They make free speech an issue

Benjamin Jones, communications officer of the National Secular Society, discusses a worrying set of claims by the Director of LSE.

A paper published by the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education has claimed that atheists can be “militant” on university campuses, while describing religion as a “public good” and the exclusion of religion from the public sphere as “repressive.”

Professor Craig Calhoun, Director of the London School of Economics, has said atheists make “free speech an issue” in efforts to “challenge the faith and beliefs of religious students”. He described “controversies over religious cartoons” as ‘disruptive to “campus harmony” and compared rows over free speech and blasphemy to ‘clashes’ between religions.

He’s the director of a university – a secular university – but he thinks it’s a bad thing to challenge the beliefs of religious students. It’s a truism, but all the same – universities are supposed to challenge the beliefs of students, especially secular universities. (Religious universities should, but that doesn’t mean they’re seen as having a duty to do that. It makes sense to expect some orthodoxy at a religious university.)

The Professor referred to his university’s outrageous censoring of students for wearing “Jesus and Mo” t-shirts as a “small episode” and said that “harmony was restored eventually but not without acrimony, accusations and threatened lawsuits.” Professor Calhoun fails to acknowledge that any friction was ultimately down to censorious student union officials ordering the removal of materials they deemed “offensive” and the threats of physical removal from LSE officials unless the students censored themselves.

The National Secular Society supported the students involved, Chris Moos and Abhishek Phadnis, back in 2013, after they were threatened with being physically removed from the LSE Freshers’ Fair unless they covered the ‘offensive’ t-shirts. At that time, Professor Calhoun said staff had “acted in good faith”.

Meaning they were “sincere”…but that’s not the issue.

In his paper, Calhoun seems extremely dismissive of secularism. He writes, “Attempts to exclude [religion] from the public sphere are intrinsically repressive.” He doesn’t seem to mind the LSE Student Union physically, literally excluding atheists, humanists and secularists from a literal public space though. His institution had to be threatened with legal action just to exact a modest “half-apology”, as the students in question described it.

Extending his analysis, the Professor compares secularism – and the concept that religion and the state should be separate (not that religious people may not fully participate in public life) – to exclusion and repression of Catholics.

So religious believers get the religious universities, and they get the secular ones too. Public religion is mandatory. You can have any color as long as it’s black (and wears a cross).



  1. marcus says

    I don’t know, he seems pretty sure that the need for “harmony” supersedes the need for any of that “challenging beliefs” stuff. It’s almost like you think that they ought to educating their students or something, Don’t rock the boat.

  2. iknklast says

    I did not find my secular education harmonious. I found it disorienting, at least at first. Realizing that there might be things that were totally different from the way I had been taught was, in fact, disorienting and contributed very little to my harmony. And I am glad that was the case. Anytime you are asked to truly think about something you’ve just taken for granted, it might cause some lack of harmony. The maximization of harmony usually leads to the minimization of education.

  3. rjw1 says

    The unspoken issue is probably not so much the Cross, but the Crescent Moon, the relentless pressure by Muslims for ‘respect’ will never stop. One of the advantages of being highly educated is the ability to camouflage one argument with another, so the situation is presented as one of ‘secularisation versus public expressions of faith’. Some Christians might naively belief that they can find a common cause with Islam against secular education, that’s a fatal error.
    Islamic terror is not the main existential threat to liberal democracy, in reality it’s the constant accommodation by ‘useful idiots’ to Muslim demands.

  4. Al Dente says

    I think rjw1 @3 is correct. Chris Moos and Abhishek Phadnis wore Jesus and Mo t-shirts at a freshers fair until Student Union officials, claiming “complaints of offense” ordered them to cover up the shirts. The question about who was complaining was never answered but considering past history, it’s reasonable to believe those offended were muslims. In 2012 LSE Student Union demanded that LSE Atheist, Secularist and Humanist remove a Jesus and Mo cartoon from their Facebook page because of complaints from Muslim students.

  5. chrislawson says

    Shorter LSE: “We respect your right to free speech so long as you don’t exercise it.”

  6. chrislawson says

    rjw1 and Al Dente — yes, the key demographic expressing outrage here is the more traditionalist Muslim, but it’s also very clear that plenty of non-Muslims are quite happy to ride coattails here to suppress secular criticism of their own churches. As you can see, Prof Calhoun has real concerns about the “suppression” of Catholicism by not giving the church special privileges.

  7. chrismoos says

    @al Dente We actually never saw any evidence of any complaints, nor did we have any students complain to us, or even mention the t-shirts negatively. I think that it wasn’t actually Muslim students at all, but students’ union and LSE administrators who preemptively got offended on the behalf of Muslims – in the usual patronising and condescending way.

    I’ve given a full account here:

  8. Helene says


    Islamic terror is not the main existential threat to liberal democracy, in reality it’s the constant accommodation by ‘useful idiots’ to Muslim demands.

    Hear, hear!

  9. johnthedrunkard says

    So the next-level question is: how on earth do ‘progressive’ and secular institutions like LSE become slavish appeasers for the most repressive reactionaries on Earth?

    Right-wing asses go to town pointing out the lunatic association of western progressives with medieval Islamists. But they have a point.

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