous across the globe. The other two are less well known: Hassan al-Banna, who was the founder of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and Regina Jonas, who is widely acknowledged to be the first woman in the world to have received formal recognition as a Jewish rabbi. These four figures allow you to explore themes that run throughout the module: continuity and change, conflicting perspectives and the very idea of ‘religion’. Only one of our figures is a woman reflecting the marginalisation of women in history, including religious history. They were all rooted firmly in a religious tradition but represent some significant challenge to and break with that tradition. All four lived through times of heightened conflict, were controversial in their lifetimes, and met violent deaths. All four have inspired devotion, and their lives have, to some extent, become overlaid by myth or hagiography. All four have come to embody tensions between religion and modernity.

Book Two: Controversial Practices interrogates the boundaries between religion, culture, power and the use of force in various forms and will challenge some widespread stereotypes. You’ll explore some of the ways in which religion has been involved in different kinds of conflict, principally during the second half of the twentieth century and the first decade of the twenty-first century. The book explores relationships between religion and identity in relation to a range of controversial and contested understandings of gender and community. You’ll examine multiculturalism, principally in Britain; the veiling of Islamic women; connections between religion and violence; and the sex abuse scandals in children's homes run by Catholic religious orders in the Canadian province of Newfoundland.

Book Three: Controversial Ideas starts with the ideas of some of the most influential nineteenth-century critics of Christianity. It surveys the conflicts of the past while introducing the sometimes heated scholarly debates of the present. In the second chapter you will examine the ideas of four of the ‘new atheists’ – Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris – to open avenues for critical thinking about religion and atheism. Next, in this book, you will examine cognitive approaches to religion that take the mind and mental processes as the point of departure for the practice and study of religion. Finally you will examine the "new animism". This label is given to the ways in which the indigenous communities of, for example, Canada and New Zealand understand the place of humanity in the world. You will consider ways in which this animism might contribute to debates about the global environmental crisis.

Book Four: Controversial Futures examines a constellation of anxieties and risks about the future. In the first chapter you will examine the allegation often made against various groups that they ‘pick-n-mix’ eclectically from whatever sources can be appropriated. In addition to questioning the accuracy of this claim, you will consider whether any religion could exist without borrowing from others. Second, you will engage with the question of whether material possessions are detrimental to religious life; whether spiritual value and market value can coexist; and whether limiting some kinds of consumption while privileging others might be definitive of particular religious perspectives. Third, you will consider what is meant by 'modern yoga' in terms of scholarly theories about its development as a globalised phenomenon and its links to popular spirituality. Finally you will be introduced to a militant and conservative style of evangelical Protestant Christianity which has become increasingly important in the USA in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. You will focus, in particular, on their beliefs and expectations about the ‘end of time’.

Throughout the module you will have access to a website which will guide you to a wealth of scholarly resources. You will find a range of audio and visual material including original footage from India, Canada and Germany, as well as specially produced interviews with academic experts and religious practitioners. You will be assisted to develop the necessary independent skills to access appropriate electronic books and journal articles via the Open University library so that you can follow up on your own interests. The module will culminate with an extended essay in which you will be able to demonstrate those skills.

You will learn

You will learn to develop your general thinking, study and communication skills and, in particular:

  • ways to analyse the complex, subtle and sometimes controversial ways in which religious ideas and practices are embedded in society and culture
  • some of the ways in which religious ideas and practices reproduce and destabilise societal and cultural norms
  • the range of levels – individual, community, national and global – at which religious ideas and practices are significant
  • how to analyse the extent to which translation and communication of religious ideas can cause misunderstanding, tension, conflict and controversy
  • how to think clearly and in an informed way about a subject acknowledged to be of growing importance in today’s world.

Teaching and assessment

Support from your tutor

You will have a tutor who will help you with the study material and mark and comment on your written work, and whom you can ask for advice and guidance. We may also be able to offer group tutorials, day schools, and online tutorials that you are encouraged, but not obliged, to attend. Where your tutorials are held will depend on the distribution of students taking the module. 

Contact us if you want to know more about study with The Open University before you register.


The assessment details for this module can be found in the facts box above.

You will be expected to submit your tutor-marked assignments (TMAs) online through the eTMA system unless there are some difficulties which prevent you from doing so. In these circumstances, you must negotiate with your tutor to get their agreement to submit your assignment on paper.

Assessment is an essential part of the teaching, so you are expected to complete it all. You will be given more information when you register.

Future availability

The details given here are for the module that starts in October 2015. We expect it to be available once a year.


As a student of The Open University, you should be aware of the content of the Module Regulations and the Student Regulations which are available on our Essential documents website.

Course work includes:

5 Tutor-marked assignments (TMAs)
End-of-module assessment
No residential school

Course satisfaction survey

See the satisfaction survey results for this course.


This is an OU level 3 module. OU level 3 modules build on the skills and subject knowledge acquired from studies at OU levels 1 and 2. They are intended only for students who have recent experience of higher education in a related subject.

The OU level 2 module Introducing religions (A217) would be ideal preparation for this module, although it is not a formal requirement. It provides an introduction to the study of religions, using appropriate technical language and methodologies through exploration of the major features of six religious traditions including their historical development, beliefs and social forms. If you are not intending to study A217 please see the 'Preparatory work' section below.

If you have any doubt about the suitability of the module, please speak to an adviser.

Preparatory work

If you have not studied the OU level 2 module Introducing religions or previously studied religion at a comparable academic level, you are advised to do some preparatory reading. 

This module will not provide you with background information about the practices and beliefs of religious traditions and the ways in which we study them in universities. You should therefore read introductory textbooks about Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Hinduism before you begin. A good place to start would be the Oxford University Press, Very Short Introductions series.  


Start End England fee Register
03 Oct 2015 Jun 2016 £2700.00

Registration closes 10/09/15 (places subject to availability)


You may need to apply for some payment or funding options earlier. Please check the Fees and Funding information or contact us for information.

This module is expected to start for the last time in October 2024.

Additional Costs

Study costs

There may be extra costs on top of the tuition fee, such as a laptop, travel to tutorials, set books and internet access.

If you're on a low income you might be eligible for help with some of these costs after you register.

Ways to pay for this module

Open University Student Budget Account

The Open University Student Budget Accounts Ltd (OUSBA) offers a convenient 'pay as you go' option to pay your OU fees, which is a secure, quick and easy way to pay. Please note that The Open University works exclusively with OUSBA and is not able to offer you credit facilities from any other provider. All credit is subject to status and proof that you can afford the repayments.

You pay the OU through OUSBA in one of the following ways:

  • Register now, pay later – OUSBA pays your module fee direct to the OU. You then repay OUSBA interest-free and in full just before your module starts. 0% APR representative. This option could give you the extra time you may need to secure the funding to repay OUSBA.
  • Pay by instalments – OUSBA calculates your monthly fee and number of instalments based on the cost of the module you are studying. APR 5.1% representative.

Read more about Open University Student Budget Accounts (OUSBA).  

Employer sponsorship

Studying with The Open University can boost your employability. OU qualifications are recognised and respected by employers for their excellence and the commitment they take to achieve one. They also value the skills that students learn and can apply in the workplace.

More than one in ten OU students are sponsored by their employer, and over 30,000 employers have used the OU to develop staff so far. If the qualification you’ve chosen is geared towards your job or developing your career, you could approach your employer to see if they will sponsor you by paying some or all of the fees. 

  • Your employer just needs to complete a simple form to confirm how much they will be paying and we will invoice them.
  • You won’t need to get your employer to complete the form until after you’ve chosen your modules.  

Credit/debit card

You can pay part or all of your tuition fees upfront with a debit or credit card when you register for each module. 

We accept American Express, Maestro (UK only), Mastercard, Visa/Delta and Visa Electron. 

Mixed payments

We know that sometimes you may want to combine payment options. For example, you may wish to pay part of your tuition fee with a debit card and pay the remainder in instalments through an Open University Student Budget Account (OUSBA).

For more information about combining payment options, speak to an adviser or book a call back at a time that is convenient to you.

Please note: your permanent address/domicile will affect your fee status and therefore the fees you are charged and any financial support available to you. The fees and funding information provided here is valid for modules starting before 31 July 2016. Fees normally increase annually in line with inflation and the University's strategic approach to fees. 

This information was provided on 28/07/2015.

What's included

Module textbooks and a website with interactive audio and visual material, and access to a range of scholarly resources including journals and electronic books.

You will need

You will need a headset with a microphone and earphones to record the audio presentation component of the second tutor-marked assignment (TMA).

Computing requirements

You will need a computer with internet access to study this module as the study materials and activities are accessible via a web browser. Any other computer-based activities you will need to carry out, such as word processing, using spreadsheets, taking part in online forums, and submitting files to the university for assessment, are specified in the module materials. If any additional software is needed for these tasks it will either be provided or is freely available.

We recommend either of the following:

  • Windows desktop or laptop computer running Windows 7 or later operating system
  • Macintosh desktop or laptop computer running OS X 10.7 or later operating system.

A netbook, tablet, smartphone or Linux computer that supports one of the browsers listed below may be suitable. The screen size should be at least 1024 (H) x 768 (W) pixels. If you intend to use one of these devices please ensure you have access to a suitable desktop or laptop computer in case you are unable to carry out all the module activities on your mobile device.

We recommend a minimum 1 Mbps internet connection and any of the following browsers:

  • Internet Explorer 9 and above
  • Apple Safari 7 and above
  • Google Chrome 31 and above
  • Mozilla Firefox 31 and above.

Note: using the latest version for your browser will maximise security when accessing the internet. Using company or library computers may prevent you accessing some internet materials or installing additional software.

See our Skills for OU study website for further information about computing skills for study and educational deals for buying Microsoft Office software.

If you have a disability

Written transcripts of any audio components and Adobe Portable Document Format (PDF) versions of printed material are available. Some Adobe PDF components may not be available or fully accessible using a screen reader. Other alternative formats of the study materials may be available in the future.

Students with mental health conditions and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in particular may find that some chapters in the module act as triggers for distress. If you are worried about this you should contact an educational adviser for more information before registering.


If you have particular study requirements please tell us as soon as possible, as some of our support services may take several weeks to arrange. Find out more about our services for disabled students.