Dutch religious studies and theology must sail close to the wind if they are to continue to play a significant role in the future. Both fields have been struggling with budget cuts and fragmentation for some twenty years, putting their quality and relevance at risk.
What they need is a clear view of their role in society and greater coherence and cooperation in research and education. They can attain this by developing a joint research agenda with a well-defined theme. These are the recommendations of a committee installed by the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences to examine the academic study of religion in the Netherlands.
The Academy Foresight Committee on theology and religious studies, which was chaired by Prof. Ed Noort, surveyed the current situation in both disciplines and made recommendations for safeguarding their future.
Participation in current public debate is largely absent in both disciplines, in stark contrast to their long scholarly traditions and, in recent years, their greater relevance for contemporary life (for example with regard to the position of Islam and the many emerging manifestations of religion). Matters have not been helped by the far-reaching reorganisations and budget cuts that universities have undergone since around 1989, but beyond this, the academic field itself appears resistant to change.
The Academy’s Foresight Committee believes that the differences between theology (where the object of study is the thinking about God, regardless of religion) and religious studies (which examines a broad range of religious cultures and practices) need not prevent closer cooperation. The two disciplines can be mutually reinforcing and work together to stave off certain threats, such as the declining support for the study of minor languages, necessary to research the source materials of many religions.
In-depth interviews and focus groups have given the Academy’s Foresight Committee hopes that the academic field can chart a new, future-proof course for itself. There is a widely shared sense of urgency that action must be taken. That will require more cooperation based on a shared view of the role the two disciplines wish to play in scholarship and society. The Committee has proposed organising a series of meetings at the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities and Social Sciences (NIAS) starting in September 2015. Representatives of both disciplines can also work on developing a joint research agenda with a well-defined theme. The Foresight Committee itself has suggested the theme ‘lived religion', which would examine how religion was and is perceived in everyday practice.
The Committee believes that establishing a new Netherlands Academy of Religion that brings together researchers from across the board would be a suitable organisation for implementing a broad research programme of this kind.