Universities are being urged to think more carefully about the challenges of religion in a new “stimulus paper” from the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education.
At a launch event last week at the London School of Economics, Tariq Modood, professor of sociology, politics and public policy at the University of Bristol, suggested that the secularist ideal of a separation of church and state was “simplistic”.
Faith was strong even among the student-age cohort in many growing immigrant communities where “religion is not regarded as a purely private or spiritual matter”.
“Religion has emerged as a full diversity issue” alongside race, gender, sexual orientation and disability, said Professor Modood.
“But have universities really come to terms with it? Are there enough people within universities who understand religion and religious people?” he added.
His fellow author Craig Calhoun, director of the LSE, agreed that “we get into a muddle if we think about religion as a purely private matter”.
“Some faculty members just don’t see the extent of religion on our campuses and assume things are the same as they were in the 1970s.”
The discipline of international relations had managed to ignore religion until the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers, said Professor Calhoun.
Religious voices and assumptions are inevitably part of the discussions around gender and sexuality, he pointed out, and should be welcomed into “debates about common values or a possible higher purpose in politics”.
Such issues are analysed in greater depth in the academics’ joint paper, Religion in Britain: Challenges for Higher Education.
Religion is widely acknowledged as a public good that can play “a significant role in relation to ethical voice, social well-being, cultural heritage, national ceremonies and national identity,” writes Professor Modood. This is reflected in “some state-religion connections rather than strict separation” right across Western Europe.
Yet although “the majority of university students say they are religious”, religiously committed groups and individuals remain “ ‘foreign’ or strangers to many in higher education’s leadership – at best a problem to be managed, not people to be sympathetically and empathetically understood and accommodated”.
Professor Calhoun takes up some of the policy implications for universities in his piece. When LSE created a new Faith Centre, he recalls, “focus fell on the fact that the spaces for washing [required by Muslims] separated men and women – as though that wasn’t also true of washrooms across the campus”.
He also admits that “gender and sexuality are challenging issues for universities that struggle to combine respect for religion with clarity that a lack of respect or denigration based on gender or sexuality cannot be countenanced”.
Nonetheless, Professor Calhoun believes that universities should approach religion as “something that belongs in our intellectual discussions rather than an external factor with which we have to cope”.
On some occasions, this may mean making religion “the main focus of discussion…without exacerbating conflicts”. At other times, religion should be incorporated into debates on other topics “without dominating or derailing the discussion”.
While acknowledging that “members of minorities may need some level of in-group solidarity and recognition”, Professor Calhoun wants this to form “a basis for extending themselves into wider relations”.
Universities needed to be careful not to “reduce the learning they offer and the contribution they make to the larger society” by “accept[ing] too much tacit segregation of students into subcultures”, he said.