The Critical Religion Association originated with the Religion staff at Stirling, and so there has been a particular interest in the recent threat to close their unique programme. When this story first broke towards the end of September this page was set up, and as a result:
- more than 2,000 people signed the UCU Scotland petition;
- a great many scholars, students, and interested individuals sent letters to the university management;
- we received numerous statements of interest and support for the Religion staff
- the press have reported on the situation and sought to solicit views from various parties.
The CRA has sought to record as much of this support for the Religion staff as possible.
A conclusion of sorts has, regretfully, been reached. Recently, a statement was made public, as follows:
Dr Tim Fitzgerald and Dr Michael Marten will be leaving the University at the end of December 2015. Dr Andrew Hass and Dr Alison Jasper will continue to contribute, with colleagues, to the delivery of programmes in Religion.
This statement has been agreed by all parties.
The CRA’s recording of the Stirling situation on this page will therefore now come to a close, and the CRA will shortly resume the normal posting of blogs – regular readers will appreciate that for time reasons, posting blogs has been somewhat neglected of late.
I am sure that I can speak on behalf of all those directly affected by the outcome when I say that I would like to express immense gratitude for all the support given and action taken throughout the last several months. The response from such an international community of concerned scholars, students and friends has been overwhelming, and tremendous thanks and appreciation are due to all.
Rajalakshmi Nadadur Kannan, CRA Editor.
News, statements of support, and the UCU petition
The CRA has been sent a number of individual statements of support for the staff at Stirling. As these are received, they will be added here. News reports and statements of support from scholarly associations are at the top of the page; to start with the first news stories, click here, and scroll upwards to see each day something new appears.
We warmly encourage you to write to senior managers at Stirling in support of retaining Religion as a programme. The two key people to write to are Professor Gerry McCormac and Professor Richard Oram – their details are below, connected to the first story about the proposal to close the programme.
There is also a petition to the Principal that can be signed by clicking the image:
Overseas signatories, please use any UK postcode. To find a valid UK postcode, please use Royal Mail’s postcode finder; some examples are:
- TW12 1PD – Diagon Alley, 56A High Street, Hampton Hill, Hampton
- S10 2GB – Hogwarts, 33 Wilkinson Street, Sheffield
We have started getting students’ responses to the threat to Religion at Stirling expressing their concerns over university’s assurances about the completion of their study. Ekklesia have more on this here:
Ekklesia have given further coverage to the threat to Religion at Stirling:
Students are now back at the university, and classes began last week. Ekklesia, who first broke the story about the threat to Religion at Stirling (see below), have apparently been in touch with some of the students:
The International Society for the Study of Religion, Nature & Culture (ISSRNC) has written to the university management in support of Religion department. The letter can be found here.
The European Association for the Study of Religions (EASR), member of the International Association for the History of Religions (IAHR), has released a statement expressing concern at the university’s decision to close Religion. The statement can be found here.
17.9.2015 – Members of the Scottish Parliament
Two local Members of the Scottish Parliament have written to the Principal to enquire about the future of the Religion programme: Mr Bruce Crawford MSP and Mr Keith Brown MSP. Today both have kindly agreed to release their communications, as well as Professor McCormac’s replies.
|Bruce Crawford MSP (sent 28.8.15)
Dear Professor McCormac,I have been made aware that the University of Stirling is considering changes within the religious studies academic programme at the university.As MSP for Stirling, I am obviously concerned about any proposals which may affect jobs in the area and for any of my constituents.I would therefore be grateful to understand the rationale for any closure of programme and any additional information or comment you are able to provide.I thank you for your assistance in this matter and look forward to your response.Yours sincerely,Bruce Crawford MSP
|Keith Brown MSP (sent 4.9.15)
Dear GerryReligious ProgramAs MSP for Clackmannanshire and Dunblane, I have read the article in the Herald which mentioned that Stirling University are planning on ending the internationally recognised religion programme.Can you advise why the University is taking this decision and if it has been fully discussed with the Academic Council, as well as the staff whose jobs will be lost and those students affected?Additionally, I would also like to know what assistance or proposals have been offered to the staff whose jobs will be lost if the program closes and to any students affected.I look forward to receiving your response in due course.Yours sincerelyKeith Brown MSP
Clackmannanshire & Dunblane Constituency
|Professor McCormac’s reply of 28.8.15 is available here as a PDF file.||Professor McCormac’s reply of 7.9.15 is available here as a PDF file.|
Bulletin for the Study of Religion, published by Equinox, has published NAASR’s Statement of Support for Religion department at Stirling. The statement, published to give a wider audience to this issue, can be found here.
Critical Theories and Discourses on Religion Group – American Academy of Religion (AAR) expressed their support for the Religion department through the following message:
In accord with statements made by the British Association for the Study of Religion and the North American Association for the Study of Religion, as the chairs of the AAR Critical Theories and Discourses on Religion Group and on behalf of the committee, we write to urge you to show your support for the Religion Programme at University of Stirling by requesting reconsideration of the decision to close the programme and eliminate four faculty positions.
The University of Stirling Religion Programme, the only religion programme not aligned with a Christian denomination in Scotland, has produced innovative analytical work on religion for decades. The faculty has not been allowed to comment on the decision to close the programme. Its most recent external review affirmed the vital role the programme has played in the landscape of the study of religion in the U.K. as well as its international standing.
The concerns expressed thus far have yielded the acknowledgement that University of Stirling’s administration is under “enormous pressure” to reconsider.
If you have not already, please sign the petition and encourage others to do so.
If you represent a scholarly group or association engaged in the study of religion, then we encourage you to raise the issue within your constituency. Please direct them to the online petition.
The Scotsman also published a version of the BASR statement:
Scholarly study of religion is vital now (a scan of the print version is below)
The British Sociological Association Sociology of Religion Study Group (SOCREL) has expressed its concern over the situation at Stirling with the following message:
The Socrel committee notes with serious concern that discussions have taken place to close the Religion programme at Stirling University with immediate effect. While we acknowledge that there will be processes and rationale internal to the university, we wish to register the committee’s dismay at the loss of an important part of the sociology of religion community, and to share our view with the Socrel membership. At a time when it is widely acknowledged that there is every pressing reason to understand religion and belief better across the globe, we note the prospect of this loss with real regret, and with sympathy for our colleagues and their students. We hope they will be treated with all consideration and respect.
Brig Newspaper have picked up on the support this issue has received from BASR and published another piece:
The Executive Council of the North American Association for the Study of Religion (NAASR) has written a statement in support of BASR’s letter (see below). The statement can be read here.
In 2013, the University of Stirling’s then Head of the School of Arts and Humanities, Professor Douglas Brodie, arranged for a review of Religion at Stirling; other subjects similarly underwent forms of review at this time. The Religion review was carried out by two renowned scholars from other institutions: Professor Jeremy Carrette (University of Kent, Canterbury) and Professor Linda Woodhead (University of Lancaster). They subsequently wrote a report for Professor Brodie about the provision of Religion at Stirling, commending the work being carried out, and encouraging further support and development for the subject by the University. Professors Carrette and Woodhead have now written to Professor McCormac (Stirling University’s Principal) and Professor Oram (Head of the School of Arts and Humanities), expressing concern about the draft proposal to close Religion at Stirling, and have given permission for their letters to be made public here: to Professor McCormac and to Professor Oram.
The Executive Committee of the British Association for the Study of Religions (BASR) has written to Professor McCormac (Stirling University’s Principal) to protest at proposals to close Religion.
BASR is the UK’s scholarly association for all academics interested in pursuing the study of religion; it is a constituent body of the International Association for the History of Religions.
The Scotsman has published a letter by Richard H Roberts, Visiting Emeritus Professor of Religious Studies at Stirling University emphasising the importance of Religion at Stirling.
A critical loss (a scan of the print version is below)
The Scottish Sunday Express has published an article about the situation at Stirling. The article is not online, but we have scanned the print version:
The Herald, Scotland’s bestselling broadsheet newspaper, has reported on the support the petition set up by UCU Scotland, the Religion department and the staff have been receiving.
Pressure mounts on Scottish university to save threatened course (a scan of the print version is below)
You can find the responses from scholars around the world at the bottom of this page, with more coming in.
The Herald also has an opinion piece on university governance by Stephen Naysmith (‘Universities must address barriers to womens’ advancement’), which uses the example of Religion at Stirling to criticise current university governance: ‘the protests over the closure of Stirling University’s religion course arguably highlight a tendency towards unaccountable decision making and a lack of consultation.’
Ekklesia’s Simon Barrow has written a blog post that the UCU is negotiating with the university, thereby confirming the university’s intention to close the Religion dept., a claim that was denied by some.
Brig Newspaper, a student newspaper at Stirling University published this story:
Discussing Lord Sutherland’s letter to the university (see below), Ekklesia published this story:
The Tab, an on-campus student newspaper at Stirling University reported on this issue:
Malory Nye has written in The Huffington Post UK on the uniqueness of the Religion program at Stirling University, criticising the University’s decision to close the department.
The Herald, Scotland’s bestselling broadsheet newspaper, today has an article about Stirling University’s decision, written by their Education correspondent, Andrew Denholm:
At the moment, it is the second most read story on the Herald’s website, mirroring the Ekklesia pattern: stories related to the university’s decision continue to be the most popular on their site, reflecting the widespread concern about the university’s actions.
The Scottish Catholic Observer has linked to the Ecumenical News article (see below):
Ekklesia’s Simon Barrow posted a short blog about the petition today:
This page has now been viewed over 2, 000 times, and the news stories on Ekklesia and elsewhere have been seen by many more people.
Stirling University’s media department has responded to Ekklesia about the immediate closure of the Religion department. However, as the news story reports, the statement offers no clarity on the future of the program, the staff and the students.
Research Professional also published an article on the situation today:
It is worth noting in particular Mary Senior’s comment in RP’s article:
Mary Senior, UCU’s Scotland official, says that it is concerning that “the decision appears to have been made by the university management without any consultation with the university’s academic council, the trade unions or the staff involved”. She adds: “We have had no chance to defend the unit’s merits or to discuss what is the best way forward. It’s a small unit but an important discipline, and this type of decision needs to be properly scrutinised.”
Ecumenical News also picked up on the story:
Civil society organisations such as the Iona Community, based in Glasgow, have also expressed concern about Stirling’s plans:
At the time of writing, three of the five most-read stories on Ekklesia concern the situation at Stirling. There have been messages of support from ex-students and academics around the world, as well as others who value the approach to teaching Religion that Stirling takes (see e.g. this comment). Simon Barrow of Ekklesia has today published an opinion piece that includes comments from one of Stirling’s former undergraduate students; she writes about studying Religion at undergraduate level at Stirling:
Ekklesia has published a further story about the situation at Stirling, noting widespread dismay at the University of Stirling’s proposals:
It rapidly went on to become the most read story of the day on the Ekklesia website, with thousands of readers, and apparently many people have been asking what they can do. 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:
- Professor Richard Oram, Head of the School of Arts and Humanities, email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Professor Gerry McCormac, Principal and Vice-Chancellor, email: PrincipalPA@stir.ac.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).
Statements of support (click to go back to the top of the page)
William Tuladhar Douglas (Director, Confucius Institute, Senior Lecturer, Environments and Religions, University of Aberdeen):
Every university, if it is good enough to be a real university, will house among its many competent programmes a few that are exceptional. The Stirling Religious Studies programme is such a one. The study of religion is inherently political and has an unfortunate tendency towards conservatism. Most UK departments, mine included, endlessly reaffirm without any serious debate the assumptions of the post-Reformation European consensus on how not to talk about religion without provoking another war.
Outwith Europe, there are very few intellectuals who regard this as anything more than a colonial hangover or anything less than oppressive. I know from my own work that this pleasant consensus is empirically useless if not outright obstructive when we turn to practical problems such as understanding the social-ecological linkages in the environmental crisis or confronting terrorism.
Stirling’s Religion department is alone among Scottish departments—perhaps among UK departments—in being a dedicated gadfly that refuses to accept a soothing torpor. It’s a critical department and proud to be so; its excellent staff have consistently challenged the basic political, theoretical and empirical basis for the liberal study of religion and in so doing they have annoyed any number of mainstream scholars and angered the conservatives. Indeed, I know for a sad fact that some of my colleagues are delighted to see that Stirling for what appear to be budgetary reasons are silencing the only truly modern department in Scotland and in so doing, proving that it is too dangerous to undertake radical work.
Perhaps this genuinely is a budgetary decision. It will be perceived as a failure to defend a brilliant team of original scholars who have, through careful scholarship, offended an established consensus that reassures an increasingly intolerant state—and in the broad historical context, it will be seen as a cowardly decision. Athens needs its gadfly, but we do not need to kill Socrates.
Corrine Fowler (Senior Lecturer, in Postcolonial Literature, Director of the Centre for New Writing, School of English, University of Leicester):
I am writing as a former lecturer in Religious Studies (temporary) in response to the threatened closure of the subject at Stirling. I was in that department for 6 months (though I was familiar with the staff before this, as a PhD student at Stirling) and I have to say that their seminars were more cutting edge and provocative than any others I went to. As colleagues, they were wonderful. As a temporary lecturer I attended all their lectures and so am uniquely placed to comment on the quality and range of their teaching. I have worked in three universities now: Stirling, Lancaster and Leicester. These religious studies lecturers were top quality. Their lectures cover the history of ideas in ways that no other course I have encountered have ever done. The tone, the delivery and content of lectures was unrivalled by any others I have since experienced in other, excellent institutions. The quality of their research is also high – you will be aware that Timothy Fitzgerald has an international standing that would make most academics’ eyes water.
Arts and Humanities are severely under threat in this current climate. Humanities don’t get big grants, they don’t attract so many students, but surely it is quality that endures and the best institutions protect it. I really fear for the future of Arts and Humanities subjects, which are very much under attack because of their relatively inferior monetary value. I find this frightening. Please consider reversing your decision. It would be a wonderful change of heart that would be seen and respected very widely. This is not about a group of people rallying round their friends. It seems to may of us that there are huge issues at stake and that Stirling is hopefully bold enough to resist the marketization of HE.
Warren Goldstein (Lecturer on Sociology, Harvard Divinity School, USA):
I am writing this letter on behalf of Religion program at the University of Stirling. It is only due to international reputation of the religion program at Stirling that I am aware of the university to begin with. It would not be in the best interest of the university to eliminate this program. In the study of religion, which is a very large, broad and interdisciplinary field, the unique program at the University, focusing on critical religion, puts the University of Stirling on the map. The program houses world-renowned scholars such as Timothy Fitzgerald, Andrew Haas, and Michael Marten. We are publishing a piece by Timothy Fitzgerald, one of the leading scholars in the program, in the next issue (December) of the journal I edit, Critical Research on Religion (http://crr.sagepub.com). I think it would be quite an embarrassment to the university to eliminate this program. Thank you for consideration.
Mariano Barbato (Privatdozent Universität Passau, Westfälische-Wilhelms Universität Münster):
I am writing to express my concern about the plans to close the Religion Department at Stirling University.
As a German political scientist I would like to emphasize the international and interdisciplinary importance of the department. I have drawn on Timothy Fitzgerald’s ideas for my own research. The religion department at Stirling has a unique profile and its closure would be a great loss for the academic community, not only for Religious Studies but also for International Relations and related fields.
Anthony Fiscella (PhD candidate, Lund University, Sweden):
Along with scholars inside and outside of the UK, I am deeply concerned about the future of the Religious Studies programme at Stirling University.
I would like to let you know that the importance of the department stretches far beyond the confines of Stirling, Scotland, the UK, and even Europe. The work that they have collectively performed has had significant impact and plays a vital role in the development of new ways of thinking about the field of religious studies. If some of the roles of the academy are to further our understanding of the world, engage students toward critical inquiry, stimulate intellectual debate, and help us collectively address pressing matters of our day, then the Religious Studies programme at Stirling performs those tasks glowingly.
At the very least, such decisions need to run the course of “appropriate internal channels, such as academic council and the university’s governing body” to quote Mary Senior of UCU Scotland. If anything, I would recommend that the program be expanded rather than reduced because it is precisely the type of work that they are doing that we need in the academy. Few manage to fulfill their role in the “community of contested discourses” (to borrow a phrase from Alasdair MacIntyre) as well as they do. Their future affects our future.
In closing, I would greatly appreciate your reconsideration of the matter and your efforts to enable all of these scholars at Stirling University to continue the important work that they do.
Ibrahim Abraham (Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Social & Cultural Anthropology, University of Helsinki):
The sudden announcement of the closure of Stirling’s religion studies department has caused a great deal of consternation amongst scholars of religion from various disciplines around the world who have engaged with the department and its faculty members. The department is well regarded internationally, its faculty are involved in important research, and by all accounts it is attracting healthy enrollments. That the critical study of religion is of vital importance at the current time should go without saying. I do hope management reconsider their decision and allow the department to carry on its important work.
John T Chalcraft (Reader, History and Politics of Empire / Imperialism, LSE):
Religion subject area at Stirling do excellent, inter-disciplinary and critical work, and from my perspective are the main reason why Stirling University has a good reputation in the UK and beyond. I was shocked to hear that the programme is to be terminated, given the importance of the university in Scotland and the UK in showing and practicing intellectual and educational leadership. I was also alarmed when I heard about the way the termination was to be effected, with minimal warning to the excellent staff concerned, and the implementation of ‘voluntary’ severance packages followed by threats of something worse. I did not think that valued professionals with strong reputations even beyond their specialisms would be treated in such a way by an employer whom they have faithfully served.
Anthony Gorman (Head of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies, University of Edinburgh):
I write to express my alarm regarding reports that the Dept of Religious Studies at Stirling is in the process of being dissolved and dismembered. I am not privy to the institutional reasons for the decision but it certainly appears to be a very backward step at a time when our understanding of religious belief, identity, culture and differences with our society and internationally have become an ever more relevant, indeed, urgent issue.
With this in mind I urge you to reconsider this decision and maintain the Religious Studies department at Stirling so that it can continue to contribute to and to invigorate academic scholarship and public debate in Scotland and beyond.
Dina Iordanova FRSA (Professor of Global Cinema and Creative Cultures, Director, Institute for Global Cinema and Creative Cultures (IGCCC), University of St Andrews):
I have been approached by a group of academics who are concerned about the future of religion at the University of Stirling.
I wanted to join in voicing their concern. A few years ago I examined a doctoral thesis which was written in the context of the unique interdisciplinary environment that the symbiosis between various humanities disciplines and religion has produced at Stirling. My impressions of how this arrangement worked were excellent. It would be really a pity to see such a wonderful set-up dissipate in the context of the current merciless shift of attention to the science disciplines, which has led to serious erosion in the humanities.
Ray L. Hart (Emeritus Professor and Emeritus Chairman, Graduate Division of Religion, Boston University, USA):
Kindly add my name to those supporting the retention of the world-class programme in Religion at Stirling University. Over the course of a sixty year career in American Higher Education in five universities, as a former president of the American Academy of Religion, as Editor of the Journal of the American Academy of Religion for ten years, I have been in a position to judge the quality of religious studies programmes. Stirling’s star in Religion has been bright in the universe of the UK and the continent, and for it to dim or (perish the thought) flame out completely would be tragic; indeed there is no comparable source of light in that region of the university universe.
Caroline Gooch (Edinburgh):
I was surprised and upset to learn earlier this week that the University of Stirling is considering terminating the brilliant and far reaching work of your Department of Religion. I am writing to express to you in the strongest possible terms that this would be a strategic error and huge sadness both for the University, and for Scotland. I am just a member of the public, an artist, an airline pilot, a beekeeper, but not an academic. But my thinking and understanding of current affairs has been influenced by your Religion department, and as I talk with others that influence has rippled outwards.
Over the last year we have had the rise of Isis, the attacks in Paris and subsequent Je Suis Charlie, we have the migrant crisis in Calais, we had the anniversary of the massacre by christians of moslem minority in Serbia, the murder of black christians worshipping in the southern USA, the attack on British tourists in Tunisia and for us in Scotland sectarianism dating back hundreds of years continues to be a horror. The newspaper headlines are often hysterical, whipping up xenophobic hatred with poorly researched wrong thinking. As the world gets smaller through communication and travel our society tends towards increasing fear based bigotry and clutching at ever higher stronger borders. Each time I have found refuge in the analysis emanating from the Religion Department at Stirling published on the CRA blog. The careful scholarly attention to these hugely difficult issues has been a source of understanding and help to me. Where else would you find an article titled “Isis: the ideology of rape” and then read a careful analysis separating out faith and brutality in modern and historical abrahamic faiths.
The Department of Religion is a small department in a relatively small University in a small country, and that may have lead you to underestimate its importance. It speaks to a much wider national and international audience, enabling cross cultural understandings, fostering mutual respect and enabling inter-faiths dialogue. When there is increasing tribal and faith based polarisation and conflict across the world today the Religion Department’s work is more important than ever, it is a jewel in your crown.
I hope you and your staff are already reconsidering how you can best support this department to grow and continue for the longer term.
Trevor Stack (Director, Centre for Citizenship, Civil Society and Rule of Law (CISRUL), Programme Coordinator, Hispanic Studies, University of Aberdeen):
The Religion department has in its distinguished history, and in the past 15 years through pioneering Critical Religion, helped to put Stirling on the global map. I can bear witness to this as a complete outsider to Religious Studies. I’m an anthropologist who teaches in Hispanic Studies, and yet my intellectual trajectory has been decisively shaped by the Religion department since 2003, when I attended Tim Fitzgerald’s ground-breaking “Religion and the Secular” conference. Since then I’ve been immensely fortunate to have visited the Religion department on no less than 13 occasions, for conferences and seminars, as well as to observe the development of Religion’s undergraduate and postgraduate programmes. Every visit I have found uplifting, and I’ve been struck each time by the power and passion of the scholarship, by the sincere commitment to student performance and experience, and by the spirit of teamwork between Michael Maarten, Alison Jasper, Andrew Haas and Tim Fitzgerald. It is distressing and perplexing, then, to hear the news through Ekkelsia and The Herald that Stirling is considering abandoning the programme.
Lord Sutherland of Houndwood (Philosopher of Religion and founder of Stirling University’s Religious Studies department, former Principal of King’s College London, former Principal of University of Edinburgh)
Dear Professor Oram,
I understand that the future of the Religious Studies Department at Stirling is under threat.
I have an interest in this for a variety of reasons.
The first and most important is that I was the first member of staff employed (from 1968) to develop the religious studies programme which was part of the original Academic Plan for Scotland’s first ab initio (and still only ab initio new) new University.
Some careful thought was given to the nature of this development by the original Planning Committee, not least because of the presence of major Faculties of Divinity significantly focused on the then needs of the Church of Scotland, in the four Older multi-faculty universities. The responsibility was placed initially in the Philosophy Department of which I was a member until 1977.
This led by evolution and positive support from the relevant Academic bodies to full and single honours courses attracting able students and producing good graduates. The courses were distinctive and involved staff from two other Scottish Universities. The Divinity Faculties moved from elements of supercilious comment to eventually developing their own version of similar programmes.
The unit also came to play a significant part in the development of Religious Education in Scottish schools.
The possibility that such a unit may cease to exist deserves, I think, somewhat wider debate than an apparent decision taken in the middle of the summer non-teaching period. As you can guess I have been approached informally from the media for comment, but before deciding whether to engage at that level or not, I would be greatly helped in understanding the University’s processes and decision if you could answer the following questions.
1. Has a decision actually been taken?
2. If not when will it be taken?
3. Is the equivalent of the Arts Faculty and the Senate involved in this? 4. If closure is the decision when will it take effect?
5. At what point will potential students be informed?
6. Have the staff been informed/involved in discussions?
7. What plans are there for meeting the intentions of the original Planning Committee?
8. Have any external referees been involved?
9. Are any other Departments facing the same fate?
I apologise if this seems to be a rather long list, but I would not wish public comments from me to misrepresent the University’s position.
Perhaps even more importantly, I do have a care for the place and the subject – indeed I spent half of my academic life teaching in the interface between philosophy and religion, and still look back on my ten years in the earliest days of Stirling with positive memories.
I should add that I spent the other half of my academic life as a Principal and Vice-Chancellor, and so am well aware of the constraints on University planning exerted by finances.
I look forward to hearing from you.
Stewart Sutherland FBA
(Lord Sutherland of Houndwood)
(As a matter of courtesy I shall copy this note to your Principal).
Neil Snellgrove (Head of Education, Ochil Tower School):
I am writing to ask you to reconsider the decision to close the Religion department at the University of Stirling. Encouraging critical debate has always been the hallmark of this department and it would be a tragedy for current and future students that this subject is no longer available at Stirling University. At a time when the study of religion seems more relevant than ever it seems to me to be obtuse to take such a decision. I sincerely hope that given the amount of concern expressed that you would reconsider your intended course of action.
James Crossley (Professor of Bible, Culture and Politics, University of Sheffield):
I was saddened to read about what is happening to the study of religion at Stirling. As you may know, this is not the first case in the UK but I hope it is possible to prevent both job losses and the closure of the subject. While market forces presumably play some role, in my experience the lack of institutional understanding of, and support for, the significance of the critical study of religion has been just as problematic. Given the present situation, I wonder if Stirling might instead be able to show other institutions how the subject might be preserved and indeed flourish.
First, further defence of the subject may be required. I am hardly the first person to recognise the important history of the critical study of religion at Stirling which has produced some of the most important work over the past 30 years. Its focus on the ways religion is constructed in a range of cultural contexts makes Stirling one of the most important international centres for the study of religion—there are very few places which have been so ahead of the game. Indeed, its independence from theology has made Stirling distinctive in the Scottish system and this important independent voice would be lost if any plans to close the subject were to go ahead. But the study of religion at Stirling has wider importance. It has rightly foregrounded the problematic ways in which the very term is used and such problems are rife in, for instance, the media and contemporary politics. Universities are in a strong position to lead a critique of the ways religion is constructed and understood, both through the traditional routes of publications and UG/ PG teaching and also in the public arena where it is sorely needed. Stirling should be justly proud of its intellectual history in the study of religion and it has the staff already present to continue this tradition.
Second, it is vital that new ways of preserving the critical study of religion, particularly as more backward-thinking approaches to religion and theology will become even more dominant. I know that UG numbers are a problem for the study of religion in the UK. I am not fully aware of institutional structures at Stirling but one way to alleviate this problem might be to use religion modules as part of other degree programmes, particularly those where with high number of students and pressures on staff. In my experience, it might be difficult to recruit students but religion modules can be hugely popular when properly flagged up and promoted in other departments and on other degrees. The intellectual case for embedding religion in other degrees is compelling. The kind of critical study of religion carried out at Stirling would make sure students across the humanities and social sciences were far better equipped for understanding the ways in which religion is understood. At present, this lack of interdisciplinary understanding is a real problem and some of the scholarly literature outside the study of religion can be quite naïve because it ignores such scholarship. More practically, there are ways of sharing academic workloads which might help colleagues in other departments, e.g. developing new ways of easing staff/student ratios. There are creative ways of producing new environments for smaller subjects to flourish and this could be an opportunity for Stirling could lead the way in showing how the serious understanding of religion can be integral for the humanities and social sciences.
I would, therefore, strongly encourage you to look for ways to preserve the jobs of colleagues and to look for new ways to make sure the critical study of religion can thrive in difficult times.
Miriam Snellgrove (Teaching Fellow, Sociology, Politics and International Studies SPAIS, University of Bristol):
I am writing to express my concern over the planned closure of Religious Studies at Stirling University. I studied Religious Studies and Sociology at Stirling from 2002-2006 and was taught by many of the excellent staff whose jobs are now threatened (Tim Fitzgerald, Alison Jasper, Andrew Hass plus many others). When I started as an undergraduate in Religious Studies, the department was twice the size it now is. In 2006 we (students and staff) lead an ultimately unsuccessful protest against the closure of the Department and the merging of it with Languages. This at a time when politics and the media were full of questions about Islam (the current moral panic) and Islamic terrorism. It seemed then and is now utterly nonsensical to shut down a department that continues to provide a much needed critical voice to the dominant ideologies that are continually perpetuated by those in positions of power regarding all forms of Religion in the 21st Century. It would seem that the critical voice so encouraged by staff and loved by students is facing marginalization and extinction.
As I did in 2006, I do now ask that you reconsider this decision. Stirling University will be all the poorer for the loss of these fine minds and the loss to students (present and future) immeasurable. We need to protect the spaces where critical debate can flourish and thrive, there are so few of these spaces left.
Aidan Byrne (Senior Lecturer in English and Cultural Studies, University of Wolverhampton):
I’m writing to you to ask you to reconsider your decision to close Stirling University’s Religious Studies programme and department. As an atheist, a citizen and an academic, I’ve always felt that critical religious studies is both socially essential and one of the subjects that defines an institution as a university in the best sense. Additionally, given the prominence of religious and post-religious though in contemporary society and current affairs, I feel strongly that the maintenance of research-led expertise in the field is a major contribution to society and to multiple other academic fields. My own colleagues in Religious Studies and cognate areas are shocked that a department so central to the field can be abolished in this fashion. I urge you to reconsider this decision.
Robert Yelle (Professor for the Theory and Method of Religious Studies, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München, Munich):
I am writing to ask you to reconsider the decision to close the Religion department at the University of Stirling. At a time when the study of religion seems more relevant than ever, in order to aid understanding among different groups within our increasingly pluralistic societies, it seems to me very much the wrong time to take such a drastic action as to shut down an entire program, thus denying students the opportunity to learn how to think critically about the category of religion, about our secular institutions, and about other cultures.
I do note that I have some personal connections to Stirling. I have attended conferences, large and small, with Professors Tim Fitzgerald and Alison Jasper. Recently I was second reader on the doctoral thesis of Melanie Barbato at LMU Munich. Dr. Barbato completed a B.A (Honors) in Philosophy and Religious Studies at Stirling, which provided an excellent background for her graduate studies.
The Religion department of Stirling plays an important role as a critical, sometimes contrarian voice in our discipline, both in the UK and internationally. I ask you respectfully not to silence this voice.
Thomas J.J. Altizer (Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies, The State University of New York at Stony Brook):
I am writing in shock in response to the grave threat to the Stirling Religion program which I regard as one of the finest in the world. As an old friend of this program I regard this threat as being simply unintelligible, although no doubt there are parallels to it elsewhere, yet none known to me as grave as this one. This program has an international distinction which is rare, as reflected in its creation of the finest journal of literature and religion, important publications of its faculty, and vital conferences which it sponsored and directed. Indeed, this program has been a genuine path finder in the scholarly study of religion, with a truly substantial impact in the academic world and beyond. So how could a grave threat to it possibly arise? I cannot imagine!
Russell McCutcheon (Professor and Department Chair, Department of Religious Studies, The University of Alabama):
I’ve no idea who has taken to writing you directly about the recently announced news of your school terminating its degree programs in the academic study of religion, but I decided to, given that this news is as surprising as it is unfortunate.
I’m sure you’ve heard your share of arguments for why this shouldn’t happen and, given that I obviously don’t know the ins and outs of what’s happening on the ground there, I won’t pretend to have persuasive reasons for reversing this decision; instead, I just want to make sure that you know that people internationally are watching this and are rather dismayed, to say the least, that a major university can end its students’ ability to engage in the academic study of religion.
A truly unfortunate decision.
Christopher Partridge (Professor, Department of Politics, Philosophy & Religion, Lancaster University):
I am writing to you to express my deeply felt concern regarding the future of the study of religion at Stirling University, not only because of the pioneering work done in the department over the last few decades, but also because of the pressing need for the intelligent analysis of religion in the modern world. Stirling has, over many years, developed a thoughtful, critical and admirably interdisciplinary approach to the study of religion that many of us have valued. This really is something the university can be proud of.
I am sure emails such as this were expected by those responsible for this course of action. Nevertheless, can I encourage you to reconsider the current approach being taken to the provision of the study of religion, a careful appreciation of which is so important in the humanities and social sciences. There are always a number of ways forward in such matters, termination being the most draconian and not always the healthiest for the scholarly community affected. Of course, if I can be of any assistance at all, I would be more than happy to give my time and energy.
Angela Sutton (Lecturer, Department of History, Vanderbilt University, USA):
I completed my BA in History and Religious Studies at Stirling in 2006. I went on to complete an MA and PhD in Atlantic History, and I am now a lecturer across the pond in the history department of Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee.
I’ve just been informed about the proposed fate of Religion at Stirling University, and wanted to express my disappointment. Studying Critical Religion at Stirling opened my entire academic world. When I came into grad school, I hit the ground running because of the theoretical framework I had been provided with by the Religion program at Stirling. I was able to more quickly jump into my thesis topic, confident that I had enough analytical tools with which to examine my sources, produce the necessary historiographies, and make my own contribution to the field. While Stirling’s historians helped me with all things history, the scholars of religion taught me theory, critical thinking, and how to apply my knowledge to modern phenomena. Not a day goes by in my line of work where I do not use what I learned in my Religion courses, and pass on these skills to my students.
It dismays me to think that other students at Stirling will not have this same opportunity to be so well prepared for graduate education. The University of Stirling is sitting on an intellectual powerhouse that helps the world make sense of all the hot-button political issues, from the Islamic State, to American Evangelicals and everything in between. In today’s world, we cannot afford to do away with such an indispensable faculty.
(In 2013, Dr Sutton had written on this website how her undergraduate degree in Religious Studies at Stirling University prepared her for a PhD. The blog post can be found here).
Elizabeth Eva Leach (Professor of Music, Faculty of Music, University of Oxford):
I am writing to express deep concern about recent news that Stirling University plans to close Religion to undergraduate and postgraduate students. As a scholar of medieval music, albeit one mainly working on ostensibly secular love songs, I maintain a strong intellectual interest in the cultural importance of religion, both historically and in the contemporary world. The University of Stirling’s particular take on the study of Religion—and its founding of the now-independent Critical Religion Association—has been uniquely valuable in contemporary society and seems to me vital in promoting analytical perspectives on aspects of belief and faith in the present day. From a methodological perspective—being both critical in orientation and interdisciplinary in practice—the teaching of Religion in the way it has been conducted at Stirling is not only relevant but absolutely central to an understanding of the world’s politics, society, and culture. It remains imperative that students are equipped with the skills offered by a discipline-leading and distinctly interdisciplinary group such at that at Stirling. It is decidedly important that religion on university campuses not be left solely to spaces outside the classroom, but that it instead be part of the mainstream of humanities and social science education, giving its students, regardless of their personal belief, the ability to understand with concomitant intellectual rigour the central human issues raised in matters relating to Religion.
It may be that the wider academic and scholarly relevance of Religion at Stirling has not been fully appreciated by the University. I strongly hope that you will reconsider any decision to deprive Stirling and wider scholarly society alike of this valuable, special, and vibrant component of the intellectual landscape.
Melanie Barbato (PhD Student, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München, Munich):
I am writing to you to ask you to reconsider the decisions affecting the Religious Studies Department at the University of Stirling.
Originally from Germany, I came to Stirling for a B.A. Hons in Philosophy and Religious Studies. I went on to do a M.St. at Oxford University and I recently completed my doctoral studies at LMU Munich. My alma mater has however always been Stirling University, and more specifically the Religious Studies Department with its unique and world-class environment for research and learning.
I am shocked to hear of the plans to close the department and the consequences this may have for the jobs of the academics of the department. It is incomprehensible to me how anyone could consider closing a department that consists of excellent scholars tackling some of the most important questions of our time.
I strongly believe that universities have a duty to society beyond mere business interests. Fostering peace and democracy are impossible without a thorough understanding of the role of religion in today’s globalized world. I am therefore urging you to keep the Religious Studies Department at Stirling open and to allow the University of Stirling to keep up to its international reputation as a scholarly centre of learning.
Thomas White (Lecturer/Acting Head of School, School of Social Sciences, Fiji National University):
I am certain you have already received many emails pleading against the closure of Stirling’s Religion department. Further, I understand that many of these will have been written by scholars far more prestigious and formidable than me. I also understand that there are many aspects regarding the department’s potential closure to which I remain wholly ignorant.
Please may I humbly request, however, that I may quickly explain the unique and tangible value Stirling’s Religion department provides to the country in which I live, teach and research: the Republic of Fiji.
How ‘religion’ is identified, regulated and contained in Fiji persists as one of the country’s most problematic governance issues.
For three-plus years I have run the mandatory Ethics course at Fiji’s national university. Over this period 9,000 students have completed this course (nearly 1% of Fiji’s entire population). It is designed to deepen moral autonomy, promote critical thinking and support civic engagement as this nation… returns to democracy. It is to the scholarship coming out of Stirling’s Critical Religion department I have turned to inform this course’s entire pedagogy: getting students to think through Fiji’s secular/religious world-defining governance structures; not as future politicians, but simply as moral, empowered and informed citizens living in a postcolonial society.
Without the ideas and methods emerging out of Stirling’s Religions department, now embedded in my teaching, the Ethics course would have been greatly lessened. My fear is that with the closing of Stirling’s Religions department, the hidden and hard to quantify utility of this department – delivered to places even as far removed as Fiji – will no longer be provided.
I fervently hope this email is received with a patience and good will to match the humility – and the gratitude for the work that has already come out of Stirling – with which it is sent.
Naomi Goldenberg (Professor, Department of Classics and Religious Studies, University of Ottawa, Canada):
I am writing because I have heard troubling news about the possible imminent closing of the religion programme at Stirling. In 2012 the University of Ottawa funded my academic visit to Stirling to learn about the development of the unique focus on critical religion so that we could do something similar in Canada. During my stay, I had extensive meetings with Timothy Fitzgerald, Michael Marten, Alison Jasper and Andrew Hass. The intellectual and administrative teamwork of these four prominent scholars impressed and inspired me greatly. They have developed a trajectory of theory that is quickly becoming a central critical paradigm in the field.
I hope you realize the importance of what Fitzgerald, Marten, Jasper and Hass are bringing to religious studies. Right now I am attending the meeting of the International Association of the History of Religion in Erfurt, Germany and at least one session per day is occupied with discussion of the methods and theories cultivated at Stirling. Your faculty has pioneered a many-faceted interrogation of the terms on which the academic study of religion is constituted. Tim Fizgerald’s book, The Ideology of Religious Studies, has become a benchmark text that challenges theorists to radically reinterpret concepts like ‘religion,’ ‘politics’, ‘sacred’ and ‘secular.’ Such work has huge implications for international law and statecraft. Religion is constantly hailed in constitutions, human rights tribunals, and codes of law. The work of the Stirling group demonstrates how the instability of the category of religion and its cognates generates incoherent and confusing policy and law. Thanks in large part to the books, articles, essays, lectures, and blog postings produced from Stirling more and more graduate programmes in North America and Europe are now amplifying and expanding this crucial critical perspective.
If Stirling were to close its programme, a major force for needed and far-reaching reform in religious studies as well as in international relations and political science – disciplines that are now utilizing mystified concepts of ‘religion’ – would be lost. I urge you to think carefully about destroying an outstanding academic unit whose work is encouraging enlightened and progressive law and public policy in order to respond to an ephemeral bureaucratic purpose.
Reader in an Arts and Humanities subject who examined a PhD in the Religion department:
I was very shocked to hear that Stirling are to close the Religious Studies Department. I examined a PhD from the department – an excellent student who had been well supervised and had clearly enjoyed an intellectually stimulating and creative departmental atmosphere. To be brief, I am particularly shocked on three levels:
- The extreme short notice of the decision – I find it impossible to see the impact on staff and students here as reasonable.
- That the department had very good UG recruitment figures, was due to launch a Masters programme, and had good research student figures.
- That the value of a vigorously interdisciplinary critical religious studies department is apparently not recognised. Such small departments, as long as they recruit well, are dynamic intellectual nodes in universities.
I cannot see any reason that the Religious Studies department would be viewed with anything but pride by Stirling University management. As a member of the wider UK academic community and a member of UCU, I hope to see Stirling’s management rethink this intellectually untimely and unreasonably short notice decision, and to rather enter into discussions to address any problems that need to be addressed. I also hope there will be a firm commitment to transparency.
Laleh Khalili (Professor of Middle East Politics, Department of Politics and International Studies, SOAS, University of London):
I have heard with a great deal of concern about the closure of the department of Religion at Stirling. It is truly shocking to hear not only that such an excellent department is closing down, but the process, which seems to have occurred with no consultation, with little warning, and which leaves the academic staff of the Department high and dry, seems highly irregular at best, and utterly authoritarian and unethical at worst.
I would like to voice my concern and hope that you take a more ethical position towards your academic staff and your incoming students. The loss of Stirling religion will be felt far wider that your own university community. Closing down the department in such a perfunctory way can only damage the reputation of Stirling as a hospitable place for scholarship.