England.  Change location

Why is religion controversial?

Qualification dates
Start End

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.

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.

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.   

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.

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.

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.

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. 

Course work includes:

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