Editor’s note: The following essay is part of Deseret Magazine’s issue on the fate of the religious university, with contributions by presidents and scholars from Baylor University, BYU, Catholic University, George Fox University, Wheaton College and Yeshiva University, among others. Read all the essays here.
The United States is the most religiously diverse nation in human history and the most religiously devout nation in the Western Hemisphere.
This growing religious diversity impacts virtually every facet of American life. Muslim congregational prayer is Friday afternoon, not Sunday morning; this shift in traffic patterns will impact zoning considerations in many towns and municipalities as Muslims establish mosques. Many Jains, Buddhists and Hindus are vegetarian; this will change what is served in the cafeterias of schools and businesses. And the pandemic was a reminder that Americans may seek the guidance of a wide array of religious leaders alongside their doctors on matters like whether to take a new vaccine.
In a more general sense, the question of whether religious identity is going to be a bridge of cooperation, a barrier of division or a bludgeon of domination will play a determining role in our common life together.
Higher education owes America graduates who are competent professionals, effective leaders and ethical citizens with the knowledge base and skill set to shape faith into a bridge of cooperation, thereby strengthening our religiously diverse democracy.
The organization I lead, Interfaith America, in partnership with professors Matt Mayhew and Alyssa Bryant Rochenbach, recently completed the most comprehensive evaluation of how higher education is performing with respect to the challenge of religious diversity. The headline is that there are some hopeful signs, but there is a long way to go.
Here are some hopeful signs:
• Ninety-six percent of college students said that they respect people from different religions.
• Ninety-three percent report having an interfaith friendship.
• Eighty-nine percent said that it is important for people of different faiths to work together on matters of common concern.
• Seventy percent said they were committed to bridging religious divides.
You might say that the overall culture of higher education fosters positive attitudes toward religious diversity and facilitates interfaith friendships — both highly important for life and leadership in a religiously diverse democracy.
But people need more than positive attitudes and friends from different faiths to be interfaith leaders. They need a concrete skill set and knowledge base. This includes having a radar screen for religious diversity, the ability to mobilize people from different faiths into the same space, the ability to identify common ground between diverse faiths.
Higher education, through formal courses and cocurricular activities, is the ideal place to learn this skill set. Unfortunately, colleges are failing at this important task.
Consider these findings:
• Only 14 percent of college students participated in an interfaith dialogue.
• Only 11 percent participated in an interfaith action project.
• Only 9 percent participated in an interfaith training.
This means that colleges are not teaching students the skill of interfaith leadership.
Moreover, students respond that they are not learning the knowledge base either. While well over 50 percent of college students say they spend time learning about racial, political and sexual diversity, far fewer than 50 percent say they spend time learning about religious diversity.
Higher education is responsible for nurturing educated professionals who can build strong communities in a highly diverse democracy. It is time that higher education takes religious diversity as seriously as it takes other forms of identity, and educates its graduates with the skill set and knowledge base of interfaith leadership.
Eboo Patel is founder and president of Interfaith America
This story appears in the September issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.