A secular campus?


In a secular university, Bridget Fitzsimons examines religion’s place in UCD.

Religion is a contentious issue on the UCD campus. Despite being a secular university, UCD has a chapel and prayer rooms and there are several religious societies such as Living Stones, the Newman Society, Pagan Society and the Islamic Society. However, there is no society for Jewish students and staff.

As an apparently secular university, should UCD have any religious connotations at all? Students range from religious apathy to considering religion to be a huge part of their lives. Are we catering for certain students, or encouraging everyone, no matter their feelings toward religion, to embrace faith?

UCD began life as Catholic University of Ireland, founded by Cardinal John Henry Newman, for whom the Newman building is named. It was started as a place for Catholic students to learn, as opposed to the Protestant Trinity College Dublin. Since then, the university has become secular, welcoming those of all religions, however, can it be observed that reminiscences of religion still exist in Belfield?

Chaplains have long been an integral part of student guidance in UCD. They now have the title of Chaplain/Student Advisor, so as not to exclude those of non-Christian faith. Chaplain/Student Advisor for Health Sciences, Fr Leon O’Giolláin says that his role goes far beyond a religious one. He emphasised that students “can come to us with any kind of issues; personal issues, financial issues, academic issues, anything at all.”

If we have Christian Student Advisors, should we not have Muslim, Jewish or even Wiccan Student Advisors?

Help can be administered with or without spiritual emphasis. However, this role certainly does encompass a Catholic role, providing spiritual guidance for those who need it in a Christian sense.

Chaplain/Student Advisors are there for any student to go to for help, but seem to be predominantly of Christian faith. It cannot be said that the Chaplain/Student Advisors do not do a truly necessary and worthy job, but if we have Christian Student Advisors, should we not have Muslim, Jewish, or even Wiccan Student Advisors?

Critics have stated that religious societies have no place on a secular campus but the societies themselves argue that they do., Auditor of Christian society Living Stones, Jolynn Low says that “we are a Christian society, but you don’t have to be a Christian to join. We welcome anyone, from any background, with any beliefs.”

She says that Living Stones “provides a place for people who feel at home.” She says that she joined the society because “Living Stones’ aim is on the same line as me, so I find it easier to be in a society that has the same goals as me.”

Low also states that the society has a “lot of international students, who miss home and get a chance to share a lot about God.” Low also admits that the majority of the membership of Living Stones are international students, with Low herself being from Malaysia. Living Stones seems to provide a place for international students, who perhaps feel isolated from UCD, and feel they can bond over religion. She also says that every society has a right to be on campus, stating that, “we have a PaganSoc, and if I was to say that we don’t want them on campus, then we don’t have a right to be on campus either.”

The Pagan Society is in its fifth year, and its auditor, Lisa McCarthy, admits that their membership is “varied.” Catering for those who are just curious about other forms of religion, McCarthy says that Paganism, for the society, is “anything that isn’t one of the Judean Christian faiths.”

When asked if she felt that religious societies had a place on campus, McCarthy is in agreement with Low, saying that “I think they do, just as any other society has their place.” As a society, the Pagan society runs many varied workshops on everything from astrology, to Wicca (a witchcraft based religion), to ritual tools. She also notes that the Pagan society has been truly integral to every facet of religion on campus, stating, “our treasurer is an atheist, and last year’s treasurer was actually Catholic.”

Religious societies also play a vital role in the social side of campus. Low explained that Living Stones hold barbecues for Freshers for “good food and good times.” McCarthy also stated that inter-societal events have been thought of with “an idea floating around about the Christian Union and the Pagan society having a game of paintball but it hasn’t come to fruition yet.” It is in good fun that the two societies with different beliefs can come together and have a friendly game with one another, proving that religion can be made fun in this day and age.

The fact remains that UCD Featuresis a secular campus, and while religion may be a big part of many people’s lives, it is nothing to others. Considering the role of a university is to educate, where can we draw the line? Should religion in an educational environment be stopped, or is there an acceptable level at which students can be in education with religion without having be around it all the time? It seems as if UCD has a healthy balance now, but it could be argued that since not all religions are catered for, it should either be all or nothing.

It is true that the religious societies do more than just promote religion; they help integrate students, and give them a place to discuss their faith and views. Should the view of an educational centre be: have something for everyone religiously, or let those religious people practice outside university?

Fr O’Giolláin believes that in an educational environment, students should study every facet of human existence, and religion is an important aspect. He says that “if we agree to be a university we agree to universal knowledge, and therefore it should take into account that whole religious dimension of being human.”

Fr O’Giolláin also stated; “I know that’s not always considered cool in our day and age but nevertheless it is a dimension of what it is to be human, and all you have to do is study world religions and you’ll see that.” The University has come a long way since its Catholic founders, but religion is still very much accessible across the Belfield campus.