Do College Students Believe in Religious Freedom?

They say they’re welcoming of diverse faith backgrounds until they’re asked about folks who aren’t Christian.
(Photo: Robert Benson/Getty Images)
Jul 26, 2016· 4 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

The overwhelming majority of college students say they want campuses that are welcoming to people of diverse religions, but those students also report not feeling appreciative of some students, especially Mormons and Muslims.

That’s one of the key findings of the Interfaith Diversity Experiences and Attitudes Longitudinal Survey, or IDEALS, a collaborative project from researchers at New York University, North Carolina State University, and Interfaith Youth Core, a Chicago-based international nonprofit that works to foster mutual respect among young people from different religious traditions and nonreligious philosophies.

RELATED: Here’s What Happens When People Think Bible Verses Are From the Koran

“They seem to value and want to engage across lines of religious difference. They have the mind-set, but there is a little bit of a gap there between what their mind-set is and what their actions are,” Ben Correia, the director of campus assessment at Interfaith Youth Core, told TakePart. “We don’t see this as an abstract issue. With our current political climate, we see this playing out very vividly in the current election season. It’s a very center and present issue with people given the discord around religious differences and misunderstandings.”

The survey, released last week, asked about 20,000 freshmen at 122 colleges and universities about their “affinity for interreligious cooperation, their appreciation for various worldview groups, and their religious diversity expectations of higher education institutions,” according to an accompanying report.

A full 85 percent of students responded that it was “important” to them that their colleges “provide a welcoming environment for individuals of diverse religious backgrounds and nonreligious perspectives.” A majority—71 percent—also said that it is “important” or “very important” that they “get to know students of diverse religious and nonreligious perspectives,” and 68 percent wanted the opportunity to participate in interfaith community service.

RELATED: Religious Intolerance Drove a Woman to Lead a Double Life for 15 Years

But the researchers found that when college students were asked how they felt about specific traditions, the picture wasn’t quite so rosy.

“When students imagine, in a general sense, someone of another faith or perspective, they tend to express respect, admiration, and goodwill. However, when they are asked about their feelings toward specific groups, their attitudes are much more lukewarm, particularly regarding atheists, Hindus, Muslims, and LDS/Mormons,” one of the survey’s lead researchers, Alyssa Rockenbach, a professor in the Department of Educational Leadership, Policy, and Human Development at North Carolina State University, told TakePart.

Fewer than half of respondents said they had an appreciative attitude toward people with those belief systems. Muslims and Mormons fared worst, with 43 percent of students expressing appreciation of people who follow Islam and 39 percent expressing appreciation of Mormons.

RELATED: College Students Say Free Speech Has Its Limits

Although most Americans still identify as Christian—whether Catholic or a Protestant denomination—the nation’s religious demographics are shifting. Nearly 71 percent of U.S. residents described themselves as Christian on Pew’s 2014 Religious Landscape Study, down from about 78 percent in 2007. At the same time, the percentage of U.S. residents who adhere to non-Christian faiths jumped from just under 5 percent to about 6 percent, with Muslims and Hindus making up the bulk of the increase. The percentage of folks who are religiously unaffiliated grew from about 16 percent to nearly 23 percent in 2014.

Last fall, graffiti at Virginia Tech threatened to “kill all Muslims,” and users of the anonymous mobile app Yik Yak, which is popular among college students, have seen an uptick in Islamophobic hate speech. The number of anti-Semitic attacks on college campuses nearly doubled in 2015, and in May, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wondered if college campuses have a bias against evangelical Christians. Research has found that evangelical professors are less likely to be hired, which Kristof believes hurts students in the long run. “When perspectives are unrepresented in discussions, when some kinds of thinkers aren’t at the table, classrooms become echo chambers rather than sounding boards—and we all lose,” Kristof wrote.

RELATED: ‘Tolerance Is a Two-Way Street,’ Says Religious Conservative Who Opposes LGBT Protections

Despite having concerns about the discrepancies in student attitudes that IDEALS found, Rockenbach said she feels “quite optimistic that young adults entering college today are poised to develop interfaith knowledge, skills, and values. Given further opportunities to meet, interact, and serve with people of other worldviews, the cooperative capacities students already exhibit will only become stronger,” she said.

Both Correia and Rockenbach acknowledged that people might say it’s unrealistic to expect budget-crunched institutions to undo 18 years of students being told—or hearing from politicians—that adherents of a particular religion are going to hell or are responsible for the problems in the world. Because the college environment challenges students academically and is one of the first places where students start to engage with others “outside of their familial bubble or where they come from,” it provides a unique opportunity to engage across lines of difference, Correia said.

“This is where we say that relationships are very powerful in dismantling some of those belief systems. If you’ve always been taught that Muslims are bad or that kind of thing, and then you meet a Muslim person on campus and talk with them and realize, ‘OK, my experience with this person is not matching what I’ve been brought up to believe’—we’re hoping that there’s enough space there that at least the student starts to try to figure out or discern a kind of path forward or beliefs on their own. We’re hoping they forge those beliefs off of their direct experiences with others and their engagement with others,” Correia said.

Rockenbach agreed, noting that while students go to college to earn diplomas, the purpose of higher education is multifaceted. “Students expect that college will help them be successful in life. A major part of that success—not to mention being a good citizen—includes treating people of different walks of life with compassion in our diverse society. Given the benefits to society that come from compassionate citizenship, it’s well worth the investment to help college students make gains in interfaith learning,” Rockenbach said.

RELATED: Coming Soon to a Bus Near You: Ads Likening Muslims to Hitler

The researchers plan to follow the same cohort of students over the next four years to see what experiences shift their attitudes and behaviors. The information gathered will help them develop policy recommendations. A key suggestion that has emerged from the results of the first survey is that campuses should “assess their preparedness to support those students from different worldviews,” Correia said. “Do they have a pulse on how well or how supported students feel on their campus from different traditions? Do they have various offices, services, or accommodations in place that can support the needs of students?”

Campuses also “need to work with students to engage them more, to help them practice engaging across lines of difference and help them commit to doing that within their future careers,” Correia said.

That might mean providing specific opportunities for students to learn about other traditions and participate in interfaith dialogue and activities outside class. “Importantly, though, structuring these opportunities so that students can deepen their relationships and develop lasting friendships may make all the difference,” Rockenbach said.

“Students do value this and want to see campuses that provide these welcoming spaces for them and their peers, and so this is great information for us to give to campuses and help them understand that this is an important aspect of diversity to pay attention to,” Correia said.