Should UCD Societies Council stop funding religious and political societies?

YES by Nathan Young

Student societies exist for a plethora of reasons. Some are centered around hobbies, creating a space for people to develop their interest, pick up a new pastime, or make friends with common interests. Others are faculty based, which help create a sense of community, and also create great networking for people at all stages in their academic careers, from freshers to professors. While there’s a lot of room for fun, there are also plenty of opportunities for the more goal- oriented, and earning positions on committees is a great way to develop interpersonal, teamwork, and leadership skills. It can also look pretty good on a CV. These clear positives are why societies not only exist, but receive funding from the university. The question, then, is why would religious or party political societies be any different?

Whatever bonds people can create over a hobby, stronger ones can surely be built over a world view. Depending on the chosen career, a committee position in Young Fine Gael may look far more attractive than one for the Games society. As for the networking, being a party member creates many more opportunities for students to meet with the movers and shakers of the nation than any other student society ever could.

The organisation and goals of political and religious student societies, however, is quite different from other societies. The bond between people who share an ideology is not necessarily closer than between people who share a hobby, but it is different. The reasons for not funding religious or political societies with what is essentially public money are slightly different, but similar and overlapping.

The primary reason for a political party to exist is to recruit members and encourage students to vote for their party in local and national elections. They also operate as a training ground for political parties future politicians. Recently, former YFG Auditor Vivienne Phelan and former UCD Labour Youth Auditor Liam Van Der Spek have been selected for their party’s ticket to run in the upcoming May local elections. While in some vague pro-democratic sense voting may be seen as a “good” thing to be encouraged, the aim here is not to increase political engagement for its own sake, but to enlarge the political influence of the parties involved as much as possible.

With religious societies the aim may be slightly different. Churches don’t run candidates per say, and it would silly and wrong to say all events they run are proselytising recruitment drives. However, to think of religious societies in UCD as merely being support groups for particular communities is to fundamentally miss the point of these societies. The Islamic Society host anti- reformist speaker Abdullah al Andalusi with little to no opposition almost every year, as well as all events, and segregating their committee into “Brothers” and “Sisters”. The different christian societies work hard to push their events where speakers come to make “The Human Rights case Against Same-Sex Marriage”. The promotion of illiberal, often borderline sectarian politics are part and parcel of these societies.

None of this is to say that such societies shouldn’t exist. The contention here is that society council money, which is the same money as the SU and Athletic Union get, shouldn’t be spent on these endeavours. The ability to exist as a society, book rooms to host events in, email members, et cetera should remain available, but they should fund themselves either through fundraising among those who support their causes, or through sponsorship.

No by Michael Regan

One of the most alluring aspects of university life, according to many, is the possibility for self-discovery and reinvention. As students, we come to college not only to nurture the skills and acumen of our future professions, but also to grow up into adults. In order to do so, we must have a solid system of core values and beliefs. This is where politics and religion come into play. Contemporary historian Yuval Harrari conflates ideologies and religion, arguing that both are “system[s] of human norms and values that [are] founded on a belief in superhuman laws.” Whether judaism, humanism, socialism or even nazism are practiced, each include inflexible doctrines which are either adhered to in their entirety, or refuted absolutely.

By discontinuing the funding of religious and political societies in UCD, students are effectively robbed of the opportunity to explore new ideas within the university. Due to a strict catholic ethos in most Irish primary schools and abysmal political education at second level, university is often the first place students are exposed to contrary belief systems. It is often the first environment in which students even think of questioning their own faith, prejudices and biases. The current nurses and midwives strike, for example, is a two-fold quandary with both metaphysical and political implications. On one hand, we have the highly-politicised, economic issue of redistributing healthcare funds and resources. We ask if it is feasible, if it makes financial sense. It is a game of numbers. On the other hand is the philosophical question of how much we truly value these people who devote themselves to our care. This is not a question of numbers, but of their intrinsic worth.

Both the economic and humanistic schools of thought are equally valid when considering how to deal with the strike, but it is up to the individual to determine which is the morally just way of resolving the situation. Education of, and exposure to, different ideologies provides a basis for moral decision-making, a skill which is vital for our ongoing growth and development. This kind of holistic, extracurricular education is what we study at UCD for, not disinterested lecturers and disappointing GPAs.

One could argue that there are services and facilities within UCD which require urgent capital investment. One might even say the need for a new library or sports-ground supersedes the need for religious exploration or political activism on campus, and therefore funds should be distributed elsewhere. However, a lack of such societies in UCD would leave our college somewhat rudderless, and with no clear identity. With nothing to stand for, our current, liberal Student Union would fall apart at the seams. Those of us who don’t study the social sciences might go through our entire degrees without an inkling of how our society functions, either politically or spiritually, and thus retard our collective sense of civic duty, among other things.

Instead, we should maintain the current status quo. We should be free to hop from Labour, to Sinn Féin, to the Islamic Society until we find our (“fully-funded”) tribe and sense of purpose. We shouldn’t worry about getting it wrong or right, because no student really has a clue what they are doing anyway. What we do know is that we’re all here to learn, and to grow. At the very least, we deserve the opportunity to discover our niche and to try make sense of it all while we’re still here.

REBUTTAL by Michael Regan

Both sides of this question agree that student societies are integral to the sense of community and fellowship which permeates through our university. Both introductions touch on the idea of belonging and shared interests. However, it is unfair and disingenuous to suggest that a political presence on campus exists solely as a recruitment mechanism for our future Dáil and Oireachtas.

As mentioned in my introduction, religious and political societies exist within UCD to allow exploration of new ideas. Naturally, students with a greater inclination towards political life will pursue careers of this nature, but such students are a minority. At the heart of YFG and UCD Labour Youth, is not a clandestine culture of entrapment and indoctrination, but one of unity. The fact that there is such a variety of political voices in UCD is testament to the heterogeneity of our student body, which indicates that “political engagement for its own sake” is the whole point. Our society funding does not serve as dark-money towards Leo or Mary Lou, it serves as a conduit to our social activism, and therefore should not be cut.

The opposition raises some valid points regarding the controversial speakers and events organised by religious societies in UCD. It is quite possible that cutting the funding of these societies would render them incapable of organising such talks. However, promotion of sectarian politics and inciting division amongst students, if it were truly happening on campus, would be cause for an outright ban, not financial penalties. Views which differ from the norm are not necessarily illiberal. These views should be challenged and debated, not quashed. Also, reducing all religious societies within UCD to conservative echo-chambers is a gross generalisation, and undermines the progressive majority which populates them.

Finally, the idea that a college society with innumerable financial burdens - and which competes for membership with dozens of others - could possibly survive without university funding is insane. We would not expect the Students’ Union, the UCD Boat Club or, even, The University Observer to survive without minimal investment. How then, is it conceivable that Young Fine Gael could even organise themselves out of paper bag without funding? It’s not very cash-money to suggest that they fend for themselves, now is it?

REBUTTAL by Nathan Young

The points raised above do fundamentally disagree on the purpose of political societies, but societies aiming to help students understand and develop their own, and others, belief systems exist. Two of the largest societies on campus, The Law Society and the Literary and Historical Society both host weekly debates which touch on political and existential questions. The Philosophy society and Politics and International Relations society both host speakers and panels to discuss these topics in perhaps less competitive but often much more nuanced ways.

If the point of political parties was simply to educate students about politics, then the parties would work together. Instead, they operate independently. Every Freshers’ Week, and every Societies week in semester two, sees most parties having their introductions and drinking night simultaneously. It’s done so that if you go to Labour’s mojitos, you can’t go to Fine Fáil’s hot Whiskey.

It seems odd to suggest that the best way to combat the closed mindedness or ignorance of someone who’s only experience of religious discussion is to fund the Newman society. It’s possible that they’ll also go to the Baha'i or Islamic or Atheist societies, but that’s less likely than if they were attend a Philsoc event or L&H debate on organised religion.

As for how rudderless students would be without such societies, the contention is that the societies shouldn’t be funded, not that they shouldn’t exist. Current rules regarding political party societies not being allowed to receive donations are unfair. As long as they are following the same rules as any other private organisation providing donations or sponsorship, political parties should have equal opportunity to fund whichever student society they like. The same is true of religious societies. The aim here is not to prevent the activities of parties, but to prevent them from taking funding which could be better used on less divisive societies.

If starved for funds, it would also force societies to work for the goal described by the “Yes” side above. Religious societies hoping to afford their favorite speakers or political societies looking for a larger platform must work with a neutral arbiter, such as a debating or faculty society. Controversial speakers would be challenged more often, and members of different parties would have to better engage with each others ideas at events like the Mock Dáil.