Iyleah Hernandez was slightly hesitant last year when a Muslim student leader asked her to speak at the next interfaith coffeehouse on campus.
A self-described agnostic at the time, Ms. Hernandez wasn’t sure what she’d have to say to interfaith discussion group attendees at Dominican University, a Catholic institution just outside Chicago. Many were devout Roman Catholics, observant Muslims, or others with sincerely held religious beliefs.
What’s more, her political points of view weren’t exactly popular among her peers. “I’m a Republican, and a Republican in very liberal schools? They don’t mix – oil and water,” says Ms. Hernandez.
She’s had a firsthand view of aspects of what many are calling “cancel culture,” a phenomenon in which mostly left-leaning young people shun or socially isolate their right-leaning peers. Former President Barack Obama and others have decried this emerging trend, even as younger thinkers on the left have defended “canceling” those believed to have oppression-sustaining views.
But a growing number of students like Ms. Hernandez, members of a Generation Z who are coming of age within a burgeoning demographic diversity even greater than that of Millennials, have begun to forge a different sensibility when it comes to forming friendships with those with different points of view, scholars say. It’s the often-unseen flip side of cancel culture and the country’s seething polarizations.
“It appears that students come to college now having had a lot more exposure to inter-worldview friendships beforehand, so I think that’s a really hopeful sign,” says Alyssa Rockenbach, professor of higher education at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, who studies the attitudes of incoming college students and charts how they change over time. “That suggests that they are primed to hopefully maintain some of those friendships and make more during the college years.”
Make no mistake, the climate on many campuses is tense, as seen this week at Syracuse University in New York, where a series of racist incidents has roiled students and administrators and drawn intervention from the governor. But for scholars like Professor Rockenbach, this only adds urgency to their work to foster inter-worldview relationships she and others are now studying.
Making the effort
Even when she attended her high school for gifted STEM students, Ms. Hernandez says she experienced microaggressions and outright hostility from other students because of her conservative views. But she had a longing to talk about the conflicting political ideas, and attempted to form an “inter-political discussion group,” she says. She tried to form a similar group as a freshman at Dominican.
Now a double major in mathematics and computer science, Ms. Hernandez found herself becoming outspoken in religious classes like Love and Faith, where she began to defend the religious perspectives of students after a “militant atheist” in class reduced faith to violence-causing nonsense.
“So a lot of people would approach me after class saying, like, ‘Hey, why? Why are you defending us? You’re an agnostic, you’re an atheist. So, like, what’s up with that?’” Ms. Hernandez says. “People saw me in a certain way, and I was, like, no, that’s not me. So let’s have conversations about this, because that’s not OK.” So a few of her peers invited her to the interfaith coffeehouse.
One of the Catholic students challenged the purple rosary Ms. Hernandez wore every day. It was a gift from her grandfather, whom she adored, she says, and she wore it to honor him, not as something sacred used for prayer.
The exchange could have been tense. But “we started having a really good conversation,” she says. “That was when I first started thinking about, you know, how is the way in which I kind of express myself, how could that be harmful to somebody who is of a different faith?
One friend leads to another
Such interfaith dialogue is nothing new, and efforts to foster cross-cultural discussions have long been part of campus life. But Dr. Rockenbach and her colleague Matthew Mayhew, professor of educational administration at The Ohio State University in Columbus, decided to study and track the kinds of friendships students make during this formative time of their lives – and how these friendships shape them.
In October, they released some of the results of their long-range study called the Interfaith Diversity Experiences and Attitudes Longitudinal Survey (IDEALS), which surveyed some 7,000 students from an array of 122 U.S. colleges and universities, tracking how their experiences within inter-worldview relationships shaped their attitudes toward others.
Instead of a rampant cancel culture rooted in rancor, one of their reports, titled “Friendships Matter,” found many students were beginning to cultivate inter-worldview friendships, not shun them. Even more important, many showed a willingness to work through some of their clashing differences and make an effort to maintain those friendships afterward.
“And what’s really interesting to me is the fact that gaining a friend from a different worldview doesn’t just make you more appreciative … toward people in your new friend’s group in general,” Dr. Rockenbach says. “There is kind of an exciting effect that extends beyond that friendship to other worldviews.”
An openness to different beliefs
Kevin Singer never had the slightest inkling that he would embrace this kind of interfaith work. A theologically conservative evangelical Christian, he spent five years helping plant Southern Baptist churches in the suburbs of Chicago.
When he and his wife were expecting their first child, he asked a community college if he could teach a New Testament course, since he needed the extra income. “And they said, well, how about you teach world religions? You could teach that, right? I was like, yeah, sure,” Mr. Singer says.
It changed his life. His experience teaching didn’t change his theological perspectives, but it did change his sensibilities, he says.
“I loved interacting with students and seeing their minds open up to, you know, their neighbors of different beliefs,” says Mr. Singer, who gave up his plan to study theology and is now a Ph.D. candidate in higher education at North Carolina State. “That’s the payoff for me, seeing these students say they’ve never met a Muslim or a Hindu, or they’ve never even heard of Zoroastrianism or Taoism, but now they’re really curious.”
There certainly can be tensions while maintaining an exclusive religious point of view. “You know, seeing that a lot of my evangelical brethren weren’t necessarily super excited about engaging with their neighbors of other faiths, I realized, I can really make an impact on how my faith, my own faith community, is perceived,” he says.
He sees his interfaith work as part of the evangelical commitment to “the Great Commission,” Jesus’ command to spread the gospel throughout the world.
“I always tell people I’m a pragmatist,” Mr. Singer says. “If I want to obey Jesus’ commands to make disciples of all nations to the most efficient degree, it’s going to be through being someone who radiates the love of Christ in such a way that it draws people’s curiosity.”
It’s essential that members of traditional theological perspectives feel both heard and included in these discussions, says Mary Ellen Giess, senior director of strategic partnerships for Interfaith Youth Core, the national nonprofit that works with the IDEALS project.
One her organization’s “bedrock promises”, she says, is to foster “the common good” by guiding students to develop the skills necessary to create a functioning pluralistic society and training them to be leaders who help bridge differences and find common values.
“That’s not easy, but I think that it’s actually a beautiful thing to be able to affirm the distinctiveness of what individuals and individual communities bring to society,” Ms. Giess says. “That’s the foundation of our country. You should be able to say, this is who we are, so we can bring our fullest selves, our genuine understandings of our traditions, our commitments and our beliefs, and then create this common space together.”
In U.S., religious liberties
When Musbah Shaheen came to the United States from Syria in 2013, he expected to find some relief from what he felt were the stifling confines of his Muslim upbringing. A gay man in a traditional religious culture, he was eager to experience a new kind of freedom at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee.
“But mostly I found the opposite,” says Mr. Shaheen, now a graduate associate at The Ohio State University. “I encountered religion or signs of faith every place I went to, starting from the campus and beyond. And, you know, I just started meeting people.”
There were some Christians in his hometown in Syria, but he had never met a Jewish person – or anyone else from a different faith. During his freshman year at Vanderbilt, he just happened to stop to have ice cream at an interfaith social.
One of the members was a Hindu and another was a Sikh – two religions he knew nothing about. But he found himself drawn to their discussion group, in part because he was seeking fellowship with people of color during a lonely time in his life.
“It sounds cliché, but I learned to appreciate the diversity of the perspectives that exist within this crazy diversity of religions that are in the States,” Mr. Shaheen says. “And I began to challenge some of the things that I had internalized about people from other religions, especially those that I had never encountered. I thought, wow, there’s so much that I can learn from the lived experiences of these people.”
Finding religious diversity, in fact, helped him rediscover his own identity, and drew him back to Islam.
“I never thought I would miss the Friday routine, the Friday prayers, jumah,” he says. “I experienced the dissonance between my rejection [of my religion] and things that meant a lot to me. I had to ask myself, who is it that I am?”
As a gay Muslim man in the South, he’s experienced his share of microaggressions and outright hostility, too. “It’s OK for folks to experience anger sometimes, or to experience pain or experience misunderstanding,” he continues. “These are all things that I went through, but I found people with other views to help process all of this, to work through these things, to challenge and be challenged and talk through my worldviews.”
To a new depth of faith
Ms. Hernandez had a similar experience after she shared her experiences and agnostic views at that first coffeehouse, she saw herself begin to change profoundly.
“I never felt the deepness to which people that I encountered here felt for their faith,” says Ms. Hernandez, who is now a leader in Dominican’s interfaith group. “Seeing their passion made me realize that I’m not really passionate about being an agnostic,” she says.
Her new friendships, as well as deep conversations with the Dominican sisters who help administer her university, led her to embrace Catholicism – a hope her grandfather had always had for her. She’s now in the process to be baptized next spring.
“It’s been a little bit of a bumpy road because I don’t want to convert anybody, but at the same time, I don’t want it to feel like I am hiding what I believe in now, and who I am, you know?” she says. “Like, you’re not a stereotype. You’re your own unique person, created from your own unique experiences, and who has this long complicated background in your life.”