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Why, as an atheist, I’m worried about the declining interest in religious studies

Theology and Religious Studies are at risk of disappearing from universities, according to the British Academy. Their report has revealed a steep decline in the number of people studying religion and theology. Alex J O'Connor, who is an atheist studying philosophy and theology at Oxford, responds to the news 

The opium of the people; a universal and obsessional neurosis; a means of exerting control over those who can’t handle their freedom; even the most strident of iconoclasts appearing on the theology syllabus, from Karl Marx to Ivan Karamazov, are invariably forced to admit that the object of their criticism is an expression of something deeply human, and a profoundly fundamental component of social behaviour. Yet despite religion’s intellectual preeminence, its study is in steep decline, and this emptying of classrooms and lecture halls is something even a non-believer like myself can be troubled by.

When I applied to study philosophy and theology at St John’s College, Oxford, it was out of necessity; this university, unlike most others, including Cambridge, does not offer an undergraduate course in philosophy alone, so those who wish to study it have to pair it with something else. Theology wasn’t the most appealing of options available; I would rather say it was the least unappealing, and I was content to put up with the headaches and frustrations of reading it as an atheist in order to spend my remaining time with Hume and Mill and Singer. Before long, however, I began to realise that a degree in theology is not suitable only for the religious, and, to my surprise, to rather enjoy it.

Part of the reason for this turnaround is that at Oxford we don’t do theology; we do theology and religion. Studying a paper on the figure of Jesus, I remember being surprised by my tutor’s eager willingness to allow me to skip his suggested reading of Edward Schillebeeckx, the Belgian Catholic theologian whose influence is scattered across Vatican II’s theological constitutions, in favour of Dostoyevsky and Nietzsche, both men not quite as charitable to Holy Mother Church as Mr Schillebeeckx in their contributions to discussions of Catholicism (and both men whose writings I was far more enthusiastic about spending some time with my nose in). I was struck by a sense of academic freedom that has since characterised my study of religion, and by an emerging sense within me that this ‘lesser’ half of my degree may well contain a wealth of secular - even critical - value.

Through my engagements with both the received wisdom of a variety of theological schools and proposed explanations as to why people subscribe to them, I have repeatedly encountered arguments just as relevant to the most pressing issues of modern society as to the religious context of their original publication.

Does the anthropological observation that religion arose independently in isolated tribes indicate a human tendency to invent figures of unassailable authority? If so, is this the same tendency that leaves us so susceptible to promises of worldly authority at the expense of liberty? The latter issue is of obvious importance in an age of digitised personal information and global military expediency. Does it indicate a human tendency towards tribalism and shared identity based in supernatural beliefs? This is surely a crucial component to any explanation of modern populism. If religion can, as it must, help those who study it to understand the nature and core of humanity’s most cherished and universal convictions, how could this not be of relevance to the modern statesman, philosopher or social scientist?

Walking past the iconic university buildings of Oxford, one of the oldest of which was erected specifically to service the school of divinity, towards the uncharacteristically bland theology faculty building that now serves as the home to this dying subject, is depressing.

I would like to optimistically suggest that the neglect of religious studies at Oxford is due to a simple decline in interest from potential undergraduates in the subject, however I am more inclined to believe that it is in fact due to a decline in understanding of what its study really entails. The queen of the sciences has lost her crown, and it is unclear whether she will ever find it again. If she does, however, it will not be due to an increase in the popularity of religion, but rather an increase in the recognition of the worth of its analysis and study, which is undeniable.

Alex J O'Connor is a philosophy and theology student at Oxford University. Follow him on Twitter @cosmicskeptic 

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