“But if you’re not religious then why are you studying it?” 12 July 2016

Prag, Tschechien. Malerei eines Mönches auf einer Hausfassade“So what are you studying at university?”… there it is, right there, the dreaded question. This question is not only terrifyingly uncomfortable and infuriating – it’s also a massive conversation killer depending on the person asking it.

“Religion, Theology and Philosophy” I reply, letting the awkward silence commence, soaking it up half amused/half cringing. This is usually followed by the short reply, “oh”. Explaining afterwards that no, I am not religious myself, and no, I do not have an interest in becoming a vicar, is perhaps one of the most painful conversations a person studying Religion at university can engage in.

So what’s the point? Why study a subject that examines people’s faiths and cultures completely different to your own, in a world where our cities are becoming increasingly multicultural and contain an increasing amount of conflicting religious communities? How ridiculous!

But I would argue that from an atheistic or humanistic standpoint religion becomes just as fascinating, if not more, to study. Observing a culture and faith so far from one’s own is not only essential to develop emotions like empathy and kindness, but also teaches us to take a step back from our basic, ignorant knowledge of these faith systems and admit they may not be as ‘immoral’ as we first thought.

However, despite these benefits, it seems religion, somewhere along the way, has been put into a strange category where it is considered boring, “heavy” (which is also a remark I am familiar with hearing, “oooh, that’s a heavy subject!”) and ultimately pointless to talk or be educated about. What I really need to ask the many people who doubt and criticise my choice of degree course is how can it be such an unnecessary subject? How can it be considered so ‘outdated’ to study when our daily news updates bombard us with reports concerning religious extremists violently demonstrating their beliefs?

So much of our society is influenced by religion: our media, our education and our political system. From such a young age we are taught Christian hymns, biblical teachings, the Christian way to live our lives. But then it seems, from my observations, that the further education needed to spark a deeper interest in religion as we become young adults is entirely absent. This causes our memories of religion, come the age of 17 or 18, to be based on a simplified version of Christian events (perhaps considered boring by some teenagers).

This is the new crisis our generation is confronted with. A complete lack of knowledge or interest in religion, stemming from secondary school R.E lessons taught by substitute teachers whose knowledge of religion equips them to only play videos about Christianity, creates an easy acceptance of the stereotypical representations the world religions face today. Take Islam as the obvious example… what do people, young people, think of immediately when they hear this word? Terrorism, bombs, veils, etc. Now take a less obvious media-represented religion, say Hinduism, and what do young people think? I can hazard a guess, “What’s that? Is that the one where they meditate?”

Now perhaps I am being unfair; I do not wish to generalize the entirety of my generation when it comes to their understanding of religion. I merely wish to point out that for whatever reason religion is becoming increasingly avoided, ignored and misunderstood by the large majority of our society.

How do we avoid this? What is needed from the beginning of a child’s religious education is an honesty within the curriculum – a sincere discussion regarding not only the Christian faith, but all the world religions. Perhaps if this were to happen, college A-level teachers and university lecturers wouldn’t be feeling disappointed at the lack of students in their classrooms. (How is it that on a university religious studies course, there are just seven of us in the lecture room?)

Religion is everywhere. It is all around us within society, and despite the argument that Britain is becoming a more secular society by the day, it seems to me that religion is becoming increasingly relevant as a subject to be aware of and understand.

So yes, when I am asked the question “why are you studying that?” it can test my patience somewhat and what I always really want to say is this: I am studying it because I am a human being, I have an interest, a never-ending curiosity and fascination in other human beings that are completely different to myself. I want to understand these religions, these religious people, that the news calls ‘terrorists’, I want to see how they feel, why they believe and follow a system I never could and what they think of me, a person with no other moral guide than my own conscience and societal values. If discovering all of that makes me boring, weird or too ‘heavy’ for you, then I don’t think I mind.

I urge my fellow religious studies students to follow my lead – next time someone mocks you for being ‘boring’, be amused at their ignorant expense.

This article is from Issue 12 of On Religion. To subscribe to On Religion Magazine for £19 a year, follow the link below.
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About Francesca Jones

Francesca Jones is a student at the University of Winchester studying Religion, Theology and Philosophy. She has a passion for writing about learning and writing about religion.

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