King’s College London comes to its senses, deep-sixes postgraduate theology curriculum

August 26, 2014 • 6:45 am

What a good feeling it is to see a university get rid of its theology courses! Religious history or comparative religion is fine; theology, not so much. If you want to teach about the properties of nonexistent objects, do it in a private divinity school or seminary. There’s simply no excuse for a public university to act as if superstition is real; it’s as if they had an entire curriculum devoted to ghosts, their properties, and their wishes, and pretended they were studying real objects! Or an entire curriculum on homeopathy in or alongside a medical school.

But King’s College London has made the decision, although it was ostensibly made on financial grounds. According to The Tablet (a Catholic news weekly),

Leading theologians have criticised the closure of a university’s post-graduate theology and ministry programme as “deeply regrettable”.

(Note that there are also “ministry” courses, so King’s College is also in the business of teaching preachers to tell lies)

The decision to shut down the influential theology and ministry courses at King’s College London was taken, according to the university, for financial reasons in order to make the department “viable” for the long term.

The move came after the appointment of Alister McGrath, former chair of theology, ministry and education, to be Andreos Idreos professor of science and religion at the University of Oxford.

Another key departure was Dr Anna Rowlands, appointed as a lecturer in contemporary Catholic theology and deputy director of the Centre for Catholic Studies at Durham University, who formerly lectured in political and moral theology on the programme.

I’ve read a bit of McGrath for the Albatross, and find him an unexceptionable, garden-variety accomodationist, and a vocal critic of New Atheism. He wrote, among other books, The Dawkins Delusion (coauthored with his wife Joanna McGrath). Wikipedia says that he’s a former atheist, and he’s criticized Dawkins for being theologically unsophisticated (see aforementioned book).

It’s an embarrassment to Oxford and other state-supported schools in the UK that they would even have programs in theology, and this has always baffled me. It may be a holdover from the days when those schools were actually religious institutions, but in a modern world there’s no excuse for it. In fact, having theology programs in public universities would be illegal in the U.S., as it would constitute an illegal violation of the First Amendment (public endorsement of religious doctrine). Oxford and Cambridge, for example, are among the best universities in the world, and yet they still teach theology. And a Center for Catholic Studies at Durham University? Really? Why is that?

Some academics are mourning the downgrading of theology, but I’d say that if you have to cut somewhere, theology should be the first thing to go. Those academics who regret the loss of theology departments are, I suspect, either theologians themselves or believers.

The Tablet’s report continues:

There is concern in academic circles that theology courses may be squeezed due to the financial pressures universities are coming under. The move to end the course at King’s comes after it was revealed that Heythrop College, a specialist philosophy and theology institute, is talks about a “strategic partnership” with St Mary’s University, Twickenham (see below).

. . . Professor McGrath said: “I learned with great sadness of the closure of the theology and ministry course. I believe it was one of the best in the land. It contributed very significantly to the intellectual and pastoral well-being of the churches. I do not think the decision is reversible, but it is deeply regrettable.”

No; it’s to be applauded! But there’s one skunk in the woodpile, for this is also reported:

Around 120 postgraduate students studied for taught doctorates or an MA on the theology and ministry programme at King’s. The existing students will continue their courses in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies.

I don’t quite get how they can deep-six an entire theology and ministry program but still retain a Department of Theology and Religious Studies. If they shut down the postgraduate program in theology, what are the graduate students going to do in a Department of Theology and Religious studies? This also suggests that undergraduate courses will continue in that Department.

Come on, King’s: it’s time for you to put away your childish things. Is there anybody here willing to defend entire departments of theology in the UK?

h/t: Coel

44 thoughts on “King’s College London comes to its senses, deep-sixes postgraduate theology curriculum

  1. I expect it’s due to a shortage of students. These best part of this news is knowing that so few people are silly enough to want to study theology at an advanced level.

  2. You have to remember why King’s College London existed in the first place.

    In the early 19th century, only Anglicans could get a university education in England. Oxford and Cambridge both had a religious test for admission. If you were an atheist or Jewish or Catholic or Nonconformist, those universities were closed to you.

    To remedy this, a group of freethinkers founded University College London, and opened its doors in 1826 to anyone, regardless of religious belief or lack thereof. Moreover, the founders decreed that there would be no theology department at UCL.

    This alarmed the “Establishment”, who labelled it “the Godless Institution of Gower Street”. A couple of years later, after campaigning by the Duke of Wellington, the Archbishops of York and Canterbury and various other peers and prelates, King’s College London was opened. Its royal charter explicitly stated its purpose to promote Christianity. Its first Principal was a clergyman and theologian.

    If you want an atheist-friendly university, go to UCL instead. It was also the first university in England to admit women and to grant them degrees.

    And yes, it’s my alma mater 🙂

    1. I’m unfortunate enough to be doing a PhD at King’s, a.k.a. Strand Polytechnic, at the moment (in my defence, I didn’t have any other options outside of Australia and South Africa). The College may have dropped theology and ministry for postgrads, but they still offer the Associateship of King’s College (AKC) to all students doing a full-time, three-year degree.

      The AKC is the original qualification offered by King’s. It’s basically a course in mainstream Christianity (with a lecture or two on Judaism and Islam thrown in there, of course, for the sake of political correctness). They actually try to recruit students into it during our inductions! I’ve no idea how many people actually take the damn thing; not a lot, I suspect.

      But it’s pretty bloody embarrassing to be at an institution that tries to foist this rubbish on its students.

  3. Wikipedia says that [McGrath is] a former atheist, …

    Though, by his own testimony, this was between the ages of 16 and 18, and by his own description his attitudes then were rather child-like. Thus his former atheism doesn’t really amount to the big deal that he makes of it.

    In books such as “Twilight of atheism” his whole argument seems to amount to “I’m a former atheist therefore I know that atheism is wrong”.

    1. I can understand how someone could be stuck with the beliefs foisted on them by their parents but someone who has been an atheist but suddenly thinks ‘Hey, maybe there’s something in this big beardy business’ has to be as cracked as a teenager who suddenly decides to believe in Santa Claus.

      I suspect his ‘atheism’ was just an attention seeking gambit.

    2. A large number of atheists were raised in religious homes. Do you suppose he would welcome the comment “I’m a former Christian therefore I know christianity is wrong.”?

  4. University College London’s admission of women took, one more time yet again, over another half century since its inception. Not until 1878, did female human beings “attain” admission to its curricula.

    It appears to many of us to seem for so many, many others … … “difficult” to remember on this, the ( official ) 43rd Women’s Equality Day in the United States, 26 August, that over half the World’s human population was for decades and centuries prohibited by / DEhumanized by the World’s minority — away from its right … … to learn.

    Why Women Need Freedom from Religion is a nontract long – produced by the Freedom From Religion Foundation and found here: which succinctly concludes thus, “Organized religion .always has been and remains. the greatest enemy of women’s rights.”


    1. I agree completely.

      But at least UCL did remedy the injustice in 1878. Oxford didn’t award degrees to women until 1920, and Cambridge was men-only until 1947.

    2. It’s a good point that academic institutions used to bar women from taking part in studies and as a society we dropped that silliness. Therefore, appeal to tradition is nonsense & just because religious groups founded an educational institution does not mean that we need to keep the religious part in this day & age. My own alma mater was founded by Baptists (their motto is even in Ancient Greek, which I bemoaned until I learned Ancient Greek) & it too has a Theology program & its own Divinity school. I never liked that it existed in my public university (most universities are public in Canada). The only good was the attendees took Ancient Greek which made Ancient Greek more popular.

  5. Oxford ‘state-supported’? Most of the Oxbridge colleges have plenty of money without cash from the state. They’ve owned various chunks of England since the Middle Ages. As there is an Established Church in England, anything state-supported would not be expected to be non-religious on principle anyway.

  6. I can understand for a publicly-funded American university, but does the UK have the same separate of state and church? Isn’t the Head of state also the head of the Anglican church? Not trying to defend the theology and ministry program, just curious whether your objection(publicly-funded school) applies in the UK.

    1. It doesn’t — but it should.

      Not only is the Queen the head of the Church of England, but we have CofE bishops in the House of Lords. Oddly, our government think the way to “reform” this is to include other religious leaders!


    2. I tried to reply but WordPress impolitely ate my post.

      In essence, I said what Ant said and pointed out that functionally at least, the UK and the former British colonies who have the Queen as head of state work as democracies instead of theocracies and that this is mostly an inherited anachronism that probably should be rectified.

      1. I assume Canada is similar to New Zealand in that (much to the chagrin of Anglicans) there is no established church. I vaguely recall a case where the Anglicans tried to argue that they has some form of established role but were laughed out of court.

        1. Yes. There is not established church but Canada has a history of playing nice with Catholics. This has meant that there have been guarantees that allow catholic schooling which has led to state funding of said funding and politicians don’t want to touch it.

          1. Education in Canada is a provincial matter. In British Columbia there are no Roman Catholic public schools. There may be private schools for Catholics but I am not aware of any. There are certainly provincially-supported Catholic schools in Ontario but I’ll be damned if I know why.

              1. Keep in mind, the Green Party exists mainly as a Conservative-funded liberal 5th column. Keep splitting the vote and we’ll keep having an anti-science religious fundamentalist Conservative government winning majorities with 30% of the vote! 😛

                Or as the Green Party slogan says:
                “Let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

              2. If people stopped voting strategically, I think we’d actually get the government we want. I just can’t vote for a party I don’t like.

              3. And for similar reasons, Rob Ford will likely win re-election for Toronto’s mayor! 😀

                Democracy! The worst form of government, except for all the other ones!

              4. Ah yes I am familiar with the reasonable complaint about first past the post. And I probably would agree that proportional representation would be better. But then again, look at Israel’s parliament.

                The main problem, as with all things, is that humans are involved.

              5. I believe the Dutch parliament has 15 or 20 parties in it, and so would any country with lots of parties and proportional representation. I suspect PR encourages splinter groups and parties with a narrow focus instead of large coalition parties.

  7. Religion is very deeply ingrained in European culture. Yes, we Europeans may, on average, be more likely to be atheist than the average American, but that doesn’t, by any means, mean that Europe is godless.

    Religion is still seen as virtuous in pant parts of Europe, even in supposedly ‘secular’ nations like the UK, or (gasp) Sweden. I can’t speak for the other Scandinavian countries, but being Swedish, I can tell you that even if the nation is not as fundamentalist as, say, the US, that doesn’t mean that religion doesn’t have it’s place in Swedush society. And that role, I assure you, is very closely protected in the name of tradition and everything that is proper.

    1. Same here in DK.

      There’s a lot of godless people, but belief in belief is still big and 78% remain members of the national church. ( the number is dropping, though )

      On sundays most churches are more or less empty, but for practical reasons a lot of people prefer the status quo.

      And then there’s the rise of right-wing Christian Nationalism ( The Danish People’s Party ). They don’t talk a lot about their faith, but god pops out of the woodwork when pressed.

      We’ve still got a long road ahead of us.

    2. The separation of church and state in the USA was to mitigate the competing demands of religious groups, not to vanquish religion, so it’s not surprising that European countries with established churches should have a higher proportion of atheists.

  8. I had a couple-month email conversation with the head of a religious studies program at at local Friends college, who’d gotten his doctorate from a public university. We had to eventually curtail correspondence because he was unable to define his terms or set up proper syllogisms; and I wondered how a person could, not only get a doctorate from a state-supported university, but become chair of a philosophy department without being able to define his or her terms. And, frankly, it still mystifies me.

  9. I don’t really understand everyone’s seemingly deep resentment of theology as an academic subject.

    The study of religion is part textual, part historical, part philosophical. All of these things are considered legitimate academic subjects, so why is the study of how they pertain to religion not legitimate?

    Put otherwise, I have myself participated in post secondary studies of both Star Wars and the Rolling Stones. Are we really so jaded that we consider these valid topics of study but not Christianity or Islam?

    Even if nobody in the world remained religious in the traditional sense, given its historical significance, wouldn’t it make sense to study what it was all about?

    1. Well, I’d venture that there is a legitimate distinction between religious studies (a non-partisan view of religion, looking in from the outside, analytical) and theology (apologetic, looking in from the inside, synthetical). The former is a legitimate, secular academic study; the latter …


    2. to quote jerry’s second sentence:

      “Religious history or comparative religion is fine; theology, not so much.”

      teaching theology is like teaching astrology or palmistry; it is a venue only for grifters.

    3. I agree, the study of religion is completely valid. However, theology is different, and should be left to private institutions. My own alma mater in New Zealand (Massey University) no longer even offers Religious Studies as a major because of lack of interest. It’s never offered theology.

  10. As an alumnus of Durham University, I’m embarrassed for my alma mater. Even accepting that like oxford and Cambridge it has has a School of Theology and Religious Studies, for similar historical reasons, it turns out the the Centre for Catholic Studies was only founded in 2008. Christ!


    1. I too am an alumnus of Durham. I graduated in 1951 – there were only a handful of colleges when I was there – now King’s in Newcastle is a university in its own right.

  11. Australia isn’t much better I’m afraid. I was chatting with someone at the mensa one day and was surprised to discover that one of Australia’s oldest and largest publicly funded universities had a theology course. Maybe the shock was just due to being accustomed to the US system where religion is not part of the public university system. Now how about Harvard – when are they ditching their superstitious studies programs?

  12. Reblogged this on bbnewsblog and commented:
    Two quotes from this blog article that conveys, IMO, very pleasant news for all non-God believers.

    1) What a good feeling it is to see a university get rid of its theology courses! Religious history or comparative religion is fine; theology, not so much. If you want to teach about the properties of nonexistent objects, do it in a private divinity school or seminary.

    2) It’s an embarrassment to Oxford and other state-supported schools in the UK that they would even have programs in theology, and this has always baffled me. It may be a holdover from the days when those schools were actually religious institutions, but in a modern world there’s no excuse for it. In fact, having theology programs in public universities would be illegal in the U.S., as it would constitute an illegal violation of the First Amendment (public endorsement of religious doctrine).

    NOW I wonder: When will the same thing happen here in Sweden?

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