- Nov 22, 2003
- Reaction score
Not a quake, but a glimmer:
Religion on campus
A secular society that demands tolerance should also show tolerance
The renewal of interest in religion in recent years applies as much to Christianity as to other faiths such as Islam. The decline in church attendance in Britain has slowed, there are signs of an increase in applications to be Church of England clergy or Roman Catholic priests, and the young, who had abandoned religion in droves, are more inclined to opt for religious studies in the sixth form. The extent of this shift should not be exaggerated but, nevertheless, the fashionable thesis that religion would die an inevitable death through natural wastage appears to be unfounded. Spirituality, in various forms, and faith have returned to Britains campuses.
This trend, as we report today, has been met with a secular backlash that it might fall to the courts to settle. A series of student unions have sought to regulate, restrict or simply ban what were previously recognised as official societies that practised Christianity.
Three cases have acquired prominence. Birmingham University Christian Union was banned from the list of accredited societies after it refused to amend its constitution to permit non-Christians to become executive committee members. The Exeter Univers-ity Christian Union has been ordered by its student union to rename itself the Evangelical Christian Union and has been suspended until it complies. At Edinburgh University, the Christian Union faces sanctions after it was accused of adopting a Bible-based programme on human relationships that deems homosexuality to be un- desirable. These prohibitions mean that the organisations concerned are denied access to money, union facilities and a forum to publicise their activities.
This clash between uncompromising secularism and faith is partly the result of a change in style. Many university Christian unions were once reticent institutions for those who were secure in their own faith, but less inclined to convert the heathen masses on campus. Partly because of the rise of evangelism in Protestantism, but mostly because of the confidence and visibility which religion has regained, believers on campus are increasingly determined to defend themselves and recruit members. This has led to charges of brainwashing and to a conflict best described as distinctly un-Christian in its character.
Tolerance is, or rather should be, a street in which the traffic flows in two directions. Universities are establishments in which ideas are supposed to be incubated and exchanged, cham- pioned and challenged. A student union should be a forum in which that philosophical debate takes place and not a body that takes it upon itself to determine which arguments are acceptable or sufficiently right to be allowed an audience. A blinkered secularism is no better than theological dogmatism.
There must also be the legitimate suspicion that Christianity is regarded as a soft target by union activists. It is doubtful whether student bodies of other faiths would be informed that they had to accept those who did not wish to uphold their beliefs as executive committee members or have their termcards scrutinised for perceived slights against homosexuality. The revival of religion in the universities is being treated as, at best, an unwanted anachronism or, at worst, an outright threat, instead of being seen as a contribution to a continuing dialogue about the nature of the modern world. Student unions should be stimulating that intellectual debate, not suppressing it.