Diversity and Democracy

Exploring Religious Identity through Intergroup Dialogue

On campuses across the country, religious diversity provides students with both challenges and opportunities (Lelwica 2008). The challenges are many: Students may resist learning about religious diversity, believing that affirming others' religious identities will threaten their own. They may doubt that it is possible or even desirable to understand and appreciate others' beliefs. They may have experienced religious oppression that can create conditions for interreligious conflict. In the face of these challenges, students need opportunities to explore religious identity and examine how family and social influences contribute to their beliefs. Such examination can promote understanding across religious differences and the desire for continued interreligious learning and reconciliation.

Students at the University of Michigan participate in intergroup dialogue. (Photo by Rebecca Grekin, the Program on Intergroup Relations)
Students at the University of Michigan participate in intergroup dialogue. (Photo by Rebecca Grekin, the Program on Intergroup Relations)

Religious discussions are often taboo in public university settings (Holden 2009), so it is particularly important for public institutions to provide safe opportunities for students to explore their beliefs and those of others. The Program on Intergroup Relations at the University of Michigan (U-M) offers students these opportunities through two-credit intergroup dialogue courses in psychology and sociology. Intergroup dialogue is a pedagogy that involves active classroom learning, structured interaction, and peer facilitation. It engages students in both cognitive and affective learning in order to increase intergroup understanding, form positive intergroup relationships, and spur intergroup action (Nagda et al. 2009).

Difficult Dialogues on Religion

The Ford Foundation's recent Difficult Dialogues initiative emphasized avenues to "promote academic freedom and religious, cultural, and political pluralism on college and university campuses" (Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression 2006). U-M's participation in this project was the impetus for creating opportunities within our already-vibrant intergroup dialogue program that would fulfill students' strong desire to examine religious identity, faith, and meaning. Based on a critical-dialogic framework originally conceptualized by Nagda (2006) and expanded by Sorensen, Nagda, Gurin, and Maxwell (2009), intergroup dialogues aim to develop students' understanding of power and privilege. Nagda's framework combines acritical analysis of inequality with a dialogic focus on the importance of working across differences to build commonalities and increase understanding.

U-M's intergroup dialogues typically bring together two identity groups (for example, women and men) to explore issues relevant to both. Religious dialogues diverge from this model by convening students from diverse groups whose primary goal is to explore multiple religious identities. Students who enroll in intergroup dialogue courses rank their preferred dialogue topics and are placed in course sections through a randomized computer selection process that ensures diversity across identities. They meet for two hours weekly with two trained cofacilitators who guide them through a four-stage process that involves developing a shared understanding of dialogue, sharing personal narratives and exploring historical context, tackling hot topics, and collaborating on intergroup projects. As in U-M's other intergroup dialogues, examining inequality is a central focus. Students analyze Christian privilege in the United States as well as gender privilege within religions, global religious dominance, and contemporary theocracies.

Student Outcomes

Preliminary investigation of interreligious dialogues suggests that the dialogic focus in particular resonates with students. Three important themes emerged from students' final papers and facilitators' observations, all pertaining to dialogic processes: learning across the spectrum of faith traditions, communication skills, and awareness of religious stereotypes.

Through class discussion, students cocreate a framework for understanding how personal narratives reflect identities (Sorensen et al. 2009); they then exchange personal stories about their religious and spiritual experiences. These exchanges allow students to solidify their own beliefs while also learning about and coming to appreciate the breadth and diversity of religious identities and practices. As a Catholic woman wrote in her final paper, "Every week I would leave class with a greater appreciation of different religions and realize how different other religious perspectives are from my own, and that I still found them plausible."

Students additionally gain the communication skills and confidence to address religious issues outside the classroom. They often report that improved interpersonal communication is one of the course's strongest takeaways. A Muslim man wrote, "The vast amount of knowledge I have obtained on religion, culture, tradition, and social interactions has given me an immense toolbox in order to deal with diverse groups of people....I really feel like I can relate to anyone, whether they are atheist, Buddhist, Christian, Jewish or any religious/cultural affiliation for that matter." This student's facility in "relating" to others of different religious identities opens the door for future interreligious interactions.

Students develop an increased awareness of religious stereotypes and discover new ways to challenge biases. An agnostic student wrote, "On the first day of class, I thought some people would make dialogue difficult. I thought the Christians would be devout and forceful, the Catholics would be condemning, and everyone would attack the atheist student and myself. Luckily, I was wrong...I learned that a person's belief does not always govern a person's character or intentions." Realizations like these led to important conversations about privilege and power that dramatically decreased students' reliance on stereotypes.

Key Elements for Interreligious Dialogues

Trained peer facilitators play a key role in intergroup dialogues' success. At U-M, we select facilitators through an application and interview process. Facilitators take a one semester, three-credit training course and a subsequent three-credit practicum course taught by faculty and staff. Facilitators must be able to acknowledge the unique significance that religious identity holds for many people, to clearly explain the purpose of dialogue, and to create common goals so students feel confident that they will not be targeted for conversion or attacked for their beliefs.

Facilitating interreligious dialogue also requires an ability to balance religious similarities and differences. Initially, students find that learning about similarities creates common ground for discussion. But when hot topics arise, differences rise to the forefront. By reminding students of differences as well as commonalities, facilitators prepare students to understand views that are radically different from their own.

We have found that dialogues with maximal diversity across and within religious traditions are most effective. Inclusion of nonreligious participants, such as agnostics and atheists (who are marginalized on most college campuses), is critical. Readings and assignments should reflect multiple faith and nonreligious perspectives.

Building Commitment and Potential

In the process of exploring their religious and nonreligious identities through intergroup dialogue, students build relationships and commitment to intergroup understanding and fulfill a strong desire to learn about others' religious beliefs and practices. By learning with others, building intergroup communication skills, and exploring religious stereotypes, students develop the potential to create more welcoming, integrated, and engaged campuses.

For information about the University of Michigan's Intergroup Dialogue Institute, see theOpportunities section of this issue.


Holden, R. 2009. The public university's unbearable defiance of being. Educational Philosophy and Theory 41(5): 575-591.

Lelwica, M. 2008. Religious diversity: Challenges and opportunities in the college classroom,Diversity & Democracy 11(1): 7-9.

Nagda, B. 2006. Breaking barriers, crossing borders, building bridges: Communication processes in intergroup dialogues. Journal of Social Issues 62(3): 553-576.

Nagda, B., P. Gurin, N. Sorensen, and X. Zúñiga. 2009. Evaluating intergroup dialogue: Engaging diversity for personal and social responsibility. Diversity & Democracy 12(1): 4-6.

Sorensen, N., B. Nagda, P. Gurin, and K. Maxwell. 2009. Taking a "hands on" approach to diversity in higher education: A critical-dialogic model for effective intergroup interaction.Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy 9(1): 3-35.

Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression. 2006. Difficult dialogues initiative. www.difficultdialogues.org.

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