How should universities deal with cases of insensitive proselytising by religious students?
That was the theme of a panel debate organised by the religion and society thinktank Theos as part of a one-day event titled “Faith and Belief on Campus: Division and Cohesion” to launch a report of the same name.
Giles Cattermole, London team leader for the Universities and Colleges Christian Federation (UCCF) – representing the evangelising Christian Unions on campus – was grateful for “the freedom to think and to meet” in British universities and found it “exciting to see students using their freedom to spread the good news about Jesus”.
Others expressed reservations about this perspective. Kristin Aune, professor of sociology of religion at Coventry University, drew on the results of a survey of 4,500 students (half of them Christian) she had conducted with colleagues. She noted that only 10 per cent of Christian students were involved in a Christian Union, and many feared that these unions’ “over-zealousness can be counterproductive and give the Christian faith a bad name”.
What these students wanted instead was to “be able to express their faith, primarily through acts of service to others”, as in the case of one who told her that his faith motivated him to “[get] up early in the morning to do his flatmates’ washing up”, she added.
As for external pressures on Christian students, Professor Aune said that a few had reported “hostile incidents…when other students laughed at them, perhaps when they’d been drinking, [or] where lecturers ridiculed their faith or told them God didn’t exist”.
Hannah Timson, president emeritus of Humanist Students, flagged up some of the issues for the majority of students who identified as secular.
She wanted universities “not to overlook such students”, for whom humanist societies were often “the only voice” on campus, and to take on board the need for “non-religious pastoral carers”. She was also unhappy about the members of Christian Unions who “go out to clubs, pick students off the street and talk to them about Jesus when they are wasted”, arguing that this could amount to “manipulation of vulnerability”.
Asked in a question from the audience about cases of some Christian Unions allegedly befriending lonely international students who had recently arrived in the country and often had limited English skills and then soon pressuring them to commit to Christianity, Mr Cattermole admitted that the UCCF had “no written code of conduct for proselytisation beyond following the example of Jesus”.
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