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MIT student blogger Laura N. '09

Religious Discussions by Laura N. '09

Yes, there are non-atheists at MIT. But they still like science jokes.

IAP, as you might have heard, is a fun and exciting time to be at MIT, because there are about a million events going on every day. I’ve been checking the IAP events schedule pretty regularly, but unfortunately, most of the events that I find interesting take place during my Italian class or work hours. But today I was finally able to attend one of the seminars I found intersting. Unfortunately, it wasn’t as interesting as I’d hoped, but I’m really glad I went.

The topic, you might be surprised, to know, was religion.

MIT’s Asian Christian Fellowship hosted “Doubter’s Anonymous,” which listed the following description in the IAP guide:

“A discussion group about hard questions regarding faith and Christianity. Practicing and retired Christians, agnostics, atheists, and general doubters are all encouraged to come. Discussion will follow the questions that you anonymously suggest at the beginning of the meeting. Facilitators are Kevin Ford (an MIT chaplain and pastor) and Garrett Smith, who is well versed in Judaism, Eastern religions, and Christianity. Regardless of where you are on your spiritual journey, come and pose your hard questions about faith, science, Christianity, and doubt.”

As someone who considers herself spiritual but often has a hard time believing things on blind faith, this seminar seemed particularly interesting to me. The two speakers took turns answers some tough questions, like “How do Christians view Muhammad, who said that God spoke to him? Are we to simply disregard his personal spiritual encounter?” and “As a scientist, how can I believe in things described in the Bible like the sun standing still, Sodom and Gomorrah, etc?”

Unfortunately, the seminar seemed more geared towards Christians hoping to strengthen their faith by overcoming these questions, rather than someone like me, who wasn’t actually looking for a solid answer. Because of that, I found some of the answers less than satisfying. For example, the speakers explained their personal reasons for believing in Jesus rather than Muhammad, which was insightful, but without an Islamic point of view, the discussion…wasn’t really much of a discussion.

One of the interesting things the speaker mentioned was that he thought that there should be a huge price for declaring faith- that’ll keep you honest. When members of a certain religion are persecuted, only those who really believe in it will risk it. Think about it- when people are less tolerant, religion is more pure. Crazy. Looking at it from the reverse: part of the problem with Christianity today, in this speaker’s view, is that if you grow up in a Christian family, there’s a huge price for NOT declaring your faith. So you end up with a lot of people who say they’re Christians when they’re really not, which really dilutes the power and message of those people who are truly faithful. The world is unfortunately brimming over with the effects of this phenomenon as it applies to all religions.

The second question I mentioned above was perhaps more interesting, because one of the students at the seminar suggested that we change it to reflect some recent letters to the editor which had been published in the Tech.

Rather recently, MIT appointed Dean Randolph its first ever Chaplain.

This inspired a letter to the editor of the Tech by someone who opposed the apointment of a chaplain, and, as you can imagine, a few responses to that. I’ve provided the links to the letters below, but be warned, it gets heated pretty fast. My personal opinion is that the original letter writer is being horrendously narrow-minded, but see for yourself:

MIT does not need a chaplain
Responses published on 1/16
Responses published on 1/23

One of the speakers wrote on the board, “Is there purpose in the universe?” pointed to it, and asked “can science answer this question?” He claimed the answer was “no,” because science isn’t designed to answer that question. Even among scientists, it’s pretty commonly accepted that the limit of science merges with philosophy. That there’s a point at which things might just be unknowable, and that’s where faith comes in.

As for the miraculous, science-defying events that happen in the Bible, he claimed that people just wrote what they saw, and we have to figure out what they meant by that. He posed the following example:

“If you’re at the beach in the evening and the sky is a very pretty red, you might say, ‘what a pretty sunset.’ You don’t say, ‘Wow, look at the way the sun’s rays are refracting through the layers of the atmosphere as its angle of declination to our line of sight changes over time.’ You say, ‘that’s a pretty sunset-‘ but that’s terribly scientifically inaccurate!”

I’m not sure how far this goes into convincing skeptics of the truth in the Bible despite its miraculous proclamations, but it certainly got a good laugh out of the crowd.

The other speaker took a different route: he claimed that there are so many miraculous things that happen all the time that we take for granted that we just never bother to try to explain them. For example, the miracle of birth. Sure we know all about the biology of it, but we seem to be so caught up in our detailed knowledge of the sperm fertilizing the egg and the chromosomes splitting and so on and so forth, that we never really seem stop to think that all of those cells doing their thing actually creates a new person. That’s pretty miraculous, if you stop to think about it for a second.

Like I said, I had a lot of problems with some of the things the speakers were saying, but it did provide some interesting food for thought which should keep me mentally occupied for awhile.

So, in case you were wondering- yes, there is a religious following at MIT, but like in everything else, we’re still MIT students about it- so we think too much and make science jokes about it too. =)

You can see more IAP activities related to religion here.

Responses to comments:
Isshak said:
do you like to read Kafka ? You should read The Trial, it’s a great book !
What do you like to read ?

I haven’t read any Kafka, but I do read pretty much anything and everything, so I’ll be sure to add that to my list. I’ve literally walked down an aisle of the library and pulled a book off the shelves at random for leisure reading. In general, though, I’m a big fan of fantasy, however cheesy and unoriginal it might be. I just love reading about people who are doing more exciting things than me, leading brave and epic lives and fighting evil and what not, because I’d totally love to be one of those characters. I’m also a big fan of Kurt Vonnegut, because his stuff is very sarcastic and satirical, and sarcastic just might be my middle name. One other thing I love to read but am never, ever able to finish is Hispanic literature. It’s just so hard to get through a whole book in a non-native language. It takes SO long, but I absolutely adore Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Isabelle Allende anyway. They write with what’s called “magical realism” which is a style that relies on blurring the line between fantasy and reality. Sorry for the long-winded answer, but you did ask me a question about one of my favorite topics ever. =)

Justin Powell asked:
Also this might be a dumb question but I have looked for the emails of the bloggers a few times and have not been able to find them… Where the heck are they??
This one has already been answered, but for anyone else who’s wondering, all of the bloggers have contact information listed to the left of their banner photos at the top of each of their entries. Feel free to contact me at asklaura at mit dot edu. I will reply to your email, but I can make absolutely no promise as to how quickly I’ll accomplish that.

Also, to everyone who sent in blog entry ideas in response to my last entry: you’re awesome! Obviously they won’t all be happening right away, but rest assured that I’ve taken note of them and will be tackling them eventually. If you ever have any personal questions or blog entry ideas, please let me know. Believe it or not, the comment section below is not specifically designed so you can have a “first post” war. And like I said, I do reply to all the emails I get from you guys. Eventually. =)

30 responses to “Religious Discussions”

  1. kayla says:

    ^i can’t believe there is spam on the MIT blogs… =[

    i liked this entry. i’m an atheist but i like to hear about religious discussions, especially at MIT.

  2. Libin Daniel says:

    Thank you so much for including this post. It solved my purpose. Do find more stuff that are weird yet fascinating.

  3. Thomas says:

    Since I’m attending a German high school in Germany and am a Christian, I have had to take Religion classes in school since the first grade.
    My current Religion teacher is just awesome! He has a PhD in Psychology and also studied Physics. He once said in my class:

    “A good scientist bumps into God at some point in his life. If he realizes it’s God or not is up to him.”

    That teacher really opened my eyes and helped me to get a better understanding of the Bible and of its great Symbolisms.
    (For instance the Ten Commandments aren’t really commandments but are offers or maps to show us the way to a free and happy life. The word ‘Logos’ was translated here as commandments. But the Greek term ‘Logos’ is also used in the John Gospel as a description of Jesus)

    So the events like Sodom and Gomorrah may seem impossible for a scientist, but the Bible is not a science book with scientific explanations in it.

    Discussions about religion keeps my mind occupied, too, and I love it.

    PS: Another quotation: “The world only operates under the law of physics when a physicist is watching”

  4. Libin Daniel says:

    Hey Thomas, we can make great pals. Wish to talk about this topic?

  5. Ahh, I kept meaning to go that but other things conflicted, and now I’m sad that’s over.

    In reality, though, I think religion and science are merely two different ways of understanding the world. Science is about limits, everything existing in time, etc – but what about things without limits and that have no time? How can science really give answers to these? I guess I’m saying I think science is a reality that religion/philosophy/arts-and-humanities gives perspective to. Some people would say these things are useless – I think they’re the meaning of life.

  6. Lainers says:

    Thank you for that. I especially like that you didn’t agree with the speaker all the time, but still found it worthwhile – I find many people have difficulty distinguishing between what they find correct and what they find interesting.
    Thank you as well for the link to the other religiously related IAP activities. There are many that I would have loved to attend. What religous activities (seminars, worship, or anything in between) are actually offered on-campus during the semester?

  7. onlinwse says:

    Забрел тут на сайтик smile Прикольный такой, занес в закладки мож кому интересно будет smile

    <a>новый год прикол </a>

  8. I’m fairly interested in the Tech articles on having a chaplain join the crowd. One of the responses to the original article mentioned:

    “When you walk past Killian Court along Memorial Drive and look up at the McLaurin buildings, the names you see inscribed are those of Newton, Galileo, Kepler, Pasteur, D’Alembert, etc., not those of Jesus, Mary, Joseph, Mohammad. The famous inscription on Lobby 7 reads, “Established for the Advancement of Science its Applications to Industry the Arts Agriculture and Commerce” — there is no mention to any supposed superior being.”

    It’s very interesting to note that Isaac Newton, arguably (and I will argue on it…) the most influential physicist of the modern scientific era, wrote more works on philosophy and religion from the Christian perspective than he did on his monumental scientific findings.

    You will find that same fact on Isaac Newton’s wikipedia.org page. No, I did not gather my information from that article. I studied his life for some time in a modern physics course that I took last semester.

    My point is fairly simple. I believe strongly that there is great academic value in giving a fair investigation of religious and theological avenues. I don’t particularly care what religion or beliefs any one person may have, but humans have all been gifted with a certain consciousness and intelligence that rules supreme above any other species on planet earth. We have the ability to think critically and discern the difference between a rational and irrational choice. Moreover, we can pick either. Our minds and bodies have the ability to live outside of instinct, efficiency, and survival tactics.

    I think it is a shame for anyone, no matter how entrenched they may be in science and mathematics (including myself), to curtail their intellectual investigation because something seems “silly” or “outdated” or “not grounded on facts.”

  9. Thomas says:

    @ Libin Daniel
    Sure anytime – just tell me how and when

  10. Andy says:

    That’s a really interesting perspective on Christianity. I’ve always grown up Protestant and I’ve really never questioned why.

  11. Thomas says:

    @onlinwse

    Я имею перевод проблем. Это на русском языке?

  12. dan says:

    i’m glad you mentioned religion. i wanted to know if mit had any religious organizations.
    there are so many miracles god does for us. one of my close teachers was diagnosed with oral cancer a few months back. now, the cancer is just completely gone! thank god

  13. Piper says:

    I agree with you, Lainers – people can be wrong without being all wrong, and too often people write others off over one disagreement when they could potentially be right on another (or even if they’re not, perhaps they’ll make you realize you can look at something another way).

    I believe that many groups offer services. A friend on my hall attends services every Sunday, and certainly she’s not the only one.

  14. Thank you Laura smile I’ll probably be writing you an email sometime today.

    On the topic of religion, Dane Cook give a pretty hilarious routine in “Vicious Circle” on an atheist that he met in a store once. You should definitely check that out raspberry

  15. Eric says:

    I know that one, it’s great haha.

  16. Vytautas says:

    Heh, I just wrote a BIIIG comment about religions, but the pressed CTRL+A and DEL. Why? Because it got very VERY philosophical and I couldn’t end any of my thoughts directly without jumping from one to another(wooohoooo multitask thinking – dual core!) so let it be.

  17. Isshak says:

    @Laura

    No problem ! I think we don’t have a lot of posts about litterature, but I guess that would not interest a lot of people ^^’

    You should ! Kafka is a great author. Funny story, he never wanted to publish his books, he always burned them. He told his best friend to burn them all when he would die. Instead, his friend published everything he had, that’s why there aren’t a lot of books by him, but the few available are great (for example, The Trial is incomplete, but great ! And “The Metamorphose” too, one of his most famous).

    I am going to start looking for books by Kurt Vonnegut ! ^^

  18. Twilight Bob says:

    On miracles–yes, I believe that is possible for a scientific person like myself to believe in miraculous occurrences. The crux of the matter is whether or not one believes in the existence of an all-powerful supreme being who created the entire universe and the laws that govern everything in it. If God is all powerful, it is entirely plausible that he may occasionally make an executive decision to temporarily override a natural law or two. I have tried for a very long time to take the intellectually fashionable view that all the miracles in the Bible can be explained scientifically, and the truth is, they can’t. That’s why they’re called miracles.

  19. Piper says:

    For just as many Newtons, there are many great scientists who did not have a religious affiliation. I really don’t think that goes either way. Part of the problem is that there’s no real definition of God. For example, is God a collection of everything that is or a being?

    Personally, I like this quote.

    The religion of the future will be a cosmic religion. It should transcend personal God and avoid dogma and theology. Covering both the natural and the spiritual, it should be based on a religious sense arising from the experience of all things natural and spiritual as a meaningful unity. Buddhism answers this description. If there is any religion that could cope with modern scientific needs it would be Buddhism. – Albert Einstein

  20. Nothing is impossible, only improbable. I think that quote is off of Lost In Space haha

  21. Eric says:

    @Nick Hargreaves

    I may have misunderstood your response, but what I get from it is that you see the once mysterious aspects of humanity being stricken of their mystique from scientific discoveries.

    That point may have some validity, but I would like to an emotion such as “hate” explained through equations. One might be able to understand, through mathematics and chemistry, the complex physiological interactions within our brain. Such an understanding does not, however, explain the origin of this emotion, or our capability and desire to express it.

    Though, I do wonder about this “gene” you referenced. Can you elaborate for me?

    I hope you understand that there are a wide range of people living between the extremes of “Creationism” and “Evolution as a result of nothing more than chance”.

    Lastly, please proof your spelling and grammar.

  22. nick hargreaves….humans are created or evoled if u will with five senses plus inteligence.using those they have modeled a reality that agrees with the natural laws.that reality has recently been able to encompas areas like death love and origin of the cosmos. and the most striking recent breakthrough is the ability to link our belief in a supernatural reality to a certain gene.its only a mater of time before we reduce our world to equations and numbers.only God knows where we headed.oops!did i say God?damn that gene

  23. Anonymous says:

    nick h. @erick dean hamer who is the lead researcher on the topic wrote a book called the God Gene. it was featured in the Time magazine last year and caused a great controversy.mh!i woonder how you never heard of it… anyway he proposed that spirituality is “At least in part an innate behaviour while involvement with a formal religion is a cultural trait.” the gene they associate with our belief in a supernatural reality is called VMAT2. It is associated with self-transcedence. a few centuaries ago, we believed the heavenly bodies were gods. now they are only matter which we relate with equations.scientists are currently working on ways to geneticaly cheat death. sometimes it is very easy to believe that religion is just an expression of our insecurity.and we are not that big but just elements of the evolutionary path and that we are just going to pass on like the other late species.unless of course our intelligence saves us. but when physicists start to mind others grammer and spelling then life might just seem long enough!

  24. Eric says:

    Thanks for the reference of that article, it’s pretty interesting. I don’t hear about those things because I don’t pay attention to popular media, especially news sources. They annoy me to no end.

    Spelling and grammar are important. If I am calculating the gravitational strength between two massive bodies that submit to traditional Newtonian mechanical behavior, I cannot put parsecs in for mass, and I cannot put in British imperial slugs for the gravitational constant. Attention to detail is paramount in both linguistic and scientific communication.

  25. E. Rosser says:

    Speaking an atheist who was raised Roman Catholic, I don’t think it’s any religion’s job to shove itself down one’s throat, as has been with me and Catholocism in the past. None of us REALLY knows where we go, why we’re here, where we’re headed, so we can’t really put down someone who beleives in God (whether Jehovah, Allah, Shiva, or Pat Sejack) any more than we can put down the person on the corner screaming that the world will be destroyed on Stardate 3050 by raining masses of vegetarian bean chili. So, long story short, be nice to one another. That’s my religious speal.
    But great post! Way to address the elephant in the room. Keep up the excelletn writing.

  26. Muz says:

    I like a logical religious debate. It’s always nice to understand an opposing point of view.I’ve gotten quite good at them. Haha, in fact I’m very tempted to counter some of the comments here. But I won’t, because that would lead to a hundred or so comments in next few days smile

    But I’ll just say that no matter what God(s) you believe in, and what religion you (don’t) follow, it doesn’t make anyone else’s religion false. Nor does religion go against science.

  27. Anon says:

    Doesn’t anyone realize that the creation account perfectly coinsides with the scientific discovery of what came first. Light or balls of hot gases are the first things that appear in both Genesis and scientific encyclopedias. In fact the creation account does show an exact time by time representation of what is in modern science accounts of how all things came to be. There are ten major agreements between Moses account and modern knowledge of the timeframe. This could not have happened simply by accident because if you were to take a bag filled with ten balls all numbered in a bag and were asked to pull them out all in order, the basic probability of this happening are 3628800 to 1. Moses did not predict modern science by accident, without some divine halp from someone or something which was there during all of these occurences.

  28. inna says:

    I think, our planet has only one religion – nature,
    and we are only a part of them, and each sientist can learn something new about nature.And it’s my god.

  29. Omar '10 says:

    “Nor does religion go against science.”

    It usually does when you’re a fundamentalist.

  30. Dizzle '09 says:

    Laura, this is not religion-related at all. Yay off topic! I just noticed, in my zeal of waiting impatiently for your next blog entry, that your blog bio says you’re a sophomore. This is false.

    smile