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Universities should rethink secularism to deal with religious diversity

Religion is always in the background. Treye Rice/Photography and Web Design via, CC BY-NC-ND

Debates about both religion and secularism are entering the British public sphere with increasing frequency – and sometimes vehemence. In the wake of the tragic attacks in Paris, controversy will no doubt increase.

The UK isn’t terribly well-prepared for this, as mainstream religious attendance has long been in decline and knowledge about religion hasn’t been high on the agenda.

Unsurprisingly, debates and disruptions on these issues are common in universities. But are universities doing enough to encourage public understanding of both religion and secularism?

It was long a widespread view that religion would either decline or become simply a private choice as part of an overall process of “modernisation” led by economic growth, development of states, and a culture transformed by science and technology. This account has recently been dubbed the “secularisation hypothesis” and scholars have questioned its legitimacy. While religion did decline in Western Europe and in communist countries, it has since flourished elsewhere, including now in formerly communist countries.

Religion has also taken on a renewed role in public debate with examples ranging from the religious right in the US to the global popularity of the current Pope and his criticisms of capitalist excesses and failure to act on climate change. Some scholars now speak of “post-secularism”. They argue that the influence of initially religious ideas has become important beyond specifically religious contexts – such as, for example, “stewardship” of the Earth.

Welcoming the presence of religion in the public sphere need not be a betrayal of secularism but a central characteristic of what we might call European “moderate secularism”. While more extreme secularists remain, moderates have learned lessons from efforts to suppress particular religions in the past and apply them now both to religions that are newly prominent in Europe and proposals to suppress religion in general.

Inescapably plural

There are many religions and a host of new religious movements and there is innovation – as well as conservative reaction – in each. Individuals refuse to be bound by the limits of one religion alone, partaking in widely diverse personal spiritual quests of their own. This has other sources, but it is made an acute issue in Britain and Europe by migration.

Britain has long since come to terms with the division of Christianity into a variety of denominations – though Catholic emancipation was slow in coming. Recognition of a Jewish minority is secure. But after decades of new immigration, Britain is also a country of Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims. Christianity itself is changing, as with the rise of Pentecostal churches, for example, often with majorities of black members.

The 2011 census showed that followers of non-Christian religions were 7.5% of the population; but being more youthful than the average, they will form one in eight of young adults (one in four in London) in 2025. Not only are members from such groups more likely to go to university, but they also take with them understandings of how religion should be expressed in public, not simply kept private.

For example, religion may have implications for clothes (turbans and headscarves) or diet (vegan or vegetarian, kosher or halal). This then raises the issue of to what extent and in what ways public institutions such as universities need to accommodate different aspects of religion and belief.

Secularism can be a resource for dealing with diversity, when it is based on commitments to fairness and mutual engagement rather than compartmentalisation and refusal to accommodate. Universities have strong and mostly helpful traditions in this regard.

But universities’ policy commitments to equity, diversity and inclusivity should now be reviewed and extended to cover religious, no less than other, group identities. Goals should include an end to discrimination, but also opportunities for public expression and capacities for mutual learning and collaboration in pursuit of the public good.

The National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular student societies launched in 2009. stuartpilbrow/, CC BY-SA

Global religious diversity is now an issue for every country. Sometimes claims to Christian heritage are used to try to keep non-Christian refugees out – albeit ironically given the Christian tradition of providing sanctuary.

Secularism needs to be rethought

Secularism involves ways of thinking and organising action, not simply the absence of religion. It is part of the debate, not the end of the debate. If secularism were just a matter of staying away from religion and all that universities (or states) had to do was remain secular, then coping with conflicts and controversies over religion would be easy.

But secularism is more complex, including ideas about fairness in the treatment of religions, appropriate ways for members of different religions to interact in public and freedom for individuals to pursue different kinds of religion.

Modern secularism developed amid religious conflict to provide for institutions that were neither the property of some religions rather than others, nor tools for projects of religious expansion or conformity. The famous US constitutional doctrine that there should be no established religion had more to do with preventing any one religion to repress others than with trying to minimise religious engagement. And arguably one of the reasons religion remains vital in the US is that government neutrality allows for high levels of personal and community choice in matters of religion.

The value of political secularism, acknowledging a space for political and governmental authority which is not subordinated to religious authority, does not rest on absolute separation between organised religion and politics. A relative and mutual autonomy of both is sufficient and this is the historical and contemporary form of secularism that is found in Western Europe – the region that invented political secularism.

But the idea of secularism also has older roots in the idea of a distinction between matters pertaining to this-worldly, temporal existence and matters of the spirit. Religions make connections, but also recognise distinctions.

Secular institutions focus on this worldly life, expanding enormously in the modern era from education and health care to the size of government itself. This is part of what it means to say that we live in a secular age: not that irreligion dominates, but that there is simply so much of everyone’s life that is organised on bases other than religion, from markets to governments to technologies.

Religious organisations can also deliver secular benefits. For example, every state in the European Union – including laïc France – gives funding either to religious schools or for religious education in state schools. They do so because they believe those schools or classes are of good educational quality and of value.

A government may conclude that religious organisations may be better able to deliver some forms of social care and welfare to certain sections of the population than the state can. Similarly, a secular society may be pleased to have public fora where the ethical wisdom of religious leaders can help to improve the quality of government and legislation – without dominating it – as many hold that the presence of Bishops in the House of Lords does.

Britain’s universities are secular in the sense of promoting fairness in treatment of all religions – and those who profess no religion. They are also crucial in providing settings for learning about religion and secularism, and learning through the mutual engagement of members of different religious faiths – and again, those of none.

Universities need to engage with a secular world, offering practical contributions. But among those practical contributions they should engage with the prominence of religion in both secular matters and matters of faith and belief.

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