Friday, October 17, 2014

Interfaith on Campus

by Gary Berg-Cross

The British Religion in Numbers website is an online resource of survey and other data. You can see charts on church numbers and belief such as:

 It useful since many religious debates get down to questions of how many or how large or is this typical?  And of course trends are important.
And one trend at least has gotten some recent attention based on results from the first stage of the 2015 British Election Study.  This is a survey of more than 20,000 people conducted by a team of academics from Manchester, Oxford and Nottingham universities.. Apparently, as reported in Christian Today, the results show that in roughly the last five decades, the number of people reporting no religion in Britain:
 “has grown from just 3 per cent of the population to nearly half, according to a new survey. “
It’s roughly a 1% change a year going from 3 to 50% in 40 years.  Similar trends are reported in the US and even in the US South there is movement.  The Public Religion Research Institute's recent report noted that 14 percent of Alabamians describe themselves as "religiously unaffiliated." That’s a long way from Britian but as a local paper worried “In a state that put the King James Bible in "Bible belt," that's downright shocking.”  Let's see 30 years of 1% for Alabama would put them up to Britain.
And it is more of a trend for young adults aged under 25. In Britain nearly two-thirds define themselves as "nones", or people with no religious affiliation.
Part of the turn off is attributed to disgust with male-dominated church leadership who’s orthodoxy abides traditional discrimination against women and homosexuals.  One notes that Pope Frank and others are on to this issue and searching for ways to mitigate the orthodox image at least.  One worries that this is just a kinder, gentler form of orthodoxy. After all if its God's word and you're infallible.  Well there may be a ceiling effect.
Another  reaction was noted on NPR with a segment by MONIQUE PARSONS (October 16, 2014) called: Interfaith Chaplains Revitalize An Old Role On College Campuses.

The broadcast started by noting that a third of young Americans report no religious affiliation – well behind the Brits, I guess, but hope still bubbles in chaplain's offices according to the report. And why not? There was free pizza for the casual drop in!  The real innovation noted was the pull and soft sell of the new, trending Interfaith Councils aspect. “Come in and shop.  Try on my religion.  It goes well with your hair color.”
At USC's interfaith council there was a noted a mix of Muslim students, Catholics, a Sikh, an agnostic and a few unclassified or hybrid identities.
VARUN SONI provided examples of some hybrid ID :
·       I'm a Zen Christian,
·       I'm sushi. I was like, what's sushi? Oh, my mom is Sunni and my father is Shia, so I'm sushi.
·       I'm a Hin-Jew,
·       I'm a Jew-Bu.
These may evoke a degree of tolerance mixed and respect for difference, win-win overlap with occasional bumps into ritual, observance conflicts & paradox. We do know that interfaith marriages, which in part produce these hybrids, are on the rise in the U.S. but there seems to be a wrinkle. According to one study, interfaith couples are more likely to keep their separate religious affiliations than ever before (40% keep there's compared to 20% 40 years ago - gee, less
compromise and more stick). So there is a practical limit to this blending. Sill I've long become familiar with the Atheist-Unitarians (AUs) blend that may be more tolerant than some mixes. Exposure to, and experience practicing, different religious faiths may breed some tolerance and put people on a better path.  I generally feel that way about AUs. There is even some Humanist hybrid possible -AHU is quietly in the mix.
But what about the professionals?  The chaplains and the organizations that employ them. Are they bystanders, facilitators, and participants with their own agendas?  Hard to say. Certainly they continue to churn out graduates who then seek jobs.   And the show made clear that campus chaplain offices are dynamically reconfiguring their approach to connect with those trending hybrid identities. 

I don't know if this is as much of phenomena in Britain, but the Chaplin at USC is an interesting example. Hi is named Soni.  Turns out he is not a trained clergyman. He's a Hindu with a law degree and a PhD in religious studies.  Well at least he’s found a career path. Indeed as reported, he is not the only one on the new Interfaith chaplaincy cruise path:
“In a way, chaplains like Soni are more like interfaith cruise directors than traditional pastors. Soni oversees 100 student religious groups and 50 chaplains of different faiths, including a new atheist chaplain to serve secular students. At Yale, a Catholic laywoman runs the religious life office. At Emory, in Atlanta, a school affiliated with the Methodist Church, an Imam recently made the shortlist for chaplain. Seminaries are taking note. At the Claremont School of Theology in Southern California, a student practices piano inside the chapel. There's a big cross up front, but also symbols from other faiths. The school has partnered with local Muslim, Buddhist and Jewish seminaries. It's also created new degree programs to reach millennial's interested in ministry.”

Some of the activities at USC mentioned included invites to star athletes to talk about spirituality or actor Rainn Wilson to give a lecture on his Bahai faith. There's also a popular lunch series with professors called "What Matters To Me And Why?"  Sounds like it could be a mix of Philosophy and Psychology, but Interfaith offices lay some claim to that turf too now less oriented around God and more around the big, existential questions of meaning and purpose, of significance and authenticity.  
Religions have historically crafted simple memes to appear to address these Big Questions and in the process pull shop-oriented people into a religious, cultural identity . That’s evolving and perhaps there will studies of where the interfaith path takes us.  In the meantime it is a bit of an opening for the Humanist message about life's big questions.  Along with the free pizza some humanist teachings seem like a good addition to the interfaith discussions.

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