Putting faith in a broader vision of religion

 

Religious study has traditionally been the domain of theology departments, but at UCC a nondenominational course has brought a new approach

FROM BEHIND HIS DESK in room 222 of the O’Rahilly building at University College Cork, Prof Brian Bocking hands me a framed photograph of a blue-eyed man with a shaved head, dressed in the style of a Burmese monk. He tells me that at the turn of the 20th century this man was known throughout Asia, where he travelled extensively until the outbreak of the first World War. Described as an autodidact, atheist and Buddhist revivalist, the monk in the picture is known as U Dhammaloka; he led a colourful life, eventually finding himself tried for sedition in Burma. His story is all the more remarkable for the fact that he was a working-class Dublin vagrant who made his way halfway around the world to become one of the first, and best-known, western Buddhist monks in Asia.

When we think of Ireland’s religious past and the people who dominated it, stories like these often get overshadowed by Catholic and Protestant narratives. At best they become mere historical footnotes. At worst, as in this case, they are not remembered at all.

One of the reasons scholars believe stories such as U Dhammaloka’s have been given little attention is that until recently Ireland had no academic department dedicated to the study of religions. Our universities may have had theology departments and some broad religious courses, but in some important respects they lacked a department with a wider outlook. Then, in 2007, Bocking founded UCC’s study-of-religions department. Given the significance of religion in Irish life, it seems curious that Irish academia had never addressed the fact that religion had not been studied in a broad, nondenominational way. This was down in part to issues of patronage and national identity, of course, but with the establishment of the country’s first study-of-religions department, more could follow.

The department at UCC has grown steadily since its inception, so much so that this September it will begin an MA programme. Three staff make up the department, led by Bocking, an expert in Buddhism and Japanese religions, and one of those working to shine some academic light on the story of U Dhammaloka. The other staff are Dr Oliver Scharbrodt, who is leading a study on the history of Islam in Ireland, and Dr James Kapalo, an expert on global Christianities.

Their undergraduate students are drawn from across the globe, with more than 300 of them taking the subject as part of their bachelor-of-arts degree courses. Bocking says the department’s existence is a somewhat belated reaction to the more multicultural and religiously diverse Ireland of today.

“The academic study of religion is well developed in other parts of the world, such as the US and the UK,” he says. “The focus here on the academic study of religions in the plural ensures we don’t run the risk of simply becoming training centres for clerics, which is what we’ve always tried to avoid. In the past, where theology has been studied, it sometimes comes from a closed point of view or is viewed through the Christian faiths solely. In other words, it would be a bit like having a politics department where all students and staff had to be either Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael.”

The narrow focus of the study of religion in Ireland in the past has, Bocking argues, affected religious teaching in many schools. The Irish Human Rights Commission recently published a report on religion and education that had 13 recommendations for the Government to consider, including one that schools should “accommodate diversity of religious and nonreligious convictions in the State”. With better and broader academic training, the idea goes, our religion teachers will be more rounded.

“Religion teaching in Ireland is pretty dire at the moment,” says Bocking. “You have to ask yourself: where would religious teachers have learned about Islam or Buddhism in the current system? They wouldn’t. In general, teachers of religion as we know them in Ireland have little or no background in the study of religions other than Christianity, and that is what it comes down to, I’m afraid. Our department is aiming to train teachers who can deliver nondenominational material in the way described by the human-rights-commission report.”

Students on the course in Cork can study everything from Pentecostal churches to the occult, from Judaism to Buddhist spirituality. The programme also has a strong emphasis on fieldwork: students are as likely to find themselves in a convent, interviewing religious orders, as they are to find themselves sitting in a lecture hall.

One of the students taking the subject for her final degree is Isabelle Ruane, who became interested in religion in Irish society when she moved here from France and tried to enrol her children at a nondenominational school. “I was struck by the lack of choice in education,” she says. “I didn’t want them in a religious school, and I found that, when it came to secondary school, there was no choice. I then began looking at what they were learning in religion class and became very interested in that. My dissertation is on religious education, and I am interested in the fact that, although Ireland has become a multicultural society, people are still religiously illiterate and indoctrinated in a particular religion, in my view.”

Ruane says that the proof of the impartiality of the course material is that, after three years’ study, she knows little of her lecturers’ personal beliefs, despite the fact that the department is a close-knit one. This is exactly how both she and the course leaders want it.

“I still don’t know what the religious background of our course lecturers is,” she says. “I find that great. I have my suspicions, but it’s never been relevant to the course, and that really shows that it is nondenominational teaching in the fullest sense.”

'Our religion teacher left us to meditate'

Rory McDonnell, aged 23, undergraduate student

“I took the course in first year and was surprised by it and by how little we know about other religions. We are a little ignorant about other beliefs and philosophies. My own experience with religious teachers was that with the older ones we tended to talk about Christianity and focus on Christian values. When they talked about other religious they became pretty ambiguous.”

David Cowpar, aged 21, undergraduate student

“I want to be a religion teacher. A lot of the courses I looked at focus on theology. This one appealed to me as it looks at all forms of religion and not just from a Catholic perspective. For our fieldwork we had to study Christian organisations and I spent time with the YMCA group in Cork and interviewed Catholic priests also. I hope to go on and do a higher diploma next year.”

Catriona Ní Mhaolcatha, aged 21, undergraduate student

“I planned to do sociology in first year, but I loved this so much I kept it on. At school we had a religion teacher and she’d leave us to meditate and put on music. There was no actual religion to it. At home, my parents would be very Catholic. I would go to Mass every Sunday. My religion is compatible with the course. My favourite part is Islam. I love learning about the history of it and the beliefs. I’m going to Dubai for a year and I’ll see what happens after that. I’d like to do religion teaching and maybe career guidance.”