What do college students think about religious pluralism? A study of students at Amherst College
Religious life staffs at colleges and universities struggle with how best to address religious plurality on campus. How can we serve a multifaith community in a way that is respectful and meaningful to the various faith adherents? A key element often missing in seeking to address this concern is what do religiously involved students think about coming together with people of other faiths? This is the research question of the study. Surveys were sent to 701 Amherst College students. Two-hundred and nineteen of these were returned. From that group, 91 students participated in two-hour focus group interviews. The groups were homogeneous by faith tradition. Sample size was large enough to subdivide the Jewish, Protestant, and Roman Catholic groups into high, moderate, and low involvement groups. All four class years were represented. Transcripts were analyzed with a computer-assisted qualitative data analysis software program (NVivo).
The results include quotations from the interviews and survey summaries. Psychosocial and theological analysis of the data is provided in the final two chapters. The findings of this study are: (1) All religious students have a commitment to a set of beliefs, symbols, regulations, rites and practices and want these particularities to be respected, valued, guarded and understood in multifaith interactions; (2) Provided the first condition is met, religious students are eager to learn about and from the faith of others. This is especially true in informal settings and multifaith dialogue, as opposed to multifaith services. (3) Multifaith events are valued primarily for their educational benefit, cultural expression, and potential to deepen relationships.
The use of multifaith dialogue was shown to be an especially effective means of educating students about other faiths and providing an attractive forum for an exchange of ideas about beliefs and values. Guidelines are provided for planning a multifaith service as well as suggestions for when it may be appropriate.