Sacred meaning

June 23, 2011

Religion is at the heart of our concerns again. Religious stereotyping provokes dangerous, even deadly, arguments, while in medical ethics, sex education, international relations and much else, religion is a key issue. This is not simply a matter for those who regard themselves as "religious". In the 2001 Census, more than 72 per cent of people in England and Wales described themselves as "Christian" - yet even for those who would stand aside, religion is inescapable.

Never before have theology and religious studies been so important in our higher education system. They cover huge areas - historical, theological, philosophical and cultural - within different religions. Some departments work closely with faith communities, not to convert or evangelise, but to provide informed and critical perspectives.

At a recent meeting in Birmingham of the Association of University Departments of Theology and Religious Studies, members in England, Wales and Scotland strongly affirmed their importance in higher education. Our Quality Assurance Agency benchmark statement begins: "The vitality and richness of the subject reflects its significance in the context of a world coming to terms with its cultural and religious diversity."

Our students acquire a range of skills that equip them to contribute in many ways to society. They are taught to think across broad boundaries and are trained in many disciplines to engage in social, political and economic debates in the context of religious change. They are part of a thinking and respectful community of many faiths and none.

Our departments are vital for a liberal society and its capacity to understand and respect all beliefs. At home and abroad, they have a far greater impact than their relatively small numbers may suggest. They contribute significantly to the work of other bodies in the UK, the European Union and internationally - faith communities, the arts, caring professions, the government and the media. Theology and religious studies have been notable in attracting large numbers of postgraduates, many from overseas, who carry their learning and research worldwide.

Thus, we affirm the dynamism of theology and religious studies and their importance in universities and society. We must remember the dangers of religious ignorance when pluralism threatens to become social and cultural division.

David Jasper (University of Glasgow), president, Association of University Departments of Theology and Religious Studies; Ron Geaves (Liverpool Hope University), secretary, AUDTRS.

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