REFLECTING on more than a decade’s sociological research into religion on university campuses, I am increasingly unsettled by the question of inclusivity. Who belongs on campus, and who does not? Who is made to feel marginal, strange, or “other”?
Despite their reputation as guardians of wokeness, universities are not always experienced as inclusive by their students. Recent academic studies have alerted us to some worrying patterns of discrimination and exclusion.
Racism and misogyny are no longer assumed to stop at the campus gates, and universities across the country have had to reflect on the extent to which they uphold rather than challenge embedded prejudices. On this matter, religion plays an ambiguous part.
On the one hand, there is a persistent assumption that higher education unsettles or even undermines faith, through dislocation from established communities, exposure to moral permissiveness, or the acquisition of knowledge that proves incompatible with religious beliefs.
There is some truth in this, and there are university employees who take religion to be not only incompatible with serious learning, but as having no legitimate place on the university campus. These “hard secularists” have their equivalents in the student body, and variations on the humanist/secular/atheist society have made impassioned, public attacks on religion on a range of campuses in recent years.
On the other hand, universities have maintained cultures of religious inclusivity to a degree that would be difficult to find elsewhere in British society. Pockets of anti-religious zealotry are the exception rather than the norm.
Most now seem to accept that matters of faith form part of the cultural diversity that enriches the university campus. This has certainly been reflected in the empirical research that I’ve conducted, alongside various colleagues, among university staff and students across the UK higher-education sector.