Where scientists talk religion
Every Monday night, I shuffle down Mass Ave, past the towering columns of MIT’s entrance to a small unassuming building almost directly across the street. Inside I meet with a group of about ten students. We continue our discussion of something that can make people uncomfortable, something that isn’t commonly associated with MIT: religion. We don’t only consider the age-old question: does God – or god, goddess, gods – exist? We discuss how faith has enriched, altered, and ruined our lives; its history and relevance today; its traditions, foods, and texts. This is the Addir Interfaith Dialogue, an open environment in which MIT students share, explore, find, or maybe even leave their faith.
Every year, about thirty students are selected as Addir Fellows (the application is painless). The program hosts about one event each month open to the community. A recent example was “Professors Professing Publicly,” where MIT faculty discussed faith and teachers talked theology. Addir Fellows also participate in two local overnight retreats which include show-and-tells (I brought my grandmother’s rosary made of rose petals) and late-night debates.
Beyond the events and retreats, the most valuable time spent in Addir is the one-hour weekly interfaith dialogue session. Over the year, we learn about each other’s background, beliefs, practices, and struggles with them all. In my group, a variety of faiths (or lack thereof) are represented: Agnosticism, Atheism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Mormonism, Protestant Christianity, and Roman Catholicism. It’s not about evangelism or conversion; it’s about making bridges – “Addir” means “bridge” in ancient Sumerian1 – between you and someone who happens to be of a different faith, while respecting differences and celebrating similarities.
Respecting differences can sometimes be difficult; this can be even more challenging when those differences arise with someone of the same religious identity. Can you and I be in the same faith community and disagree about fundamental beliefs? That is the question that initially brought me to Addir. After a change in church leadership at MIT and an unsuccessful relationship, I felt like an outsider, an imposter, in a community in which I had grown up. I wanted/needed to know if other students felt lost in their faith, too. I found them in my Addir group. Everyone sits somewhere along the belief/non-belief spectrum, no matter in what religion. There were devout religious and devout atheists in my group; they all listened to my story. And I learned to listen and to affirm theirs.
But you don’t have to be going through a spiritual crisis like mine to join Addir. Everyone could benefit from a little interfaith dialogue. We are lucky at MIT to have a diverse and international student population, and you probably know many people of different faiths. However, how often do you discuss it openly? How did the immigration ban affect Muslim students at MIT? Have Jewish students felt backlash against the plan to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem? As an Addir Fellow, I have grown in understanding, awareness, and empathy in this global community. You could, too.
By the way, that unassuming small building is W11. Stop in and visit the 22 amazing MIT Chaplains (https://studentlife.mit.edu/rl/who-we-are-chaplains). If you’re interested in learning more about the MIT Addir Interfaith Dialogue Fellowship, check out https://studentlife.mit.edu/rl/interfaith-programs. Also go to https://asa.mit.edu/club_signup?category_lookup=8583 to learn more about 23 listed religious student groups.
1. de Lafayette, M. (2014) Comparative Encyclopedic Dictionary of Mesopotamian Vocabulary, Dead and Ancient Languages. Retrieved from http://books.google.com
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