Interview with Mark Dean

  1. You’re the Chaplain & Interfaith Advisor for Camberwell, Central Saint Martins, Chelsea and Wimbledon, could you tell us more about your role and what you do?

The short answer is the chaplains are here for everyone. We are not employed by the University but are sent to serve here by the Diocese of London. In the same way that Anglican vicars are there for everyone in their parish, whether members of the Church of England or otherwise, so Anglican chaplains are there for everyone in the institutions they serve in, eg hospitals, prisons, or in our case, the university. We develop interfaith initiatives with colleagues from other denominations and faiths, who we can put students in touch with. We also work alongside the Counselling and Health Advice Team; one way of understanding this is to say that while counsellors focus on the emotional aspects of student life, and health advisors on the mental and physical, so chaplains address the spiritual. For example, we can speak about questions of faith if they are important to you, and we hold regular communion services and meditation sessions. Chaplains are also available to all staff in the university.

  1. From your experience, what role does religion play in higher education and how does it affect students who are religious or maybe atheist?

Historically, religious institutions were the wellspring of universities – this is the case in both Christendom and Islam – and some higher education institutions still have a religious foundation. But at least from the Enlightenment onwards, a tension developed, and in the Modernist period, when the art and design schools that form UAL were founded, this became a kind of rupture; so by the twentieth century, there was a common assumption that western education, along with other cultural institutions, would become increasingly secular, or indeed atheist. However, it is now clear that the post-modern situation is more complicated than this, not least due to the international context. For example, approximately 50% of UAL students identify as religious, and of those who don’t, only a small minority identify as atheist, while most prefer terms such as agnostic, ‘spiritual not religious’, etc.

  1. How can art education support students whose identity is shaped by their religion?

Due to the cultural shift identified above, and also perhaps in response to Equalities legislation, under which religion is now a protected characteristic, universities are beginning to address this question more creatively. For example, UAL has a Religion and Belief Champion, as well as a Community of Practice focused on Religion, Belief and Faith Identities and how these impact on learning and teaching. The situation is further complicated by questions of intersectionality – the way identities associated with race, religion, gender, sexuality, etc overlap and sometimes conflict. This is one reason why we cannot take a simplistic or binary approach to questions of religion in the university.

  1. How important is the role of religion in today’s current socio-political climate?

I think the answer to this must be ‘extremely’ important!

  1. How would you define religious extremism?

The most obvious example would be the use of violence employed in the name of religion and apologists who claim this is justified. But even among those who argue against religion, we can see extremist tendencies at work. For example, Richard Dawkins has claimed that sexually abusing a child is ‘arguably less’ damaging than ‘the long-term psychological damage inflicted by bringing up a child Catholic in the first place’.

  1. Is there a distinct difference between religion, faith, spirituality & belief?

As already noted, many people today would describe themselves as ‘spiritual not religious’ which would imply that there is a distinct difference between the two. But I’m not sure things are as binary as that, any more than they are when it comes to questions of spirituality vs atheism. For example, when it comes to questions of life after death, it is possible to believe in an afterlife without reference to God – you can call it the ‘spirit world’ but it could just as easily be described as another plane or dimension of material existence. Conversely, it is also possible to hold a religious faith in God without believing in an afterlife – the Saducees in the Bible did for example.

  1. Lastly, do you think religion, faith, spirituality increase or decrease creativity?

Speaking personally, as an artist I have found that my faith is critically engaged with my creativity. However, it is not an easy relationship. Religion involves a kind of following, which is in many ways anathema to contemporary art practice, where, unlike other academic subjects, art students are required to develop their own independent research at undergraduate level. ‘Spirituality’ seems to be a more acceptable proposition in the art world these days, but this tends to be understood either in individualist/consumerist terms, or as a kind of ethnographic exoticism, both of which I find problematic.

So, no easy answers I’m afraid – it is not for nothing that our chaplaincy motto is ‘encouraging enquiry, celebrating diversity’ – so please feel free to continue the conversation with us!