On Poetry and Culture Shock

The role of organised religion in Universities, both sides of the Atlantic.

The Spanish Constitution says that we don’t have an official religion but that the government may take measures to acknowledge the social importance of individual religions (read the Spanish original of the 16 article here). That is a lot more lax, and also a lot easier to interpret, than the American First Amendment, but in practice it means that the Catholic church is present in public life in a degree that many people find unacceptable. Since we are still a very homogeneous country racially and culturally, it is normally understood that the only alternative to Catholicism is laicism or atheism. Since religion is still present in the national school system, kids in school choose either Religion (meaning Catholicism) or a secular alternative. People elected for public office have a choice: swearing on the Bible or promising on the Constitution. One of these days there might be other books or religious objects on that table next to the other two books, but that will not happen soon. Not before a decade, is my guess.

That is why there is an office at Seville University, in the same building as my department, with a sign that says: “Department of Religious Assistance to the University Community”. Guess what? According to that sign, “religious” only means Catholic. It makes me itchy, sore and angry to pass by that door knowing that we have such a shortage of classrooms and that the biggest of the two cafés in the building closed down three years ago to make room for professors’ offices. And what’s worse: after having worked at that building for nine years, I haven’t seen them organise any activity apart from daily mass at lunchtime. I have no idea of what else they do, and people who don’t study in the Humanities building don’t know this office exists.

In my year in Aberdeen, I saw that the Chaplaincy was different. The University chaplain belonged to the Church of Scotland (I think) but there were several multi-purpose rooms, there were services for different denominations and it worked as a referral service too. Nice. And here at Cornell there is the Annabel Taylor Building. I could not believe my eyes when I saw what was going on. About fifteen different religions, sharing a building, each one with one or more chaplains. On Sundays there is a mad rush as each Christian denomination takes turns to use the chapel; the building houses other activities on other days of the week, including AA meetings and zen meditation. And everyone seems to get on well.

When I told my brother about it, he said Spaniards should see that sort of thing to stop thinking our culture is the centre of the universe; and those are big words coming from my favourite atheist. Seeing the difference between the universities of Aberdeen, Cornell and Seville, and the very different roles religion has in them, I am even more convinced that the Office for Religious Assistance should be dissolved and make room for more useful things. A new café, for example. I wouldn't mind being the Dean to do so, heh heh.

(Titular de la Gaceta Universitaria, año 2015: El SARUS cierra para dejar espacio al nuevo bar de Filología. Obispo de turno: “La Decana ha declarado la guerra al bienestar espiritual de sus alumnos”.)

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