Story and photo by Lillian Shrock
Nash Albadarin, a junior pharmacy major at Drake University was raised Muslim, contends that non-Christian students feel they have three choices when they arrive.
“You either go with the Christian groups on campus, delve back into your own faith or lead yourself down agnosticism,” he said.
Albadarin, 20, was born in Jordan, but was raised in Kansas since he was 3-years-old, chose agnosticism. He tried to remain Muslim but read the Bible to learn more about Christianity.
“I read the Quran more, compared it to the Bible, and it didn’t really make sense. They’re flawed in the same exact way,” he said. “I don’t believe that something that is supposed to be all powerful would write something wrong.”
Albadarin said it was meeting new people in college, like his fiancé, whom was raised Christian, that fueled his religious evolution.
“When you stop looking at trying to prove something right, you stop believing it’s right,” Albadarin said.
The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life in 2012 coined the phrase “nones on the rise,” meaning that the number of Americans who do not identify with any religion is growing at a rapid pace.
“The growth in the number of religiously unaffiliated Americans — sometimes called the rise of the ‘nones’ — is largely driven by generational replacement, the gradual supplanting of older generations by newer ones,” the report said.
According to the report, one third of adults under 30 have no religious affiliation.
Tim Knepper, professor of religion and philosophy, has three hypotheses for why college students might drift away from the religion of their youth.
“I think it’s being exposed to other ways of seeing the world, Knepper said. “It’s being free from mom and dad and being able to get yourself in all kinds of trouble. And it’s learning to critically think.”
Some students evolve into humanists, agnostics or atheists, while others find their faith is tried and reinforced.
After years of his own religion evolution, Knepper calls himself a Christian atheist.
“Religious practices are important to me,” Knepper said. “It’s not only about beliefs.”
Knepper, 45, said he does not believe in Christianity, but he attends Plymouth Congregational Church in Des Moines because he enjoys practicing the rituals of the religion.
According to the Pew Forum, the way that Americans talk about their connection to religion also is changing.
“Increasingly, Americans describe their religious affiliation in terms that more closely match their level of involvement in churches and other religious organizations,” meaning some Americans who call themselves religiously unaffiliated may continue attending church.
Knepper, was raised in an evangelical church and received a religion degree in 1990 from Eastern Nazarene College in Quincy, Mass.
“We were taught to think critically about our religious tradition in a way that we hadn’t through encountering scholarship,” Knepper said. “The professors themselves had no problem with squaring this with their faith and I didn’t at first. You learn to compromise things with your faith.”
Knepper said he remained a Christian throughout his undergraduate studies, compromising ideas such as creationism and absolutism.
“I started thinking that this just can’t be right. Most of the world can’t be going to Hell because they aren’t Christian.”
Knepper likens his experience with religion to standing at the top of a pile of sand, and when he started sliding, he would find a part to dig his heals into for a little while.
“Maybe it took 15 or 20 years to find myself at the bottom,” he said.
Knepper received a master of divinity degree from Boston University in 1999. He finished his doctorate in 2005, two years after arriving at Drake.
“My story, I don’t think it’s an uncommon story for scholars and academics who study religion,” he said.
Sam Greeno, a 2012 Drake alumnus, said his faith is stronger because he was tested through courses while in college.
“A professor started a class with saying that there is no absolute truth, while I grew up believing there was,” Greeno said. “It kind of shook me up, but I think questions and doubts can actually strengthen our faith if we investigate them.”
Greeno, 22, was involved with Campus Fellowship while at Drake, said college is a time when students come in contact with many new ideas
“It’s challenging because you have to have actual reasons to believe what you believe,” he said.
Merle Domer, 24, a 2011 Drake alumnus, was raised in a Baptist commune in upstate New York.
“It was very similar to an Amish community, but a lot more isolated,” she said. “It was a form of Christianity but taken to an extreme form.”
Domer’s parents were second generation in the commune. They chose to leave when she was 8-years-old because “they didn’t agree with the theology anymore and weren’t allowed to question it.”
When she was 14, Domer was put into foster care because her parents could not make enough money to sustain six children.
“That’s when I became extremely devout in terms of Christianity,” she said. “I clung to that as a way to make meaning out of the situation.”
A year later Domer was able to live with her mom again.
“I attributed that to God and became an extremely devout Christian until very recently,” Domer said.
After graduating from high school, Domer moved to Des Moines to join Christ Community Church, which was trying out a communal living experiment.
“I was drawn into that because of my past in a community that I had good memories of,” she said.
However, the church said she could no longer be a part of their community when she began living with a boyfriend. Domer questioned why certain people had power in her life.
“If I don’t believe these people have a monopoly on truth, then I need to step back and say I don’t know any of these things are true,” she said. “I basically tore everything apart and went back to the drawing board.”
Domer now calls herself a philosophical humanist, saying it was the philosophy and religion classes she took at Drake, along with her life experiences, which were a catalyst to her religious changes.
“I feel I’ll always be evolving. I’ll never not care,” Domer said.
Randy Kane, a sophomore at Drake who practices Judaism, said he’s seen students stop attending Hillel, a Jewish student organization, early in their college careers.
“Coming to a school like this, it’s really hard,” he said. “It’s hard to stay in your culture when your culture is so small.”
But for Kane, 20, Hillel president at Drake, he can’t imagine not being Jewish.
“Practicing or not practicing, a Jew is a Jew,” he said. “No matter what, they’ll still say they’re Jewish. It’s more than a religion, it’s a culture.”
Albadarin said he’s going to continue looking for a religion.
“I don’t think I’m ever going to find one but I like looking.”