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Few Students Pursue Opportunities to Explore Religious Diversity. Is There a Way Forward?
America is becoming more religiously diverse each year. Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) data shows that over the last several decades, the proportion of the U.S. population that is white and Christian has declined by nearly one-third, while the population of religious minorities and religious “nones” continues to grow. Yet, most students are not participating in formal religious diversity programs during college.
The Interfaith Diversity Experiences and Attitudes Longitudinal Survey (IDEALS) followed thousands of students through four years of college (2015-2019) and tracked their experiences with worldview diversity on campus to learn the degree to which college is preparing students for a pluralistic society.
Strikingly, IDEALS discovered that, of the thousands of students who completed the survey at the end of their senior year, only 14% reported participating in an interfaith dialogue during college, only 11% participated in an interfaith service project, and only 9% participated in interfaith or religious diversity training on campus. Classroom opportunities were pursued more frequently, but not by much: Only a quarter of students (26%) enrolled in a religion course specifically designed to enhance their knowledge of different religious traditions. Less than half said they spent intentional time learning about a religious group during college.
Given the millions of dollars doled out by foundations to address the absence of religion as a focus in diversity programs, these findings are perplexing. Why aren’t more students choosing to engage religious diversity more intentionally, especially given that their generation has shown more support and demanded more accountability for diversity and inclusion than previous generations?
I argue, and recent data shows, that this disparity among today’s students valuing diversity broadly but neglecting religious diversity specifically is the result of several factors: (1) distrust brought into college toward people of other faiths; (2) lack of campus opportunities for students to engage religious diversity; and (3) uncertainty regarding how to engage the growing number of religiously unaffiliated students. New approaches that can address these three factors are needed.
1. Trust issues
“Today’s generation of young Americans is the most progressive, thoughtful, and inclusive generation that America has ever seen,” President Joe Biden told reporters before signing an executive order on racial equity.
Yet, there is a significant issue with trust when it comes to young people and religious diversity. Though Gen Z (those born between 1996 and 2013) is touted as the most diverse generation in American history, one recent study from Springtide Research Institute surveyed over 10,000 young adults (ages 13-25) and found that 1 in 3 young people don’t trust people of other religions “very much” or “at all.”
This considerable lack of trust coming onto campuses threatens to undermine the campus climate for all students, including both religious minority and majority (Christian) students. IDEALS showed that only 27% of Jews, 37% of Buddhists, 38% of Hindus, and 58% of Muslims agreed that their campus is welcoming of religious diversity. About one-fifth (21%) of Jewish students reported high levels of divisiveness on campus compared with 7% of all other students. One-third of Hindu students regularly perceived their peers making insensitive comments about Hinduism during college, while 36% of Hindus and 20% of Muslims reported frequently feeling pressured to limit expression of their worldview in some fashion.
Though they generally enjoy greater numbers and influence in society, religious majority groups aren’t necessarily feeling at home on campus either. Only 56% of evangelical and mainline Protestant students agreed that their campus offered a highly supportive environment for them to express their worldview, according to IDEALS. This includes places on campus where they can express their beliefs and feel safe doing so, as well as practical accommodations to celebrate religious holidays and other important observances.
2. The opportunity gap
Though distrust is a challenge, broaching ideological or worldview diversity also remains a value for many current and incoming students. Springtide discovered that a majority of Gen Zers, despite their distrust, want to have open conversations about differences (77%) and agree it is important to educate oneself about the views of others (84%).
According to IDEALS, most students expect a welcoming campus environment and, at least on paper, a college experience that provides opportunities to engage and cooperate with people of other worldviews. Of the 20,000 incoming first-year students that IDEALS surveyed in 2015, 85% agreed it is important that their campuses “provide a welcoming environment for individuals of diverse religious and nonreligious perspectives,” while 71% hoped for “opportunities to get to know students of diverse religious and nonreligious perspectives.”
However, there appears to be a gap between these aspirations and the opportunities provided on campus to live them out. Despite their hopes, less than half of students across all institutional types reported exposure to religious diversity education at orientation or other required campus events, including just 40% of public university students. By the end of their first year, the number of students participating in formal or classroom-based interfaith activities dropped 18 percentage points from their final year of high school.
“Higher education is distinct in its capacity to prepare graduates for effective engagement within our religiously diverse society … however, religion has been continuously de-prioritized as an aspect of diversity work on most campuses,” the final IDEALS report, Bridging Religious Divides Through Higher Education (2020), reads. When students were asked if they developed a deeper skill set to interact with people of diverse beliefs during college, just 32% answered affirmatively.
Though there may be a “value-action gap,” we should also consider the degree to which students are not engaging religious diversity because opportunities are simply not widely available in higher education, or perhaps they’re not advertised very well or accessible to students. Bridging Religious Divides concludes, “Today’s college students are poised for success in this arena … However, to fully leverage the potential of today’s college goers as interfaith leaders, higher education must do more.”
3. The co-none-drum
Disaffiliation from religion is a surging trend among young Americans. Thirty-three percent of those between ages 18 and 25 now identify as religiously unaffiliated, compared with 23% in 2009 and 13% in 2002. Springtide discovered that 39% of Gen Zers identify as a religious “none,” agnostic, or atheist.
If 4 in 10 prospective students lack attachment to a formal religious affiliation, where does this leave religious diversity programs on college campuses?
One possible response, of course, is to place little to no emphasis on religious diversity, as many colleges are already doing. After all, fewer and fewer young people appear to be concerned with being “religious” in any verifiable way.
But this response is driven by a faulty assumption about what “religious none” or “religiously disaffiliated” really means. Of those 39% who told Springtide they are unaffiliated, a majority (60%) also said they are at least slightly spiritual, including 63% of religious nones, 42% of atheists, and 65% of agnostics.
As these data show, not subscribing to a formal denomination or tradition doesn’t imply that religious nones aren’t interested in spirituality. Rather, it is more likely that “none” implies a lack of trust in formal religious institutions. Springtide found that a staggering 52% of young people who claim a religious affiliation — along with 80% who don’t — rated their trust in religious institutions at 5 or below on a 10-point scale.
It is simply not instinctual for most religious nones to understand or appreciate their place in conversations about religious diversity. Terry Shoemaker and James Edmonds of Arizona State University argue that despite their well-intentioned efforts to be inclusive to nones, many interfaith programs operate according to an “interfaith identity paradigm,” which focuses on concretized, confessional religious identities, which nones do not have. As a result, interfaith programs often fail to inspire their participation.
Why This Matters
We are living in a divided nation, and the impetus is more than just our political differences. Four in 10 students reported disagreeing with friends about religion during college, according to IDEALS. One-third of students said they didn’t try to build relationships with people whose beliefs differ from their own during college, while one-third graduated without confidence in their ability to negotiate challenging conversations with people who held different views. More than 6 in 10 students felt people on their campus interacted primarily with their own religious and worldview communities — and therefore avoided addressing differences altogether.
Too often, we underestimate the ways that religion can divide our society and widen the partisan gap. In so doing, we also underestimate the ways that addressing religious differences can bring healing and reconciliation. Engaging religious differences in college can prepare generations of young Americans to leverage religious diversity as an asset in our society rather than a liability.
IDEALS found that first-year students who became more appreciative of other social identity groups were given opportunities to have “provocative encounters” with worldview diversity on campus, or experiences in and out of classrooms that challenged them to rethink their assumptions of other religious and nonreligious groups.
When students were inspired to build friendships across worldview differences in college, their “pluralism orientation” increased in strength. Pluralism orientation, according to IDEALS, concerns the extent to which students are accepting of others with different worldviews and believe it is possible to have strong relationships across religious differences and still hold on to their own worldview.
Building New Approaches
Findings from Springtide and IDEALS suggest there is a way forward toward improving formal student engagement with religious diversity on campus. However, new approaches may be needed that offer targeted solutions to distrust, lack of opportunity, and the rising number of religious nones.
1. To help students build trust with people of other faiths, educators and administrators need to model their own appreciation of religious diversity.
Springtide found that 87% of young people say they trust adults who take time to foster relationships. In that vein, educators who can point to specific interfaith relationships in their own lives and articulate why these are valuable will inspire students to do the same. “Educators who enact espoused values will reinforce a culture of interfaith cooperation and inspire students to seriously pursue diverse social circles and friendships,” the IDEALS report Friendships Matter (2019) reads.
2. To ensure that students have opportunities to engage religious diversity on campus, consider making at least one religious diversity experience mandatory for all students.
A good option is to build an experience into existing programs that students are already required to participate in, such as first-year orientation, a diversity workshop, or a university 101 course. Interfaith Youth Core developed an excellent resource that contains recommendations, case studies, and best practices.
3. To engage the burgeoning number of religious nones on campus, consider “spirituality” or “meaning-making” as alternative terminology to “religion.”
With 40% of Gen Z identifying as religious nones, religious diversity frameworks that assume students enter college anchored in religious traditions, creeds, and doctrines will struggle to meet them where they’re really at.
Notably, Springtide found that 80% of all young people feel their life has meaning and purpose, at least sometimes. Delving deeper into the pursuit of meaning would cast a wider net for students to feel welcome and confident in the conversation. Two tried-and-true resources to consult are Helping College Students Find Purpose (2010), by Robert Nash, Michele Murray, and Sharon Daloz Parks, and Big Questions, Worthy Dreams (2011), also by Parks.
Religious diversity in America is growing, including the diversity of those who have access to the public square. To ensure that our society is marked by healthy religious pluralism, we need college leaders, educators, and students to take up the urgent task of learning how to contend with our religious differences in ways that acknowledge the dignity of others while providing space for all people, including religious nones, to feel welcome and be full participants in public life.
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