Colleges innovate to engage religious diversity

Students settle into campus life at colleges and universities across the country each fall, bringing with them a vast array of spiritual beliefs. Polls show that the majority consider themselves spiritual, pray and believe in a higher power. The challenge for colleges and universities is how to engage that energy and honor those beliefs – considering that what students believe in can range from paganism to Islam to Zoroastrianism to evangelical Christianity.


College chaplains said they’ve seen a resurgence of religious activity and a breadth of religious diversity that reflects the world. Many campuses have responded by trying to make space for all – by transforming chapels into multifaith centers with room for Muslims to spread their prayer rugs and Buddhists to sit in zazen; by opening interfaith residence halls and special dining rooms for students with religiously based dietary restrictions; by creating multifaith councils for students to share their faith experiences and learn from others. Sometimes just providing space for conversation – in the basement of Shove Chapel at Colorado College, students slurp Fair Trade coffee at a coffee shop called Sacred Grounds.

But diversity can be complicated because it leads to questions about the implications of religious pluralism. Is there a difference between coexisting and really talking about religious belief? Does it strengthen or dilute one’s own faith to know more about what others believe? How can schools involve students who stand clear of organized religion but care intensely about spirituality, justice and caring for others? What happens if some groups want to evangelize or hold “truth claims” that contradict the beliefs of others – or which other students find offensive?

What does pluralism really mean?

Why it matters

The campuses of colleges and universities reflect the world. International students, the children of immigrants and a generation steeped in terrorism and the Internet bring with them an awareness of world politics, in which religion plays a significant role. Many students are hungry to know more, understand more, about the faith traditions of others. Classes on world religions typically are packed. Aware that the world is ever more international, ever more connected, the students on college campuses today are passionately asking: What do I believe in? And can we all get along?

Issues to explore

  • Some say that colleges and universities are just starting to pay as much attention at the administrative level to religious diversity as they have to differences in other areas, such as race, class and gender. Some schools have seen value in getting people talking publicly about differences in religious views, and have looked for ways to intentionally weave that conversation into the curriculum and into student life.
  • Many schools have programs to get students involved in helping others or advocating for justice, and this often can be a place where students from different faith backgrounds, or those from a secular point of view, work side-by-side for a common cause. What connections exist between faith and community service? Does building a Habitat for Humanity house together or pushing for changes in laws get students talking about what they believe and why they want to help?
  • On many campuses, multifaith councils have been created to connect the leadership of the various faith groups, and to some extent to hold them accountable for sharing in the school’s overall vision for appreciating religious diversity. What role do multifaith councils play? When tensions pop up among religious groups on campus, how do these councils respond? Read a report, posted by the Pluralism Project, on the 2005 “Coming Together” conference of multifaith councils from more than 30 colleges and universities.
  • Sometimes religious friction does heat up among different faith traditions. But some university chaplains report that tensions can also build over differing views within one religion – for example, between liberal and conservative Christians on controversial issues such as abortion or homosexuality, or among Jews regarding U.S. policy toward Israel. What are the greatest sources of religious friction on campuses? And where do different faith groups find common ground or form partnerships?
  • Some colleges that have been historically aligned with a particular religious tradition have been revisiting that relationship in light of increasing religious pluralism. In some cases, there have been controversies about whether members of the boards of trustees at colleges based in the Christian tradition must be Christian, whether Bible courses will be required or what kind of chapel services will be held. Read, for example, a July 22, 2006, New York Times story about Baptist colleges cutting their church ties, or an April 13, 2005, story from about a dispute at Davidson College in North Carolina.
  • Other schools intentionally market themselves as “Christian colleges” – and their enrollment is continuing to rise despite the tough economy. Read more on the rise of Christian colleges in this 2012 World on Campus article. Find out what’s happening at religiously affiliated colleges near you – is the historic faith connection being highlighted or downplayed, and why?

Questions for reporters

  • What changes are colleges and universities making in response to religious diversity – what are they doing differently now than five or 10 years ago?
  • Are students today more religiously active? What’s the range of expression, both in terms of faith groups and nontraditional spirituality? What’s really hot in campus spiritual life – it seems to be everything from gospel choirs to moon circles.
  • Do students talk about faith or spirituality in class? When and how? Do they (or their professors) wish that happened more?
  • How do students from different faith traditions share their beliefs or their practices with one another? At some colleges, for example, students from many faith backgrounds join in the Hindu celebration of Diwali, the Festival of Lights, or fast in solidarity with Muslims during Ramadan – and use that as a chance to talk about the significance of light or fasting within their own traditions. What’s happening at schools near you?
  • Do some students feel there’s a lack of tolerance on campus – and if so, in what ways? Do religious students feel free to practice their faith? Are some traditions accepted but not others? Who is more accepting – those who practice religion or those who do not?



National sources

  • Eboo Patel

    Eboo Patel is the founder and president of Interfaith America, a Chicago-based international nonprofit that focuses on encouraging interfaith dialogue. Request an interview through Teri Simon at Interfaith America.

  • Paul Sorrentino

    The Rev. Paul Sorrentino is coordinator for religious life at Amherst College in Amherst, Mass. His doctoral work at Princeton Theological Seminary focused on religious pluralism in the academy and included a survey of Amherst students regarding their views on religious pluralism. While he advises the Christian Fellowship at Amherst, Sorrentino writes that “we respond best to religious plurality by encouraging the full expression of different faiths.”

  • Caryn McTighe Musil

    Caryn McTighe Musil is a senior vice president for diversity, equity and global issues with the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

  • Jennifer A. Lindholm

    Jennifer A. Lindholm is project director for the Spirituality in Higher Education study, a project of the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California Los Angeles.

  • Mark Noll

    Mark Noll is Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame and one of the most cited authorities today on evangelicalism in America. He co-founded the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals at Wheaton College, where he taught for many years. Noll’s many books include America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln.

  • Stephen Prothero

    Stephen Prothero is former professor of Religion in America in the Department of Religion at Boston University. He is the author of numerous books including Religion Matters: An Introduction to the World’s Religions (W.W. Norton 2020), Why Liberals Win the Culture Wars (HarperOne, 2016), God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter (HarperOne, 2010), and the New York Times bestseller Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know—and Doesn’t (HarperOne, 2007). He has also written about American Hindus. Prothero has commented on religion on hundreds of National Public Radio programs, and on television on CNN, MSNBC, FOX, and PBS. He lives on Cape Cod, and he tweets @sprothero.


  • Paul B. Raushenbush

    The Rev. Paul B. Raushenbush, an American Baptist minister, is senior vice president at Auburn Seminary. He is the author of Teen Spirit: One World, Many Paths and wrote a teen spirituality advice column on in which he answered teens’ questions on subjects from the spiritual implications of tattooing to abstinence to interfaith dating.

    He is the author of Teen Spirit: One World, Many Faiths (HCI Teens, 2004) and writes a teen spirituality advice column – “Ask Pastor Paul” – for Read an April 6, 2006, interview in The Daily Princetonian in which Raushenbush describes the impact of religious diversity at Princeton.

  • Sharon M.K. Kugler

    Sharon M.K. Kugler is university chaplain at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, where students come from dozens of faith groups. She focuses on cultivating a chaplaincy for students, faculty and staff which defines itself by serving the needs of the diverse religious and spiritual traditions on campus.

    See a graphic showing the religious distribution of current undergraduates. In February 2006, the school’s Campus Ministries and its Interfaith Council sponsored Coming Together 2, the second national conference for college students involved in interfaith work.

  • Peter Laurence

    Peter Laurence is executive director of the Education as Transformation program at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. The program works with educational institutions that are considering the impact of religious diversity and the role of spirituality in education.

    Laurence has said pluralism “assumes the equality of religions, at least as far as deserving a place in the dialogue. It makes no assumptions about the truth of each religion except to affirm that truth is not the exclusive possession of any one tradition.”


Regional sources

In the Northeast

  • D. Michael Lindsay

    D. Michael Lindsay is a sociologist and the president of Gordon College, a Christian school in Wenham, Mass. His focus is on issues surrounding leadership, organizations and culture. He is a former Gallup consultant with an expertise on research about evangelicals. Lindsay is author of the 2007 book Faith in the Halls of Power: How Evangelicals Joined the American Elite and the 2014 book View From the Top: An Inside Look at How People in Power See and Shape the World.

  • Muqtedar Khan

    Muqtedar Khan is an associate professor of political science and international relations at the University of Delaware. He has written about Islamic political thought and about the rise of political Christianity, through the Republican Party, in the United States. His books include American Muslims: Bridging Faith and Freedom and Debating Moderate Islam: The Geopolitics of Islam and the West. Khan has said that Shariah is based on the same principles that shape Judeo-Christian values.

  • Joe Eldridge

    Joe Eldridge is university chaplain at American University in Washington, D.C. The University’s Kay Spiritual Life Center is an interfaith house of worship, and its chaplains have written that “we are Baha’i, Buddhist, Catholic, Jewish, Hindu, Latter-day Saints, Muslim, various strands of Protestant and Unitarian,” representing some of the religious diversity of the school. His focus is on human rights and development issues.

  • Pelonomi Khumoetsile-Taylor

    Pelonomi Khumoetsile-Taylor is director of diversity and inclusion at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston, Mass. She wrote “Access to Higher Education for African Americans.”

  • Melissa Camba-Kelsay

    Melissa Camba-Kelsay is assistant director of student life for multicultural programs at Wheaton College in Norton, Mass. For three years, ending in December 2004, Wheaton received a Hewlett Foundation “Pluralism and Unity” grant totaling $150,000 to offer courses and work with the community to teach understanding of diversity and multiculturalism.

  • Robert J. Nash

    Robert J. Nash is a professor of leadership and developmental sciences at the University of Vermont, Burlington. He wrote the 1999 book Faith, Hype and Clarity: Teaching About Religion in American Schools and Colleges (Teachers College Press, 1998).

    Read an opinion piece he wrote for The Vermont Connection about why he thinks it’s important for colleges to encourage discussion of students’ diverse religious views.

In the South

  • Robert M. O’Neil

    Robert M. O’Neil is professor of law emeritus at the University of Virginia Law School. His previous career as a campus administrator included stints as president at the University of Virginia, provost of the University of Cincinnati, vice president of Indiana University and president of the statewide University of Wisconsin system. With background in both the First Amendment and university administration, his is a unique perspective. O’Neil is generally skeptical of waivers but is a proponent of Free Exercise and of state religious freedom laws.

  • Stan Dotson

    Stan Dotson is dean of LifeWorks, a civic leadership development program at Mars Hill College in Mars Hill, N.C. and founding Director of In Our Elements, an organization that provides resources to help individuals and groups contribute to a better world by doing what they love.

  • J. Wayne Clark

    The Rev. J. Wayne Clark is chaplain and director of religious life at Hendrix College in Conway, Ark. He also is president of the National Association of College and University Chaplains.

  • Cindy Brown

    Cindy Brown is a photojournalist based in Atlanta, Georgia. She became a Pluralism Project affiliate in 2002 while teaching photojournalism in the journalism department at the University of Southern Mississippi. Brown worked with the Pluralism Project at Harvard University and used photography to document religious diversity in Southern Mississippi; view images from her photo essay.

  • Marilyn J. Kurata

    Marilyn J. Kurata is director of core curriculum enhancement and an associate professor of English at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. She worked on a program, supported by the Ford Foundation, integrating into the curriculum a focus on race, ethnicity, religious values and place to give students a better understanding of ethics and civic responsibility.

  • Elaine Howard Ecklund

    Elaine Howard Ecklund directs the religion and public life program at Rice University, where she is also a professor of sociology. She is the author of Korean American Evangelicals: New Models for Civic Life.

    She has a grant from the John Templeton Foundation to study the religious views of scientists at universities – surveying more than 1,600 scientists at 21 universities, and finding that spirituality is important to many of them.

  • Gary Laderman

    Gary Laderman is associate professor of religion at Emory University in Atlanta and author of Rest in Peace: A Cultural History of Death and the Funeral Home in Twentieth-Century America.

    Read an April 26, 2002, interview with Religion & Ethics Newsweekly in which Laderman discusses the “unprecedented” level of religious pluralism in the U.S. today and the implications of that for the public arena.

  • Michael Beaty

    Michael Beaty is a philosophy professor and vice provost for faculty development at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. His focus is on Philosophy of Religion and Christian Higher Education.

    He has done research on what it means to be a Christian university – what it means for an institution to be both religious in character and academic.

In the Midwest

  • John Schmalzbauer

    John Schmalzbauer is an associate professor of religious studies at Missouri State University in Springfield. He is working on a book about the resurgence of religion on college campuses. He also is co-investigator for the ongoing National Study of Campus Ministries.

  • Timothy S. Stevens

    The Rev. Timothy S. Stevens, a United Church of Christ minister, is university chaplain at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. Northwestern offers an Interfaith Living and Learning Community – an interfaith dorm – so students of different religious backgrounds can live together in intentional community.

  • Interfaith Campus Coalition

    The Interfaith Campus Coalition at the University of Minnesota includes clergy and students and encourages dialogue and respect among religious traditions. It posts a page on resisting pressure from religious groups, along with links to participating campus ministries and their contact information

  • Steve Hays

    Steve Hays is an associate professor in the department of classics and world religions at Ohio University in Athens. With funding from the Ford Foundation, he is helping to develop a Difficult Dialogues Concerning Race and Religion program.

  • Betty A. DeBerg

    Betty A. DeBerg is a religion professor and head of the department of philosophy and religion at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls. She is a co-author of Religion on Campus (University of North Carolina Press, 2003) and is co-director of the National Campus Ministry Project.

In the West

  • Chris Soper

    Chris Soper is a professor of political science at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif., and the author of Evangelical Christianity in the United States and Great Britain: Religious Beliefs, Political Choices.

  • Bruce Coriell

    Bruce Coriell is the chaplain at Colorado College in Colorado Springs. He has taught theory and method, multi-disciplinary approaches to the study of religion and religious communities. His focus is on the intersection between religion and the natural world, as well as the field of indigenous religious traditions.


  • Linell Cady

    Linell Cady is a professor of religious studies and director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict at Arizona State University in Tempe. The center, founded in 2003, studies the conflict created when diverse religious traditions and the secular world collide.

  • Barbara A. McGraw

    Barbara A. McGraw is a professor of business administration at St. Mary’s College of California, in Moraga. She is the author of Rediscovering America’s Sacred Ground: Public Religion and Pursuit of the Good in a Pluralistic America and the co-editor of Taking Religious Pluralism Seriously: Spiritual Politics on America’s Sacred Ground, in which she argues that the freedom of conscience honored by the nation’s founders can be the “sacred ground” needed in a religiously pluralistic country.

  • Patricia Karlin-Neumann

    Rabbi Patricia Karlin-Neumann is senior associate dean of religious life at Stanford University in Stanford, Calif.

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