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a journal of analysis and comment advancing public understanding of religion and education
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Volume 33 Number 1
Winter 2006

Exploring Religious Pluralism in Higher Education:
Non-Majority Religious Perspectives among
Entering First-Year College Students

Alyssa N. Bryant

Although Christian perspectives persist within the majority mindset in the United States and continue to flourish1, the presence of countless other faith traditions renders this nation the most religiously diverse in the world2. The increasingly pluralistic American landscape is based in large part on non-European immigration patterns in the last half-century3. Williams4 points to the influx of Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Muslims, and Christians from Pakistan and India as a result of changes to immigration laws in 1965. Eck5 notes the vast array of places – spanning Asia, Africa, South America, and the Middle East – from which followers of myriad traditions have come. American Judaism, too, has become more internally diverse as a result of immigration from overseas6.

While acknowledging the impressive growth of non-Christian religions, Smith7 tempers exaggerated portrayals of their size in his assessment that these groups are still relatively small in number (under three percent of the population at large). Followers of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam represent half of the adherents of non-Judeo-Christian faiths, whereas the remaining half consists of a wide assortment of religious traditions8. Despite their low proportional representation, these groups are multiplying and their imprint on society is unmistakable.

As pluralism abounds, the United States more than ever before is called to protect the values of religious freedom so intrinsic to the principles upon which the nation was founded9. Eck10 writes,

Today, the United States is in the process of understanding and negotiating the meaning of its pluralism anew….However, in this new struggle to understand who "we" are in the new millennium, it is clearly critical to hear the voices of America’s many religions, new and old, in shaping a distinctively and boldly multireligious society (p. 77).

Although Americans as a whole exhibit increasingly tolerant attitudes toward people of different faiths11, tensions undoubtedly persist and have become visibly pronounced in this post-9/11 era12. Wuthnow13 underscores that "the growing religious diversity of our society poses a significant cultural challenge" (p. xv). While it remains a demanding feat to cross ideological boundaries and truly engage the religious "other" in dialogue that develops consciousness and community, the well-being of the nation and its people depends upon learning to live with compassion and kindness as we encounter difference.

As microcosms of American society, colleges and universities in the U.S. must practice these very principles and endeavor to create campus climates that are welcoming to students from all faith traditions. To be sure, institutions are more religiously diverse than they were in the past14. With this diversity, Cherry et al.15 observe a continued spiritual vitality on campus that in some ways resonates with previous eras, but that is more voluntary and respectful of difference than it once was.

Because they are not the secular enclaves that once they were assumed to be16, it is incumbent upon colleges and universities to create formal and informal opportunities for student to not only "understand each other’s differences but also to search together for common ground, for common truths, for shared beliefs and meaning that create the possibility of a new kind of community that embraces diversity" (p. 183)17. The notion of a "community of communities" articulated by Chickering et al.18 is exemplified by numerous campuses that have transformed their vision of pluralism into reality, thereby honoring minority and majority perspectives alike19. Yet, while these admirable efforts are underway, research on students representing non-majority religious perspectives lags far behind. Mayhew20 examines the conceptions that students from various faith traditions (including Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and others) have of spirituality, identifying the centrality of meaning-making and connectedness within students’ understanding of the construct. Cole and Ahmadi21 explore the lived experiences of Muslim women who veil on campus and stress the challenges they face in adhering to this outward expression of faith. Beyond these two qualitative studies, few other empirical investigations that focus specifically on non-majority religious students exist, creating a conspicuous gap between research and practice.

Based upon entering first-year student data derived from the UCLA Higher Education Research Institute’s Spirituality in Higher Education Project, the purpose of this article is to enter into the experience of students who are not in the religious majority. How do they characterize themselves? What are their attitudes, values, and spiritual beliefs? How do they respond to pluralism in the world around them? What spiritual questions and struggles do they face? Throughout the sections that follow, the terms "non-majority religious student" and "religious minority" are used interchangeably and are intended to include individuals whose perspectives are not situated within the Christian worldview that prevails culturally and religiously in the United States. The scope of this article does not encompass an analysis of the specific doctrinal beliefs and theologies of the religious minority groups represented on campuses today. (For a more explicit synthesis of the ideologies central to various world religions, resources in comparative religion, such as Huston Smith’s The World’s Religions22, are recommended). Rather, students’ diverse perspectives on a common set of constructs are the focus of this effort. Moreover, this article seeks to examine religious minority students in their own right, without constant comparisons to majority perspectives (i.e., Christianity). With a few exceptions, non-majority religious groups are compared only to one another so as to capture the wide spectrum of belief evident across their distinct worldviews. In doing so, we come to appreciate the notion that groups typically relegated to "other" in classifications of religious preference are appreciably different from one another.

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