We need more theologians to make sense of the world today


Students are losing faith in religious higher education, so the evidence suggests.

Earlier this year a prime specialist theology and philosophy institution in the UK, Heythrop College, closed its doors after 400 years of teaching.

Founded in 1614 by the Society of Jesus, and part of the University of London since 1970, Heythrop had a mission to provide ‘an education marked by intelligence, scholarship and generosity of spirit’.

In recent years the college struggled to recruit students, and this, along with increasing administrative pressures, forced its closure in January.

This was gloomy news, but not surprising.

As the British Academy has shown this week, student numbers for theology and religious studies have fallen by almost half since 2012 – 6,500 fewer students on theology and religious studies degree courses in 2017-18 than six years before – and the decline has led to the closure or reduction in size of several theology departments in the UK.

There are many reasons for this – chief among them the trebling of university tuition fees in 2012.

Prospective students now face an enormous financial burden from tuition fees and living costs, greatly affecting the decisions they make, not only about what to study, but whether to study at all.

Hardest hit will be those wishing to return to education later in life or to study part-time.

Yet causes are less alarming than consequences: theology and religious studies risk disappearing from our universities just at the time when we need them most.

Despite two centuries of apparent secularisation in the West, religion has an all-pervasive role on the world stage.

This is an age of pitchforks and pithy putdowns – ugly and cynical, a poison for sane society.


Theology and religious studies offer antidotes to this increasingly adversarial culture.

From the persecution of Myanmar Rohingya in a surge of Buddhist nationalism, to revived power struggles between Sunni and Shia Muslims, the electoral appeal of Narendra Modi to many Hindus or Donald Trump’s popularity among US Evangelicals, we can’t hope to understand the swirl of current events – or tackle their challenges – without first understanding religion in all its forms.

In these embittered and increasingly turbulent times, public debates have become more polarised, not least through the deliberate misuse of social media.

There is a widespread scorn for debating in good faith or respecting one’s opponent, and a preference for viciously assertive arguments in a call-out culture.

It is no longer enough simply to disagree with your opponents; they can never be more than hypocrites, liars, or idiots.

This is an age of pitchforks and pithy putdowns – ugly and cynical, a poison for sane society.

Theology and religious studies offer antidotes to this increasingly adversarial culture.

Given the chance to study analytically the belief systems, morality, art, philosophy and history of varying faiths and cultures, graduates in these disciplines leave university with an unrivalled understanding of humanity in all its glorious untidy complexity.

How could such degree courses fail to nurture the empathy and curiosity of those who study them?

Yet the value of theology and religious studies degrees extends beyond this.

The Destination of Leavers from Higher Education (DLHE) survey shows how theology and religious studies graduates are ideally placed to enjoy rich and rewarding careers in non-religious sectors, including international development, journalism, welfare, social care, teaching, and policymaking.

In fact, theology and religious studies students graduating in 2016/17 were more likely to be employed than graduates across historical and philosophical studies as a whole.

Nearly two-thirds of those employed were in professional occupations or associate professions and technical occupations – the so-called ‘highly-skilled graduate jobs’ – within six months of completing their degree.

The British Academy’s report – and, for that matter, the closure of Heythrop College – must serve as a wake-up call. Theology and religious studies need to confront significant challenges if they are to survive the era of high fees. Continue reading

  • Diarmaid MacCulloch, Professor of the History of the Church at Oxford University, is a Vice-President of the British Academy.
  • Image: YouTube
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