Sad news: Stirling University ends Religious Studies courses

Looking out over Airthrey Loch towards the University’s Library and central administrative hub, the Cottrell Building. (Image by Finlay McWalter via wikipedia entry “University of Stirling”

If you are surprised to see me regretting this, you shouldn’t be. Stirling is one of the few places where religion is studied in the same critical spirit as any other major human activity, without pre-commitment to doctrine or dogma. Meantime, Heythrop College, London, where anti-theist (if I may so call him) Stephen Law rubs shoulders with Canon Theologian Keith Ward is no longer recruiting undergraduates and is scheduled to close in 2018.  If you don’t know why we need such studies, now of all times, you haven’t been paying attention.

Here, by permission, is a report on these developments by Ekklesia, the widely respected liberal Christian think-tank:

Widespread dismay at university plans to end religion courses

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 (, 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.

See also and links therein:

“The Religion staff at Stirling are not in a position to make public comment on the matter (their jobs are at stake), but it might be worth contacting key individuals at the university:

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


About Paul Braterman

Science writer, former chemistry professor; committee member British Centre for Science Education; board member and science adviser Scottish Secular Society; former member editorial board, Origins of Life, and associate, NASA Astrobiology Insitute; first popsci book, From Stars to Stalagmites 2012

Posted on August 23, 2015, in Religion, Scotland and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 15 Comments.

  1. Reblogged this on Peddling and Scaling God and Darwin and commented:
    A wise post on the importance of religious studies.


  2. We need a purely religious studies approach as well as a more “doctrinaire ” theological approach. I have benefitted from both and speak as a Christian


  3. Well, I suppose they could replace it with Advanced Potions & Spells? That would probably have better intrinsic value.


    • I think you may have rather missed the point.


      • “At Stirling we are committed to approaching ‘religion’ in a critical manner, in two broad senses:

        Firstly: We question the fundamental category of ‘religion’. It is sometimes assumed to be a ‘thing’ that simply exists, and this is where, in part, the idea that we can study ‘religions’ as entities in any society or context comes from. This, of course, implies that what ‘religion’ actually is stands as common knowledge and applies to all contexts. But where does religion begin, end or move into other areas? Some of the great religion scholars of the past have argued that there is some kind of supernatural essence to ‘religion’ based on a person’s relationship to a God or gods. Such an essence might be very meaningful as part of someone’s faith, but perhaps ‘religion’ as a category has little meaning on its own because the boundaries around what is and what is not ‘religion’ so easily blur into other categories (such as politics, economics etc.)?
        Secondly: Rather than hold religion to suspicion, or blame, or discredit, or incredulity – a growing tendency amongst certain public intellectuals, even if against the tide of global demographics – we examine religion from a positive critical standpoint. What this means is that in our studies we consider how open to re-interpretation or re-conceptualisation the term ‘religion’ is today in our intellectual, social, and cultural spheres.
        Just as the term ‘critical’ has a wide range of meaning, so too does the concept of religion continue to develop beyond traditional and conventional boundaries. As a result we find engagement with the idea of ‘religion’ in the contexts of religious institutions, but also within the fields of literature, history, gender studies, hermeneutics, visual art, anthropology, politics, philosophy, marketing and business studies, and so on. In coming to Stirling to study Critical Religion, every student is thus exposed to a broad and interdisciplinary vision that can be life-changing in many rich and unexpected ways.”

        Well I am sure that the world is an immeasurably better place as a result of all of this hard work! Self serving nonsense!


  4. Reblogged this on Homo economicus' Weblog and commented:
    “Religion supposedly causes so much trouble in the world, so why is the University of Stirling planning to close its religion courses?” The need to study religion has not gone away. Academic scrutiny is exactly what it needs.


  5. Sorry but religious studies are a waste of time. Most people who profess a religion are indoctrinated from a young age. Those without one are probably, like me, sickened by the wars and atrocities committed in the name of this or that religion.

    It is almost impossible to avoid the paranoia and tribalism of those committed one way or another and most will not listen to reason if it comes from outside their faith. It may be ecumenical to study other religions but in the end it is pointless as until the children are brought up from birth to respect other religions nothing will change.


  6. The current issue of Science magazine has an article “Birth of the Moralizing Gods”,
    by Lizzie Wade (vol 349 issue 6251 pp 919-922) – “A new theory aims to explain the success of world religions” – about the work of Ara Norenzayan, Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict (2013).


    • Thanks. Found it; DOI: 10.1126/science.349.6251.918. I look forward to reading and, perhaps, commenting. An ambitious project to test the suggestion that moralising gods survive because of their social function. And indeed the main line of attack by believers on godlessness is that it leaves society anchorless. Podcast by author Lizzie Wade at


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