Sir: Richard Dawkins, Reader in Zoology at the University of Oxford, has stated twice in your columns that theology should not be taught in universities. His most recent outburst (letter, 27 December) arises from his response to a short letter of mine (21 December) about the three wise men, which was an ironic comment on the confusion between pious legend and historical truth-claim in much popular (not theological) writing about the Christmas stories. Trying to tell a joke to a fanatic is, however, a doomed enterprise. He used my slightly flippant letter to mount an attack on the study of theology as such.
Theology, as taught in Oxford, is largely a textual, historical and linguistic discipline. It involves the literary and historical analysis of ancient texts, a critical study of some major movements in Western intellectual history, and rigorous analysis of some central concepts (of great philosophical interest) of the Christian intellectual tradition. It may also involve, and in most other British universities will involve, study of the sociology and psychology of religion and of the history, beliefs and practices of one or two religious traditions in some depth.
None of this requires or presupposes any particular set of beliefs in either teacher or student. Indeed, at Oxford we make a point of warning students with strong religious beliefs that our approach is critical, does not attempt to defend any one viewpoint, and may be found unsettling by some. It is strange and sad to find a university teacher attacking a subject that extends knowledge of influential human beliefs and of intellectual history, and which aims to sharpen faculties of critical reflection and of sensitivity to alien beliefs and cultures in matters of religion. …