Every Friday, my university cafeteria serves fish and chips. I’m not a big fan of fish and chips myself, so I don’t particularly look forward to it, but it does always make me pause and recall the ways in which even generally secular universities often hold on to their religious pasts.
The fish and chips, of course, descend from the days when Catholics were expected to avoid meat on Fridays, itself a remnant from older practices of fasting ahead of the sabbath.
Even as one whose views of religion at universities ranges from the skeptical to the hostile, I can’t get too worked up over these last vestiges of religion in public funded schools. I doubt very many people even realize why they serve fish on Fridays and, someday, they likely won’t.
But tolerating the not-quite vanished traditions of a dying tradition is one thing: encouraging faith-based observances at a public university is quite another.
And so it was with some concern that I noted that the University of Regina has gone so far as to install special sinks to facilitate the washing that observant Muslims do in preparation for their prayers. U of R has also created a dedicated prayer space for Muslims as well.
Meanwhile, in Quebec, requests by Muslim students for dedicated prayers spaces on campus have met with mixed reactions. According to this report from the Montreal Gazette, at least one professor “goes against the principle of secularism in schools,” while others contend that that such spaces simply meet students needs, just as the cafeteria meets a need for food.
And that’s where they lose me. Religion is not like food. Every human being requires nutrition. No human being requires religion. Indeed, as I have argued in this space before, religion, which puts premium on faith and acceptance of dogma, tends to run contrary to the primary function of a university education, which is to promote critical and independent thinking. In short, a university education should be challenging—even undermining—your religious convictions, not encouraging them.
There are middle grounds, of course: have a religious centre but have it funded by outside sources. Such compromises are attractive, but still suffer from the basic problem that dedicated university spaces for religion still serve as endorsements of those religions. And, indeed, of religion in general.
Centuries of skeptical and scientific thought have finally seen us nearly climb out of the dark gorge dominated by antiquated scriptures and hidebound clerics. We must not let a misguided conception of tolerance allow religion to regain its foothold and send us back down into the chasm of ignorance and superstition.
Todd Pettigrew is an associate professor of English at Cape Breton University.