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Engaging Secular Students in Interfaith Cooperation

Engaging Secular Students in Interfaith Cooperation

A collaboration between Interfaith Youth Core and the Secular Student Alliance

Introduction

The work of interfaith cooperation is based on engaging people of different religious and ethical perspectives around issues of common concern. One of the most vibrant, noteworthy, and growing groups in America today is secular young people. As interfaith groups in higher education expand their impact, it is critical for them to think deeply about how best to engage the growing number of secular students and support their interfaith leadership.

The Secular Student Alliance and Interfaith Youth Core have collaborated on strategies that will help engage and support secular students interested in interfaith cooperation. We have seen the power of this in our respective fields. Some of the leading young interfaith leaders today are secular students, and some of the most impactful campus secular organizations are effectively working with religious groups to promote compelling change. Using examples and expertise gathered from the work of SSA and IFYC, we have identified five helpful tips and practices for interfaith groups on campus. This is not meant to be a comprehensive list; nor is it meant to represent every student or groups’ perspective. However, these tips do offer interfaith groups a starting point for meaningful engagement

Areas of Focus

Know Your Audience Understanding the background of secular students is crucial to engaging them in interfaith work. Just like you would for any set of students you want involved in interfaith work, make sure to research the needs, current interests, and past actions of secular students on your campus. Make sure to articulate why interfaith cooperation is important for secular students as well. IFYC emphasizes interfaith literacy—understanding how the concepts, ideas, texts, and history of diverse worldviews influence their motivation toward interfaith cooperation. Make sure to burnish your own interfaith literacy and have examples of the influence that different secular worldviews have had on interfaith work. There is a wide diversity among students who identify as secular, so take time to understand where students are coming from when they discuss their worldviews or values.

Be Clear and Open – Many secular students have an interest in supporting interfaith cooperation, but might also be wary, at first, about getting involved in a substantial way. Indeed, just the word “interfaith” can seem not welcoming toward secular individuals. Thus, interfaith groups, allies, and leaders need to be proactive in inviting and welcoming secular students into their groups. You might know that your interfaith group is supportive of secular worldviews, but many students outside your group may not know that. If you’re an interfaith group or other student group, be intentional about reaching out to the secular group on campus or attending their events. The more clear and open you are about the goals and attitudes of your interfaith group, the more welcoming you will be to secular students.

Use Inclusive Language and Relevant Approaches – Both the language you use and the activities you plan send a signal to interested secular students. Use inclusive language in your outreach material; words or phrases like “worldview” (as opposed to just “religions”) or “religious and non-religious perspectives” (instead of “all religions” or “all faiths”) show respect for the various views of your team members. Beyond language, think about how your interfaith activities would be relevant to secular students involved. Studying sacred or holy texts might be worthwhile to many, but might hold little appeal to secular students. As well, think about how you can acknowledge secular students’ needs similar to other students. Calling out an intentionally secular space, along with prayer rooms, during interfaith gatherings communicates a thoughtfulness about the relevant needs of all students.

Act Together – Action is at the forefront of effective interfaith work. Acting together toward a common good helps brings people of diverse backgrounds, faiths, and worldviews together. For secular students, involvement in an interfaith action project gives them the opportunity to work with others, while also addressing an important issue on campus. It seems obvious, but starting with a discussion of differences is usually not the best way to keep secular students (and other worldview minority students, as well) involved in interfaith work. The language and values of action are familiar to most students, and showcase the potential for interfaith cooperation: common action for the common good.

Build Relationships – At the center of interfaith work is building and preserving relationships, and this principle is no different with secular students. Indeed, perhaps even more so, secular students active in interfaith groups deeply appreciate the positive engagement across different worldviews that is at the foundation of interfaith cooperation. Making sure to note the accomplishments and involvement of secular interfaith student leaders on campus is one simple way to highlight this engagement. On a deeper level, some Religious Life or Chaplain’s Offices on campuses have even mentored or supported the formation of secular student groups—thus being an ally and advocate for their students. Relationship-building comes in many different forms, so think critically about what works best for your campus context.

Further Reading