THE BLOG
12/01/2015 05:22 pm ET Updated Dec 01, 2016

Coming Out of the Religious Closet in Utah

"I'm not Mormon, I'm an atheist," he admitted. "But, I don't tell people that. It's a lot easier if they just assume I'm still a member of the church. It's like, 'don't ask, don't tell,' you know?"

I live and teach in northern Utah, where being a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints -- being a "Mormon" -- is the norm. Church attendance is high, daily devotions are common in the residence halls and students are often more aware of church-related news than they are of national or world news. From dress codes to dating customs, gender role expectations to attitudes about marriage and family, religious conviction is a fundamentally important part of who our students are. But here, as at other public institutions around the country, discussion of these convictions -- and how they impact every other aspects of students' lives -- has long been discouraged.

I believe this is a problem, for as Dr. Eboo Patel (an American Muslim, scholar-activist and founder of Chicago's Interfaith Youth Core) often notes, "we live in a country and a world awash with religion." If we are to learn anything from recent events, I believe it's that this silence about our convictions too often keeps us from connecting across so-called "faith-divides." The results, as we have seen again in the aftermath of Paris, are divisive, poisonous and easily co-opted.

The antidote, as the Interfaith Youth Core's mission statement puts it, is to make "interfaith cooperation a social norm." Like my colleagues at IFYC, I believe that there is no better place to do this than on college campuses, where today's students will be tomorrow's actors on the world stage.

But, to do this, we need to learn how to talk about our religious convictions. More importantly, we need to learn to listen -- appreciatively and with respect -- to those whose core-beliefs are different than our own. Only then, can we begin to identify the values that we share in order to serve the common good.

In 2014 I began researching how the effects of silence about religion impact my campus climate and community. Did people want to talk about their religious convictions? Did they feel safe doing so? If not, why not? In conversations with more than 100 students, faculty, administrators, staff and community leaders, almost all agreed that their religious (or non-religious) convictions shaped them, in fundamental ways. They wanted to be able to share this important aspect of their lives. But, no one felt safe doing so. Instead, most chose to leave their convictions at the door when interacting with others. Religion -- and their relationship to it -- was the "elephant in the room" on my campus.

Respondents chose to stay "in the closet" (their words) about their beliefs for multiple reasons. LDS students and administrators preferred not to talk about the role of religion in their lives because they were afraid of being mocked or chastised by their professors or their colleagues for their beliefs. Study participants called this "Mormon-bashing" and they assured me that this is a very common occurrence on our public university campus. Those who no longer identified as Mormon had a different concern: "After I stopped going to church, my roommates who were all LDS started to really look down on me," said one. Many others echoed this sentiment. To avoid judgment, it was easier just to remain silent and let people assume that they were still active in the church. Members of other religions (as well as those who identified as atheist or secular humanist) preferred to blend in with their peers to avoid what they called the LDS "conversion agenda." So, although they had different reasons for doing so, most study participants remained silent about their religious commitments (or lack thereof) as a survival strategy. But many also reported feeling isolated, lonely and disconnected from much of our campus community as a result.

To address these concerns, we created an interfaith initiative on our campus with the mission of creating "positive and meaningful interaction among people who orient around religion differently." For one of our first activities, we decided to try something called "speed-faithing" which allows individuals to explain their beliefs to others in the spirit of dialogue rather than evangelism or debate.

At this event, participants were invited to stand and form two long lines that face together. After greeting the person facing them, the pair would take turns answering a question that was read to the entire group. Each member of the pair was given about 90 seconds to share their response before switching-off with their partner. Thus, over a period of about three minutes, each had a chance to speak and a chance to listen. But, before beginning, some ground-rules for discussion were agreed upon by all. Each conversation partner agreed to speak only from their own experience (using "I" statements), to practice deep listening as others spoke, to remember that it is possible to appreciate another without having to agree with what is being said, to give their speed-faithing partners the benefit of the doubt if misunderstandings arise, and to practice confidentiality. After sharing and then listening, each would thank their partner and then take two steps to the left so that all were facing new partners. Questions included things like: "What is the origin and meaning of your name?" "Where do you feel most at home?" and "Who most inspires you?" But questions also included topics like, "Did you grow up with a particular faith tradition? What was it?" "Do you practice that (or another) faith tradition now?" "What is one of your faith tradition's core values?" "What is a stereotype about your faith tradition that you would like to dispel?"

In debriefing the event one student said, "at the beginning we were just... people who only vaguely knew each other, and after there was definitely a different connection between us." Another commented, "everyone wants to share what they believe, but it's scary. You don't want to offend anyone or misrepresent your religion, or have others make fun of your beliefs. [But] at the activity, there were no problems, and some of the people I talked with had never talked about their religion with others. I learned a lot and found the whole experience very uplifting."

Speed-faithing helped address the elephant in the room by breaking the ice so that students could begin to talk about their religious beliefs and practices. It provided an important point of entry for beginning the work of sharing and listening in order to find common ground.

In addition to this activity, the interfaith initiative that grew out of our research has help create positive change on our campus in a number of ways. With almost no budget, but with tremendous good will, we have worked together to bring high-profile speakers to campus, we have participated in community-wide interfaith convocations and workshops, held round table discussions to raise awareness, network and enhance religious literacy. We have institutionalized both an advisory council and a student organization to diversify and scale our work, and we have created a stand-alone training program to teach the principles of appreciative listening and authentic sharing. Our interfaith initiative has been featured in numerous radio interviews, newspaper reports and recruitment brochures. Its presence has been acknowledged in graduation speeches and in professional presentations, in community-wide interfaith councils and in church services.

On my campus, the changes resulting from our interfaith initiative have been received as immensely positive. We are building bridges of dialogue and understanding across the faith-divides on our campus that were once cloaked in silence. We are learning to relate to one another in new ways, and building new networks as we do.

Yet, even as we have begun establishing relationships that allow for honest sharing and questioning, we recognize that there is still much work ahead. Fundamental divides between gays and straights, between members of the LDS church, campus minority religions and atheists loom large, especially now that the Church has doubled-down on its attitudes towards marriage-equality and homosexuality. My hope, though, is that the work we have done to crack the silence that separates us will provide a spring-board for the difficult conversations ahead.

As we prepare our students to face a world awash with religion, learning how to voice our convictions with compassion and kindness -- and learning how to listen with appreciation and respect -- is certainly a good first step for finding our way towards the common humanity so lacking today in public discourse.