How ‘Religion’ Makes Studying Theology Impossible

by Theo Poward

Theology’s place in the academy is often questioned. This is largely because of its perceived irrelevance. The reason for this is linked to both the decline of organised religion in the west coupled and a greater appreciation of the plurality of different religious traditions. Theology is ‘The study of God,’ what does this mean when more people either believe in different Gods or no God? How can the theology of one religious tradition be relevant to those outside said religious tradition? In this piece, I seek to address these questions and explain what I believe to be the proper grounds for studying Theology.

Separating Theology and Religious Studies

In order to move forward these questions need to be answered and theology’s universal relevance needs to be demonstrated. First we will look at a common move on this topic, one that I think is a mistake. Making ‘Religion’ not God the topic of study: The separation of Theology and Religious Studies.

The main accepted difference between the religious studies and theology is the difference between the third and first person. The religious scholar comments on people of a religious tradition from outside that tradition whereas the theologian talks about a religious tradition from the inside: The religious scholar writes about what ‘they’ do, the theologian writes about what ‘we’ do. The religious scholar looks at each religion’s theology (their view of God) as part of studying that religion whilst the theologian focuses on the theology of their, and only their, religious tradition.

It is a common move because it answers our questions, but it also divides us. It turns theology into a vocational course and religious studies into a sub section of anthropology. There is a bigger reason why this is a problem.

Secularism: Public and Private

It is important to note how this ties in to the division between public and private. Religion is seen to belong to the private sphere. This is significant and the implications are worked through in an excellent piece that I will link to here. Suffice it to say that denoting something as ‘private’ does two primary things: it places it in the same epistemological space as opinion and feeling, as opposed to facts and evidence that define public knowledge. It also ‘others’ it, making it’s opposite the norm. We can see this with issues of gender, sexuality, feminism, and even race. When something is considered personal, or private, then it is relativised under whatever is considered the mainstream. The mainstream identity: white, straight, male, secular becomes an archimedian point from which all other identities are judged from.

This is exactly what we see with Theology and Religious studies. Theology loses it’s public voice, and it is mediated to the mainstream through the guise of the ‘religious’ identity marker. Religious studies is a secular mainstream approach that assumes that it stands on neutral ground and is capable of making fair, unbiased assessments of the different religious and theological traditions of the world. Theology’s irrelevance is thus a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is seen as irrelevant by the people who ensure its irrelevance by labeling it a ‘private’ matter.

Bad for Religious Studies and Bad for Theology

The image of the religious scholar is problematic because it seems to accept first, that there is a general divide in the population between those who belong to religions and those who don’t. Second; that only the beliefs of those who belong to a religion are worthy of study. And third, that they are simply something interesting, important if you want to understand people, but not directly relevant to other peoples lives.

All three of these points are wrong. Nobody is born in a vacuum with a blank slate and no cultural or theological input into their worldview. It is important to scrutinize and understand everybody’s beliefs, regardless of the label that they give themselves. These beliefs are directly relevant to all of our lives, not just as an interesting way of viewing the world, but because they shape how we make sense of the world and how we act as a result.

Not only is studying ‘religious people’ merely because they hold interesting beliefs incredibly patronising, but it rests on the very problematic assumption that it is necessary or even possible to step outside of a theological or religious tradition in order to be fair in our treatment of other peoples religious tradition.

This separation is also problematic for the Theologian who accepts that they are working from a certain tradition and perspective because it suggests that theologians can only ever work on things inside their tradition, and that their works are only ever going to be directly relevant for those who adhere to their theological tradition. This would mean that the Theologian is only left with two jobs: write apologies to try and get more people to join the club, or continue to restate old teachings in new ways again and again just so long as there are people left to listen.

Theology and Truth-seeking

Even advocates for the study of theology regardless your own religious tradition end up  simply arguing that it is a good subject because of its transferable skills and how it benefits us as people.  Theology can help its students by encouraging them to be empathetic, and this is a great thing. But it isn’t everything, there is still something missing, and it goes back to the proper object of study being ‘God.’

Theology was known as a science because, like other sciences, it was primarily concerned with Truth. And the Truth is was concerned with was the Truth about God. It was on this basis that it was seen as the Queen of the Sciences. Theology provides a meta-narrative that allows us to make sense of everything else. In asking questions about what we worship, what is our God? It searches for the truth which helps us understand who we are, why we are here, what we should be doing. In this way it is not in conflict with any other discipline, it’s proper place is curator of all disciplines.

Theology is directly relevant to all because truth is relevant to all. Theologians who come from a certain religious tradition should not, and the serious theologians do not, work out of some kind of allegiance to that tradition and its people regardless the ultimate truth of the matter. No, they work in and from a certain religious tradition because they believe that tradition to be ultimately true. It seems highly cynical to assume the opposite.

The Problem with ‘Religion’

The root of the problem originates with the word ‘Religion’. The fact is that the word doesn’t make any sense, and only exists to serve this secular purpose of removing Theological truth seeking from the public sphere. It is not based upon the content of beliefs, nor is the identity that it refers to substantially distinct from any other kind of identity. It is an arbitrary dividing line between people that only serves to hinder our understanding of ourselves and the world around us.


People should study Theology because, like academics in all disciplines, they want to seek the truth. Regardless of what we believe or the labels that we choose to describe our beliefs, the questions facing all of us are the same.

Theologians of all traditions are seeking truth, it seems arrogant to dismiss all the world’s traditional answers and attempt at making sense of the world as simply interesting but ultimately irrelevant because we might not see ourselves as ‘religious’. Atheism and agnosticism are also theological positions and atheists and agnostics, who value truth as much as any other theologian, should seek the truth alongside other theologians.

Narrowing theology to the study of a particular tradition of thought and making Religious studies the study of religion means that there is no real space for people from different religious traditions to study God together. The assumption that differences of thought makes studying together impossible, is as damaging as it is untrue. In reality, people who believe in different things can and do seek the truth together. This is true of all other subjects and it needs to be highlighted as true of Theology as well.

The image at the head of this piece is of St Mary’s Quad, the home of Theology at the University of St Andrews, the author’s Alma Mater.