AS I mentioned in a recent posting, theology is losing ground in higher education across western Europe. But in certain specific ways, religion and religious culture have become a very hot campus topic, at British universities in particular. We’re not talking here about religion as a subject for academic study, but about faith as something students either do or don’t profess in their spare time. And in contrast with the paving stones or petrol bombs wielded by angry students in generations past, these days lawyers’ letters or calculated press leaks are the weapons of choice.
Part of the background is that a majority of Britain’s rising generation seems not merely indifferent to religion, but at least mildly hostile. (A poll last year among Britons aged between 18 and 24 found that 41% saw religion as a source of harm in the world, while only 14% had the opposite view. Some 82% said religious leaders had “not a lot” or “no” influence on their lives.) Yet those young people who still practise religion tend to do so in rather zealous and culturally conservative ways. That applies to campus expressions of evangelical Christianity and, above all, to Islam.
There was a brouhaha at Bristol University about a year ago after an e-mail was leaked from the president of the students’ Christian Union which said women would not be allowed to teach on their own at some of the society’s events, but it would be alright if they were accompanied by their husbands. Richard Dawkins, the well-known atheist campaigner, said “such nonsense” had no place in higher education. An embarrassed Union explained that it had been trying to accommodate “divergent and strongly held convictions” within its ranks, and duly sent a countervailing statement to the effect that women could speak on all occasions.
Last month, the London School of Economics apologised to a pair of students who said they were treated somewhat harshly when they turned up at an event for newcomers to the college wearing T-shirts that depicted both Jesus and the prophet Muhammed. The students, representing the university’s Atheist, Secularist and Humanist society, said they were obliged to cover the shirts by security staff who threatened to expel them from the event; the staff was clearly acting in response to complaints from Muslim students. But having considered the matter, LSE agreed that it had “got the judgment wrong” in its efforts to balance the right of all students. This climbdown was preceded by some legal skirmishing. Lawyers acting for the students had demanded a judicial review of the decision, forcing the university to consult its own legal experts.
But the noisiest recent row over religion on campus exploded in mid-December when it emerged that Universities UK (UUK), an umbrella agency representing British universities, apparently accepted the idea, in certain circumstances, of segregating audiences by sex in deference to the wishes of conservative Muslim speakers. David Cameron, Britain’s prime minister, led a chorus of condemnation from across the political spectrum: “Universities should not allow this and I am very clear about that.” UUK duly withdrew its advice, which formed part of a series of “case studies” describing the appropriate response to various external speakers who wanted to appear on campus. If you consult the agency’s guidelines now, you will find that the “segregation” case study is mysteriously missing.
But students who abhor the idea of segregation don’t feel that UUK has backed down sufficiently. In particular, they are suspicious of its statement that it is “working…to clarify the position” in an area where the “law is unclear”. On January 6th, Deighton Pierce Glynn, a London law firm, sent a long, tough letter to UUK on behalf of Radha Bhatt, a Cambridge undergraduate who had demonstrated against its stance. It warned that as a public agency its decisions would be subject to judicial challenge unless they conformed to British equality legislation and the European Convention on Human Rights.
Segregating meetings by gender, the law firm argued, violates articles 10 and 14 of the Convention which affirm the right to receive and impart information without discrimination; as for article 9, which affirms religious liberty, it clearly lays down that this freedom could be limited if that were necessary to protect the rights of others. “Our client is concerned that universities may be moving away from the hard-won principle of equality for women and towards the idea of protecting religions—with no informed debate about the subject,” the firm explained to me. (Only a generation ago, most Cambridge colleges were male-only. These days there are three female-only colleges, but none which are restricted to men.)
In some ways, campus politics in Britain are merely a rather tepid version of what goes on at American colleges, where battles over what can be said on campus, about matters like faith, sex and sexual orientation, have been raging harder and for much longer. What’s missing from the British scene is the purist libertarian voice which protects the right of individuals and sub-groups to air all manner of controversial views, from militant atheism to religious conservatism, so long as they do not harm others (as segregation might well do) or incite people to violence. That is something Britain could learn from.
Courtesy: The Economist, Jan 10th 2014