Students are speaking up about their religious beliefs, as many on campus work to replace polite silence with genuine understanding.
Photo: Glenn Matsumura
By Diane Rogers
When editors of the student newspaper at the University of Illinois republished cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad that had incensed Muslims worldwide, followers of Islam staged a protest on the Champaign campus. Result: the editors were promptly suspended.
At Stanford, response to the February riots was more measured. There were no incendiary pieces in the Daily, and members of the Muslim Student Awareness Network and the Islamic Society of Stanford University convened a panel to talk about what had sparked the violent reactions. Sitting side by side were Muslims and students from Denmark, where the cartoons were first published. Result: dialogue.
“I think [Muslims] had a right to be angry, but I also think the violence was not appropriate,” says freshman Atiqah Zailani, a native of Malaysia. “The fact that Islam has been seen as a violent religion was cemented by the reaction. I feel we’re doing the wrong thing by burning down embassies.”
Zailani arrived on the Farm during the fasting month of Ramadan, and quickly found a community of Muslim students who met in Tresidder every evening to break the fast and pray. Two months later, she was the first speaker at a new interfaith dorm program, where she talked about her experience as a Muslim woman. “I didn’t get any questions I was uncomfortable with,” she recalls. “I felt they really, really wanted to know, and I appreciated that very much.”
Religious diversity has been a fact of life at Stanford for decades, but the emerging focus today is on interfaith dialogue—moving beyond tolerance to appreciation, beyond polite rhetoric to genuine exchanges. As Stanford’s three deans for religious life stated in a document of principles they helped draft for the Association of College and University Religious Affairs last fall: “At this challenging time in history, it is clear that interfaith understanding is central to the life of the planet.”
With that holy grail in mind, the deans are moving forward with plans for a new multifaith center, scheduled to open early next year. They also are giving their blessings to a number of new student initiatives. Last year, the deans sent two sophomores—a Jew and a Christian—to a first-ever “Coming Together” conference on interfaith dialogue, held at Princeton University. On campus, they are funding dinners for a student-led Alliance for Interfaith Dialogue, and they soon will announce 16 Fellowships for Religious Encounter that provide a $1,000 stipend to undergraduate or graduate students who “demonstrate a genuine desire to explore religion in their lives and a willingness to listen to and learn from those with different backgrounds.” The deans also take turns moderating discussions at a new dorm program that meets on alternate Sunday evenings.
On a sunday night when they could have been cheering maniacally at the Stanford v. Washington men’s basketball game, or kvetching about an essay due the following morning, 24 undergraduates have chosen instead to learn about the personal journey of a self-described witch. She tells how she joined a coven—a group of mostly middle-aged women and their children—when she was in high school, and how she celebrates holidays on the solstices. “Wicca is a small subset of paganism, a revival of ancient, polytheistic religion and a thoroughly modern tradition whose followers have a deep commitment to the earth,” she says. Then adds, to laughter, “We don’t sacrifice animals or babies, and we’re not as kooky as people think.”
In a lounge near the Flo Mo dining hall, the students jam together on couches and on the floor. Balancing supper trays heaped with pasta, salad and chocolate pie, they ask the Wiccan penetrating questions about what holy texts she studies and what divinities she worships. But she declines to be identified by name in this story. “A lot of pagans are in the broom closet,” she said. “And I’m worried people will think I’m stupid or deranged.”
Whether Christian, Hindu or Muslim, many of the students who were interviewed about their faith for this article voice similar concerns. While firm in their own convictions, they say they sometimes have avoided discussions of religion for fear of being ridiculed. “There are jokes about, ‘Oh, you can’t come where we’re going tonight,’” says Jason Sierra, ’06. “We’re friends and we do go out. But people carry these stereotypes, and they think of me as ‘the Christian,’ or ‘the religious boy,’ or ‘the other.’”
Still, Sierra and hundreds of other students are determined to find—or create, if necessary—communities where they can talk openly about issues of faith. Sierra started Queer Spirit for gay Christians and takes part in the “religious geography” program in FloMo East. There, a respectful tone is set by Kellie Brownell, a junior RA in Cardenal who grew to love Byzantine churches and icons two years ago, when she was studying in Athens.
“In my freshman year we would get into heated discussions [about religion] that would last until 3 a.m., and that tended to be very head butting,” Brownell recalls. “I wasn’t interested in creating dialogue that would be theological mudslinging, but wanted to put more emphasis on allowing people to tell stories. We’re not providing Islam 101—we’re more interested in knowing how people relate to their religion, how they’ve grown up with it.”
According to the Office for Religious Life, half of Stanford students claim affiliation with some religion. About 27 percent of incoming freshmen are Protestant; 23 percent Roman Catholic; 9 percent Jewish; 5 percent Buddhist; 4 percent Hindu; 2 percent Muslim; 1 percent Eastern Orthodox Christian; 2 percent “other”; and 27 percent identify their religion as “none.” The three Stanford deans—a Unitarian Universalist minister, a Reform rabbi and an Episcopal priest—continually encourage these disparate groups to come together, over pizza or for multifaith prayers. “Students say that we give them ‘religious permission slips,’” says associate dean Joanne Sanders, the Episcopalian. “They say they can talk about religion with us, but they’re reluctant to talk outside their communities.”
That reluctance is highlighted in America and the Challenges of Religious Diversity, a new book by UC-Berkeley professor Robert Wuthnow, who interviewed members of Christian churches, Hindu temples and Jewish synagogues located close together in 14 u.s. cities. “He discovered that we may be living and praying next to each other, but there is very little interaction,” says Rabbi Patricia Karlin-Neumann, senior associate dean. It could be a discouraging spiritual landscape, but the rabbi prefers to look toward the mountaintop. “On campus people are living with and studying with and encountering those of different religious traditions,” she says. “If we have any chance of being able to undermine entrenched attitudes, it’s at a university like Stanford.”
Karlin-Neumann's arrival 10 years ago was a Red Sea opening on a campus whose dominant architectural feature is a Christian church. She was the first rabbi hired for the position, and when she took the job in 1996, “religious life” replaced “Memorial Church” in the deans’ titles. Students call Karlin-Neumann, Sanders and dean for religious life Scotty McLennan “the God squad.”
They might be architectural miracle workers, as well. As the three deans guide plans for the new, user-friendly interfaith center, they are drawing on what they’ve learned from years of sharing space for religious activity on campus. “I see Muslims walking by my office all the time,” Sanders says. “It’s made me think about my own prayer life because they’re so devoted.”
The center, on the third floor of Old Union, was renovated at a cost of approximately $2.75 million and will feature a large sanctuary, library, common area and rooms for meetings and counseling—and for spontaneous conversations. It will have no permanent iconography—no Christian crosses on the walls, no mosaics of biblical patriarchs hovering overhead. Instead, Muslims will be encouraged to bring rugs for Friday evening prayers and Hindus will be able to set up shrines.
Chaplains at a number of schools—Johns Hopkins University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Mount Holyoke College, Pennsylvania State University and Wellesley College—have set up similar venues. Johns Hopkins, for example, bought a former Methodist church near campus and made it more welcoming to all faiths by installing window shutters that could be closed in front of stained-glass stories from the Bible when Muslims were praying.
McLennan, a former chaplain at Tufts University, estimates that student interest in religious issues has “doubled” on campuses in the past two decades. Why? “The immigration laws of the ’60s brought a lot of people from other religious traditions, and our student body mirrors that. And another part is the failure of science and rationality to answer and solve all our problems.” McLennan serves on an advisory committee for the Spirituality in Higher Education Project of the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) at UCLA.
A survey of more than 100,000 college freshmen published by HERI in 2004 found that 48 percent thought it was “essential” or “very important” that college encourage their personal expression of spirituality. That resonates with juniors Julie Veroff, a Jew, and Galen Thompson, a Christian, who have been dating ever since they met as freshmen in Introduction to the Humanities. In their course, titled The Self, the Sacred and the Human Good, they read Dante, Tolstoy, Melville and Dinesen, and talked about the authors’ journeys of self-discovery. But Veroff says discussions always stopped at an unspoken line, just short of considering matters of faith. “It’s a very secular university, and it’s very difficult to talk about religion in a way that is intellectual without being seen as totally ridiculous and out of place.”
McLennan, who co-teaches the urban studies course Spirituality and Non-Violent Social Transformation with his two colleagues, would like to see more conversations about ethics, values, beliefs and, yes, spiritual inquiry taking place in classrooms. Last winter, the Unitarian Universalist minister asked members of the Academic Council a direct question: “Since students want to have discussions about the meaning and purpose of life in college, what is the faculty responsibility to provide it in the classroom setting?”
That challenge touched off a prickly discussion. Computer science professor Eric Roberts, a practicing Quaker who was at the Faculty Senate meeting, says he’s all for moral inquiry. “I think values have been an important part of education classically, and it’s hard to teach science and technology in a forum that’s divorced from decision making about the applications.”
But a number of senators clearly had reservations. Nobel laureate in physics Doug Osheroff said a talk he had given in MemChu about “What Matters to Me and Why” felt like “undressing in public,” and he added that he thinks discussions about spirituality belong in the dorms. Professor emeritus of political science David Abernethy suggested, through a colleague, that conversations might be held in faculty homes. And Faculty Senate chair and English professor Rob Polhemus urged caution. “When we look around the world now, we see that under the aegis of religion and spirituality, ethical horrors are perpetuated every day. I just get nervous about whether we should move this way in the classroom.”
Junior Lia Hardin, who is an atheist, has similar concerns. She works as a paid sexton for Memorial Church, dressing in burgundy robes on Sunday mornings to hand out programs at the front doors, and helping at various events during the week. Last year she catered the Wednesday night dinners for students at the Alliance for Interfaith Dialogue. At first, Hardin just picked up the plates, but when a Hindu student proposed that the group’s religious conversations could be extended to the dorms, Hardin spoke up.
“I feel strongly that people need to seek [religion] out, rather than having it brought to them, and I feel that people don’t want to be assaulted in their living place about religion,” Hardin says, then pauses. “My religion really is private thinking and exploring.”
Whether discussions of spiritual matters ever gain much currency in the classrooms or dorms of a secular Stanford, a growing number of students aren’t content exploring spiritual life in a vacuum. They are quietly finding ways—with an enthusiastic boost from the Office of Religious Life—to reach out to one another.
As a bacheh aakhoond, the grandson of an Iranian cleric, Ali Batouli grew up making the cultural trek between Falls Church, Va., where he was born, and his familial home in Tehran. He attended classes at Shia mosques in both cities, and became fluent in Farsi. But as a teen, he stopped saying his prayers five times a day and, like many adolescents, backed away from religion. “I had the same problem a lot of people with religious backgrounds have, that they start to question,” Batouli, ’07, recalls. “They say, ‘Well, if there’s this one part of the religion I’m questioning, then why would I believe the rest of it?’”
But last fall, during Ramadan, Batouli went to Tresidder Union to break the fast with fellow Muslims from Southeast Asia and the Arab world. And he’s now going to Friday prayers every week. “I feel that prayer and fasting are helping me to have more peace, and also focus more on stuff that I think is important,” he says. “I’ve realized how much Islam calls on you to basically give your all and your everything to the service of God, which also translates into the service of humanity.”
The son of an Episcopal priest, Jason Sierra grew up loving his family’s church community in Texas. “I was a camp counselor and led retreats and worked with youth groups,” he recalls. “I always felt very much a part of the church, but I wasn’t ‘out.’” In fact, as a senior in high school Sierra had decided that he would not come out: “I would choose my faith over my sexuality because my faith was more important to me.”
That changed during his freshman year on the Farm. “I realized that in order to have an honest relationship with God, I had to be honest with who I was. And that wasn’t going to happen through being closeted.” He told his family he was gay at Christmas time, and he still remembers his parents’ tears. Winter quarter was rough, but by the time his mom and dad came to pick him up in June, Sierra says they wanted to meet his boyfriend.
Three years later, Sierra founded Queer Spirit, a group for gay Christians that meets biweekly on campus. “The reason that I’m out and remaining involved in the Christian church is because I can’t think of any more empowering or life-giving place to exist.”
The daily 12:30 Catholic mass often is a highlight of the week for sophomore Peter Porcino. “It’s kind of a restful hour, a little retreat, a little bit of home.” On Sundays, he doesn’t advertise the fact that he’s going to church, but if friends see him in a polo shirt and dress slacks, they know. As for his own practices: “Sometimes I’ll consciously pray right before bed, and during the day I might just talk in my head to God.”
In his Jesuit high school in New York, Porcino read Augustine and Aquinas as political thinkers, and he considers himself a liberal Catholic, “in the tradition of liberation theology.” As a freshman in Structured Liberal Education, he was surprised that so few of his classmates had read the Bible: “It’s just funny that something you’ve grown up with is so foreign.” Today, the KZSU deejay and anime club member says he rarely gets into religious discussions on campus. “It has to do with the liberal atmosphere on campus. I’ve not encountered much religious persecution of any kind, but I also think there is a certain condescension towards religion.”
Ever since she was a high school freshman in Colorado, Raena Saddler, ’07, has kept a journal. “I write out how I’m doing spiritually, and what I’m thinking about and what I’m learning.” Throughout the day she tries to be “in continuous communication with God,” and at night she falls asleep thinking about Him.
When she applied to Stanford, friends from a conservative Christian summer camp told her, “they’re going to kill you out there.” But Saddler was secure in her beliefs: “I’ve always felt I was well equipped to be in such a liberal environment because it was something that God had prepared me for.”
The religious studies major has taken mission trips to Mexico, Mozambique and Haiti, teaching youth how to “share their faith” with others. “I guess I would be considered a Christian who concentrates on the social gospel of Christianity,” Saddler says. But she distances herself from what she calls “the ugly side of Christianity that can be so alienating for so many people.”
Saddler might apply to divinity school after graduation or work with an international aid organization. “A lot of that ‘why I care about it’ comes from a very deeply religious place.”
Carla Fenves came to the Farm from Texas, thinking she’d go on to medical school. Then she took a trip to Israel, where she met with soldiers on a kibbutz and visited Masada and the Western Wall. After writing an honors thesis on the mikvah, a Jewish ritual bath for women, she decided to become a rabbi in the Reform movement. Fenves has been accepted at Union College, and will spend next year studying in Jerusalem. “It’s kind of an alternative path to most Stanford students,” she says. “It’s not I-banking and it’s not like saying, ‘I’m taking the LSAT.’ This is very different, and I’ve had the funniest conversations. Like, ‘Do you have to be abstinent if you’re a rabbi?’ or ‘Did you receive the call?’ There’s not even Jewish language for something like a call.”
Fenves decided early on that she would not only celebrate Shabbat on Friday evenings, but would feel comfortable saying so—“you know, ‘I can’t go the party because I’m going to be at Hillel.’” Proclaiming a religious identity in the dorms could have been challenging, she says, “but I always felt really free and comfortable.”
Somik Raha, who is Hindu, sees spirituality in courses about decision analysis. “The foundation of decision making is that you cannot judge a decision from the outcome,” he says. “There’s no god anywhere in [the course], but this foundation is the foundation of karma yogo philosophy—that since you do not control the outcome, you can only think about what your action is.”
Founder of the Hindu Students Council at Stanford, Raha, MS ’06, has also spent time on campus learning from friends of other faiths. During Ramadan last year, he decided to fast with a fellow TA who was Muslim. “That experience was amazing because it told me that it’s not just about fasting, that you also have to have a pure heart. I thought that was wonderful because Hindus fast for the same reason—to purify themselves.”
Raha has come to believe that major religions of the world survive because they pass on stories that inspire. “Wherever you have people who really understand their religions, there’s no other option but peace.”
The seminary that Carla Fenves, ’06, plans to attend is Hebrew Union College.
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