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Rad Ed review: Studying Religion in Australia

Understanding religion and preserving Studies in Religion as a discipline remains crucial for the future.

After a hard-fought struggle to save the Department of Studies in Religion from closure at the University of Sydney, students and staff won the day. However, the future of some Religious Studies units still remains in doubt. As part of the Radical Education 2021 series, Studying Religion in Australia discussed the insights of the discipline and religion in Australia. The event began with a heartfelt tribute to Alana Louise Bowden, a student and staff member who recently passed away, whose efforts and role were instrumental in saving the department.

Facilitated by Studies in Religion graduate Ranuka Tandan, the discussion featured David Smith, Associate Professor of American Politics and Foreign Policy, and Carole Cusack, Professor of Religious Studies. It looked at the importance of the discipline, why it’s undervalued, and the connection between religion and politics in Australia compared to globally, and how it’s treated in a higher education context.  

Following the appointment of Dominic Perrottet, a self-described “conservative Catholic,” as NSW Premier, the discussion interrogated whether Australia was particularly good at separating the church and state.

In Australia, a lack of understanding around different religions shapes our views and ultimately media reporting. While there is an assumption that Australians are fairly lax about religion, that is hardly the case, according to  Cusack. She suggested that religion is often codified into what is acceptable and what is not, leading to assumptions made about particular ethnic groups and religions associated with them. This has been particularly the case since 9/11 where communities presumed to be Muslim came to be considered a threat and had their places of worship attacked.

Although many do not consider Australia a Christian country, Smith argued that nationalism is often equated with a particular religion and this is reflected in other countries too. He pointed out that, in Australia’s case, an attack on Christianity is seen as an attack on the nation. Ultimately, the “separation of church and state does not mean the separation of religion and politics.”

The discussion also provided an insight into why secular religious education in Australia is so undervalued. This can be partly attributed to the fact that departments such as Studies in Religion at universities remain small and have been given little opportunity to expand. Students who study religion in high school very rarely carry it through to university. On the other hand, secularism and secular society tend to regard religion as seemingly unimportant with no need to understand or learn more about it, except in the case of certain events prompting widespread interest. Smith noted that despite secularism’s assumption that religion would die out, religion has evolved, taking on new forms, while some religions have gone away entirely, and even the way people experience religion has completely changed.

Despite the success of students and staff in saving the department, the fate of Studies in Religion, and many others like it, still hangs in the balance. Reflecting back on the wider campaign against cuts to the Arts, Cusack said that there have been many attempts by university management to cut the discipline and ongoing negotiations are still occurring. 

Studies in Religion as a discipline mainly gained prominence after September 11. Both Cusack and Smith emphasised the importance of the discipline in allowing us to understand what religion actually is. As Smith suggested, it plays a vital role in helping us understand the complex interaction of religion and the world.

As religion continues to influence Australian politics at every level, understanding religion and preserving Studies in Religion as a discipline remains crucial for the future.