It’s no secret that the 2021 census was an important moment for believers; those who identified as atheists fell from 30% to 38.9%, following the 43.9% drop in Christianity. Other denominations such as Islam and Buddhism have seen a significant increase, but the overall result is clear: religious identity is in decline.
Unlike older European and British universities, Australian universities generally avoid theology in their offerings, with only a handful of religion-affiliated institutions such as the Australian Catholic University (ACU), Notre Dame, the non-denominational University of theology and theology affiliated with the United Church. Charles Sturt University (CSU) faculty with a dedicated theology major. By contrast, the majority of Australian university curricula are modeled on the secular University of London (UCL) and ancient Scottish universities, where theology was largely left to religion-affiliated theological colleges.
In USyd’s Religious Studies major, students are introduced to a wide range of religious beliefs and their inner workings. In contrast, theology delves deeply into the doctrinal reasoning of specific religions, including Christianity. Think, delve into interreligious dialogue in the modern world, or maybe’Love, Sex, Death and God‘, disabled theology and philosophy of religion.
Over the past decade, globally, a trend has emerged where theology, like other subjects in the arts and humanities, has come under attack from austerity measures, closures and a steady decline in number of students. What this leaves, however, is a diminished public debate where a lack of interest in religious literacy risks undermining our ability to debate the nuances of religious philosophy and belief.
The main difference between theology taught in the context of the secular university and confined to a seminary is academic freedom.
Unlike universities with theological faculties or hybrid institutions, seminaries and theological colleges are dedicated exclusively to advancing the specific beliefs of their respective Christian denomination (or other beliefs). Moreover, their source of funding, drawn primarily from the coffers of that denomination, means that scholars in seminaries and theological colleges are ultimately subject to the ideological persuasion of their institution.
An example of this is the 400 year old Heythrop College London, originally founded as a seminary for aspiring Jesuit priests in Leuven. Heythrop was crippled not only by the deregulation of fees in England, but also by a reluctant Catholic Church that was unwilling to let its coexistence with secularism continue.
Heythrop’s 50-year experiment with secularism was a bold move, he granted both pontifical degrees accredited by the Holy See and secular degrees from the University of London. His Pride Society drew backlash from conservative circles and accused of spreading “militant ideologies”, it had teachers who were former priests and even harbored atheist philosophers.
Behind the scenes, another source of opposition was brewing. In short, the English Catholic hierarchy was uneasy and unhappy with the freedom Heythrop enjoyed. The delicate balance between its seminary and university identity was upset by the English hierarchy’s intolerance for progressivism and academic freedom.
One line has stood out even after the past four years, and it encapsulates the tension that exists between progressive and conservative Christians in higher education.
“Fundamentally, our job is not to run a university, it’s to preach the good news,” Preston said. The tablet in 2018, regarding the Jesuits’ decision to let 400-year-old Heythrop die.
Such is Preston’s prerogative as a provincial, however, she embodied the view that theology should retreat to the comforts of the seminary, safe from public scrutiny and worldly cares.
Nor is Heythrop the only example. Oxford’s progressive St Benet’s Hall, formerly run by affirming queer theologian Werner Jeanrond, is set to close in the near future due to the closure of theology departments in Sheffield, Lincoln and Bangor. Closer to home in Australia, Studies of Religion is facing unprecedented pressure following the Coalition’s Job-Ready Graduates packages in 2020.
In other words, to confine theology to the seminary is to leave religious debate in the public square more and more in the hands of dogmas and, at worst, of religious conservatives.
I am not suggesting that theology graduates hold a monopoly on religious literacy or progressive religiosity, but rather that the seminaries’ growing monopoly on theological education means that the most radically conservative interests, supported by enormous financial endowments, will extend their grip on how religion is interpreted. Or more broadly, how religion interacts with the rest of the world.
It would be in the public interest to extend theology to the secular academy. The debate we have about religion, including the reckless sensationalism with which mainstream journalism treats Islam or an inadequate understanding of why multicultural communities live in large communities breaking COVID-19 rules. Indeed, some of these erroneous views are propagated by atheists in the mold of New Atheism’s leading doomsday horsemen: Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and AC Grayling.
To continue to exclude theology from universities would risk making the state of public debate on religious belief the exclusive prerogative of seminaries, too often tied to the dogma of their Church and their respective financial backer. Religious literacy is an asset we should embrace, an asset that enriches our understanding of the human rather than ignoring religion to our detriment.
Disclaimer: Khanh Tran is an alumnus of Heythrop College, University of London.