The Interfaith Youth Core, a non-profit organization that promotes interfaith conversation, held a campus-wide meeting Tuesday, Feb. 7 concerning religious diversity and interfaith cooperation on college campuses. The meeting focused on the goals and purpose of the IFYC and concluded with the results from research conducted at Elon University. Phil Smith, associate chaplain and director of religious and spiritual life at Elon, provided context for the IFYC before turning the podium over to Megan Hughes-Johnson, director of campus engagements for IFYC.

Hughes-Johnson and other IFYC campus associates work with universities across the country to offer resources and ideas and stimulate conversation concerning the topic of religious diversity.  She began her presentation by explaining the significance of President Barack Obama’s inaugural address, in which he recognized the diverse religious make-up of America and referred to America’s “patchwork heritage” as a strength, not a weakness.

“We find it pretty compelling that President Obama, the first African American president of our country, chose to identify religious and non religious identities as what gives our country strength,” Hughes-Johnson said. “And chose to point out that these are identities that are important to people and they are identities that should be engaged. “

More recently, religious identity has been present in politics due to the upcoming presidential election.  Hughes-Johnson used this example to explain that there are positive ways to engage religious identity, but there are also ways that promote stereotypes and divisions.

“At IFYC, what we ask is what makes the difference,” Hughes-Johnson said.  “How do we go from recognizing that diversity on its own is just a neutral fact, it just exists. People come from different backgrounds. And that can either go towards conflict or cooperation.”

IFYC looks for two sets of outcomes when building a culture of interfaith cooperation on a college campus, according to Hughes-Johnson.  The first is student outcomes, which involves how students know something about another person’s tradition and the nature of the interfaith interaction that take place between them.  The second is campus outcomes, which looks at whether the campus culture is a place that encourages this type of learning and interaction.

“If you were to drop down into the middle of Elon’s campus had you never been here before, how would you know that Elon is a place that is thinking about these issues and engaging these issues?” she said.

There are three initiatives at Elon that directly relate to the issue of multi-faith cooperation, according to Phil Smith. Better Together, a student organization on campus, was created by students who trained with IFYC. The organization inspired a multi-faith learning community, which is made up of eleven students representing six different religions. And the multi-faith center will serve as a central place where anyone can come and learn about the religious differences that exist on campus, Phil Smith said.

Survey Results

In the fall of 2011, IFYC sent out an online survey to Elon students that measured student attitudes, behaviors and knowledge regarding religious identity, diversity and interfaith cooperation on campus.  Questionnaires were also sent out to student leaders, staff and faculty, and individual interviews and focus groups were held.

“Our job this year is really to hold up a mirror to campus and to help you all, students, staff, faculty, administration, take a look at and think about what are the ways currently that students from different backgrounds are interacting with one another,” Hughes-Johnson said. “How can we strengthen the great programs that have already started, as well as think about ways that we can enhance and perhaps start new programs based on the data we have covered?”

Two-hundred sixty-one students took the survey, which was divided into three categories based on how students identified. Students that identified as Protestant, Orthodox Christian or Roman Catholic made up the “majority” category, students that identified as Buddhist, Daoist, Hindu, Jewish, Mormon, Muslim, Spiritual, Unitarian Universalist, or students who wrote in “other,” were placed in the “minority” category, and students who identified as agnostic, Atheist, non-religious, “none” or secular humanist were grouped into the “non-religious” category.

There were 23 scales, or specific focuses, of the survey.  One of the questions under the “campus climate” scale asked how students perceived diversity.  The results indicated that Christian students, who were placed in the majority category, perceive the campus to be more diverse than students in the minority or non-religious groups. It was also found that students who identified as non-religious were significantly less likely to perceive their own group as being accepted on campus.

The results from the “support on campus” scale showed that Christian students are more likely to feel there are safe places on campus, not only for their own expression but for all expressions of religious identity, than those who identified in the religious minority or non-religious groups.  The survey also indicated that non-religious students are more likely to feel coerced than students who identified with a religion.  And close to 30 percent of students who took the survey reported hearing insensitive remarks concerning a particular religious group.

Hughes-Johnson also shared the results from the faculty questionnaires and responses from leaders of student groups.  Towards the end of the presentation, she outlined five areas of exploration that IFYC will continue to look into, including the implications of the reported divide between Christian students and students of non-religious worldview, trainings that exist that build student and staff capacity to engage religious diversity on campus and the impact the new Multi-faith Center could have on campus culture.