• Conversations on Diversity

    A blog by Eboo Patel, Mary Ellen Giess and Tony Banout that looks at identity and diversity issues from multiple angles.

Title

Who’s Engaged in Diverse Friendships -- and Who Isn’t?

A new research report illustrates the power of friendships across religious lines to break down prejudice and build appreciation. But who is involved in these powerful relationships -- and who isn’t?

October 7, 2019
 
 

As I perused the new research report "Friendships Matter" from the Interfaith Diversity Experiences and Attitudes Longitudinal Study (IDEALS*), a few things jumped out at me. First, as the title itself broadcasts, friendships matter -- relationships across lines of religious and nonreligious identity (otherwise known as “interworldview friendships”) have the potential to disrupt bias and build appreciation in potent ways. This simple finding is a powerful tool for those of us committed to bridging our nation’s deep divides. However, the report also forces us to reckon with a second, more challenging question -- who is excluded when it comes to building these impactful relationships?

The question prompted me to reflect back on my own college experience. As a Unitarian Universalist raised in the Northeast, attending college in the South was something of a culture shock. Even at a fairly liberal campus such as UNC Chapel Hill (go Heels!), I was profoundly challenged by the predominance of conservative Christianity on campus. The largest student groups were the Evangelical groups, conservative religious values were an active part of public campus life and some of my closest friends were Evangelicals as well. I found great support and solidarity in my active Unitarian campus group, but I still felt deeply out of place in the dominant religious culture.

One day, I received an email from a fellow student -- a Catholic who invited me to help establish an interfaith group for active religious students. I was intrigued and excited when I encountered the diversity of participants at the first meeting. In addition to the Catholics and the Unitarians, there were also representatives from Muslim, Jewish and a handful of other religious student organizations on campus. I’d never had the opportunity to make these kinds of connections before. We eagerly spent time getting to know one another and talking about the collaborative projects we could pursue. We all agreed that the conservative religious culture was dominant at UNC, and our fledgling group could help provide space for religious minorities on campus to come together. Our shared experience of campus culture was so universal that there was very little discussion when we agreed that no, we should not reach out to the Evangelical student organizations to invite them to join us.

Looking back on this experience now, I honestly view that decision with profound regret and disappointment in myself, and I often tell this story as an “interfaith failure.” If the purpose and power of interfaith cooperation is to bridge deep divides across religious lines, then what sense did it make to exclude such an important group of religious students at UNC? If we wanted to create a more inclusive campus culture, how could we do that without engaging such a key part of the campus community? We were literally undermining our own efforts.

Looking at the "Friendships Matter" report now, though, it’s clear to me that there were several dynamics going on in that situation. First, the report points out how important campus climate is in fostering opportunities for interworldview friendships to thrive. My own college interfaith group was clearly feeling the weight of a less than supportive campus climate, and even though that experience drove us to build relationships, the "Friendships Matter" report illustrates that in general, insensitivity on campus actually decreases the likelihood of building friendships.

Secondly, it’s certainly true that some religious communities tend to be more insular and focused on their own community rather than on outward relationships. The "Friendships Matter" report raises the question of whether there would have even been a positive response if my college interfaith group had reached out to the Evangelical groups on our campus. According to the research, students are less likely to build friendships with Evangelical Christians than with some other identity groups. Even while more and more Evangelicals are advocating powerfully for the importance of interfaith relationship building, it’s not yet the norm.

However, the question that gives me deepest discomfort is one raised around my own inclination to exclude during this college interfaith experiment. To put it directly -- I wonder how often college students are exclusive even in their attempt to build diverse friend groups. The report points out that certain minority religious students (Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, atheists) are most likely to have high degrees of diversity in their friendships. By contrast, Catholics, Evangelicals and mainline Protestants, and members of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints, are much less likely to report high degrees of diversity in their friend group. Demographics certainly play a strong role in these patterns. Nevertheless, friendships are forged based on a variety of factors, including shared experiences and shared values. Are the students who are more inclined to have diverse friend groups also more inclined to exclude certain perspectives that challenge their values more fundamentally? In other words, to what extent do students deliberately avoid the “the diversities that they don’t like,” to use Eboo’s turn of phrase?

"Friendships Matter" doesn’t answer that question for us. But looking at the state of our nation, it’s imperative that college campuses find ways to build these powerful interworldview friendships. How do we do so in a way that invites all people to move beyond their natural tendencies -- to truly bridge deep difference?

IDEALS is a national research study collaboratively led by Alyssa Rockenbach at North Carolina State University, Matt Mayhew at Ohio State University and Interfaith Youth Core. Tara Hudson of Kent State University also played a lead role in authoring the "Friendships Matter" report. Learn more at www.ifyc.org/ideals.

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