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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 role of ‘religion’ in historical and contemporary societies. The assignments will encourage you to develop your independent research skills and make significant use of the rich resources available online via the OU Library.

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

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Module code




  • Credits measure the student workload required for the successful completion of a module or qualification.
  • One credit represents about 10 hours of study over the duration of the course.
  • You are awarded credits after you have successfully completed a module.
  • For example, if you study a 60-credit module and successfully pass it, you will be awarded 60 credits.

Study level

Across the UK, there are two parallel frameworks for higher education qualifications, the Framework for Higher Education Qualifications in England, Northern Ireland and Wales (FHEQ) and the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework (SCQF). These define a hierarchy of levels and describe the achievement expected at each level. The information provided shows how OU module levels correspond to these frameworks.
Level of Study
3 10 6

Study method

Module cost

Entry requirements

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What you will study

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

Book 1: Controversial Figures
This book 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 2: Controversial Practices
This book 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 3: Controversial Ideas
This book 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'll 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 4: Controversial Futures
This book 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'll 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’.

Supporting resources
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 online tutorials that you are encouraged, but not obliged, to attend.

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.

Future availability

Why is religion controversial? starts once a year – in October. This page describes the module that will start in October 2024 when we expect it to start for the last time. 


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

Course work includes:

5 Tutor-marked assignments (TMAs)
End-of-module assessment

Entry requirements

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 Exploring religion (A227) 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 A227 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 may like to do some preparatory work. 

To get a flavour of the way we study religions at the Open University, you might find the OpenLearn courses on Religious Diversity and Veiling are helpful tasters.

Some students find it helpful background to read introductory texts which outline the basic beliefs and practices of Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Hinduism – though this is not required to do well in assessments. The Oxford University Press Very Short Introductions series can be a helpful orientation, as can the summary resources on various traditions provided for school-level Religious Education at RE Online.   


Start End England fee Register
05 Oct 2024 Jun 2025 £3636.00

Registration closes 05/09/24 (places subject to availability)

October 2024 is the final start date for this course. For more information, see Future availability.

Additional Costs

Study costs

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

If your income is not more than £25,000 or you receive a qualifying benefit, you might be eligible for help with some of these costs after your module has started.

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.

Joint loan applications

If you feel you would be unable to obtain an OUSBA loan on your own due to credit history or affordability issues, OUSBA offers the option to apply for a joint loan application with a third party. For example, your husband, wife, partner, parent, sibling or friend. In such cases, OUSBA will be required to carry out additional affordability checks separately and/or collectively for both joint applicants who will be jointly and severally liable for loan repayments.

As additional affordability checks are required when processing joint loan applications, unfortunately, an instant decision cannot be given. On average the processing time for a joint loan application is five working days from receipt of the required documentation.

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

Employer sponsorship

Studying with The Open University can boost your employability. OU courses are recognised and respected by employers for their excellence and the commitment they take to complete. 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 module 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 module.  

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, Mastercard, Visa 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).

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 fee information provided here is valid for modules starting before 31 July 2025. Fees typically increase annually. For further information about the University's fee policy, visit our Fee Rules

This information was provided on 15/07/2024.

Can you study an Access module for free?

Depending on eligibility and availability of places, you could apply to study your Access module for free.

To qualify, you must:

  1. be resident in England
  2. have a household income of not more than £25,000 (or be in receipt of a qualifying benefit)
  3. have not completed one year or more on any full-time undergraduate programme at FHEQ level 4 or above or successfully completed 30 credits or more of OU study within the last 10 years

How to apply to study an Access module for free

Once you've started the registration process, either online or over the phone, we'll contact you about your payment options. This will include instructions on how you can apply to study for free if you are eligible and funded places are still available.

If you're unsure if you meet the criteria to study for free, you can check with one of our friendly advisers on +44 (0)300 303 0069, or you can request a call back.

Not eligible to study for free?

Don't worry! We offer a choice of flexible ways to help spread the cost of your Access module. The most popular options include:

  • monthly payments through OUSBA
  • part-time tuition fee loan (you'll need to be registered on a qualification for this option)

To explore all the options available to you, visit Fees and Funding.

What's included

Module textbooks and access to a module website which includes:

  • a week-by-week study planner
  • module materials
  • interactive audio and visual material
  • assessment guide
  • online tutorial access
  • scholarly resources including journals and electronic books.

You will need

You will need a PC headset or smartphone to record the audio presentation component of the second tutor-marked assignment.

Computing requirements

You’ll need broadband internet access and a desktop or laptop computer with an up-to-date version of Windows (10 or 11) or macOS Ventura or higher.

Any additional software will be provided or is generally freely available.

To join in spoken conversations in tutorials, we recommend a wired headset (headphones/earphones with a built-in microphone).

Our module websites comply with web standards, and any modern browser is suitable for most activities.

Our OU Study mobile app will operate on all current, supported versions of Android and iOS. It’s not available on Kindle.

It’s also possible to access some module materials on a mobile phone, tablet device or Chromebook. However, as you may be asked to install additional software or use certain applications, you’ll also require a desktop or laptop, as described above.

If you have a disability

The OU strives to make all aspects of study accessible to everyone and this Accessibility Statement outlines what studying A332 involves. You should use this information to inform your study preparations and any discussions with us about how we can meet your needs.

To find out more about what kind of support and adjustments might be available, contact us or visit our disability support pages.