Students still face old prejudices that an RE degree means a career in a convent. Sophie James reports
If you choose to study English literature, it does not follow that you want to be a poet, or if you study science that you have to be a scientist. Why then, so often, does an illogical leap occur that a student of theology inevitably means they are going to become a nun, a priest, or join (or found) a religious order or lead a crusade?
Religious studies is a discipline still perceived to be bound within the nature of personal faith, rather than an academic interest. It can also be perceived pointless as a basis for a career. When Jennifer Daniel chose religious studies A-level alongside English and history, and then applied to read theology at university, some of her family asked: "But what are you going to achieve with that?" She's not surprised; theologians will always be difficult to place. She is certain that she will not join a religious order or become a nun. She plans to enter radio broadcasting and lists those attributes learned from the course which will help her most, among them balanced argument and tolerance, something lacking, she hints, in the critics of theology.
"The problem with RE," she says, "is that people question your motives. It's not training you in a specific skill, they say, or like English and history, it's not well known. People think, 'Theology and RE? Well, there's no place for that anywhere, is there?'" It is, she says, a double-edged sword: secular critics expect that you will be an evangelist while, if you are religious, a person from your own religious community might sniff at the intellectual study of faith. Religion has never been easy.
Arriving at the sixth-form at Latymer School in north London after years spent in a nurturing Catholic convent, she has gladly exposed herself to a different climate ("people of different faiths, people of no faith").
Like many young people, she had chosen RS at A-level and at university to discover more about her own identity - she is a Catholic - and also Church history and the traditions of the Catholic community. She has never studied comparative religion and at the moment would rather have the depth of one religion than the breadth of them all.
Faith might be integral to her life, she says, but when she goes to Mass she thinks about the arguments of the classroom. She can end up deconstructing the gospel reading or challenging the sermon. "From the perspective of faith, I don't think questioning is a problem. I always felt that I knew the Bible well, but now, no, I don't know it well at all. Once I thought it was solid, unchangeable untouchable - but now, suddenly, a sneaky suspicion develops . . . things are not what they seem. It's an exciting unsettlement. You become more in touch with motives." Your own motives for believing, she explains, as well the motives of the authors of the gospels.
Having got over the "what's the point?" attitude that the study of theology can generate, she settled down to one of the main attractions of the course, which was the chance to study a biblical language, such as Greek, and get to the grass roots of the text, so that the translation opens up lost meaning.
She admits that the philosophy papers - where Christianity is compared to alternative systems of belief like Communism - were the most frustrating, because they challenged her basic understanding of life. "At first, I had a problem with objectivity. I'm going around in circles, not knowing if I'm right or wrong but having to argue it out."
Identity, roots, a sense of history, a sense of self, are words used when Sultana Uddin, in the lower-sixth at Mulberry Girls School in Tower Hamlets, explains that the school's A-level course (which focuses on the Islam faith as well as general philosophical questions) equips her with argument and knowledge about her Islamic origins.
Hoping to extend her interest in theology and philosophy at university - and then train to become a lawyer - she, like Jennifer, manages to remain academically detached about what is often a personal enquiry. "My family are Muslims but I do not know about my faith in detail. The syllabus is objective, and it's not a question of whether Islam is good and great. After studying, you must make an objective decision as well, whether you believe or not," she says.
More important, she says, is the overall picture that one gets of your faith as part of an evolving, historical process, often prone to misinterpretations. Among her other A-levels - English and history - she considers RS is the more pertinent to her life. "English is fiction, what we read, the imagination, creative. RS is topical, my actual reality."
It was in GCSE that she first became interested in feminism and the Islamic tradition. In studying the text of the Koran at A-level, she has been able to deconstruct prejudices which still affect Islamic women. The course, she says, "equips us with arguments about ourselves. Equality between the sexes, divorce, women beating, the wearing of the scarf . . . things like this interest us because we are women and we want to go out and defend ourselves. You realise that most of the things you had been taught are more culture than religion. Now we can find out what is religion and what is culture."
For Firdusi Uddin, a year above Sultana in the upper-sixth, it was the controversy that can accompany Islam which precipitated her choice of A-level. "I wanted to know more about my religion and why people are attacking it, " she says.
She says that the combination of Islam and philosophy can be fatal for the weaker spirited. "Being introduced to scholarly opinions of our texts challenged what I've believed in. But it's up to you to find a way of challenging them rather than them challenging you." With the ambition of studying criminal law and becoming a police officer, she is grateful for the philosophical aspect of her RS because it has taught her not only to think but to be tactful, tolerant and diplomatic.
Yet, still today, how many people would place a theologian in the careers of a broadcaster, a lawyer, or a police officer? Old prejudices predominate even when, as the confessions of modern theology students reveal, distance from one's subject and devotion to it is easily maintained. It's about time, as a student said, to drop the nun out of the theology.