Letter: The teaching of theology is not dependent on a set of religious beliefs

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The Independent Online
Sir: Richard Dawkins, Reader in Zoology at the University of Oxford, has stated twice in your columns that theology should not be taught in universities. His most recent outburst (letter, 27 December) arises from his response to a short letter of mine (21 December) about the three wise men, which was an ironic comment on the confusion between pious legend and historical truth-claim in much popular (not theological) writing about the Christmas stories. Trying to tell a joke to a fanatic is, however, a doomed enterprise. He used my slightly flippant letter to mount an attack on the study of theology as such.

Theology, as taught in Oxford, is largely a textual, historical and linguistic discipline. It involves the literary and historical analysis of ancient texts, a critical study of some major movements in Western intellectual history, and rigorous analysis of some central concepts (of great philosophical interest) of the Christian intellectual tradition. It may also involve, and in most other British universities will involve, study of the sociology and psychology of religion and of the history, beliefs and practices of one or two religious traditions in some depth.

None of this requires or presupposes any particular set of beliefs in either teacher or student. Indeed, at Oxford we make a point of warning students with strong religious beliefs that our approach is critical, does not attempt to defend any one viewpoint, and may be found unsettling by some. It is strange and sad to find a university teacher attacking a subject that extends knowledge of influential human beliefs and of intellectual history, and which aims to sharpen faculties of critical reflection and of sensitivity to alien beliefs and cultures in matters of religion. The study of religion is a branch of the humanities which may increase human understanding, as well as providing a close critical study of some of the great classical works of human imagination.

I can distinguish Dr Dawkins's teaching of zoology from his controversial personal beliefs about, for example, the genetic bases of religion. Dawkins's theories might themselves form part of a theology course on the relation of scientific and religious belief, and there is no reason why they should not be taught by someone who accepts Dawkins's own views.

I am sorry, however, that he seems to be unable to distinguish the teaching of theology, as a critical study of religious texts, practices and beliefs, from the personal opinions of its teachers. I am also sorry that he counts as a theologian anyone who writes letters on religious topics to the newspapers, thus again confusing theology with religious belief.

In Oxford, as in other British universities, religious beliefs and practices can be studied carefully and rigorously, without any required commitment to one set of beliefs, but with an insistence on careful scholarship and scrupulous honesty. It is shameful, and also a simple intellectual confusion, to attack an academic discipline because one dislikes the opinions (or what one imagines to be the opinions) of some of its teachers.

Yours faithfully,


Christ Church


23 December

The writer is Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford University.