Thursday, November 23, 2006

Time for some more perspective

I see that University Christian Unions have made an appearance in the media in recent days, for reasons largely centred around exclusivity and the attitude of the Univeristy Student Unions.

The Cartoon Church contains some interesting comment on the matter, and thie article in The Times is well worth a read.

I particularly like this paragraph:

'It is bad enough that university students are anxious to censor others and deny them access to proper debate. That is to undermine the very nature of a university, a place where people can think and discuss the unthinkable.

What is worse is that the repression of Christian groups is the height of hypocrisy. For the most unacceptable of what many Christian students believe is pretty much what many Muslims believe, only Muslims go much further. There are plenty of Muslim students, not least among the activists that so alarm the government that it is asking university authorities to spy on them, who believe not just that homosexuality is an abomination but also that women and infidels are inferior. Yet can anyone imagine that any student association would suspend a Muslim group for its homophobia, exclusivity, discrimination against women and infidels.'

The comments at the bottom of the article also make interesting reading. Never being one to keep my opinion to myself I wish to make some observations about such comments as this one from Jordan Gray in Coventry.

He says:

'Also, since this is a current talking point on the internet, can I just expose what I consider to be a disingenuous attitude: "I personally believe that sex outside of marriage is not the way that God intended us to live - whether this is homosexual or heterosexual sex is immaterial." That's permissible—you and any other Christian can believe and voice whatever beliefs you wish. If, however, your society wished to lead a course which expressed these beliefs, or endorse such a course, those leading it would also need to support some provision for homosexuals to marry members of the same sex. Otherwise, they are saying that there is no acceptable recourse for the expression of homosexual attraction, which is correctly (if starkly) described as discriminating against homosexuals. If a society (Christian, Muslim or otherwise) believes it cannot, in good conscience, agree to this, the only honest thing to do is to leave the SU or openly petition them to provide a platform for homophobia.'

He seems to be making the assumption that if such a course is run then people must be forced to attend it, and agree with everything it teaches. This does not seem reasonable to me. On the basis that there are plenty of courses on offer in all walks of life and voicing all sorts of opinions, to demand that Christians (or Muslims) cease to offer their courses because some people disagree with their viewpoint is a breach of freedom of speech. One could even go so far to say that to be prevented from voicing an opinion is a breach of human rights, and I am sure that Mr Gray would be one of the first to condemn such a thing if the subject matter were not 'religious'.

3 comments:

dave said...

Solution would be for the three main religions to sit down at a table, laugh about how silly the others are compared to their 'correct' way, then somehow snap out of their self-righteousness and realise that if they're the sort of person that needs to be subservient to a higher power then perhaps they should actually try and find out what that higher power is instead of just making one up.

That and ban associations that claim to have 'better' ways of leading one's life as their mere existence is contravening human rights of a fair and balanced education.

Anonymous said...

Here here, I do agree!

Jordan said...

Hello,

As the Jordan Gray in question, allow me to respond.

First, a little about me. I am a gay Christian who attended (at the time of the comment) the University of Warwick, and am a member of the Christian Focus society there. The CU at my university was disaffiliated with the SU about a year before I started my degree, due to circumstances too complicated to relate briefly (I can expand upon them if you wish), but which were connected to their position on homosexuality and their doctrinal basis. Regardless, they are a friendly and valuable society, and I helped out with "Hot Chocolate Evangelism" last year.

Now, onto your response to my comment:

"He seems to be making the assumption that if such a course is run then people must be forced to attend it, and agree with everything it teaches. This does not seem reasonable to me."

It doesn't seem like a reasonable assumption to me either, nor do I consider it a reasonable inference to draw from my comment. I honestly can't see how you construed me thus!

"On the basis that there are plenty of courses on offer in all walks of life and voicing all sorts of opinions, to demand that Christians (or Muslims) cease to offer their courses because some people disagree with their viewpoint is a breach of freedom of speech. One could even go so far to say that to be prevented from voicing an opinion is a breach of human rights, and I am sure that Mr Gray would be one of the first to condemn such a thing if the subject matter were not 'religious'."

This is not the situation, however. To start, I will observe that "freedom of speech" does not mean the freedom to say whatever you like, in any situation, without repercussions; rather, it limits the state's ability to censor or subvert the free exchange of information and opinons (and even this is subject to restrictions, as recognised in the European Convention on Human Rights). It does not mean that private organisations must provide a platform and funding to groups or individuals which are antithetical to its aims. Our SU officially refuses to provide a platform for the BNP to speak, for example. The SU is meant to represent the interests and character of the student body, and as such this falls entirely within their remit.

With respect to the case with which I am most familiar, the SU disbanded the CU because its official position was considered to be incompatible with the Union Constitution. It's actually my opinion that this is not quite the case; if the CU had handled the situation better, they might still be in the union. However, because they were unable to demonstrate their commitment to the Constitution, and were unwilling to make changes to accommodate it, the SU decided to disband it, subject to review.

In this situation, as in that of a student group endorsing a course which breaches university policies, freedom of expression does not apply: if a group cannot conform to the conditions of membership, the most it can do is lobby for change.

The CU here is not totally excluded from participation in university life, at any rate; it uses university facilities, and earlier this year ran an extremely large and visible evangelism week, which was very well received (and, I gather, rather successful). Individual SUs are at liberty to commute the terms of disbandment, as they appear to have done at Warwick.

In summary: freedom of expression in a human rights context does not apply to this situation, which is a matter of group interests conflicting with a private institution's policies. SUs have a mandate to ensure that societies comply with their policies and conditions of membership, and to reprove those societies which ignore them. Whether or not the subject matter is "religious" is irrelevant.


One final, somewhat related point. My own society, Christian Focus, holds a talk and speaker-led discussion each week. Speakers are wide and varied, and they often present controversial or unorthodox opinions. Every year we run a talk on homosexuality ("The Gay Talk"), which is always well attended and often packed to the back row. People are free to voice disagreement or assent, since there is no expectation that the society endorses their opinions. If the CU wanted to invite Nicky Gumbel to talk, it would be fine so long as they did not imply official agreement with any opinions in conflict with union policy. Running a course which teaches a certain position strongly presupposes approval of the course content, and therefore a very different matter.