Following Faith: Finding Faith in an Unlikely Place

Contact Jane Yang at [email protected]

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In 2001, UC Berkeley student Nazira Mojadidi was rounding out her first year at St. Mary's, a Catholic liberal arts college in Moraga. But though she had anticipated an enriching college experience, she felt out of place amid the school's sparse Muslim population.

In search of a religious niche, she dropped out and, two years and a transfer later, arrived at UC Berkeley, home to one of the largest Muslim student associations in California.

Between moves to multiple campuses, Mojadidi realized that having a faith-based community that fit her needs was a crucial aspect of her college experience.

"I wanted to be in a Muslim Student Association because unity is especially important in our way of life-we believe that the community you have determines the kind of person you are," she says.

Now a fifth-year senior, Mojadidi is the acting vice president of the Cal Muslim Student Association, one of 87 religious student groups on campus.

Mojadidi's pursuit of a religious community is not surprising in a college culture focused on self-discovery, says Jonathan Callard, communications assistant at the UC Berkeley-affiliated Graduate Theological Union.

"College students are in a stage in development as humans where there's a real questioning of what things mean, and they want to explore those questions with other people, not just themselves," he says.

And for the many students who have just left their families for the first time, religious groups can provide a sense of stability during a time of discomfiting change, Callard says.

"Faith organizations on campus can serve as a new version of family for them to explore these questions about meaning and truth," he says.

But for UC Berkeley senior Ananth Krishna, college is not only a time when religion is explored, but abandoned as well.

The industrial engineering and operations research major grew up "kind of Hindu," but was a full-fledged atheist by the time he arrived on the college scene.

"I guess it was the Santa Claus effect," he says. "When you're a little kid, you need things like Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy to explain things you're not old enough to understand. By 14 or 15, once I started to look at the world myself, I didn't need somebody giving me answers."

Krishna's drift away from religion brought him to the only atheist student group on campus, Students for a Nonreligious Ethos. Krishna, now the co-president of the group, says the absence of religious rhetoric is a major draw for the group's nearly 700 members.

At meetings, all students, regardless of their religious affiliation, are welcome to participate in debates as long as religion doesn't make an appearance in their logic, Krishna says.

"You can go there knowing you're not going to be hit with religious dogma," he said. "Nothing is going to stop you from talking about, say, cloning, because it says so here, here and here in the Bible."

That Krishna's and Mojadidi's divergent religious niches-and many others-are flourishing together today in Berkeley is not surprising, says Niklaus Largier, director of UC Berkeley's religious studies program.

"Here in the city, you often encounter more of a lifestyle-type of religion rather than a traditional one," he says. "People grow up Christian, become Buddhist for a while, then turn into something else."

This penchant for experimentation thrives at a "clearly secular institution" with a "culture of respect" like UC Berkeley, Largier says. He attributes the recent surge of student interest in the religious studies program to a "surprising comeback of religious questions" after Sept. 11, from discussions of Creationism to Mel Gibson's "Passion of the Christ."

UC Berkeley's tolerance for many religions makes it the optimal place for students to search for meaning, says Bill McKinney, a sociologist studying religion and president of Berkeley's Graduate Theological Union's Pacific School of Religion.

"It's (students') first time away from home, so there are questions of ethnic identity, issues of sexuality," he says. "All have to do with understanding who they are and what they're doing on earth."


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