For those who maintain that Religious Studies has an identity and concerns distinct from those of Theology, it is galling to find the higher education sector and the media, which reports it, subsuming Religious Studies under Theology. I came across this again most recently in a Sunday newspaper supplement on UK university places available through the clearing scheme. I doubt whether it would have helped recruitment to Religious Studies – catching the attention of prospective students who might be ill-advised enough actually to look for places under Religious Studies. But then a number of other disparate reports that bear upon the prospects and concerns of Religious Studies have made me ponder of late. For example, a recent, routine emailing about research opportunities headlined a new career direction for researchers in the study of religions – charting the decline of religion in Western Europe; hardly new waters, more back to familiar debates about secularisation theory. It is not, perhaps, the career opportunity to persuade a new generation of potential researchers that Religious Studies is a vibrant and durable discipline, which offers new, unfolding frontiers to explore.
On the surface, recent reports in the media of the conflicts in Iraq and Syria under headlines such as ‘wars of religion’ (as in The Telegraph and The Times over the last three months) , would seem to suggest that religion is still alive (if not ‘well’) in today’s world, and certainly worth investigating because of its continuing, global impact. If I were looking to choose my A’ levels, a degree course, or a field in which to spend my life as a researcher, such newspaper headlines might be more likely to whet my appetite than the prospect of accompanying the coffin of institutionalised religion to its grave in Western Europe! But, isn’t it the style of such headlines, as with the overly free use of the label ‘fundamentalist’, that really makes the case for the role Religious Studies should play? These ‘wars of religion’ are no more strictly wars of religion than many previous conflicts that have been labelled in comparable terms, whether in Northern Ireland, Israel and Gaza, or India and so forth. There still seems to be serious work that needs to be done to understand more clearly and more precisely the role of religion in shaping the world we inhabit, and how it too is shaped by psychological, socio-cultural, political, and economic factors; neither ignoring nor overstating the importance of religion. This, of course, is not confined just to understanding the causes of conflict but embraces transformations of the religious landscape, such as that witnessed in Western Europe and elsewhere.
At a time when the rounded study of religions has been further undermined in many British schools, it is all the more important that Religious Studies in higher education should project and, when necessary, defend its identity. It is only by doing this that it will remain in a position where it is able to demonstrate that it can offer an informed, nuanced, and critical account of the workings of religion. In so doing, Religious Studies will illustrate, not just the richness of its agenda, but also its engagement with compelling questions that will attract the new generation of students who will become its future researchers.
The Open University