God and Grades
Published Oct 1, 2007 9:00 AM
Copyright ©Photo by Dave Lauridsen
Brandon Kuiper arrived at UCLA with a strong Christian faith and an inquisitive scientific mind. He didn't believe in evolution, but he was intent on studying neuroscience. Something was bound to give, but the biggest spiritual crisis in Kuiper's 20 years came not from South Campus but from studying the philosophy of Voltaire and Hobbes and Kant and Freud.
"I was reading that stuff and I thought, 'This makes so much sense.' I had to stop and evaluate why I am a Christian and what I believe," he recalls. "I remember thinking, 'What if I've been wrong all along?' "
Kuiper, now the student chaplain for the Christian fraternity Alpha Gamma Omega, is not the first Bruin — and he certainly won't be the last — to question everything he believed. For many students, that's just part of college.
But, unlike most places in the nation, religion and science are not locked in mortal combat. At least at UCLA, the search for truth often leads to a middle path where student seekers find a way to live and learn comfortably from both textbooks and holy books.
There's certainly no shortage of seekers. A study by UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) found that three-fourths of freshmen are "searching for meaning/purpose in life" and that half are either "seeking" or "doubting" their spiritual understanding of the world. Forty percent said it was very important they follow a set of religious teachings.
"It is the nature of the beast of people that age. It's just part of being a college student," says Alexander Astin, co-leader of the "Spirituality in Higher Education" study and an emeritus professor of higher education. "College students are on a developmental adventure."
For many students, there is a decline in ritualized religion, in attending services, in studying scriptures. This, Astin says, can be attributed to leaving the parents' nest, to being around a more diverse peer group and, no surprise, to "social liberation," a.k.a. partying. But that doesn't translate to a significant decline in faith, Astin says.
"That really got me set in my faith," Kuiper says of his philosophy course. "I've never been a stronger Christian."
The implications of this national survey of 112,000 entering freshmen in 2004 — a follow-up analysis of the same students as juniors this past spring will be published this fall — are, well, eternal, not to mention political, social and medical. Students with high levels of religious engagement are politically conservative three times as often as liberal, and they exhibit moderately better physical health.
Though there are more than two dozen Christian groups on campus, more than any other faith, UCLA has something for everybody. The prevalence and diversity of religion is most apparent at the start of each quarter, when scores of spiritual groups hawk literature and recruit from tables along Bruin Walk.
When the outreach coordinator for the Secular Student Alliance entered this gauntlet last fall, he found non-religion a tough sell — even though there is a Bruin Alliance of Skeptics and Secularists that has existed since 2002 and currently has 15 members. After two hours, he packed up and left, having spoken with only six students, none of whom were interested.
This is L.A., where congregations from more than 100 different religious groups worship. Sure, there have been instances of religious tension. Last year, for example, someone tagged swastikas on a bathroom stall in Kerckhoff Hall; there also was the flare-up when the student group L.O.G.I.C. — Liberty, Objectivity, Greed, Individualism, Capitalism — held a forum to display the controversial cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. But UCLA generally is a place where young adults learn to appreciate diverse worldviews and where they strive for understanding.
Rupa Lalchandani arrived at UCLA having spent the previous decade attending Bal Vihar, she says, "which is like Sunday School for Hindus." During her first two quarters, though, the only education she received was on campus. "There was a religious void in my life."
So she began seeking. She found the Hindu Students Council, for which she currently helps plan weekly discussions. She also started attending church each Sunday with a close friend. And she began hanging out at Hillel with Jewish friends. Next year, she says, she wants to visit a monastery.
"Religion centers me. College life is so fast. It is always one thing after another, especially in Los Angeles ... I wanted time to think about what I was doing with my life," the fourth-year psychobiology student says. "Everyone is on a spiritual quest, whether or not we realize it. It's a lifelong process."