Campus Life ask a-theist

Religion and secularism unite!

MIT’s acceptance of diversity lets many worldviews flourish

Ask A-thiest is a new column by Aaron Scheinberg, an atheist, and Stephanie Lam, a Christian, which uses contrasting worldviews to explore questions and misconceptions about philosophy and religion. Send us the burning questions you have always wanted answered by an atheist or Christian (or both), and Aaron or Stephanie will tackle them!

Q: How does the MIT culture fit with/oppose your respective religious beliefs?

Stephanie Lam

For me, “religious beliefs” encompass two arenas — the intellectual beliefs, and the practical living out of them.

Intellectually, I think the greatest opposition to faith is not disagreement, but the insistence that religion has no place in the public arena. This leads to an abrupt end of all inquiry and discussion. As GK Chesterton said, “There is a thought that stops thought. That is the only thought that ought to be stopped.” I have not found that here.

MIT places a high value on asking questions and seeking truth. Faith, too, is a quest after truth and for me, that truth is embodied in Jesus Christ. Science and faith just happen to be two avenues of inquiry with different but complementary methods. What I have found, during my time here, is an extremely open and safe environment where the religious and non-religious alike are free to explore, discuss, and think. Everyone, religious or not, has questions. Tackling them head-on rather than hiding in a cave of dogmatism yields a robust, reasoning faith that is all the stronger for having been subjected to fire.

Practically, however, living out my Christian beliefs within the MIT culture can be challenging, especially when values clash. MIT is a world-class elite research institute. Intelligence, creativity, and performance make up the currency of the day and the means by which we evaluate others’ competence. Of course this is right and appropriate.

The problem arises when we judge someone’s intrinsic value by their academic competence. I think this temptation, particularly within the achievement-oriented culture of MIT, is strong in our views of others and of ourselves. Our own worth is reduced to our number of publications, our achievements and awards, our GPA.

It’s not a big leap to go from admiration of someone’s accomplishments to worship. Or to look down on people as worthless — ourselves included — when they are struggling and need help. In contrast, the Christian view strongly stresses that all people are of inestimable worth in the eyes of God, and we should live out that truth in our actions by truly loving and valuing all persons, ourselves included. It can just be hard to remember that sometimes.

Aaron Scheinberg

MIT provides an excellent atmosphere for critical thinking and skepticism. I wouldn’t call those my religious beliefs — how about... my philosophical values?

First and foremost, I love how MIT celebrates meritocracy. You aren’t here if you didn’t earn it on your own. Your elegant theory is worthless if its predictions are false. If your methods don’t work, they aren’t methods. If your beautiful bridge can’t support its own weight, it’s rubble.

Skepticism (and one of its common conclusions, the rejection of organized religion) is about meritocracy of ideas. It doesn’t matter who proposed it, whether one’s parents believe it, how popular it is, or what the consequences are; the truth of an idea should be evaluated on its own merit.

For those who take that for granted: such a culture was not dominant in my undergraduate experience. There’s a whole world out there that is not particularly interested in facts, evidence or reason. I encourage you all to take advantage of a place where those are valued so highly and are so readily available.

I also know many an acquaintance from high school and college who worried about being ostracized (or simply distanced) from their friends and family should they openly renounce religion. When fundamentalism is the supermajority, there is a tremendous social force keeping us from deviating or questioning publicly. In contrast, at MIT your ability to find friends doesn’t hinge on your religious beliefs. I suspect that helps encourage exploration and free exchange of ideas.

Finally, I think MIT excels in part because of its diversity of cultural practices from both our backgrounds and our dorms. The ability to be accepting and non-judgmental of all these cultures, provided they play nice with each other and don’t abuse their own members, is an exercise in secularism at its best. MIT’s famed innovation comes from that mosaic of ideas; its success hints at how a peaceful, pluralistic, and prosperous global society might function for those of us hoping to change the world.

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