This article is more than 2 years old

Keep the faith: religion and cohesion in universities

We gotta have faith. Simon Perfect presents the findings of the largest ever study on the impact of faith and belief societies in higher education.
This article is more than 2 years old

Simon Perfect is a researcher at Theos, the religion and society thinktank, and a Teaching Fellow at SOAS

When people think about religion in universities, what images come to mind? Often religion or belief issues are presented in media coverage as a source of division and a problem to be overcome.

Think of LSE’s “Jesus and Mo” t-shirt debacle in 2013; rows over events featuring pro-life speakers; pushy proselytism by Christians on campus; gender segregation and accusations of extremism in Islamic Societies. It appears that a significant proportion of people think religion creates problems in UK universities. YouGov polling indicates that 29 per cent of people think that “Islamic extremism” is common on campuses, rising to over a third of people aged over 55. These incidents are at the heart of the public’s moral panic about freedom of speech in higher education, with 52 per cent thinking free speech is under threat in UK universities.

These narratives are challenged by major new research from Theos, the religion and society think tank, in partnership with the Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations at Coventry University. A new report, Faith and Belief on Campus: Division and Cohesion, focuses on faith and belief-related student societies – such as Christian Unions, Islamic Societies and Humanist Societies – and sheds new light on how religion or belief issues play out on the ground in higher education. It is the largest study of these societies done so far, combining quantitative analysis of the spread of societies nationally with qualitative research in six universities.

As the places where our future leaders develop their values, how universities accommodate debate and diversity, including differences in religion or belief, is a critically important issue for the health of our society.

Building community and supporting students

So what do we know about faith and belief student societies? There are at least 888 of them on UK campuses, with an average of 6.3 such societies in each institution. Christian Unions are the most common type of faith and belief society, followed by islamic societies; but there are now more independent Pentecostal / Charismatic / Evangelical Christian Societies than Christian Unions, indicating a diversification of the Christian student landscape. Overall we estimate that more than 18,000 students are members of faith and belief societies nationally. This does not include the many more who attend society events but are not formally signed up.

These societies are very diverse in their activities. Some are primarily inward-facing (focusing on building community among their own members), while others look outwards as well (engaging in the local community, or engaging in proselytism). Naturally, for some societies the main activities are practising, or learning about, their religion or belief; but others are far less concerned with this, and are simply spaces for students to celebrate a shared common identity. While Islamic Societies, Christian Unions and other smaller Christian Societies often engage in faith-sharing activities, many other societies avoid this – either because they don’t see proselytism as part of their tradition, or because they are worried about being seen by other students as manipulative or coercive.

Many societies are hubs for social action and fundraising on campus, sometimes on a huge scale. For example, in a single week last year, Islamic Societies in UK universities raised over £830,000 for charity, with one society alone raising nearly £100,000. And crucially, many provide essential support for students, combating loneliness and poor mental health. We spoke to committee members of societies (students themselves) who were acting as spiritual mentors and pastoral advisors to their friends and peers. In some cases these students (particularly those from minority faiths) were acting as informal chaplains, plugging the gaps in the formal chaplaincy provision offered by their university. Repeatedly we heard stories of students who had felt lost and isolated when they started university, only finding friends when they joined a faith or belief society.

Facing challenges and handling controversy

At the same time, many of these societies face significant obstacles. Most commonly, committee members sometimes face significant pressures in terms of time and decision-making responsibilities, and in the case of smaller societies, often feel demoralised when turnout to the society activities is low. Many also struggle to undertake interfaith activities – often not from a lack of desire to do so, but simply as a result of organisational difficulties. And some continue to suffer from a lack of suitable resources or spaces in their university. A number of Jewish and Islamic Societies we engaged with told us about the difficulties they had in accessing kosher or halal food or cooking facilities, or suitable prayer spaces, which made it difficult for them to practise their religion as they wished to.

We also heard about a range of internal tensions over direction and orientation that can arise in these societies. Often these revolve around gender or sexuality issues. For example, a minority of these societies continue to have disagreements about whether women can be in charge – this was the case in a number of the Christian Unions we spoke to. But the picture is complicated – many other societies have women in positions of leadership or are in fact entirely women-led; these societies are important sites of female empowerment.

Most of the students we spoke to felt free to express their views as they wished to – chiming with polling data showing the vast majority (over 80 per cent) of students feel this way. Freedom of speech on campus is not in crisis and the public moral panic about this is largely exaggerated. But it was also clear that a minority of students do feel under pressure to self-censor their views. This was the case with students we spoke to who have socially (or politically) conservative views, or who support the policies of the Israeli government in the Israel / Palestine conflict. Our Muslim interviewees also made it clear that they felt under pressure to self-censor their views and avoid inviting potentially controversial external speakers, out of concern that they would be perceived as extreme and unfairly targeted under the Prevent duty.

Most concerningly, we found that a significant minority of Jewish and Muslim students feel vulnerable to antisemitic and Islamophobic abuse. We heard shocking examples of Jewish students being targeted with antisemitic, Nazi graffiti in their halls of residence. These were isolated incidents but show that universities still have more work to do to ensure that all students and staff feel safe on campus.

Standing priority for students’ unions

Our report shows that faith and belief societies are making enormous, often overlooked, contributions to campus life. They play key roles in building community and supporting students pastorally and spiritually. But it’s also clear that their capacity to foster cohesion and build bridges between different groups, particularly through interfaith activities, is limited. They need better resources and institutional support from universities and students’ unions if they are to meet their potential of being key sources of cohesion on campus.

That’s why we recommend, among other things, that students’ unions assign one of their permanent members of staff a religion or belief brief and ensure they receive appropriate religious literacy training. Their role should include meeting regularly with faith and belief societies, helping them rectify problems, encouraging them to undertake interfaith collaborations, and encouraging the formation of new faith and belief societies where there are notable gaps in their presence on campus. This is important because there may be students of minority religions or beliefs who are not represented by existing societies and who are struggling to make friends with people from the same community.

Cohesion, not division

More widely, we can say that while tensions over religion or belief issues do sometimes arise on campus, in general these are rare. Students live in a hyper-diverse, multicultural environment where religion or belief identities are often expressed very publicly – and contrary to public perceptions of students, by and large they are comfortable in this situation, living amicably alongside people they may disagree with strongly. Far from being special snowflakes, they are often much better at handling difference and disagreement than people outside campus. Perhaps our politicians can learn something from them.

5 responses to “Keep the faith: religion and cohesion in universities

  1. “29 per cent of people think that “Islamic extremism” is common on campuses”

    Ask the question of any minority Muslim faith adherent who dare not attend Friday Prayers on campus, but would rather walk several miles to and from a ‘safe’ mosque, as several of my colleagues do, and I’m sure that percentage would rise.

  2. From the people who claim that more than one third of the UK population believe in guardian angels.

  3. Babtist
    I attended a church for short of 2 years and they pray inapropriate, pray what falls into hate crimes at you and hound you until you pray back. They don’t care if one believes babtist and the other not they have no problem trying to divide and support those who wish to divide people if it suits them.

    I never had a problem with the faith until I attended that church. If you have been inconvenienced and singled out this way give stay away vibes off for me because they don’t get it.

    If you are decent babtists pray they are ruining its reputation and stay away from us. Anything you can do to pray it ends minus separation or death please.

  4. As concerning the Word of life, Luke 10 section 25-28 says: On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?” He answered: ” ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'” “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
    Luke 18 section 18-25 says: A certain ruler asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good–except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery, do not murder, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honor your father and mother.'” “All these I have kept since I was a boy,” he said. When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was a man of great wealth. Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
    Matthew 5 section 43-48 says: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
    In Old Testament, the Jewish people and their ancestors were given the Law to observe. First, What Adam and Eve should observe was that they could not eat the fruits from the tree of wisdom. Then, their son Cain was told that he should not kill. As sins became increased, the laws were also added more. Up to the generation of Moses, the Law in Old Testament was given to Israelites. We know that the Law is good and the Law is used to punish people who commit sins, but people cannot obey the Law because the sinful spirits are in people. Even that we know stealing and giving false testimony are sinful, but greedy and pride spirits in us drive us to do sinful things. So as Old Testament prophesied we need to get rid of our sinful nature from our spirits.
    Jeremiah 31 section 31-33 says: “The time is coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord. “This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time,” declares the Lord. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.
    Ezekiel 36 section 24-27 says: “‘For I will take you out of the nations; I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.
    The prophecies are fulfilled when Jesus begins to teach love. The two greatest commandments are ” ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'” Love is above the Law and if people have love they are free from the law of sin and death. People who are full of love will not think about stealing or giving false testimony but are merciful and they feed hungry people or give thirsty people something to drink or invite strangers in or clothe people who need clothes. The Law is for people who commit sins. Nobody will say that he will get reward because he does not steal before. But love is the grace we get. And with love we will get eternal life.
    Romans 13 section 8-10 says: Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “Do not commit adultery,” “Do not murder,” “Do not steal,” “Do not covet,” and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.
    Luke 17 section 20-21 says: Once, having been asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation, nor will people say,’ Here it is,’ or ‘ There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is within you.”
    John 4 section 23-24 says: Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth.”

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