CICCU – A Feminist’s Nightmare?

Let’s get this straight before we begin: I’m a Christian. I may not be a shining example, but my faith is important to me, as are my views on the Church. I know that I can’t comprehend the Word of the Bible myself, which is why Priests train for years to be able to guide others. This requirement of the Christian faith – that to be a good Christian you must believe in what other people say – is a difficulty for many who are Atheists or Agnostics. However, God gave me ears to hear but he also gave me a mind, and a mouth. Just because you are told something does not mean it is right, and one thing I admire about my own Church is that sermons are usually given as miniature arguments in themselves, relying on scholarly interpretation and clear reasoning about particular aspects of faith. Sometimes, if I disagree, I have spoken to the preacher afterwards,¬†sometimes at length, to gain a greater understanding of his/her viewpoint. But this still doesn’t mean I have to agree. There are many more discussions to be had here about whether or not this completely invalidates the point of Faith in the first place (I know that it doesn’t), but that is not what I’m here to talk about. As you may have guessed already, the things that I respect about my faith are those which CICCU seems determined to eradicate, and it’s people like me who are feeling the heat from them the most.

For those of you unfamiliar with CICCU, I’ll give a brief, biased, summary. CICCU is the Cambridge Inter-Collegiate Christian Union. In it’s own words, it exists “To make Christ known to students in Cambridge”. In my experience this is far from the truth. CICCU is primarily an evangelical organization, yes, but those who it targets (and it does target people) are not those to whom Christ is potentially unknown, but those whose Christian faith is out of line with CICCU’s. Within my Christian group of friends, there is a lot of pressure from our college’s CICCU representatives, whereas I know that they leave the Atheists and members of other faiths well alone. When I talk about pressure, I mean pressure to conform to CICCU’s ideals: hard-line, conservative, absolutist Christianity.

CICCU members, with whom I made friends with in fresher’s week and now can’t shake off, seem to have taken it upon themselves to act like disapproving parents. Sadly, as other friends have turned to CICCU, their behaviour follows suit, although with different levels of intensity. It is sad to see people who come to Cambridge with uncertain beliefs get locked down into a restrictive mindset.

The reason I’m posting this here (rather than on some atheist/humanist blog) is because I want to highlight the threat this kind of organization presents to women in particular. The kind of bullying (there really is no better word for it) that I have received from CICCU representatives focuses on trying to make me conform to some kind of 1950’s idealism of what womanhood entails. I am encouraged to dress to cover up, and advised to stay away from alcohol, due to it being ‘unlady-like’ to drink. Any girl that I know within CICCU seems to be in a celibate relationship with a man in CICCU, or single. I know of one couple who intend to save their first kiss for the altar. Sex out of wedlock is frowned upon. Most people don’t tell me explicitly that the same is expected of me, but some have in the past. Above all, there seems to be a desire to instill guilt in anyone who has in the past not conformed to this way of life.

But what’s the issue? It’s a woman’s right to live how she chooses, to choose celibacy and early marriage, not least her faith. My problem is that I see women who succumb to this lifestyle out of guilt inspired by people in the guise of spiritual helpers. And I don’t even think these people understand what they’re doing.

My main problem though, is that this will never go away. Even if this nasty element of CICCU were to subside, the same thing would spring up elsewhere. These hard-line evangelists are a sad fact of life, and maddeningly, religion seems to be getting worse in its treatment of women, not better (I’m looking at you, Benedict). All I want is for the rotting, chauvinist core of the church to be overthrown. For the majority of people these days, the church is just another set-back to feminism, and one that is harder than ever to penetrate. It will fall, as other institutions have, and it will take a long time, but it will take a greater effort than anything thus far.


  1. clementineb

    Great article. I think there is a lot to be said in favour of feminist atheism – or atheist feminism – when it comes to this subject. I have had exactly the same kind of experience with CICCU. I have seen them convert mildly religious, humanist students to a form of Christianity which can be described as aggressive and reactionary. I do think this is partly due to the fact that religion, even at a perfectly moderate level, instils a vision of gender and gender relationships which can quite easily evolve into sexism and misogyny. Obviously, and thankfully, many religious people I know are feminist or at least antisexist, and reject the image of women that is developed in many verses of the Bible or the Quran. But I think that older CICCU members who ‘adopt’ and ‘train’ freshers count a lot on previous religious background and knowledge to facilitate their task. It is much easier to be convinced of the virtue of abstinence and of the holiness of motherly love if you have been brought up in a family who believes in the Virgin Mary, however unobtrusive this belief seemed to be before you reached university. Having been raised in an agnostic family, I have found it easy to question the numerous talks that CICCU members have invited me to – and I have noticed that mildly religious students who came with me to these talks were much more receptive to them than me.

    This is why I believe that feminist atheism, which posits the pervasiveness of religious beliefs as one of the sources of sexism in society, is a helpful position to adopt. Religion, whether moderate or extremist, has to be analysed and assessed as a vector for antiquated sexist beliefs. Atheist feminism obviously runs the risk of going too far, like all isms, but it is interesting to consider religion and its links to gender relationships from this angle. It forces you to accept that sexism is inherent, although perhaps seemingly inoffensive, within religion. CICCU makes it emerge fully. There is some sort of logical evolution from sexism in mainstream, ‘social’ practices of Christianity to sexism within CICCU. I think that extremism is always latent within moderate trends of religion – and we see it blossom at university, when freshers with uncertain beliefs are regularly turned into unquestioning evangelists by CICCU.

    • Jaq

      I agree with you that atheism – and in particular Humanism – would seem like the obvious religious affiliation for a Feminist, unfortunately it doesn’t work like that. I am a Christian who is a Feminist, not the other way round. Being a Feminist doesn’t (or at least shouldn’t) imply anything about your religious beliefs, but sadly the reverse is usually true.

      Religion is here to stay. Even if in the distant future institutions like the Church were to be abandoned, and Christianity fade like so many other religions, others would spring up in their place. We can accuse these institutions as being sexist, but that doesn’t really help. What we need is more feminists within these institutions, something they are doing their hardest to try and prevent (again: Benedict). Only once feminism is embedded within these institutions will change come about. Within some religions this is happening, but sadly most major religions are still heavily biased against women, and by extension, most feminists.

      One of the main problems with CICCU is the way it brands itself as ‘the’ Christian union within Cambridge. Individual College CUs either have a choice of being in with CICCU, or in with no-one at all. This leads to CICCU having a monopoly on (Protestant) Christian belief in Cambridge, which apart from being bad due to their relatively extremist beliefs, leaves many people, like myself, without a real congregation in which they feel comfortable, as people tend to associate with CICCU or abandon their faith (by which I don’t necessarily mean lose, but rather cease to practise while at Cambridge) . This means there is no real forum for discussing the problem of sexism and faith within the faith itself, or a forum for discussing anything progressive for that matter.

      This is turning into a bit of a rant, so I’ll stop. Having left Cambridge (University), I wish I’d had the guts to start something when I was there, to provide an alternative to CICCU. I hope this will happen anyway, as CICCU’s campaigns get more and more aggressive.

  2. evie

    Re: CICCU being ‘the’ Christian group – there is a Student Christian Movement group just started/starting up. Lefty, feminist, generally lovely… see for more info. Not sure how to get involved in between years, but look out for it in freshers’ week.

  3. clementineb

    Hi Jaq,

    Could you please email us asap on ?

    Thank you!

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