Expert Interview: Professor Linda Woodhead 20 July 2014

We speak to Professor Linda Woodhead about the challenges and opportunities facing religious studies in Higher Education.

Professor Linda WoodheadLinda Woodhead is Professor of Religion at Lancaster University. Between 2007 and 2013, she oversaw the Religion and Society Research Programme, a £12 million collaborative funding stream between the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the Economic and Social Research Council.

The Religion and Society Programme funded over 75 original and innovative research projects, crossing a number of disciplines and dozens of faith traditions. In recent years, Professor Woodhead has been working on disseminating the research findings, including through the Westminster Faith Debates. The debates take place in Whitehall, and provide an opportunity for academics and politicians to meet and discuss some of the most pertinent questions related to religion and contemporary society.

As director of one of the largest funding streams for religion in recent years, we spoke to her to ask about the state of religious studies in Higher Education today.

How would you summarise the situation of religious studies in universities?
I think it is a strange time for religion in Higher Education. On the one hand, there is an explosion of interest across many disciplines in religion, which were previously maybe a bit suspicious of religious studies. At the same time, the core disciplines of theology and religious studies are struggling in some regards – there are decreasing student numbers and a lack of funding. It is a paradoxical situation.

Will the trend of religion being studied outside religious studies departments continue?
Yes, I imagine so. Academia had become very secularised in its interests in the past few decades, and that has come to an end. The artificial blinkers have been taken off so to speak, and people in general and in academia are much more aware that religion is implicated in society at all times, in all places. Religion has been mainstreamed again.

You mentioned it is a difficult time for religious studies departments. Many have closed down or merged with larger departments. Considering religious studies departments only really emerged in the last half of the century, can we be sure there is a future for them?
I think some of the mergers are fine; my own department of religious studies is now the Department of Politics, Philosophy and Religion, and that works very well.

I hope theology and religious studies as core disciplines stay around because they have completely dedicated specialists, who often need various languages and a deep level of specialist expertise in particular areas and traditions. It would be a terrible loss to the academic resource of this country if that ceased.

But it is important to remember that religious studies has never been a discipline, it has always been a subject area. It’s been full of sociologists, historians, anthropologists – a whole range of approaches. Nevertheless, having them together, working together, is always very positive.

That is a separate question from theology, which is obviously one of the most ancient academic disciplines, which is certainly Christian, and has a relationship with the state church in this country, and all those things are being worked out in new ways. I think it will change, but I don’t think it will disappear.

Please tell us a bit about the Westminster Faith Debates. Clearly they are there to bridge the gap between academia and politics. Do you think religious studies scholars need to be doing more of this?
With the Westminster Faith Debates, myself and others really felt the need to bring good research into political and public debate. Charles Clarke brings the political figures together and I bring the top researchers, and so far it has been a really fruitful dialogue.

Both Charles and I recognise that the level of political and public debate about religion is often terribly low and very old fashioned, so we are trying to update and improve the understanding of religion in public life. It is a big task, and there is much still to do.

What are the reasons for the low level of wider understanding of religious studies?
I think it is partly the responsibility of religious researchers to get their research out there. But there is still a problem in secondary schools where religious studies are in real crisis. The subject is marginalised by the government, deeply under-resourced, and the curriculum hasn’t been updated in a long time, or consistently, as there isn’t a national curriculum in RE.

It is another example of this disconnection between the subject in Higher Education and the subject in wider society, and I think it behoves all academics that can, to try and make their research relevant. Whether that is a theologian who tries to make his research relevant to the Church today, or whether that’s a sociologist of religion, like me, making it relevant to politics.

What about the coverage of religion in the media?
The worrying thing is that the number of religion journalists is minute. In terms of journalists who are experts in non-Anglican religions, well, there simply aren’t any.

One of my main arguments in my academic work is that religion has changed enormously since 1989, and we’re going through a period of incredible transition. And that’s another reason why researchers need to be updating people; because journalists and the public are often talking about forms of religion that just don’t exist anymore.

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