'Cos you haven't gotta have faith

Diana Hinds dispels the myth that only trainee priests take degrees in theology
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The Independent Online

Of all degree subjects, theology is perhaps the most dogged by public misconceptions. The Rev Keith Ward, Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford University, says that he comes across this all the time: "One misconception is that theology is only for people who are going to be ordained. You can see how this arises, because 100 years ago in Oxford, that is exactly what theology was - a subject for the clergy. But that is now well out of date," he says.

"Another is that theology - and even the word is still off-putting to some - is in some way propagandist, is trying to turn you into something."

Many people assume that to study theology, you have to be "religious". But take a look at any sizeable theology faculty, and rather than Christian Union activists you will find a large proportion of open-minded, even sceptical students professing to no particular religion.

Most of Oxford's theology students "are not particularly religious", says Professor Ward. And of the 90-odd students at Edinburgh's School of Divinity, "the majority do not have a strong faith position", says Dr David Reimer, director of undergraduate studies.

Rebecca Carter, 18, a first-year undergraduate studying Philosophy, Religion and Ethics at Heythrop College, University of London, does not believe in God, and says that at least half of her fellow-students take a similar view - "Which gives rise to good discussions at lectures". But she has a strong interest in religious questions, partly as a result of suffering a bereavement some years ago.

She became fascinated when studying the Bible as a historical document at A-level, and is, so far, delighted with Heythrop's mix of subject modules - which this year have included Jewish responses to the Holocaust, and "the historical Jesus".

Heythrop College takes about 15 students on its Philosophy, Religion and Ethics BA course, but Dr John McDade, a Jesuit priest and principal of Heythrop, would love to see numbers rise to 25. "The degree suits people who are inquisitive," he says. "It's an opportunity to work out your ideas in depth, even if your beliefs are not clear at the start. It is also an excellent academic framework within which to consider these things. It teaches how to ask questions properly: a lot of the confusion in religion arises when this isn't the case."

Other theology departments emphasise the interdisciplinary intellectual challenges that their degrees provide. Professor Ward describes Oxford's theology degree as "almost a liberal-arts degree in itself" - including history, philosophy, "and a dash of anthropology". Edinburgh University's Bachelor of Divinity, while mainly focused on the Christian tradition, is "one of the most interdisciplinary subjects", according to Dr Reimer, drawing on history, linguistics, literature and philosophy, as well as politics, social policy and science. Edinburgh also has a degree in Religious Studies, which places Christianity alongside other world religions, and takes an anthropological view of all of them.

Far from equipping students only for a career in the church, the intellectual demands of a theology degree - engaging in abstract argument, researching, analysing, evaluating - make theology graduates popular in a host of careers, from law, accountancy and marketing to the Civil Service, according to Dr McDade.

And because applicants tend to overlook this subject, theology may, in some cases, be an easier subject through which to enter one of the more prestigious universities. This is not true at Oxford, Professor Ward says, where the colleges only admit two or three theology students every year, who must, as in other subjects, have at least two As and a B at A-level.

But at Edinburgh, where theology is what Dr Reimer calls a "low-pressure" subject, they take students with three Bs - "and we don't tend to turn people away because of a lack of places". At Heythrop College, the requirement is three Cs. "Theology isn't a soft option, but it is less competitive," says Dr McDade. "And it's endlessly fascinating."