Religion, higher education and critical thinking

By Simon Barrow
August 23, 2015

In just 72 hours, hundreds of messages have been transmitted in opposition to the University of Stirling's proposal to close its programme on religion with immediate impact [see links below].

Many have noted how vital it is that belief systems and their impact are better understood in a changing world – one where religion and ideology continues to play a crucial role in shaping the present and the future, for both good and ill.

Informed, critical, independent thinking about religion is not an option if we care about the future direction of both the local and the global. It is a key component of the knowledge economy.

Those speaking out are not just fellow religion scholars, but people across the disciplines, representatives of NGOs, people with a professional interest in anthropology, economics, development and much more. Some are persons of religious commitment, others are most definitely not. All recognise that this area of study matters a great deal.

Equally important are the voices of students and ex-students, of course. One former student has written to Ekklesia setting out the reasons for her own distress at the news. She prefers to remain anonymous for the present, for vocational reasons, but writes:

"My concern is that the University of Stirling's closure of its religion programme will further deprive students of the opportunity to engage with subjects that encourage critical thinking, independence of mind and the exploration of new ideas. These are all things that a University is meant to stand for. Or it was.

"Engaging students in higher education with the sole purpose of churning out the future workforce is worryingly short-sighted. Is a degree with a utility that can only be measured by its use in the workplace all that students want? More importantly is it what our society needs? If the utility of a degree is not one that can be measured through an obvious link to the workforce, does this in turn equate to it being deemed unworthy of pursuit? Imagine living in a world where something is only deemed valuable if it can be measured?

"The problem is that these shortsighted decisions are being made by people who experienced the higher education system some 20 plus years ago. A time when essays were hand written, the World Wide Web could only be accessed by Spider Man and an iPad was something used to treat an ocular injury. A time when the ideological message that 'the pursuit of gainful employment to fund the acquisition of more stuff than the next person is our objective' was gaining momentum, while the idea that we all share a planet that has resources, a history, a wealth of knowledge and information that is to be shared and challenged to ensure our future existence, was simultaneously being phased out.

"Today a 10-year-old with a smartphone has access to more information than the American President had 20 years ago. But what is a young person of today supposed to do with all this information? Engaging with the subject of religion encourages critical thinking, an ability to challenge 'the way things are', review our collective goals (if indeed we have any anymore), question our place in society, in the universe, in time and think beyond the individual and the 'now'.

"Should the human-made system that is our economy completely collapse and the political system built to secure it loses its purpose (and there are many who predict that they will), it will be the people who have engaged with the subject of religion and others like it that will be relied upon to step forward and provide the answers as to what's next.

"I will be interested in hearing what the University’s reasoning is for this action. It is either an action of prejudice formed from ignorance as to what the department does, or it is a financial issue. Most likely the former shrouded in the latter. Either way, Stirling University is at risk of losing its integrity and reputation for being a student-led institution in the business of academic achievement and declaring itself, well – just a business.

"This may sound like nothing more than an anti-capitalist rant. It is in fact a grievance about Stirling University's short sightedness and prejudice towards anything other than a 'utility degree'. By removing Religious Studies as a degree option, Stirling University is effectively saying that a degree in Religious Studies is not important. Ergo, my degree, that of all the students before me and those still currently engaged in Religious Studies, is not worth anything. Stirling University's decision to remove Religious Studies from the degree programme list is devaluing our degrees. I may feel inclined to ask for a refund."

* University of Stirling to close pioneering religion department: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/22005

* Widespread dismay at university plans to end religion courses: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/22008

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

Ekklesia has a partnership with the Critical Religion project that originated from staff at the University of Stirling.

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© Simon Barrow is co-director of the religion and society think tank Ekklesia.

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.