Digest No. 04 - June 2018

Does Interfaith Engagement Drive Students to Abandon Their Faith or Non-Faith Traditions?

Mayhew, M. J., A. N. Rockenbach, and N. A. Bowman. 2016. “The Connection between Interfaith Engagement and Self-Authored Worldview Commitment.” The Journal of College Student Development 57 (4): 362–379.


This study explores interfaith engagement and its association with a construct called self-authored worldview commitment (SAWC), a learning outcome addressing how a student develops an “informed, critical understanding of his or her worldview, would describe him or herself in ways consistent with such an understanding and would relate to others in a manner also consistent with that understanding” (Mayhew and Bryant Rockenbach 2013, p. 64).

Matthew J. Mayhew, Alyssa N. Rockenbach, and Nicholas A. Bowman assume that achieving this outcome of a SAWC promotes the civic values touted by many college and university educators and prominently on many CIC campuses: a worldview based on what Sir John Templeton (2000) calls mutuality, respect, and shared exploration.

Grounded in the work of many developmental theorists, including Marcia (1966), Perry (1970), Kegan (1994), and Baxter Magolda (2008), the authors offer conceptual refinements of the SAWC construct and the institutional conditions and educational practices that lead to its development. Based on a cross-sectional study of 13,776 students enrolled in one of 52 institutions, it is important to note that only associations and not causal inferences are explored in this article. Research designs that seek to pursue lines of inquiry related to development should be longitudinal in nature—a limitation noted by the authors.


Results of the study forward three important considerations. First, regardless of students’ identified worldviews, those who attended institutions that valued a respect for and appreciation of other worldviews were more likely to grapple with different worldview perspectives before committing to their own (i.e., achieving SAWC). Second, achieving SAWC was associated with institutional type; students enrolled at public institutions were associated with higher SAWC scores, while those enrolled at nonsectarian institutions were associated with lower SAWC scores. Third, students who participated in formal (e.g., institution-designed) and informal (e.g., peer-related) interfaith activities were significantly more likely to achieve SAWC than students who did not engage in these types of activities. Finally, regardless of institutional type or experience with formal or informal interfaith activities, higher SAWC scores were exhibited by students who identified as agnostic, atheist, Buddhist, secular humanist, spiritual, Unitarian Universalist or another worldview (i.e., one articulated in an open-ended response about worldview identification); lower SAWC scores were associated with students who identified as Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, evangelical Christian, mainline Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, and nonreligious.


How do these results help presidents and other campus leaders design, implement, and assess interfaith efforts on their campuses? What outcomes are important for educators to consider, given the eclectic and passionate worldview interests of institutional stakeholders (e.g., boards, families, clergy)? This study assumes that self-authored worldview commitment—the ability for students to internalize different worldview perspectives as a vehicle for understanding their own—is an interfaith outcome that CIC member institutions should consider. Not only does it appeal to educators who value college as an opportunity to engage worldview differences in informative and responsible ways, SAWC may satisfy skeptical institutional stakeholders, as it encourages students to wrestle with diverse worldview issues as opposed to abandoning faith or non-faith-based positions.

The authors found that students who participated in interfaith activities were more likely to achieve SAWC. Institutions can articulate the importance of interfaith learning through mission statements and strategic planning documents. Of course, incorporating religious literacy into the formal curriculum would be another important step, as long as instructors are trained to effectively engage students in productive conversations about worldview differences.

Similarly, students who identify as non-religious also achieved SAWC through informal interfaith interactions. Although the structure of these interactions was informal—assessed by asking students questions about dining and socializing with students from worldview narratives different than their own—the finding is an important reminder that peer engagement matters. Educators need to equip students with the language, knowledge, and tools needed to effectively engage across worldview differences in anticipation of such exchanges.

Finally, the authors provide some insight into the relationships between students’ self-identified worldviews and SAWC. Institutions interested in promoting SAWC as a collegiate outcome need to involve faith-based students (Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, evangelical Christian, mainline Protestant, Jewish, and Muslim) in formal interfaith efforts. The spiritual development of these students—including the communities they turn to for spiritual guidance through their college careers—can be influenced by local temples, synagogues, churches and/or parachurch organizations (e.g., Navigators and Cru). Educators should design environments where faith-based students feel free to express their worldviews in constructive ways that value diverse perspectives.

About the Authors

Matthew J. Mayhew is William Ray and Marie Adamson Flesher Professor of Educational Administration with a focus on higher education and student affairs at Ohio State University.

Alyssa N. Rockenbach is professor of higher education in the Department of Educational Leadership, Policy, and Human Development at North Carolina State University.

Nicholas A. Bowman is a professor in the Higher Education and Student Affairs program and director of the Center for Research on Undergraduate Education at the University of Iowa.

Literature Readers May Wish to Consult

Baxter Magolda, M. B. 2008. “Three Elements of Self-Authorship.” Journal of College Student Development 49: 269–284.

Kegan, R. 1994. In Over Our Heads: The Mental Demands of Modern Life. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Marcia, J. E. 1966. “Development and Validation of Ego Identity Status.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 3: 551–558.

Mayhew, M. J., and A. N. Bryant Rockenbach. 2013. “Achievement or Arrest? The Influence of the Collegiate Religious and Spiritual Climate on Students’ Worldview Commitment.” Research in Higher Education 54: 63–84.

Perry, W. G., Jr. 1970. Forms of Intellectual and Ethical Development in the College Years: A Scheme. New York, NY: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.

Templeton, J. 2000. Possibilities for Over One Hundredfold More Spiritual Information: The Humble Approach in Theology and Science. Philadelphia: Templeton Foundation Press.