The rise of university ‘faith warriors’
The protagonists of the anti-communist hysteria were commonly referred to as ‘cold warriors’. The trademark of the cold warrior was the obsession with their ideology, and the ideology of the respective other.
The only lens through which the cold warrior could see the world was ‘with us or against us’, communist or anti-communist. The far-right prospered. Unsurprisingly, the resulting politics were binary, inhumane, and often disastrous.
After the end of the Soviet Empire, Western neo-conservatives and their Eastern counterparts were looking for new ideologies to rile up the masses. Over the last decades, we have seen the emergence of religious-political movements all around the world, including Christian Fundamentalism, Zionism, Islamism, and Hindu nationalism.
The faith warrior, who sees the world only through the lens of religion, of faith versus faith, and faith versus non-faith, transpired. The religious far-right emerged and the resulting politics are again, binary, inhumane, and often disastrous.
British universities might not seem to be the most fertile ground for the faith warrior. After all, most of them have been built on secular principles. And yet, it is in British academia that a new breed of faith warrior is pushing for power. Ideologically and financially, they are propelled by the various strands of the international religious far-right and their allies on the post-modernist left. And their influence is growing.
Professor Craig Calhoun, above, is not only the Director of the London School of Economics, the self-declared “foremost social science university in the world”, he also is a true public intellectual with an impressive publishing record, and a reputation far beyond academia. True to his times, he is also British academe’s foremost faith warrior.
Calhoun has just published a paper with the Leadership in Higher Education Foundation. The thrust of his argument is that in our “postsecular society”, “religion needs attention in scholarship, research and teaching because it is important in the world”.
Of course, it is the hallmark of religious privilege to demand a share of the public space simply by reason of self-ascribed importance, while failing to provide any convincing argument for this demand. And Calhoun is not talking about the legitimate inclusion of religion as a subject of study and research, which is already prevalent in virtually all universities.
Rather, he wants religion to be a frame of reference in everything a university does, as a remedy against “repressive secularism”. For example, religion needs to play a great role in questions of gender equality, argues Calhoun.
What would that look like? Calhoun remains opaque, but his attempt to euphemise the discriminatory practice of gender segregation as “gender differentiation” cannot bode well for the women who are opposing it.
The question remains: why should religion be so much more important than any other set of ideas, that it should influence everything a university does, from scholarship and research to teaching? Calhoun has no answer to offer.
It is only when it comes to the question of non-believers that Calhoun provides a clear assessment:
Atheists have recently grown more active – even militant – within universities, often making free speech an issue as they seek to challenge the faith and beliefs of religious students […] [making] a point of mocking religious convictions and symbols. […]
The LSE experienced its own small episode of this in 2013 when members of the Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society approached Muslim students at Freshers’ Fair wearing T-shirts taken to mock Jesus and Mohammed, and were asked by [sic!] general secretary of the Students Union either to cover the offending T-shirts or to leave.
The “militant atheists” Calhoun is talking about are my friend Abhishek Phadnis and I. It was us who allegedly “approached” Muslim students “to mock Jesus and Mohammed” and “challenge their beliefs”.
As a faith warrior, Calhoun could not possibly conceive of the idea that non-religious students, just as much as their religious counterparts, would express their own beliefs peacefully without targeting others. A cross, a kippah, a hijab are legitimate expressions of different beliefs. The expressions of atheists are, in contrast, “militant”.
This is nothing new. In the diction of the religious far-right, “religious freedom” is the right to deny rights to those who do not comply with religious doctrine: gays, dissenters, women, atheists.
Demanding rights, while denying them to others? The religious far-right knows that this sounds absurd, so it pre-emptively positions itself not as the perpetrator, but as the victim of intolerance, even if this requires the creation of the “militant atheist” bogeyman who is out to trample the rights of the religious. The evidence for this claim has always been weak. To make a case, the religious far-right needs to distort the facts, and invent a few new ones. As does Calhoun.
Of course, we never approached Muslim students with our t-shirts. We were standing behind our stall, and Muslim students actually approached us in good spirits. We had friendly chats, exchanged invitations, and discussed possible joint events.
Nobody even mentioned our clothing – until the Students’ Union officials barged in, ripped down our posters and demanded that we “cover up”. Later, we would ask for evidence of complaints from LSE. We never received any. Neither was there any mention of us having “approached” Muslim students with our t-shirts in the subsequent exchanges between us and LSE. But of course, drawing a picture of us harassing our fellow students makes for a much better case for riling about “militant atheists”.
That does not mean to say that there was no grave case of harassment. The Students’ Union did indeed ask us to cover the t-shirts. But this is not what caused the internationally reported outrage. What did cause outrage was that, over the course of two days, we were surrounded, intimidated, humiliated and harassed by Director Calhoun’s security guards and eventually forced to cover up our t-shirts under threat of physical expulsion, disciplinary procedures and allegations of infringements of the law.
After we complied under protest, we had two security guards assigned to us for the rest of the day to follow us around. They even stalked us whilst we attended the bathroom.
Now, please judge for yourself. What is more “militant”: wearing a t-shirt that allegedly offended some, or being physically threatened, humiliated and stalked by the very public institution that is responsible for your well-being?
What is more “repressive”? Having atheists participate in a public institution on equal terms to their fellow religious students, or “the small episode” of threatening to exclude them from the very same public space for wearing a ‘blasphemous’ t-shirt?
Such is the warped paranoia of the religious far-right – if the non-religious assert their rights, it must be in diametrical opposition to the religious, as a “challenge”. Like the world of the religious far-right, the world of the faith warrior is one of binaries. On the one hand the sacred faithful, on the other hand the profane faith-less. On the one side the virtuous believers, who are all homogenously supposed to want religion in the public space, on the other hand those “militants” who are excluded from the very same space.
In the world of the faith warrior, there are no shades of grey. The fact that the relative majority of students in Britain, whether they are irreligious, or religious, see religion as “irrelevant” for their studies, does not deter Calhoun. Religion is important, he decrees, hence everything needs to be infused with it.
Calhoun is a man who likes to term students who challenge him as “anti-intellectuals”. When one of the world’s foremost social scientists feels the need to distort facts, make up others and omit yet more, intellectualism is indeed in peril. But Calhoun is not alone.
In British academia, there is a whole new breed of faith warriors – often aided and abetted by unrepresentative student union officials, drunk on power – who are using their position of influence to legitimise religious gender segregation, enforce blasphemy norms, and pit believers and non-believers, and all of those who do not fit these categories, against each other.
Liberals, feminists and secularists are fighting back, but if the faith warriors succeed in infusing scholarship, research and teaching with the zeal of the religious far-right, British universities will cease to be the beacons of liberalism and progress they are now. Whether you are an atheist or religious, or anything in between – for those who do not fit into the binaries of the world of the faith warrior, the consequences of this anti-secular push for power at universities will be disastrous.
• Dr Chris Moos is a “militant” secularist activist. He has successfully campaigned for the right to free expression and against gender segregation at universities, as well as the accommodation of religious codes in the British legal system.