Why I ... think that universities should take campus religion seriously

December 24, 2004

Walking along Oxford Road in Manchester recently I counted six or seven people - leaflets, false smiles - working the crowds. Their shabby anoraks gave them away as street evangelists seeking out prey. I changed course straight for them, but they scurried away. I'd forgotten I was wearing a collar. Why do these people so anger me?

Many academic colleagues would say that all faiths are as bad.

But it is the way these individuals seek out the most vulnerable students, often female and foreign, that winds me up so much. They give such bad press to the majority of people of faith.

Chaplaincies have always been alert to the manipulative cults and new religious movements that operate around campus. Such groups, whether Christian, Hari Krishna or whatever, are a constant nuisance, seeking to convert, control or offer quick spiritual fixes and mystic insights. It is no wonder that institutions of higher education still prefer to keep all religion at arm's length.

Most British universities and colleges are traditionally secular and I support the view that there is no place for faith-based education on the modern campus.

Yet to compete globally (and even nationally in today's multifaith UK) institutions must attract the best students, irrespective of background and ethnicity. This means advertising local religious facilities and often going through tortuous routines to supply them indirectly.

Universities have come to recognise that substantial numbers of students and staff expect to be able to practise their faith as part of their everyday life. Like it or not, there is religion on campus.

But, as Christmas draws near and universities tolerate the annual outburst of carol services and seasonal celebrations, I believe they must look more closely at what is happening on their doorsteps in the name of religion.

Failure to do so might mean not acting responsibly or not providing the duty of care they ought to.

The substantial numbers of international students have brought unforeseen complications. For the multifaith ambiance that is evolving on many campuses is threatened by the presence of radical and highly politicised sects from within world religions, as well as aggressively proselytising groups such as the Jesus Army and Jews for Jesus.

In addition, well-financed initiatives from a variety of religious traditions are moving in, often in the guise of promoting interfaith dialogue, world peace and harmony.

They operate via the internet promoting sporadic large events, and are usually difficult to engage with. They are backed by nameless people who fight shy of giving honest answers to fundamental questions about their motivation and purpose.

This reluctance to stop crude attempts to convert others or come clean about who they are might ultimately mean that universities choose to remain in their secular shells instead of recognising the real and exciting spin-off from the presence of religion on campus. We are at an opportune moment for universities to overcome their reservations and find ways to welcome and profit from the diverse spirituality and faith among their international students and staff.

There is a real desire among many people of faith to build a radically different world order based on understanding and shared aspirations to global inclusivity without exploitation. As never before, we have the opportunity to experiment and explore how to model and build good multifaith interaction: for the future of everyone and everything.

To fail to do this, to choose traditional secularism or grudging tolerance over creative engagement, might be the ultimate failure to act responsibly and to provide the real duty of care. Not just for today's students but for all humanity. Now there is a world-class aspiration for universities.

Terry Biddington
Anglican chaplain to the Manchester higher education community

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