Researchers explore why religion is lacking in “broad conversations” at UMN

The goal of the research is to create recommendations to inform conversations about religion on campus.

Brochures about the Islamic faith sit on a shelf inside Coffman Union on Monday, Oct. 21.

Nur B. Adam

Brochures about the Islamic faith sit on a shelf inside Coffman Union on Monday, Oct. 21.

Natalie Rademacher

During a time when religion and religious identities are changing, researchers Jeanne Kilde and Virajita Singh are exploring the role of religion in the workplace and the religious rights of University of Minnesota employees and students.

Through a collaborative with the Institute for Advanced Study, the researchers are spending the next year rolling out work on the subject. This involves publishing an online forum devoted to religion at public universities, holding reading groups and developing community workshops for staff and students to talk about their experience with religion on campus. Their goal is to create recommendations for the University community around discussing religion. 

Kilde, director of undergraduate studies at the University’s religious studies program, said while scholars have already been looking at these questions, they are hoping the conversation will filter down to staff and administrators at the University through their work. 

“Religion is not a topic often discussed. We want to change that to make it more comfortable for people to talk about,” said Singh, associate vice provost for the Office of Equity and Diversity. 

The goal of the workshops and reading groups is to make space for conversations around religion at the University.

“Lots of folks in American society are uncomfortable talking about religion. They are afraid of saying something wrong,” Kilde said. Through the project, the researchers are hoping to teach people the tools to talk about religion more comfortably in the public square, something already being done in many religious studies classes. 

Yusuf Mohamed, a first-year sociology student, said he has not heard much conversation around religion at the University. He said while the University prides itself on being a safe space, there is not much space given to talking about religion. 

According to Kilde, concern about openly talking about religion at public universities is common because of the question around the separation between state and religion. 

Fourth-year student Austin Peterson said he was nervous to open up about his identity as a Catholic when he came to the University. 

Peterson said during his first year, he felt there was a stigma around being Catholic but struggled to tell if it was a real stigma or just a perceived one. However, he has found through conversations with his peers that a stigma around being Catholic may not be as big as he had thought. 

“The less closed-off I have been about my faith, the more constructive it has been in breaking down those stereotypes,” he said. 

These perceived stigmas about religion are one of the things the two researchers are trying to debunk in their work. 

Religions are often seen as a fixed thing, resulting in stereotypes, Singh said. When talking about religion it is important to not make assumptions because each individual’s identity and experience with religion is different, she added.

“There is a lot of complexity around religion, and we don’t often get that.”

The researchers also hope to address the growing number of people who identify as “nones,” which are people without a religious affiliation, according to Kilde.  

“It is almost more popular to not be a part of a religion now,” said Althea Anderson, a psychology student who identifies as agnostic, which is a person who neither believes nor disbelieves in the existence of a god. She said her friends who are other religions such as Catholic are not as comfortable talking about their beliefs. 

While different University departments already do things such as accommodate for religious beliefs and practices, Singh said there is sometimes no connection to these broader conversations around understanding the context. The project feels like a fresh initiative to her. 

The project through IAS only goes through next year, but Kilde and Singh are looking at how to continue the work and make it long-term. 

“These issues that are surfacing on campus will not be done in 2020,” Singh said.