Widespread dismay at university plans to end religion courses

By staff writers
August 22, 2015

Researchers, teachers, students and public figures are responding with alarm, surprise and anger at the University of Stirling’s plans to close its internationally-recognised teaching and research on religion in contemporary society.

Since the news broke yesterday (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/22005), hundreds of people have taken to social media to express their distress at the decision and to call for an urgent rethink.

Many have pointed out the significance of Stirling offering studies in religion and belief not linked to the discipline of Christian theology, as is the case in the ancient Scottish universities of Aberdeen, St Andrews, Edinburgh and Glasgow.

This is one of the factors, specialists say, that has enabled university’s small religion department to develop a distinctive analysis of the discourse around religion in the contemporary context, including politics, the media, academia and other spheres of public life.

Opposition to the closure has been coming in from all over the UK, Europe and beyond.

“This is bad, very bad,” tweeted Dr Teemu Taira, Senior Lecturer at the Department of Study of Religions, University of Helsinki and Docent at the Department of Comparative Religion, University of Turku, Finland.

Independent scholar Brain W. Nail wrote of the potential loss of “a world-class religion department built by world-class scholars”.

“Religion supposedly causes so much trouble in the world, so why is the University of Stirling planning to close its religion courses?” asked the Rev Peter Nimmo, a leading Church of Scotland minister.

“Perhaps it just isn't a hot topic these days,” noted the organisation Secular Scotland, ironically.

Dr Chris Shannahan, a faculty member at the University of Manchester, described Stirling’s decision as a “really sad move”, noting that pioneering postgraduate work on religion and politics could now be scrapped.

“[it] seems to me as if a new course in Religion and Politics is about as relevant as a new course could be,” tweeted Dr Ealasaid Munro, a feminist geographer undertaking postdoctoral research at the University of Glasgow.

“The social sciences continue to be hammered,” observed Dr John MacDonald, who teaches American Studies and is Director of the Scottish Global Forum.

Dr Paraic Reamonn from Geneva, Switzerland, asked on Facebook: “Stirling takes a wrecking ball to religious studies. Whose bright idea was that?”

Meanwhile, former political researcher and public affairs consultant the Rev Matthew Ross, who is now General Secretary of the official ecumenical body Action of Churches Together in Scotland, wrote that he is “saddened and concerned to hear about the forthcoming demise of Religious Studies at the University of Stirling, particularly the implications for the staff and students.

“In today's world Religious Studies is a vitally important topic; the University of Stirling is making a mistake,” he added.

“No, this can't happen. Stirling is the only non-divinity centre for religion in Scotland,” declared Dr Mallory Nye, editor of the journal Culture and Religion.

Dr Rajalakshmi Nadadur, editor for the Critical Religion Association, McCrimmon Publishing, Dr Doug Gay from the University of Glasgow, ethnohistorian Dr Sarah Dees, and scholars in Australia and the United States are among many others to express deep concern about the situation at Stirling.

Simon Barrow, co-director of the religion and society think-tank Ekklesia, commented: "Closing a department that tackles one of the most crucial subjects in contemporary discourse – the relationship of religion and belief to momentous changes in the global situation – is the opposite of what a modern university that cares about applied knowledge should be doing.

“It is to be hoped that this precipitous decision, which appears to have been taken without any serious consultation, and just a few weeks before it is to be implemented, will be immediately reconsidered."

Professor Jolyon Mitchell from New College , Edinburgh, who is also President of the UK-wide Theology and Religious Studies academic network (TRS), said: “Stirling's approach to the study and teaching of religion, as something distinct from Christian theology, represents an invaluable element in the Scottish TRS landscape and a vital contribution to international efforts to understand the role of religion in the contemporary world.

“Following hot on the tail of indications that Heythrop College in London is under similar pressure, the news at Stirling underlines some of the challenges currently facing TRS across the UK.”

The staff most immediately affected are Dr Tim Fitzgerald (Reader in Religion), Dr Andrew Hass (Reader in Religion), Dr Alison Jasper (Senior Lecturer in Religion) and Dr Michael Marten (Lecturer in Postcolonial Studies with Religion).

The university’s media relations policy, and the fact that their jobs are on the line, means that they are forbidden from commenting on the situation.

Staff are receiving backing from the University and College Union (UCU), the largest trade union and professional association for academics, lecturers, trainers, researchers and academic-related staff working in further and higher education throughout the UK.

* Direct expressions of concern to the University can be made in the following way: http://criticalreligion.org/events/august-2015-religion-at-stirling-unde...

Further news and comment to follow. Ekklesia has a partnership with the Critical Religion project that originated from staff at the University of Stirling.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.