Dealing with Religious Diversity within Universities

Dr Krystof Batorowicz

(Short version of paper presented at the Muslim Students at Australian Universities Conference, Sydney 2007)


The year 2000 was expected to be a year of peace and a worldwide celebration. In reality however, 2000 delivered a number of racial, ethnic and religious conflicts which were internationally significant, with abuse of human rights and risks for world peace.

The year 2001 will be remembered in history as the year of 'September the 11th' where terrorism played a visible role on a large scale and where the victim was a country considered to be the only superpower at the time. As a result of this terrorist attack, the 'war on terrorism' was proclaimed. Another important occurrence in 2001 was that religion, previously considered by many to be an unimportant issue, became very visible. Furthermore, religion and its cultural implications were considered to be a fundamental aspect in the concept of the 'war against civilisations' where Christianity and Islam, as was assumed, could not coexist any more. Islam as a religion and cultural practice, and Islamic political and social influences have recently generated unprecedented interest. Islamic studies have become popular in countries where Muslims are in small minorities, literature on Islam is growing, even in languages unknown to the majority of Muslims and in countries where they are almost absent.

The current war in Iraq has given an additional dimension to religious conflicts and generated the need for understanding by occupying international forces of the 'coalition of the willing'. On the other hand, politicians in some countries are trying to utilise religion for their political purposes, portraying themselves to be as religious as possible and expecting voters to support them on the basis of their religion.

Development of violent forms of Islam has been widely recorded but, as it Etzioni (2007) noted: '... few have paid mind to the importance of the crowded churches ... in Eastern Europe and Russia; to the ... millions who are finding religion in China; and to the rapidly growing … variety of religious denominations, cults and sects all over the world.'

These and other developments contribute to the growing interest in religion. My question then, is how universities should respond to this phenomenon.

In my original paper on this topic (too long for presentation at this conference and submitted for publication elsewhere) I tried:

  • to introduce the growing interest in religion;
  • to make some observations about the challenging nature of contemporary universities;
  • to look at chaplaincies within universities, their functions and organisational models;
  • to advocate an internal policy framework on chaplaincy and suggest procedures or regulations that universities should consider;
  • to find out about others dealing with religion beyond chaplaincy.

I would like to present some of these aspects only, hoping that this conference will contribute to the discussion on the topic.

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Chaplaincy - the idea and practice

The institution of chaplaincy has a very long history. The majority of sources point to the tradition of St. Martin (circa 316/317 - 397) who divided his military cloak (cappa) and gave half to the beggar and wrapped the other half round his shoulders, making a cape (capella). This cape was later preserved as a relic. Frankish kings took the cape during wars. The tent where the cape was kept became known as cappella (or capelle). The military chaplains (known as capellani) celebrated Mass.

Chaplaincy refers to the office or station of a chaplain. In the broader sense, chaplaincy is an expression of ministry performed by chaplains in different settings, especially hospitals, military services, prisons and educational institutions.

A popular encyclopaedia defines 'chaplain' as 'guide in religion: a member of the clergy employed to give religious guidance, e.g. to members of the armed services, schoolchildren, or prisoners'. Other sources emphasise the many roles of chaplain, including pastor, teacher, evangelist, counsellor, and administrator.

Regardless of which source we accept, it is necessary to realise that the institution of chaplaincy is older than that of a university. As students often undertook their studies at universities far away from their usual place of residence there was a need to provide them with spiritual support and this was performed by chaplains.

Chaplaincy in many cultural traditions became an integral part of a university. This practice is particularly well established in the United Kingdom, United States, Australia, Canada, and to a lesser extent in New Zealand. Universities in Europe (for example in Belgium, The Netherlands, Denmark or Spain) or in Asia (the Philippines) also have chaplaincies as a part of their university settings.

The term 'chaplaincy' traditionally referred to the Christian faith. However, there is a slowly growing tendency to treat the term in an inclusive way and to extend it to other faiths, including Judaism, Buddhism, Islam and Hindu. Growing internationalisation and multiculturalism in universities has contributed to universities becoming more religiously diverse.

We may ask a question whether contemporary universities should have a chaplaincy, to maintain chaplains in a traditional way or whether universities should modify chaplaincies in order to better reflect the challenging role of a modern chaplaincy.

I would argue that current international developments, increased interest in religion, and the changing nature of universities in terms of their composition, create challenges to revaluate the nature of chaplaincy and the relation between chaplaincy and the universities.

Universities are about culture (and religion as an important aspect of culture) and as such should have a place in a contemporary university, regardless of whether the university is public or private, with religious affiliation or not. Chaplaincies, which have served well in a number of universities for so many years, should be developed rather than removed or have their role minimised.

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The changing nature of contemporary universities

There are constant changes in universities. At the end of last century the changes were associated with growing internationalisation of universities, partly a result of competition for international students paying full university fees and the tendency to see education as a commodity.

Traditionally, universities have been treated as places of international exchanges of scholars. In some countries, such as Australia, increased immigration and change in the ethnic composition of the population also significantly contributed to making universities more multicultural. Cultural diversity is very visible both in relation to students and university staff.

Otten (in Crowther, et al, 2000) made similar observations in relation to Europe, naming internationalisation of higher education and a growing multiculturalism in societies as 'a fundamental challenge for European universities ...' 

In addition, the development of ideas, policy and practice about equal opportunity and anti-discrimination legislation, contributed to a more egalitarian higher education system.

Organisational models - practical issues in dealing with various religious groups and relations between the groups and non-believers

There is no one universal, recommended organisational model of chaplaincy at university. Many external and internal factors will decide on the organisational shape of a university chaplaincy. Amongst the national factors external to universities, we need take into account the country where the university is located in terms of its religious composition, the level of religious tolerance, the religious tradition, and the attitudes of the government towards religion, the relevant law and practice.

Local factors, such as the religious composition of the region, cooperation with the churches and other religious bodies, and the level of cooperation between religious bodies and a particular university will also play an important role.

Policy on chaplaincy - the need for internal university policy and procedural, regulatory framework

Taking into account religious diversity on campus and possible conflicts, legal aspects, appropriate relations between different religious bodies, etc, it is highly recommended that a university having a chaplaincy on campus or intending to develop a chaplaincy should have a policy framework, following consultations with all stakeholders and which is widely publicised to the university community and all involved.

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The role of chaplaincy within universities

University chaplaincy has played and is playing an important role. Some universities will be satisfied with the traditional role of Christian chaplaincy but this will not necessarily satisfy the religious and spiritual needs of all students and staff on campus.

In addition to traditional roles performed by chaplains such as religious support, religious services and spiritual guidance, the chaplaincy may undertake information programs on religion, educational programs and programs aiming to integrate the university community involving people of different faiths and denominations, concentrating on projects that will benefit all. 

Other religious activities on campus and chaplaincy outside universities

Chaplaincy however, is not the only religious presence on campuses of universities. Amongst staff and students there are members of religious bodies and organisations, courses associated with religious studies, philosophy or sociology courses include religious aspects as well as religious elements in fine arts, music or theatre. Religious leaders, outside chaplaincy, are also invited to universities in various capacities. The various, more-or-less formal religious groups on campus may from time to time organise educational programs dealing with religion.

Chaplaincies are often located in hospitals, prisons or military settings. However, there are also new tendencies to employ or appoint chaplains in private companies, especially in the United States. In the USA even a conference on chaplaincy in private companies was held.

In Australia there is also Sport Chaplaincy, involving a number of churches. Also in Australia the National School Chaplaincy Programme was established in 2006.

These new developments, although only briefly mentioned, illustrate the need for chaplaincy services in contemporary societies.


Taking into account the spiritual and religious needs of students and staff, universities should have chaplaincy services established in collaboration with religious bodies and with the university community. The significant and constant changes within universities should also be reflected, at least partly, in chaplaincies existing on their campuses.

The organisational model of chaplaincy depends upon a number of factors, including local and university traditions, the religious composition of the university and local community and the availability of suitable people to perform the role of chaplain. Universities should aim to respond to the religious and spiritual needs of all, including the growing number of foreign students, staff from other than majority cultural backgrounds or visiting scholars.

Knowledge of religious systems and understanding of different faiths is not only a matter of interest for a university chaplaincy. In addition to formal courses on religion or with a religious component provided by universities, educational programs about religious issues should be delivered on campus. This will also assist in minimising possible conflicts, tensions or discrimination based on religion. 

We need to realise that human beings constantly try to understand and explain nature. Universities are the places where the process is particularly intensive. Religious diversity on campus brings many new perspectives.

Finally, we can note that the desire to explain nature, to find out the truth and to understand a fully individual person is the nature of human beings (homo sapiens) or, using Zycinski's (2001) term, 'homo religiosum.' Indeed, religion is an important part of life for many people and all universities, public or private, in all countries, should recognise it.

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Batorowicz, K (1995) 'The Role of Family in Preservation of Cultural Values in a Multicultural Society: Perception of Australian Adolescents', Medicine, Mind and Adolescence, International Journal of Adolescentology, Vol.X, n.2, pp 57 - 67.

Batorowicz, K (1999) 'A fair go? The Problems and Needs of International and Non- English Speaking Background Students at Australian Universities', Youth Studies Australia, 18(3) pp 37 - 40.

Batorowicz, K (1999) 'Multiculturalism and Immigration: the Australian case' in: Koivukangas O, Westin C (eds) Scandinavian and European Migration to Australia and New Zealand, Institute of Migration, Turku, Finland and the Centre for Research in International Relations and Ethnic Relations, Stockholm, Sweden; Vammala, Finland, Migration Studies C13 CEIFO Publications No 81, pp 11-21.

Batorowicz, K (1999) 'Exploring the Potential Application of the Australian Multicultural Policy in Europe' in: Miklaszewska, J (ed) Democracy in Central Europe 1989 - 99, Comparative and Historical Perspectives, Meritum, International Centre for Development of Democracy Foundation, Jagiellonian University Printing House, Krakow, Poland

Batorowicz, K (2000) 'Cultural and Ethnic Diversity in Australia, Italy and Some European Countries: a Policy Response', Conference Proceedings of the Italian Australian Institute 'In Search of the Italian Australian into the New Millennium', Melbourne, 24-26 May 2000, Gro-Set Pty Ltd, pp 319 - 331.

Batorowicz, K (2003) 'Dealing with cultural differences of contemporary societies', International Studies: Interdisciplinary Political and Cultural Journal, Vol. 5 No. 1/2003, Lodz University Press, Lodz, Poland 2003, pp. 61 - 75.

Batorowicz, K (2004) 'The University Maintains, Creates but also Critiques Culture: Local, National, Regional and Global Culture', Conference Proceedings, the 9th Asia-Pacific Conference on Education and Culture, November 20-22, Far Eastern University, Manila, Philippines, pp. 29 - 34.

Boyce, G (2005) 'Models of Chaplaincy: Traditional, Professional, Surrogate, Multifaith' Journal of the Tertiary Campus Ministry Association, Vol 2, No 2. 2005.

Crowther, P, et al (2000) 'Internationalisation at Home, a position paper' European Association for International Education in cooperation with the Academic Cooperation Association, IAK, IÃSEG, Nuffic, Katholieke Hogeschool Limburg and Malmà University, viewed 11 May 2007

Department of Education, Science and Training (2007) National School Chaplaincy Program, viewed 2 May 2007.

Encarta Encyclopaedia (2007) 'chaplain', viewed 2 May 2007

Etzioni, Amitai (2007) 'The West Needs a Spiritual Surge', The National Interest (online), (accessed 15 March 2007).

New Advent (2007) 'Chapel', Catholic Encyclopaedia, viewed 11 May 2007 (opens in a new window).

Sports Chaplaincy Australia (2006) viewed 2 May 2007 (opens in a new window).

The New Encyclopaedia Britannica (1985) Vol.3, Micropaedia, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc, Chicago.

von Dietze, E and Baynes, J (2005) 'Is there a Chaplain on campus? Now what?' Journal of the Australia and New Zealand Student Services Association, Number 25, April 2005, pp. 31 - 48.

Zycinski, Jozef (2001) Bog Postmodernistow Redakcja Wydawnictw Katolickiego Uniwersytetu Lubelskiego, Lublin (in Polish).

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