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Religion and the Idea of a Research University

Thanks to generous funding from the Templeton World Charity Foundation, CIP's ‘Religion and the Idea of a Research University’ Project ran from 2011-2013. 

Visit the project website for full details of the project, commentary and resources.

The project's Component Questions were:

  1. How, if at all, do the intellectual virtues of the modern research university relate to religious commitment?
  2. How does higher education serve the common good – and how, if at all, does that relate to religious conceptions of such service?
  3. In what ways does, and should, the modern research university inculcate disciplined understanding of religion?

Project Conclusions and Findings

This project was an attempt to examine a major western research university’s engagement with religion, to see what could occur if sustained critical investigation of that engagement happened across many sectors of the university, and to test various strands of activity to see which had the greatest potential to precipitate change in that engagement.

Full text of the project report is available here [PDF 213KB]

Throughout we have pursued three main strands of work.

1.  The first focused on institutional questions of leadership, administration and policy, explored in a senior seminar comprising invited Heads of Houses, Chairs of Faculties and Departments, and various senior administrators. We hosted sessions on religious literacy and the Equalities Act, on the public purpose(s) of universities, and on intellectual virtue, amongst other topics.

2.  That seminar was supported by three post-doctoral researchers. We appointed researchers with expertise in three different disciplines – History, English and Psychiatry – to work with the project’s two academic leads from the Faculty of Divinity. Each of the post-docs also pursued individual research into aspects of our central topic (for example: the secularisation of Cambridge in the late nineteenth-century; the contribution of religion to well-being in psychiatric interventions; the history of English as discipline at Cambridge in relation to religion, and so on).

3.  The researchers also examined the teaching and research of three participating faculties/departments – History, English and Psychiatry – distributing a questionnaire, conducting interviews, and pursuing more informal discussions, in order to ground our discussions of ‘the research university’ in the life and practice of specific academic disciplines.

We also ran an international conference (in April 2013, at Clare College; videos of most of the conference sessions are available online, at, hosted a lecture and seminar series (including, in partnership with Dr Marcella Sutcliffe, the CRASSH–funded ‘Active Citizenship, Public Engagement and the Humanities’ seminar), developed this website ( including short essays from project team members, and produced several journal articles; we plan to publish an essay collection in the near future.


Our key methodological finding... is that the best route for promoting serious critical reflection in relation to the project’s questions is not so much from the bottom up as it is from the top down. That is, the route ‘upwards’, via interaction with a range of staff and students in individual faculties and departments, seeking to build momentum towards change to take upwards to more senior levels of management, proved to be more difficult than we had anticipated. The route ‘downwards’, however, engaging with senior university leaders of various kinds, helping to reshape the ways they see the management and policy tasks that face them, proved to be easier and far more fruitful than we had anticipated.

Our key substantive finding... is that, whilst there is considerable willingness across the university to discuss its engagement with religion, and to do so critically and creatively, and whilst the current policy context and cultural context makes such discussion necessary, a good deal of patient work is required to find the right language for the discussion. There is, in other words, an urgent need for a deeper form of religious literacy in the university, not in the sense of a more widespread knowledge of basic facts about religion, but in the sense of an ability to discuss religion and secularity in ways that do justice to the complex realities of religion and secularity in the university, and to the complex history of negotiation of religion and secularity that has shaped it.

Our key achievement... has been to advance the cause of such deeper religious literacy in Cambridge and beyond by developing more sophisticated ways of thinking about the public purpose of the university, promoting good global citizenship in a complexly religious and secular world; by examining more deeply how some ways of insisting upon the secularity of the university can help protect the inclusive nature of academic life, while others can lead to patterns of exclusion or the inability to acknowledge and discuss aspects of the presence of religion in the life of the university; and by developing more subtle ways of naming the modes of the study of religion that are possible in a secular university, refusing to employ simplistic contrasts between theology and religious studies, or between the study of religion focused in a dedicated department and that study distributed across multiple Faculties around the university.

Full text of the project report, including details of our activities, publications and detailed reflection on these findings, is available here [PDF 213KB]

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