Campus survey of religion is biased, secularists charge

Equality body's study accused of provoking 'false impression of victimhood'. John Morgan reports

January 13, 2011

The National Secular Society has attacked higher education's equality body over a new survey of religion and belief, claiming it is biased towards believers and could stir up a false sense of "religious victimhood" among students and staff.

The society has also criticised the Equality Challenge Unit (ECU) for awarding the survey contract to the University of Derby, which it says showed "pro-religious bias" in research for the Home Office in 2000.

Keith Porteous Wood, the society's executive director, says in a letter to the ECU that the survey does not allow non-believers to express concerns about religion on campus.

He cites "the increasing incidence of students on biology or zoology courses objecting on religious grounds to the teaching of evolution" and "Muslim female medical students (who) have bare their arms to scrub up".

The survey is part of a study titled Religion and Belief in Higher Education. The ECU said the research will "inform the further development of more inclusive policy and practice".

In a letter to David Ruebain, the ECU's chief executive, Mr Porteous Wood takes issue with some survey questions, including one asking students if they agree that "the content of my course is presented in a way which is sensitive to my religion or belief".

Such questions are likely to produce responses, he says, that "could be used to imply prejudice or discrimination where none exists and where students'...expectations of their beliefs being shown unqualified respect are neither realistic nor desirable if equality, diversity and cohesion are to be served".

He says the results risk giving "a grossly exaggerated, if not false, impression of religious victimhood".

Paul Weller, academic lead on the study and professor of inter-religious relations at Derby, states on his website that he was a Baptist minister for 13 years.

He said researchers working on the study included "individuals who understand themselves as religious and as secularist", adding that the survey drew on "a high level of participation from staff and students who do not see themselves primarily in terms of religious identity".

Professor Weller also said he would "strongly contest and reject" allegations of bias in the 2000 research, which "went through a rigorous process of peer review".

An ECU spokeswoman said that Derby was chosen through a "competitive and comprehensive tendering process", and that "assuming that a religious academic wouldn't be able to conduct robust and unbiased research raises several equality issues in itself".

Bad science, good magic: For many in Mexico, faith still bewitches reason

While the National Secular Society worries about the influence of religion on British campuses, in Mexico there is concern about the public's faith in magic.

A survey by the National Council on Science and Technology and the National Institute of Statistics and Geography found that about half of Mexicans believe scientists are "dangerous", while large numbers give credence to "homeopathy, spiritual cleansing and lucky numbers", Science magazine reported.

However, respondents are also aware that their views may raise eyebrows, with 84 per cent agreeing with the statement: "We believe too much in faith and too little in science."

Rosaura Ruiz, director of the Faculty of Sciences at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, said that Mexicans' faith in magic "might be laughable except that it is desperately grave for national development".

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