National Study Shows the Promise of Diverse Interfaith Friendships on College Campuses

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Friendship, a concept that is often innocuous, has been an unexpectedly hot-button issue this past week, thanks to Ellen DeGeneres and George W. Bush’s public outing to a football game. Friendships across significant differences, such as between activist Ann Atwater and noted Klansman C.P. Ellis (subject of the controversial new film The Best of Enemies) or the inter-political marriage between James Carville and Mary Matalin, have a tendency to draw ire and criticism. However, new research on college students reveals that across religious lines, diverse friendships can have positive effects. 

This week, a new report was released from the Interfaith Diversity Experiences and Attitudes Longitudinal Survey (IDEALS) on the effects of interworldview friendships — those made across religious, nonreligious, and spiritual differences — on American college students.

According to the report (Friendships Matter: The Role of Peer Relationships in Interfaith Learning and Development), when it comes to preparing college students for living in our diverse society, interworldview friendships have an effect beyond other impactful college conditions and experiences, such as a welcoming campus climate, support to freely express one’s worldview, and challenging encounters with diverse peers. Close friendships with peers of differing beliefs play an especially important role in enhancing students’ general openness to those who hold worldviews different than their own.

For instance, the findings also revealed that, in some cases, gaining a close interworldview friend doubles the percentage of first-year students who are highly appreciative of the worldview of their new friend. What’s more, researchers discovered an overall effect in which students in interworldview friendships also generally developed positive attitudes toward others of all worldviews, not just the ones held by their friends. For example, making a close Buddhist friend encourages students to become generally more appreciative of other worldviews at the same time, such as Evangelical Christians, atheists, Hindus, Jews, Latter-day Saints, and Muslims.

College seems to be an ideal place to make these diverse, interworldview friendships: 64% of surveyed students who reported having no interworldview friendships when they began college reported making at least one within their first year. In fact, 20% among this group reported making five or more friends across worldview differences in that time. However, it can be easy to unconsciously fall into familiar patterns of making like-minded and religiously-similar friends, a habit that the report recommends intentionally disrupting. 

Eboo Patel, the Founder and President of Interfaith Youth Core, has cited the report as a positive sign of things to come: “Though our nation is becoming more diverse in every possible way, there are too many examples of difference being divisive rather than constructively engaged. A report like this shows that another way is possible – that friendships really matter, that campuses can facilitate positive interactions that lead to lasting relationships, and that all of this can strengthen our diverse democracy.”

While college students consistently making friends across worldviews is by no means as controversial or groundbreaking as, say, befriending Ku Klux Klan members to change their racist ideology, it is a good sign for the future of our society: the building of understanding and empathy across historically-entrenched lines is undeniably progress, and the positive effects are real.

IDEALS followed a cohort of students who attended 122 diverse American colleges and universities between 2015 and 2019, tracking changes in interfaith learning and development—as well as trends in their friendships—over time. The new report, Friendships Matter: The Role of Peer Relationships in Interfaith Learning and Development, reflects 7,194 students who responded to the first two waves of IDEALS at the beginning of their first year in college (2015) and at the conclusion of their first year (2016).

Gordon Maples is a PhD student in Educational Leadership, Policy, and Human Development at North Carolina State University, where he serves as a Research Associate for IDEALS (@GordonMaples)

Kevin Singer is a PhD student in Educational Leadership, Policy, and Human Development at North Carolina State University, where he serves as a Research Associate for IDEALS (@kevinsinger0)

Alyssa Rockenbach is a Professor of Higher Education at North Carolina State University and Co-Principal Investigator on IDEALS (@ANRockenbach)

Tara Hudson is Assistant Professor of Higher Education Administration at Kent State University (@tarahudsonphd)

Matthew Mayhew is the William Ray and Marie Adamson Flesher Professor of Educational Administration at The Ohio State University and Co-Principal Investigator on IDEALS (@MattJMayhewPhD)



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