The theology generation
EDUCATION SUPPLEMENTChristopher Lamb
- 2 October 2004
What lies behind the increasing popularity of theology among university students? We asked one of them to investigate
When I tell people I am studying theology many say: "Oooh! So you're going to become a priest! Wonderful!"
But I'm not. And not many of my fellow undergraduate students studying theology or religious studies at Durham University are either. If the average profile of a theology student were that of a Christian in training for the religious life, hardly anyone would be studying it. But, as it is, theology is undergoing something of a renaissance among undergraduates. The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas) says that applications to study religious studies and theology increased by 7 per cent this year - compared with a rise in overall applications of 3.2 per cent. Many universities are receiving their highest intakes of theology students in years.
In Durham, for example, applications have increased by 41 per cent in the past two years. Manchester, which allocated 72 places for its 2004 intake, has had to stretch numbers to 95 due to demand. At Edinburgh, applications have risen by 9 per cent.
"We are taking in more students; there is certainly a resurgence of interest," says Professor David Fergusson, head of Edinburgh University's School of Divinity.
How to account for the growing popularity of theology at a time when the pews are largely empty of young people?
It is hardly a "dossers' degree". Research by Manchester University of 18 theology and religious studies departments shows that six have raised their grades in the past year, with record numbers of students being interviewed for places. To get a place at St Andrews University in Scotland requires A-level grades of ABB (up from BBC), while at Durham, students need grades - or predicted grades - of ABC to even be called for an interview.
Even for someone who knows nothing about the subject, theology sounds interesting and looks good on a CV - provided the degree is from a good university. In that sense it is much like any other arts or humanities degree.
"Almost all of our students read theology for general interest, as they would English or history," says Rosalind Paul, admissions tutor for divinity at Cambridge. "A degree is about training the mind."
To learn about history, the Bible, Christianity and the influence of the Churches are good places to start. Theology is extremely flexible: not only does it bring together the disciplines of philosophy, literature, linguistics and history, but the choice of what to study within a theology degree is extraordinarily wide. "I've looked at everything from Buddhism to the Catholic Church's reaction to the Holocaust," says Patrick Scott, who is studying theology at Bristol University.
Professor Judith Lieu, head of the theology and religious studies department at King's College, London, believes, as do many academics I spoke to, that the growing popularity of theology is partly due to an increase in the number of sixth-formers who are being taught ethics and philosophy. "They aren't doing so because the curriculum demands it," says Professor Lieu, "but because the students are demanding it."
There is clearly something about the fundamentals of theology itself that is attracting growing numbers of young people. "I read a lot of philosophy when I was about 16 or 17 and really enjoyed how it looked beyond the physical - into metaphysics," says Paul Holloway, a third-year theology student at Durham. "But after a while I found it inadequate and saw that theology was trying to answer some of the questions philosophy couldn't."
If there is a growing awareness of these deeper questions, it may have much to do with post-11 September anxiety. "There are many young people who ponder the 'meaning of life' and now, more than ever, are bombarded by media-based opinion, fact and fiction, about the state of the world," says Professor Douglas Davies, head of Durham's theology department. With the growth of religious fundamentalism in Christianity, Judaism and Islam, he believes that "strict political interest in religious belief now holds a profile that cannot be shrugged off in any easy fashion".
Many students I have talked to believe it perfectly possible to study theology without any personal belief whatsoever. And at institutions such as Cambridge, Manchester and Bristol they would approach Christianity with the same rigorous methodology as any other academic subject. But if you opt for theology, whether you are Catholic, Baptist or atheist, there will be a common goal of seeking the truth: be it the truth of one's faith or the truth that religion should be rejected.
Tom Raynesford, an Edinburgh graduate in divinity, says: "I came to the subject with no religious beliefs whatsoever. In fact, I wanted to prove the silliness of religion." And Faye Renshaw, an agnostic, came to read theology at Durham, "because the subject involves such deep discussion. That's what I really enjoy."
But even she admits that by doing theology without any credo of beliefs, she is still looking for answers. "Whereas people used to come to the subject as Christians, looking to learn more, nowadays many come without beliefs but looking to explore and get some answers," she says.
Fergusson says that he comes across many students reading theology who have not had any kind of religious upbringing but are fascinated by spirituality. "There's a great curiosity about Christianity and the history of the Church," he says. "I would say that these days there is a lot less scepticism and hostility from those who have not been brought up Christians. The familiarity that breeds contempt has gone and it has been replaced by a curiosity."
There is increased interest in other subjects that have some sort of theological content, he points out - combined-studies degrees that mix subjects such as science, psychology and healthcare with theology.
Having learned that I am not intending to become a priest or monk, people then often ask what I am going to do with my degree. Like students who study English literature or history, the majority of theology students do not seem to have a pre-planned career path. Careers taken by theology graduates are wide-ranging, from the police, to journalism, civil service, management consultancy and teaching.
There are great numbers who go and work on youth projects, for Churches, and for aid agencies overseas, but these, of course, tend to be Christians. The fact that people who study go into every imaginable career is indicative of the diverse mix of people who study theology. In my year at Durham, for example, every student "type" is to be seen in a theology lecture (and then some who would not be seen anywhere else) - Alpha Sloanes, camp ordinands, Christian Union posse, non-Christian Union posse, agnostics and staunch Catholics.
Whatever their career path, theology graduates seem to feel that the subject does prepare them for the real world. Catherine Prentice, a divinity graduate who is now a trainee lawyer and prospective Labour Party candidate for Kensington and Chelsea, believes "the level of argumentation" she learned while studying theology "has helped in my career a great deal already".
More people want to study theology as part of a search for understanding that goes beyond academic enquiry. The subject treads the delicate balance between personal belief and critical distance, while providing young people with a depth of meaning in what they often perceive as the dry world of academia.
The last word goes to Richard Price, who graduated from Exeter College, Oxford, with an MA in theology and is now a journalist with the Daily Mail.
"As a teenager I found myself increasingly alienated from organised religion, but that didn't mean I was any less interested in God," he says. "In professional terms my degree may have proved about as useful as a chocolate teapot, but would I choose to read another subject if I had my time again? Absolutely not. I am still fascinated by those big questions and am deeply appreciative of the fact that I was able to study them, in some form or other, for three years."
Christopher Lamb is deputy editor of Palatinate, the Durham student newspaper.