I wasn’t always interested in interfaith education. Personally, my worldview and commitment to interfaith engagement and education developed in college, as a result of being introduced to organizations and programs such as the Interfaith Youth Core. IFYC is a Chicago-based non-profit organization that focuses on making interfaith cooperation a social norm by way of college campuses and students. In 2010, I attended one of their very first Interfaith Leadership Institutes, where I was exposed to the ideals and language of interfaith cooperation in a very powerful way. I heard Eboo Patel speak, which prompted me to soon after read his first book Acts of Faith: The Story of An American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation. It was through IFYC that I first learned about the influence of Diana Eck’s Pluralism Project and her definition of religious pluralism as opposed to religious diversity. I discovered what Patel called the “faith line” as the key issue in the 21st century (Acts of Faith, 2007). Following graduation, I served two years in AmeriCorps on a college campus, coordinating a national program spearheaded by IFYC, the Department of Education, the Corporation for National and Community Service, and the White House called the President’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge. IFYC’s focus and specialty is on interfaith education and dialogue among college students that necessarily leads to social action and change. So in many ways I, as a seminarian and a Christian minister, am a product of IFYC programs and outreach, and I resonate deeply with their goals and passion for both interfaith engagement and college students. I feel the need to preface my discussion with that disclaimer, and I continue in a spirit of love and respect.
IFYC operates under this key assumption: that college students are and have historically been agents of social change and grassroots movements. The civil rights movement, the environmental justice movement, and the push towards equal rights for members of the LGBT community have all had significant influence and support by young adults on college and university campuses across the United States. The four or so years of an undergraduate degree are a unique and pivotal time in young adults’ lives. According to Jonathan Clatworthy, college and university students are learning and acquiring the skills and knowledge to succeed both in the workplace and in a global community. At the same time, they are also often forming the worldviews and moral/faith frameworks that will guide them for the rest of their lives (Clatworthy, “The Authority of University Chaplains,” 2005). Likewise, Patel and IFYC have a similar vision for the role of college students in creating a culture of interfaith cooperation:
“[C]olleges and universities often serve as microcosms of America’s broader religious diversity, where students of different faiths regularly interact with one another in close quarters, often for the first time. This happens in a space where they are encouraged to question, challenge, and explore their own identities and those of others” (Patel and Meyer, “The Civic Relevance of Interfaith Cooperation,” 2011).
I don’t disagree that one’s college years often provide an initial portal into worlds other than your own, and that college students can be agents of social change. My question arises when we consider recent research and polls about religiosity and the faith lives of Millennials today.
In a 2012 report, the Pew Research Forum on Religion and Public Life described a trend that has been coined by observers as the “Rise of the Nones.” One-fifth of the United States public, and more importantly for our discussion, one-third of adults aged 18-29 (i.e. young adults including, but of course not limited to, college students), do not identify with any particular religion at all. These figures have increased by 5% from only five years ago. Note that this does not include those who identified themselves as atheist or agnostic; these numbers describe those who specifically identified themselves as having no religion or not belonging to any particular religion. Their 2012 report is quite extensive, and much could be and has been already written about the potential causes and repercussions of this trend.
But I ask this question, admitting that I personally have fewer answers than I do overall curiosities: what does this recent trend in the faith lives of Americans, specifically Millennials, mean for interreligious education and interfaith cooperation on college campuses? If fewer and fewer young adults identify as “religious” or actively practicing a faith life, how do college and university chaplains, campus ministers, and higher education professionals engage their student body in the civic work of interfaith engagement? In my experience, the IFYC model assumes young people grow up with and are committed to a faith tradition, and it is this faith (i.e. a commitment to a religious tradition) that should provide a foundation for interfaith cooperation and civic engagement with the Religious Other. Is this model still true and relevant?
As a seminarian who feels a call to the intersection of young adult ministry, higher education, and interfaith engagement, I am curious about how religious professionals and higher education professionals are approaching their ministry or their interfaith education in light of this new trend. Have you noticed a change in the religious commitments of college students and, in turn, their openness toward and engagement in interfaith opportunities? Is the IFYC model working on your campus? Are you supplementing or replacing it with other models that operate under different assumptions? Or is IFYC taking note of the “Rise of the Nones” and adjusting their model and approach appropriately? As I noted earlier, I write all of this with deep respect for the work of the Interfaith Youth Core, admitting and appreciating its profound influence on my own personal journey. I simply wonder how this demographic shift is effecting and changing the work and spirit of interfaith cooperation on college campuses around the country. The efforts of interfaith engagement and its goals of peace and justice are too important not to constructively critique and continually adapt as we approach and nurture young adults during their formative years.
Photo Attribution: Dave Lawler via Flickr Commons