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Religion, Culture, and Worldview Diversity

Equity, Inclusion and Social Justice Spirituality and Religion in Higher Education Faculty Graduate
November 14, 2022 Renee L. Bowling The Ohio State University

Critical Religious Studies in Higher Education: An Ongoing Column in JCC Connexions

Having served as a student affairs professional at both public and private U.S. higher education institutions, spirituality has been important to my identity and communities of belonging and motivational for my work. Like many colleagues of faith, I volunteered with student retreats and interfaith experiences and supported students’ religious, secular, and spiritual (RSS) development by ensuring access to religious and spiritual resources, support, and spaces. A relationship between religion and culture became apparent as I began to understand how identity and community are connected; for many students, religion is much more about practice and belonging than about beliefs. Then I had the opportunity to work in South Asia, where I experienced living in a religiously diverse close community, and my family expanded to become multicultural. During this time, I became more interested in the connections between religious understanding and global citizenship, intercultural learning, and diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) work.

The Sum of Many Influences and Contexts.

It is important to name that my identities as a White Christian American are privileged in many spaces. My evangelical community’s history with religion, education, and culture is complicated and entangled in coloniality; Westernization; historical and contemporary missionary, development, and social justice movements; and politics. Like many of us, I am the sum of many influences and contexts. In a pluralistic democratic society, it is important for people of all RSS identities to be treated equitably and with justice. Higher education campuses, as a microcosm of larger society, are ideally suited environments of compositional and interactional diversity (Hurtado et al., 2012; Luo, 2021; Mayhew & Rockenbach, 2021) where students may learn how to navigate worldview difference. For those wondering how this might gel with my evangelical faith, my perspective has been described by Dalrymple (2020) as one which does not conflate a spiritual kingdom with a political one. My tradition’s take on the Golden Rule asks me to love my neighbor, which leads me to try to practice humility, to give preference to my neighbor, and to welcome diversity. Thus, while I understand religion and culture as deeply interconnected, I do not hold that my worldview ought to have supremacy in a pluralistic society.

Religion and Culture Are Intertwined.

Scholarship supports this idea of religion and culture being intertwined. Multiple authors from the social sciences, religious studies, and higher education have pointed to the inseparability of religion and culture for many communities, to the extent that it may make more sense to speak of “religious culture” (Edwards, 2018, p. 201). When one considers the food, clothing, and observances related to life events and festivals even within one’s own community, it becomes complicated to parse which aspects are religious and which are cultural.

Given the overlap between religion and culture, I became curious about the ways worldview diversity is framed and its connections to global learning and DEI. The Council of International Schools (CIS) has conceptualized global learning as an umbrella encompassing intercultural learning and DEI (Green & Hassim, 2022). Underneath this umbrella, I view RSS diversity as intersectional with other aspects of diversity. Other authors have similarly advocated for worldview diversity education as connected to global citizenship education (Edwards & Kitamura, 2019; Ilisko, 2017; Mayhew et al., 2016) and argued for framing global and domestic diversity together from a social justice orientation (Özturgut, 2017; Williams, 2013).

Social Justice Orientation

A social justice grounding would help to guard against minoritized students’ backgrounds being exploited as learning opportunities for other students and would emphasize justice for all RSS communities rather than centering one worldview as normative. Instead, a social justice approach centers pluralism: a diversity of worldview perspectives. A social justice orientation is particularly important in higher education where it is common to assert religious neutrality. Such assertions can mask secular privilege in the academy and center Christianity as the reference point for literature, philosophy, and history, and for normative beliefs, practices, and holidays. Alternatively, we can acknowledge that education is not and never has been neutral; it is always situated from some perspective (Moore, 2006). Education that centers pluralism and social justice and that seeks to build understanding between multiple ways of knowing and being is better than a false neutrality: it is the education for religious and cultural understanding our students need to navigate difference and to build a more interdependent, just, and peaceful world.

Upcoming Study

I will soon be recruiting campus leaders for a study that will explore worldview diversity education at global liberal arts campuses, those that self-define as focused on undergraduate teaching, the liberal arts and sciences, and the development of global citizenship. Readers employed by a global liberal arts campus located outside of the U.S. are encouraged to connect with me about how your campus might be included in the study.


Dalrymple, T. (2020, November 2). Why evangelicals disagree on the president. Christianity Today. https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2020/november-web-only/trump-election-politics-church-kingdom.html

Edwards, S. (2018). Distinguishing between belief and culture: A critical perspective on religious identity. Journal of College and Character, 19(3), 201–214. https://doi.org/10.1080/2194587X.2018.1481097

Edwards, S., & Kitamura, Y. (2019). Knowledge diplomacy and worldview diversity education: Applications for an internationalized higher education sector [Ch. 11]. In D. E. Neubauer, K. H. Mok, & S. Edwards (Eds.), Contesting globalization and internationalization of higher education: Discourse and responses in the Asia Pacific region. Springer International Publishing. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-26230-3

Green, C., & Hassim, E. (2022, March 2). The CIS model for global citizenship and intercultural learning [Blog]. CIS Perspectives. https://www.cois.org/about-cis/news/post/~board/perspectives-blog/post/the-cis-model-for-global-citizenship-and-intercultural-learning

Hurtado, S., Alvarez, C. L., Guillermo-Wann, C., Cuellar, M., & Arellano, L. (2012). A model for diverse learning environments: The scholarship on creating and assessing conditions for student success. In J. C. Smart & M. B. Paulsen (Eds.), Higher education: Handbook of theory and research (Vol. 27, pp. 41–122). Springer Netherlands. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-007-2950-6_2

Ilisko, D. (2017). Worldview education as a viable perspective for educating global citizens. In M. de Souza & A. Halhoff (Eds.), Re-enchanting education and spiritual wellbeing: Fostering belonging and meaning-making for global citizens. Routledge.

Luo, J. (2021). Interaction across ideological boundaries and college outcomes. The Journal of Higher Education, 92(1), 56–83. https://doi.org/10.1080/00221546.2020.1738162

Mayhew, M. J., & Rockenbach, A. N. (2021). Interfaith learning and development. Journal of College and Character, 22(1), 1–12. https://doi.org/10.1080/2194587X.2020.1860778

Mayhew, M. J., Rockenbach, A. N., Correia, B. P., Crandall, R. E., Lo, M. A., & Associates. (2016). Emerging interfaith trends: What college students are saying about religion in 2016. Interfaith America. https://www.interfaithamerica.org/research/emerging-interfaith-trends-report/

Moore, D. L. (2006). Overcoming religious illiteracy: A cultural studies approach. World History Connected, 4(1), 3–43.

Özturgut, O. (2017). Internationalization for diversity, equity, and inclusion. Journal of Higher Education Theory and Practice Vol. 17(6) 2017, 17(6), 83–91.

Williams, D. A. (2013). Strategic diversity leadership: Activating change and transformation in higher education. Stylus Publishing.