First university secular adviser seeks ‘robust debate’

Westminster looks to new ways for students from 150 countries to explore their differences

July 28, 2016
Isabel Millar, University of Westminster

A PhD student who has been appointed as the first secular adviser to a university in the UK has stressed that she is keen to let even people with “offensive” views speak if it can open up dialogue between groups that are currently “at loggerheads”.

Isabel Millar, who is researching a PhD on philosophy, psychoanalysis and political theory at Kingston University, has just joined the established Faith and Spirituality team at the University of Westminster for three days a week.

She has done a short course at the British Humanist Association for those seeking to provide pastoral support in prisons and hospitals, so one element of her role will be “offering pastoral support to people who don’t identify with a particular religion”.

“I will be there if people feel they miss out in the Faith and Spirituality team because they are not Christian or Muslim or Jewish but have something they want to talk about in relation to ethical or philosophical problems,” she said.

Nonetheless, Ms Millar is reluctant to describe herself as a “humanist chaplain” and puts greater stress on other parts of the job. She hopes to provide “staff training on intersectionality, on how the different coordinates of race and gender, sexuality and class, are intersecting and how we need to understand the different ways discrimination functions”. 

Yet her core goal, she said, was to “create a climate of dialogue and an environment where we all learn stuff together. We have 150 different nationalities here at Westminster and it’s responding to that kind of situation.”

One way of achieving this is through “student outreach, organising events where people can debate and put forward potentially conflicting viewpoints in a forum where they don’t get pushed underground.

“Parts of the university such as the LGBT communities and some more conservative religious groups may be at loggerheads and have conflicting ideas about how we are supposed to behave. It’s about getting those people together and allowing them to discuss their differences,” she said.

“I will be trying to encourage more debate, more types of critical thinking, different groups that can come and perhaps learn about each other. I want to organise events and encourage people to come to things they wouldn’t have thought about before.”

Although she claims she is not interested in “actively organising controversial events” and that “anyone who wants to come and talk at the university has to go through the students’ union and pass certain restrictions that we put in place”, Ms Millar also emphasises that “anyone can say anything; we are not afraid of being offensive, but anyone likely to say something that we think offensive has to be prepared to be on a panel with someone with opposing views.

“We are against enclosed spaces where people are exposed to something we think is potentially dangerous. We would prefer that it is out in the open.

“If someone has a very hard-line religious agenda that includes homosexuals being seen as evil sinners, should we not allow them to speak? Provided they are coherent and not abusive in putting forward an argument, and somebody else can put forward a counter-argument to create an actual debate, then that should be encouraged. That’s different from someone coming and just spewing out horrible bile.”

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