Talking about Religion Matters

By Megan Lane

This past winter, one of my colleagues attended a higher education conference on diversity. She was pleased to learn that the conference facilitators had asked her to lead a discussion on religious diversity at the conference. She took her seat at the table at the appointed time and was preparing her materials when a conference participant approached her incredulously. “This conversation is about religion?” he asked, pointing to the table sign. He laughed. “I’m shocked. Don’t you know that we don’t talk about religious identity in diversity conversations?”

It’s no secret that diversity and inclusion are values that drive much of the work of higher education professionals. From the first days of our graduate preparation programs, we are encouraged and expected to advocate for the marginalized, to challenge systems of privilege, and to support the holistic development of our students. We explore the interplay of race, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, ability and nationality in shaping one’s identity, but often neglect one important part of a person’s experience: their religion.

I have a particularly strong opinion about the hesitance to speak about religion (or in my case, worldview) as someone who studied religion as an undergraduate and a graduate student. When I entered my master’s program in higher education, I expected a great deal of my coursework to include themes of supporting students as they navigate the reality of a religiously diverse world. Instead, I was surprised to find that there was in many ways an unspoken hierarchy of the identities—that is, identities that are allowed to be discussed and, implicitly and explicitly, identities that are not. It’s easy to chalk this up to the fact that I studied at a state institution, where conversation about religious conviction is reserved for affiliated ministers rather than student affairs professionals. I was luckier than most, in that spirituality in higher education was a focus of members of my faculty and available through certain courses. We spoke about spiritual development, how students expect to grow spiritually during their tenure in college as reported by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA.

What I don’t remember exploring in depth was how to encourage students to encounter belief systems that are different from their own and to support them through that process. Not in order to sway or change their beliefs; rather, to consider that the ability to encounter the religious ‘other’ without fear or hostility is an essential element of cultural competency as a whole. As more institutions incorporate language around “educating global citizens” into their mission statements and strategic plans, education about religious diversity is a glaring absence in many diversity-education programs. In my experience, many educators recognize this need and acknowledge that—regardless of your opinion about religion (and we all have one)—religion matters in the 21st century and plays a powerful role in shaping both national discourse and international relations. We’re seeing this play out in a significant way during this election cycle, and students will likely return to campus this fall with questions and opinions about both the religious views of candidates and their positions toward religious minorities in the U.S. Despite this recognition, educators regularly avoid this topic for a variety of significant reasons.

In the past, religion was reserved to the private sphere—something to be discussed with your minister or priest, rabbi or imam. This privatization often manifests in a lack of vocabulary, confidence and willingness to even broach the subject with one another, since we’re socialized to believe that it will inevitably lead to disagreement and division. It is important to acknowledge that this is a risk; interfaith engagement is complex and deeply personal, especially during the sensitive college years when so many aspects of one’s identity are in flux. This makes it all the more important to train student affairs professionals to recognize that religion no longer exists in the fringes of educational life, and to neglect to prepare educators to have conversations about it is a disservice to their practice. Students are going to talk about religion, the question is whether they have healthy models for that engagement in their hall directors, advisors and mentors.

It feels daunting to consider talking about religion with students for our campus leaders who are typically not trained as spiritual leaders. The underlying belief that you have to be an expert in the theologies and practices of every world religion in order to have a conversation usually prevents those conversations from happening. What we’ve found at Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC) is that authenticity, vulnerability and willingness to acknowledge what you don’t know can go a long way. And, building an understanding of the resources that are available on your campus can alleviate anxiety when you feel that you’ve come to the limits of your capacity to advise a student.

In addition, thinking about ways to encourage themes of religious diversity into existing infrastructures on campus can help to normalize religion as a natural element of diversity education. In an article for AAC&U’s Liberal Education, IFYC experts outlined the following nine “Leadership Practices” that demonstrate an institution is working diligently to create a campus culture that values interfaith engagement …

  • Identity and Mission: Making clear ties between the history and values of an institution and the importance of engaging religious diversity
  • Campus Wide Strategy: Incorporating opportunities for student to encounter religious diversity across campus in an intentional, organized way
  • Public Identity: Campus leaders vocally support interfaith engagement and include religious identity in broader conversations around diversity
  • Accommodation for Religious Observance: Campus policies reflect the needs of students’ practice, e.g. providing dietary options, spaces for prayer and reflection, and flexibility in academic scheduling
  • Academic Priority: There is a growing field of Interfaith Studies which encourages the examination of relationships between people of different religions through various disciplines
  • Student Leadership: Student actively organize interfaith events, dialogues, and service projects
  • Staff and Faculty Capacity: Campus professionals take advantage of professional development opportunities to support interfaith engagement
  • Campus- Community Partnerships: Institutions maintain relationships with local houses of worship and community organizations to widen interfaith efforts beyond campus
  • Assessment Cycle: Campuses plan interfaith programs intentionally and assess progress toward their goals via quantitative and qualitative means.

It isn’t necessary to take on all of these practices in order to affect change on your campus—you can start with one, or focus your efforts on areas where you see your campus making strides already. The point is, religion doesn’t have to be an intimidating thing to incorporate into diversity work. Higher education professionals delve into topics that are as fraught as they are enriching nearly every day. We counsel students through stress, disappointment and loss. We’re there when things get tough and when things are joyful; being there when a student turns to their religious faith or their secular worldview is a natural extension of the role that student affairs professionals play. It’s time we start believing in our ability to do it well.

Megan Lane manages co-curricular partnerships at Interfaith Youth Core.


Related Posts:

The Emergence of Three Distinct Worldviews Among American College Students

Moments of Meaning: Religious Pluralism, Spirituality and Higher Education

No. 9 … No. 9 … No. 9 (Rebels, Rabbis and Stories on Innovation from BIF-9)


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