Commentary

Bring Muslims, Evangelicals, and Atheists Together on Campus

November 03, 2015

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle
This time it’s the Muslims at Wichita State University who are in the news. Consigned to praying in stairwells and hallways, they were delighted last month when a Christian minister on the campus proposed making changes in the chapel in a way that would accommodate diverse worship practices. The plan called for replacing the pews with stackable chairs, a step that enraged some alumni and community members.

Part of the anger was directed toward the Christian leaders who led the plan. "You call yourself a Christian?" one critic thundered. But the Muslim students experienced the brunt of the backlash, accused of advocating for the Islamic transformation of America.

The Wichita State events call to mind a similar incident at Duke University in January. After campus officials provided permission for Muslims to sound the adhan, or call to prayer, from the bell tower of the chapel, Franklin Graham, a prominent Christian evangelist, wrote: "As Christianity is being excluded from the public square and followers of Islam are raping, butchering, and beheading Christians, Jews, and anyone who doesn’t submit to their Sharia Islamic law, Duke is promoting this in the name of religious pluralism." That inspired a groundswell of protest against Duke, with specific fury directed at its Muslim students.

For us, these incidents highlight some disturbing facts. It is no secret that non-Muslim Americans have generally negative attitudes toward Muslims. A 2014 report by the Pew Research Center, for example, shows that 41 percent of Americans rank Muslims in the lowest third on a scale of "warmth" toward diverse religious traditions.

But it may surprise officials in higher education that perceptions in campus environments, generally thought to be more welcoming of diverse identities, bear striking similarities to the national data. The Campus Religious and Spiritual Climate Survey, designed by two professors of higher education, Alyssa Bryant Rockenbach and Matt Mayhew, found that only 46 percent of students surveyed believe that Muslims are accepted in their campus communities.

It has not escaped notice that many of the more aggressive individuals in targeting Muslims are evangelical Christians. Franklin Graham, who touched off the controversy at Duke, is among the best-known conservative Christian leaders in the country. His statement that his brand of Christianity is being marginalized in certain environments is typically met with eye rolls by educators and intellectuals, but when it comes to campus environments, there is research to back up his claim.

According to a 2007 study by Christy D. Moran, Dennis James Lang, and Jenea Oliver, evangelical Christian students report feeling isolated and misunderstood on campuses. They perceive a clear progressive bias at college and often report experiencing antagonism and negative assumptions about their faith from other students and faculty and staff members. In other words, despite the fact that evangelical Christians make up 24 percent of the national population, they report feeling like a beleaguered minority on college campuses because of what they view as an aggressively secular culture.

Making matters even more interesting, atheists, who would presumably support a secular campus culture and who have often been accused of open disdain toward evangelicals, also speak of feeling marginalized on campus. John A. Mueller’s 2012 study demonstrates that these students report anxiety about "coming out" as atheist and often encounter ugly stereotypes about what it means to hold that worldview.

We recently visited Miami University of Ohio to talk about religious diversity in higher education, and we saw such a dynamic neatly illustrated in a series of op-ed essays in the campus newspaper. The conversation in The Miami Student was initiated by an atheist undergraduate, Connor Moriarty, writing to profess his discomfort at expressing his identity in the midst of a predominantly Christian culture. A Christian student, Grace Moody, wrote in response that "this uncomfortable stigma isn’t felt solely by atheists, but by Christians, too. … Now more than ever, living in a society that is spiraling toward more liberal views, an uncomfortable stigma felt by Christians is evident."

We believe that conversations about religious diversity should be high-level, cross-campus, and sustained, actively woven into everything, including first-year orientation.
As we reflect on these stories and research findings, two things strike us. The first is that three groups that orient themselves around religion very differently — Muslims, evangelicals and atheists — all report feeling marginalized on college campuses. The second is that in many cases, segments of one group are the primary agents marginalizing the others.

What ought higher-education leaders to do about all of this?

We believe the first step is for them to break open the conversation about religious identity and diversity on campus. In our travels across various campuses, we have been struck by the frank confessions by many higher-education leaders that they are uncomfortable talking about religious identity and do their best to avoid it. But when responsible citizens and institutions are silent about important topics, they succeed only in forfeiting the territory to voices that may have less-than-responsible agendas.

We believe that conversations about religious diversity should be high-level, cross-campus, and sustained, actively woven into everything, including first-year orientation, required courses, and policies that affect campus climate. They should occur not only in response to a controversy. For example, might some of the marginalization and sniping among Muslims, evangelicals and atheists (and other groups as well) be avoided or allayed by bringing members of those communities together to discuss the salient research?

The second step is to use research to not only diagnose problems like the feelings of isolation in various faith and philosophical communities, but also to design constructive solutions. Robert Putnam and David Campbell’s 2010 book, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, alongside national studies from the Pew Research Center, shows that building knowledge about other religious traditions and developing meaningful relationships across faith and philosophical groups are the keys to enhancing appreciative attitudes. We call the relationships among attitudes, knowledge and relationships the "interfaith triangle."

Forthcoming research from Rockenbach and Mayhew through the Interfaith Diversity Experiences and Attitudes Longitudinal Survey will provide additional data on what precise educational practices drive interfaith learning.

Colleges and universities are the rare institutions that have both the intellectual resources and the close-knit environments to create strategies and run programs based on this type of research. Indeed, they have done this quite actively when it comes to engaging diverse race, ethnic, gender and sexual identities. This work has become so important that it is often included in the mission and strategic plan, with language about the need to prepare global citizens who can engage positively with diversity.

Given the prominence of religious diversity in both the broader culture generally and in higher education specifically, shouldn’t this dimension of identity be elevated to a similar level of importance?

Eboo Patel is founder and president of Interfaith Youth Core and the author of Acts of Faith (Beacon Press, 2010) and Sacred Ground (Beacon Press, 2012). Mary Ellen Giess is senior director for co-curricular initiatives at Interfaith Youth Core.