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August 25, 2021+Steven Zhou
+Faith & Religion

Why People of Faith Should Be Leading the Charge for Religious Diversity

As of the last 2020 census, over three-quarters of all Americans identify with a specific religion, the vast majority being some form of Christianity. Notably, younger Americans (ages 18 to 29) are more religiously diverse, with only 28% identifying as white Christians (Catholic, evangelical, or mainline Protestant), as opposed to 57% of Americans age 65 or older.

The growing religious diversity on university campuses is starting to reflect these demographic shifts. Recent efforts like the Interfaith Youth Core have focused on training college students to have respectful, productive conversations surrounding religious diversity. Founder Eboo Patel wrote in 2018, “Religion has long been a vital part of this country’s body politic; failing to educate the next generation of citizens on the role of religion in our democracy is the equivalent of failing to teach doctors how the circulatory system works.” Heterodox Academy has spent the past two months exploring religious diversity in academia and spotlightingdialogue between religious differences.

Despite these efforts, actual engagement between religious differences among students remains low. Kevin Singer’s recent post on heterodox: the blog pointed out that “few students pursue opportunities to explore religious diversity.” He cites the 2020 IDEALSsurvey of 3,486 college students, which revealed that just 14% reported participating in some sort of interfaith dialogue on campus, and just 9% reported experiencing some sort of religious diversity training on campus. This is despite the fact that 70% of students were “highly committed to bridging religious divides.”

Previous writers, including Singer, have proposed several suggestions for how to improve student engagement in religious diversity. They have suggested creating more campus programming to engage in religious dialogue, or introducing diversity in classroom learning by advocating for research in religious diversity and cultivating learning environments where students can engage with religion.

The challenge, however, is that most of these initiatives start from a foundation of neutrality, meaning that the goal is to expose students to a variety of religious views without giving preference to one religion over another. For example, the Interfaith Youth Core has several excellent resources for interfaith dialogue, which are focused more on training students to engage with religious worldviews and encouraging pluralism as a building block for religious diversity.

One might assume that such initiatives could effectively engage with people from radically different religious backgrounds. Certainly they can and do, but this may not always be the case.

Students with strongly held religious beliefs are instead often found primarily sticking to religious bubbles and religiously affiliated clubs and organizations designed for that particular faith doctrine. In fact, too often I find my peers in these religious circles unwilling to or apprehensive about engaging in the aforementioned interfaith initiatives.

Instead, the current spaces of interfaith dialogue end up primarily engaging with students who are uncertain and searching for answers. This is a great first step, but it leaves out the students with strongly held religious beliefs — arguably, those who are most important to include in interfaith dialogue. In the IDEALS survey mentioned earlier, many religious students reported feeling unwelcome and unsupported; just 27% of Jews, 37% of Buddhists, and 38% of Hindus felt their campus was welcoming of religious diversity.

Clearly, there is more work to be done in promoting religious diversity in higher education.

What Can Be Done About This?

Here’s my pitch: Those of us with strongly held religious beliefs can and should be leading the charge for religious diversity.

If we need more engagement in religious diversity (which we do), then people of faith in higher education need to be more purposeful in sharing their beliefs and seeking positions of leadership in driving religious diversity.

In some ways, this may seem counterintuitive. Sometimes among people of faith, there appears to be a hesitancy toward letting young believers be exposed to different doctrines. Christian Scriptures such as 1 Timothy are cited to label these as “false teachings” that must be guarded against and confronted. Entire organizations have been formed with a goal of rejecting and combating false teachings in other religions or from secular society.

But this doesn’t need to be the case. Faith commitments can actually fuel religious dialogue in higher education settings. Regardless of professed religion, we all share a common commitment to putting our faith in something or someone beyond this material world. That commitment drives a common desire to understand the truth of the spiritual world and how it impacts our lives and our behavior today. Pursuing truth is meaningless if you aren’t willing to be proven wrong. Religious diversity in a university setting — as long as there is a shared commitment to mutual learning and intellectual humility — is a prime example of how we can pursue truth together.

Here’s the distinction. In addition to an interfaith dialogue seminar or workshop teaching students how to embrace religious pluralism and stressing the importance of religious diversity, we could have sessions presenting the diverse belief systems of different religions. Religious leaders would be asked to present their best case for why their faith doctrine is “the truth” — and students would be trusted to adjudicate for themselves which one, if any, they believe in.

Certainly, some may balk at the idea of filling a room with people from radically different faith traditions. Advocates for religious diversity sometimes look askance at people with strongly held religious beliefs for being too polarizing and fear they might disparage other religions. But there are some key advantages to such diverse environments, when done correctly.

What Is the Advantage to Having Religious Believers Lead the Charge?

Research in social psychology is replete with examples of how polarization on hot topics is not necessarily a bad thing — as long as it focuses on ideological debate (and not personal attacks) and doesn’t lead to aversion or hatred of other opinions. More specifically, one of the best ways to “unlock diversity’s potential” is to train individuals to understand and appreciate the perspectives of others. In a controlled experimental study, this idea of “perspective taking” was found to help break down interpersonal barriers between diverse groups.

What better way to learn another’s perspective than from someone who strongly holds that perspective?

The goal would not be to gather people who are questioning and unsure about their beliefs — such interactions are important, but insufficient. Instead, it would be to gather people who firmly believe in their religious values and doctrines, who would be encouraged to share their beliefs with one another in a safe and supportive environment. This further exemplifies how religious beliefs, in dialogue with one another, can deepen student learning in higher education as a whole.

As a Christian, I firmly believe in the doctrines of Jesus as stated in the Bible. To learn how to take another person’s perspective — a Muslim’s, for example — I would need to interact with and hear arguments from someone who firmly believes in the commands of Allah as stated in the Koran. Religious diversity flourishes in this marketplace of ideas and contrarian viewpoints.

Practically speaking, there are ways to create such spaces of significant diversity while maintaining respectful dialogue. Formalized and structured debates are potentially effective ways of helping students communicate and engage with diverse perspectives. The strategy is not new; one widely cited study traces the history of structured debate over 4,000 years and describes its decline in modern education over the years. The piece then summarizes the advantages of in-class debates for helping students become open to new perspectives and describes several practical forms of in-class debates that instructors could use.

Such interactions require students who are strong proponents of their beliefs and who can articulate them in a convincing and appealing manner. Instead of gathering a room full of people who might be moderately interested in faith, or uncertain and searching for answers, this type of environment can feature multiple individuals presenting their arguments for why they believe what they believe, in a structured manner, to truly foster dialogue between religions.

My alma mater, Pepperdine University, has created several excellent examples of such dialogue. Although religiously affiliated, the university does not require a statement of faith to attend the school, and as a result there are quite a few faith traditions represented on campus. I have had the pleasure of being involved in several initiatives like the Veritas Forum and the Table Talks, which created spaces for interfaith dialogue among strong believers from different religions or faith doctrines.

This can only be done if colleges and universities embrace people of faith — rather than eyeing them suspiciously — and welcome them with open arms to share their beliefs and strongly advocate for them. On the flip side, it also requires courage and determination from people of faith to step outside their safe bubbles of fellow believers and actively dialogue and debate with others.

What Does This Mean for Me, a Person of Faith?

Don’t be afraid to engage in religious dialogue or even friendly debate with people from different religions. Survey data from 2020 found that 27% of Americans reported having to “hide” their religious beliefs out of fear of disapproval. This actually increased to 38% of Americans in a religiously diverse social network.

Certainly, there are times to be careful and considerate when sharing one’s views. But in many other contexts, this fear seems excessive. If you are a person of faith — whether Christian, Muslim, or Buddhist — what do you have to lose by talking to and learning from a person from a different faith background or lack thereof? If you truly believe that your religion is correct and teaches the truth, then you have nothing to fear from other belief systems.

University leaders are hopefully at the point of encouraging religious diversity and dialogue, and looking for faith leaders to participate in such dialogue. The Dialogue Institute, for example, partners with universities to create spaces for interreligious dialogue. As a person of faith, this is a prime opportunity for you to share your faith, present your arguments for why you believe what you believe, and perhaps even convince a few others of your perspective. And educators shouldn’t be scared of this — it means that students in the room will hear the best and most passionate arguments from all sides, allowing them to ultimately decide for themselves what they believe.

Strongly held religious beliefs should not prevent anyone from being an advocate for religious diversity. If anything, it should give people the strength to lead the charge for religious diversity, without the fear that they might lose their faith somehow.


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