To Criticize a Bad Idea You Must First Hear It

Balliol College at Oxford University

As nontheists, humanists, secularists, and the like, we pride ourselves on holding a rational and objective worldview. We are backed by science and some of the greatest critical thinkers in history. However, in promoting a more progressive and accepting society, we sometimes fall short of the rationalities that we espouse.

In one instance, a Christian student union in England was surprisingly prohibited from participating at a student fair. The Freshers’ Fair (aptly named to cater to those new to the university) was held at Balliol College, a constituent of Oxford University in England. According to their student newspaper, the Balliol Student Union banned the Christian Union from participating at the fair on the grounds that Christianity was an “excuse for homophobia and neo-colonialism.” They also claimed that they wanted the event to remain secular—no one religion would be endorsed over another, so that new students would feel welcome on campus instead of alienated.

After the banning came to light, Student Union leaders and Christian Union representatives agreed to allow religious representation at the Freshers’ Fair. However, the details of such representation left much to be desired. The Christian Union’s presence would be allowed at the event only by way of a multifaith booth with brochures from various religious student organizations, omitting the representatives themselves. This silenced approach led students to pass a motion that the denial of religious groups at the fair was a “violation of free speech and religious freedom.”

One could argue that the UK is becoming increasingly secular, so much so that a Christian student organization might be considered a “fringe” group—especially in an academic environment—thus causing possible discomfort for incoming students. Student safety and inclusivity should be a prime concern, but the presence of the Christian Union at a school fair should pose no threat.And yes, Christianity is absolutely capable of “justifying” homophobia, but it would still be a lapse in judgment to deny students the opportunity to express their religious views for fear of alienating new students. In fact, this effort seems to cause its own alienation.

A similar “ousting” of a student group occurred recently at Georgetown University. The president of Love Saxa, a Catholic student group, made her views known in the op-ed section of the school’s paper. The group promotes abstinence and opposes same-sex marriage. Pushback was experienced on both sides—to the editor for giving such discrimination a platform, and the student group for its intolerant views. The editor defended his decision to let Love Saxa’s president express herself, saying that it’s necessary for different viewpoints to be heard. Whether they are intolerant or not, it’s good to know what students and organizations are thinking in order to foster conversation. The editorial board at The Hoya then called for the defunding of Love Saxa and removal of its official status. On Friday the Student Activities Commission voted against taking such action. The matter will now be taken up by the school administration.

The Christian Union of Oxford University and Love Saxa of Georgetown are similar in that they were targeted for their religious views. It could be argued that the backlash against the latter group is justified due to its intolerance of a constitutional right (that being the right of same-sex couples to marry). The former example is based only on association and supposition, not admittance. The bottom line is that as much as we hold dear to our freedom from religion as humanists, we must also respect others’ freedom to exercise their religious ideas. The ideas themselves, not the freedom to express them, should be subject to criticism and consequence, as this leads to developing more rational and informed ideas.