Higher Education, The Rise of the Nones, and IFYC: Where Do We Go From Here?

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

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9 thoughts on “Higher Education, The Rise of the Nones, and IFYC: Where Do We Go From Here?

  1. Thanks for this post! As someone who spent a significant amount of time working with IFYC in college and am now entering seminary myself, I have found myself asking many of the same questions you are here.

    The campus I was apart of was a very small campus and I think my experience would differ greatly from those on a large campus just to preface my comments.

    I found that on our campus it was very hard to have a sustainable interfaith movement. In reality it can be hard to make any college programing sustainable. However, in my opinion the obstacle on my campus was a larger and ever growing religious and spiritual apathy.

    It is important to mention that I am not talking about a rise in “the none’s” (just because someone doesn’t claim a faith certainly does not make them apathetic. Many of our most dedicated and passionate members would fall into that category) but a more general feeling that anything pertaining to faith and or spirituality wasn’t relevant to the world we live in today.

    Therefor, a question I have been wresting with recently is how do we promote interfaith as something highly relevant to the world we live in today, AND how can we communicate that effectively to millennials?

    1. Hi David, thank you for your response. I appreciate your clarification and distinction between religious “nones” and the religiously and spiritually apathetic. I agree that this could point to the heart of the issue. If young people view religion as irrelevant or unnecessary, then our message of interfaith cooperation would seem out of place. I am eager to hear if others have more to say.

  2. Lauren and David,
    Thank you for your thoughts. They are an integral part of practical experience of organizing interfaith on college campuses. I, too, am a product of IFYC training and interaction. I greatly appreciate all the tools they have given me and equip me with. But once we leave the ILI and get back on campus that is when the real work begins. I tell students that interfaith work requires that they prioritize interfaith. It is difficult to do or feel a part of interfaith if they are generally apathetic. Ultimately, what we are trying to get people to do is build relationships. I think this begins to speak to the question of the “nones.”
    I teach a Humanities course in which I work to infuse interfaith into the curriculum. Students often say something along the lines of “I don’t really have a religion,” so I can’t really answer your questions. The questions IFYC has trained us to ask like, “what in your religious or secular tradition motivates you?” The rubber meets the road when students push back. I guess I am empathizing with you rather than really offering any sort of solutions.
    One thing I have tried is speaking with students one on one to sort of talk through where we get our morals, and how we meet each other at the table with shared values. In the end what we want is for everyone at the table, right? Even if they don’t claim a religion, they do have a world-view informed by moral values. We can meet at the discussion table of shared values. It takes time and effort on my part to help students see their place at the interfaith table. I’m willing to do the work. It sounds like we have at least me, you, and David willing to put in the effort. I think we can keep building interfaith in Higher Ed!

    1. Ellie, the great (and challenging) thing about Millennials (and I include myself in that category) is that Millennials aren’t afraid to disagree, challenge, or “push back,” as you call it. If we ask, “What in your faith tradition motivates you?,” a common answer might be, “I don’t have a faith tradition.” It is good to receive answers like this because is is an honest response! So I agree with you that reframing the question can be helpful: “What motivates you?” Groups like the Secular Student Alliance are also doing great work on campuses to make sure that nontheist students are being engaged and included, and finding shared values and motivations can be a great place to start. Thanks for your response!

  3. Wow! This is such a rich conversation about interfaith engagement among Millennials happening here. I, too, was involved in interfaith work at my undergraduate institution in Boston. Because my school already had an established interfaith program, we chose not to use the IFYC approach, which is modeled more on introducing interfaith activism to campuses where such work is not already present. I was lucky in that my college had a diverse and religious engaged student population—our Interfaith Council involved Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, and many others.

    However, a central group of students who were involved in our interfaith efforts were non-religious students, many of whom belonged to our on-campus humanist group. While I think that sometimes people worry about how to include non-religious people in interfaith work (especially if they’ve been burned by the invective-filled New Atheist approach), the fact is that if you ask the right questions and focus on the right issues, you can usually get non-religious students to be interested as well.

    We promoted the idea of religious literacy—the need to know about the religious beliefs of your neighbors, regardless of what you believed, because such general knowledge is necessary for creating peaceful coexistence and flourishing. We intentionally created spaces to be safe and welcoming to questions—even the tough ones. I think that wanting to focus on “common ground” and a more kumbayah approach can be a turn-off to non-religious students who are critical of religion. After all, there are problematic aspects of religion—and we should all be willing to talk about and explore them!

    We also connected interfaith dialogue to current and controversial events (politics, drug use, you name it) that had a wide appeal to people of our generation yet also brought in elements of faith and religion.

    Finally, on all the publicity for our events, we emphasized that all were welcome, no religion required. I think that sometimes students who are not religious or fall into the “spiritual but not religious” category are hesitant to be involved in interfaith work because they aren’t deeply rooted in a tradition. Yet we need those people, too—we all share the same world together.

    In sum, I would say that being willing to engage critically in interfaith conversations, talking about relevant issues, and constantly welcoming all (regardless of religious affiliation or lack thereof) are important ways for the interfaith movement to involve the non-religious as well.

    1. Abigal, thank you for your thoughtful response. I appreciate that you pointed out the need for basic religious literacy as a tool for civic engagement. Stephen Prothero’s book “Religious Literary” was very helpful to me in understanding why a basic knowledge of the worlds religions could help Americans to be more responsible citizens of this country and the global community. Also, I like your suggestion of connecting on deeper levels about current issues and events like politics, drug use, etc. Many Millennials care about these issues but perhaps it has never been suggested that faith communities could have a voice in the conversation. Thank you for adding to the conversation!

  4. Lauren, thank you very much for sharing your experience with interfaith engagement in college environments. I share a similar commitment to interfaith engagement as a form of ministry and recently spent 3 years serving as a college chaplain at a school that is an active participant in IFYC programs.

    In response to the questions that you posed: I really appreciate the fact that IFYC intentional about including those from non-theistic and non-religious backgrounds in their programs. I have attended several of their Interfaith Leadership Institutes over the past few years and have been consistently impressed with the diversity (religion, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, school type, etc.) represented at those gatherings.

    One of my critiques is that the IFYC model focuses heavily on interfaith action, working together on service projects and social events that are intentionally interfaith, with less of an emphasis on deep engagement with other religious traditions. Their philosophy is that this deep engagement will come naturally as a result of the organic relationships that develop.

    To balance this, we were very intentional about developing a robust calendar of interfaith programming in partnership with local interfaith organizations to give students the opportunity to be exposed to the worship and cultural practices of a wide variety of faith communities in our area. I found the combination of projects among students of diverse backgrounds and the intentional exposure of students to other religious traditions through hands-on engagement with local religious communities was an effective approach.

    1. Ernest, thank you for your thoughts. IFYC’s focus on interfaith action is definitely important, but as you point out, it is not the only way to engage religiously diverse students. I appreciate how intentional you were at your institution about exposure to the worship and cultural practices of faith communities. This is such an important part of living out one’s faith and in the process of interfaith learning and education, these sensory experiences can often get lost in just dialogues or just service. Thank you for sharing!

  5. Thank you so much for posting. These are questions that need to be revisited frequently in order to stay relevant. We have learned so much from IFYC and continue to send students to ILI and stay current with articles and promising practices.

    In addition to joining our campus to the national Better Together campaign, this year at the University of North Florida Interfaith Center, we have been working with Sharon Daloz Parks’ definition of faith as the activity that all humans engage in, whether religious or not, of making meaning in their lives (“Big Questions Worthy Dreams: Mentoring Emerging Adults in Their Search for Meaning, Purpose, and Faith). Building on the concept of “faithing” then as “meaning making” we now invite students to reflect upon the idea that inter-faithing is the process of making meaning with others in a pluralistic community.

    About 50% of the students involved at the UNF Interfaith Center identify as humanist, agnostic, or spiritual (i.e., not religious). The other 50% identify as religious (mainly Christians and Muslims). With Safe Space Guidelines in place and a focus on doing interfaith community service, this worldview pluralism has become a bridge to cooperation, to borrow from Dr. Eboo Patel, and the norm at the Center.

    Interestingly, three student leaders (humanist, agnostic, and spiritual) are leading a major campus and community-wide event this weekend (9/28/14) –a documentary screening of “Enemy of the Reich.” After the film, there will be a conversation among these students, the film’s producer, two community members including a rabbi, and facilitated by our Catholic (Christian) University President. The film is about Noor Inayat Khan, a young muslim woman who risks her life to join forces with Winston Churchill’s covert operations to overthrow Nazi Germany.

    In other words, three non-religious students are leading a major community event about a Muslim risking her life for people of another religion. To our non-religious student leaders, this makes perfect sense–because planning and implementing the event alongside their mentors is all about meaning-making and being inspired by the ways Noor Kahn, an unexpected heroine, made meaning in her own life.

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