Higher Education Must Address Religious Diversity

By Giess, Mary Ellen | Diverse Issues in Higher Education, April 12, 2012 | Go to article overview

Higher Education Must Address Religious Diversity


Giess, Mary Ellen, Diverse Issues in Higher Education


There are overwhelming indications that religious diversity is a current and relevant issue for college campuses. The Spirituality in Higher Education study (http://spirituality.ucla.edu/) out of UCLA demonstrates that college provides a fertile ground for students to explore issues of religion and spirituality. Pew research (http://www.pewforum. org/Age/Religion-Among-the-Millen-nials.aspx) on Millennials indicates that, while religious affiliation is on the decline, students engage in prayer and other spiritual practices, that rival other generations. In a country of growing religious diversity, we know that students will be regularly engaging across lines of difference in their professional and civic lives; however, Pew Research shows that Americans" knowledge about diverse religious traditions is dramatically low (http://www.pewforum.org/U-S-Religious- Knowledge-Survey.aspx).

The goal of the Interfaith Youth Core (http://www.ifyc.org), the organization where I currently work, is to make interfaith cooperation a social norm. We believe that religious diversity does not have to lead to inevitable conflict--it can provide an opportunity for cooperation and contribution to our common civic good. In today's world and on today's campuses, there's no question about whether religion will come up. Rather, the question is how it will come up, and who will speak out when it does. In my undergraduate experience, the university lost educational opportunities time and time again, ceding the conversation about religion to the news media and dorm gossip. The mission of higher education is to cultivate global citizenship and leadership skills in its students. As higher education has done with so many critical social issues of our time, colleges and universities have an opportunity to serve as a model for successful engagement of religious identity.

Against a broader backdrop of global religious conflict, flashpoints around religious issues have marked college campuses. This year, Vanderbilt University erupted with accusations that the university was stripping students of their freedom of religion because of Vanderbilt's "all-comers" policy for student organizations. In fall 2010, "Everyone Draw Muhammad Day" (a day where secular student leaders chalked campuses with stick figures of Muhammad to protest the decision of "South Park" to eliminate an episode depicting Muhammad; depictions of the Prophet Muhammad are viewed as a significant sign of disrespect within most Islamic traditions) spread on campuses across the country, including Northwestern University, the University of South Carolina, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

In 2007, the University of Michigan-Dearborn came under fire for installing footbaths for the ritual use of Muslim community members (ritual washing before prayer is common practice for many Muslims), hearing accusations that the university was using public funds preferentially. …

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