By Lianne Kolirin
Rebranding religious studies as world views would attract more young people and help stem the tide of university department closures.
So believes Dr Opinderjit Takhar, newly appointed president of TRS-UK, the professional body for teaching and research in religion and theology in higher education.
A 2019 report by the British Academy suggested theology and religious studies (TRS) were at risk of disappearing at university level after a steep decline in applications, with many departments facing cuts and closures.
There are fears that the study of religion is in danger of becoming institutionally invisible because of the way statistics are gathered, but it can be found in university courses alongside many other subjects.
Dr Takhar, who is also director of the Centre for Sikh and Panjabi studies at Wolverhampton University, believes TRS-UK represents both disciplines and part of the problem lies in young people’s perceptions.
“One of the aims of TRS-UK is to ensure our discipline survives the test of time, so we have to address these issues at school level,” she told the Religion Media Centre.
She believes the drop in student recruitment is down to many schools no longer offering religious studies — instead embedding it in the citizenship curriculum.
“Their argument is that kids in schools just don’t want to do [religious studies] any more.” But she believes a simple rebrand could inspire young people. “They find it very confessional, as though we teach children to believe. That’s how the whole emphasis on referring to it as ‘world views’ came up,” she said.
“It’s time we moved with contemporary thinking and what young people say about the subject. It’s about how different communities interact with society. Even if you renamed it philosophy and ethics it just sounds very different from something that comes across as sitting around praying to God.”
Dr Takhar, 49, who takes up the post this month, recalled her childhood in the Swansea Valley. “In 1985 there was no diversity at all. My cousins and I were the only non-white pupils in our huge school,” she said. “There wasn’t much awareness of faith beyond Christianity. Very often the teachers would ask us questions around Hinduism and Sikhism and being kids we could sometimes just say anything. As I grew older it made me question.”
Such questions have led her on a long and accomplished career in academia. An initial degree in cultural studies was soon followed by a masters in Indian religions and a PhD on Sikh groups in Britain. Then, in 2005, she completed a postgraduate qualification in secondary religious education.
In 2009 she made the leap from secondary to higher education becoming a senior lecturer, then head of religious studies at Wolverhampton University where she is also associate professor of Sikh studies.
Her work on Punjabi Dalits and identity formation has been published in numerous books, while her publication, Sikh Identity: An exploration of Groups Among Sikhs, is used as a key text in many universities around the world.
Dr Takhar’s impressive CV is peppered with countless publications, awards, governing roles and more. She was recently employed as a consultant on the BBC documentary Being Sikh, which explained the faith to a wider audience. She also advises the EastEnders scriptwriters on the soap’s Sikh family.
Still, she is raring to go in her new role. “I definitely wanted a challenge,” she told the RMC. “One of the aims of TRS-UK is to ensure our discipline survives the test of time and so we have to address these issues at school level.
“We have to emphasise that taking a degree in religion or theology opens up so many different professions that require critical analysis and skill sets. It prepares you to think outside the box. My aspiration is for us to really work together and to have a scaffold of our subject right through from primary to PhD level.”
Key to inspiring young people, she believes, is the “lived experience” of religion. “How does religion interact with society, that’s what gives it that lived experience,” she said.
Part of this is to enlist specialist teachers, as well as taking students out to engage with Britain’s many communities. “If you are a specialist and it’s your subject you are passionate. If it’s something you’ve studied for years and have a personal interest in, you’re more likely to put that across.”
Born in Coventry to immigrant parents, Dr Takhar said: “We couldn’t speak a word of English when we started school. The beauty of that now is that we’re fluent in Punjabi and also Hindi. That has been a real benefit to me in my career. Because I speak these different languages, it helps me reach a wider community.”
She added: “Sometimes it feels like diversity and inclusion are just tick-box exercises but being a woman with different experiences because of my ethnicity and faith, I really feel I can bring some of that in. I’m looking forward to really acknowledging the diversity we have and getting away from textbook representation of faith and faith communities to focus on that lived experience which we find in supermarkets, in our kitchens.”
While Covid has obviously limited social interaction, interacting with the various communities is key to the discipline and the greater good, she believes. “Yes, there are virtual tools but ultimately I’d like to take students to different community areas. For some it’s the first time they’ve been into a church, mosque, gurdwara … they take away so much.”
This is not about tolerance but something more, she says. “We want a mutually understanding society. We want coexistence rather than just putting up with each other which is what that word tolerance is all about.”