Diversity and Democracy

Bridging Worldview Diversity through Interfaith Cooperation

Society faces significant and complex problems related to human trafficking, climate change, fear of terrorism, access to quality food, and conflicts between diverse religious and nonreligious groups. Social change related to these issues will require collaboration between diverse individuals and communities, as well as students prepared for leadership within these contexts. So how are educators creating spaces for students to cultivate vital skills to engage productively with diverse peers in leadership for social change? What educational experiences foster students’ abilities to mobilize coordinated efforts within diverse communities?

Two important collegiate experiences that leverage student leadership development for social change involve facilitating productive conversations across or about difference and participating in community service (Dugan and Komives 2010). While engaging in dialogue with diverse peers, students learn about different ways of understanding and existing in the world and begin to recognize their own assumptions and unconscious biases. Through community service, students encounter persistent social problems, start to recognize systemic issues, and identify community assets for alleviating these problems.

Collaboration across difference to engage common action for the common good has powerful implications for student leadership development and community improvement. However, in conversations about personal identity and social change, comparatively less attention has been given to one particular aspect of diversity: worldview identity.

Engagement across Worldviews

Worldview is defined as a “guiding life philosophy, which may be based on a particular religious tradition, spiritual orientation, non-religious perspective or some combination of these” (Rockenbach et al. 2014, 5). It is the overarching outlook individuals have on life that shapes values and behaviors. Worldview diversity can be divisive, making engagement across such difference intimidating and, to some, threatening. However, the same deeply held convictions can move students to take action for the common good—action that can be more influential when enacted in concert with others and leveraged to bridge differences and build social capital (Putnam 2001).

Across the country, students are cooperating with peers across religious difference to address challenging issues. Students at Texas Christian University coordinated a series of interfaith events around literacy, including a book drive and childcare for community members completing their General Education Diplomas, while students at Mississippi State University encouraged faith-based and secular student groups to work with food pantries as part of an effort to address food scarcity. These are just a few examples of students banding together across worldview differences to advance positive social change.

With employers calling for workers who can effectively collaborate with diverse others (Hart Research Associates 2015), it is critical that students retain and apply valuable lessons learned from interfaith service in their personal and professional lives. After witnessing a Muslim student being assaulted off campus, Skyler Oberst, an alumnus of Eastern Washington University, created an interfaith student group to raise awareness about and engage across lines of worldview diversity; he continues building bridges today. Beyond his work for the city council in Spokane, Washington, Skyler is cultivating relationships between religious communities by creating a series of videos about visiting different religious communities and their services. He is partnering with Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, and Christian communities on this project to establish individual and communal relationships between faiths. With faith-based and secular organizations serving as central and influential social communities, helping students understand the importance of bridging across worldview differences for positive social engagement is all the more important.

Research on Interfaith Experiences in College

Interfaith service experiences can provide powerful learning opportunities for students and contribute to their development as engaged citizens. But what types of learning experiences are most influential for achieving interfaith outcomes? 

Researchers from New York University, North Carolina State University, and the Interfaith Youth Core have partnered to provide campuses with vital assessment tools and collect data on student experiences with and attitudes toward worldview diversity. Since 2011, the Campus Religious and Spiritual Climate Survey (CRSCS) has been administered to over fifteen thousand students at more than sixty institutions across the United States. The survey provides campuses with information about how students of different worldview identities experience and engage with the campus community, and assesses students’ appreciative attitudes toward specific worldview identities (e.g., Evangelical Christians, Muslims, Jews, Mormons, and Atheists) as well as their level of pluralism orientation (i.e., the degree to which one is accepting of, recognizes shared values and divergent beliefs with, and meaningfully engages with others of different worldviews).

CRSCS findings highlight connections between campus environments and key interfaith outcomes. Four particular campus practices have significant relationships with appreciative attitudes toward others and pluralistic orientation (Bowman, Rockenbach, et al. 2015; Mayhew, Bowman, et al. 2015; Mayhew, Rockenbach, et al. 2015; Rockenbach, Mayhew, Bowman, Morin, and Riggers-Piehl 2015; Rockenbach, Mayhew, Bowman, Crandall, and Riggers-Piehl 2015; Rockenbach, Mayhew, Morin, et al. 2015):

  • providing physical and social resources to support students’ expression and meaning making;
  • responsibly facilitating challenging and stimulating experiences with people of different worldviews;
  • offering opportunities for students to engage in interfaith activities (e.g., attend a multifaith celebration or do service work with others of different worldviews); and
  • encouraging students to socialize, dine, study, and have conversations with students of other worldviews.

These practices show promise as strategic interventions that staff and faculty can leverage to promote pluralistic development, thus increasing the likelihood that students will engage and serve with others of diverse worldviews both during and after college. However, additional research is needed to discern how particular aspects of students’ interfaith encounters and the campus environment contribute to students’ pluralism development over time.

Thus, our research team recently launched the Interfaith Diversity Experiences and Attitudes Longitudinal Survey (IDEALS) to investigate the influence of college on students’ attitudes and behaviors related to worldview diversity. IDEALS will track a cohort of students over the course of four years to ascertain the impact collegiate experiences have on student outcomes related to worldview diversity and pluralism. The first of three surveys was administered in fall 2015 to incoming first-year students at 122 campuses.

To gauge the interfaith potential of the 2015 cohort of first-year college students—and the role college may play in attitudinal and behavioral change—it is essential to take note of several defining characteristics. Namely, what are these students’ worldview identities, how do they understand their religious and/or spiritual identities, and what factors have shaped how they see the world? (See fig. 1.)  Whereas Orthodox, Protestant, and Roman Catholic Christians compose a slight majority of IDEALS respondents, nonreligious students (e.g., atheist, agnostic, secular humanist) and worldview minority students (e.g., Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim) constitute 28 percent and 16 percent, respectively. Additionally, reported intersections of religiosity and spirituality add another layer of complexity to students’ worldview identities; students may share a particular worldview identity, but attach different religious or spiritual connotations to that shared identity. Exploring factors that influence their worldviews, over a third of students report their families as the top influence, with another third identifying religious and nonreligious beliefs as the most important influences.

Figure 1. Characteristics of IDEALS Respondents


Recognizing the diverse worldviews and influencing factors of this student class, the research team will focus both on how students engage across difference and on how that engagement may vary by worldview identity. What campus experiences seem to affect student growth related to pluralism outcomes? How might those experience differently affect diverse student populations? What practices can educators best leverage for students’ interfaith learning? These are a few of the questions our research team intends to explore.

Findings from IDEALS will promote ongoing dialogue about worldview as a deeply embedded and influential component of our institutions and society, as well as an integral aspect of many students’ identities and core beliefs. Building on survey findings, campus leaders can intentionally and effectively integrate interventions to increase students’ motivation and capacity to work cooperatively across lines of worldview difference. Information about this unfolding research will be available at www.ifyc.org/ideals.

A Critical Skill Set

Assessment of student experiences and attitudes toward worldview diversity is imperative for educators to achieve interfaith learning outcomes among students. In our religiously diverse society, citizens can no longer initiate effective change without connecting across different worldview communities. Higher education carries a unique responsibility to support students in developing this critical values orientation and skill set to use for social change leadership on campus and beyond.


Bowman, Nicholas A., Alyssa N. Rockenbach, Matthew J. Mayhew, Tiffani Riggers-Piehl, and Tara D. Hudson. 2015. “College Students’ Appreciative Attitudes of Atheists.” Paper presented at ASHE Annual Conference, Denver, CO, November.

Dugan, John P., and Susan R. Komives. 2010. “Influences on College Students’ Capacity for Socially Responsible Leadership.” Journal of College Student Development 51 (5): 525–49.

Hart Research Associates. 2015. Falling Short? College Learning and Career Success. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Mayhew, Matthew J., Nicholas A. Bowman, Alyssa N. Rockenbach, Ben Selznick, and Tiffani Riggers-Piehl. 2015. “Appreciative Attitudes toward Jews among Non-Jewish U.S. College Students.” Paper presented at ASHE Annual Conference, Denver, CO, November.

Mayhew, Matthew J., Alyssa N. Rockenbach, Nicholas A. Bowman, Marc A. Lo, Matthew Starcke, and Tiffani Riggers-Piehl. 2015. “Disrupting Norms while Embracing Narratives: How Non-Evangelical Students Appreciate Evangelical Christianity.” Paper presented at ASHE Annual Conference, Denver, CO, November.

Putnam, Robert D. 2001. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks.

Rockenbach, Alyssa N., Matthew J. Mayhew, Nicholas A. Bowman, Shauna M. Morin, and Tiffani Riggers-Piehl. 2015. “An Examination of Non-Muslim College Students’ Attitudes toward Muslims.” Paper presented at ASHE Annual Conference, Denver, CO, November.

Rockenbach, Alyssa N., Matthew J. Mayhew, Nicholas A. Bowman, Rebecca E. Crandall, and Tiffani Riggers-Piehl. 2015. “A Portrayal of College Students’ Appreciative Attitudes toward Latter-Day Saints.” Paper presented at ASHE Annual Conference, Denver, CO, November.

Rockenbach, Alyssa N., Matthew J. Mayhew, Alana Kinarsky, and Interfaith Youth Core. 2014. Engaging Worldview: A Snapshot of Religious and Spiritual Climate. Part I: Dimensions of Climate and Student Engagement. Chicago, IL: Interfaith Youth Core.

Rockenbach, Alyssa N., Matthew J. Mayhew, Shauna Morin, Rebecca E. Crandall, and Ben Selznick. 2015. “Fostering the Pluralism Orientation of College Students through Interfaith Co-curricular Engagement.” Review of Higher Education 39 (1): 25–58.

Benjamin P. Correia is director of campus assessment at Interfaith Youth Core; Alyssa N. Rockenbach is associate professor at North Carolina State University; and Matthew J. Mayhew is associate professor at New York University.

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