MIT's Burgeoning Faithful

From conservative to liberal, religious groups are thriving and living together in peace.

It’s a Wednesday night, sometime around 8:00, at 77 Massachusetts Avenue. The flow of students and staff through the Infinite Corridor is slowing down, and most of the offices are dark. However, 5-231 is humming with voices. About 20 students sit around a wooden table in this narrow room where, in true academic fashion, a chalkboard covered with esoteric scribble spans an entire wall. The overhead light flickers a cold fluorescence, and the table is littered with plastic water bottles and Styrofoam take-out containers. There’s certainly nothing spiritual about this décor, no sense of “sacred space,” but the humming of voices is the sound of religious fervor.

This is a student leaders meeting of the group Campus Crusade for Christ, one of the fastest-growing Christian groups on campus, although not the largest—at least not yet. Each student present leads or coleads what is known as a life group—a dorm-based four- to eight-person Bible study/ prayer group consisting of both Christians and non-Christians.

These life groups are the backbone of Campus Crusade’s presence at MIT. Students who are members of the groups are encouraged to invite their friends, roommates, and lab partners to participate. And now, on this night, the life group leaders are here to support one another, to pray for all the groups, and to brainstorm about ways to keep growing. According to Mike Bost, student director of Campus Crusade’s MIT chapter, last year there were four life groups on campus. Now they number around 14—and if his organization has its way, there will soon be many more.

Campus Crusade’s goal, quite simply, is to grow, and on the MIT campus the organization has found fertile soil. Campus Crusade isn’t alone. MIT is home to more than a dozen evangelical Christian groups. Over the last year, much has been made in the media about the influence of evangelicals in American culture. Universities are experiencing this phenomenon as well. In Boston alone, Campus Crusade boasts somewhere around 500 members. Harvard chaplain and religion professor Peter Gomes told the Boston Globe in 2003 that “there are probably more evangelicals [at Harvard] than at any time since the 17th century.” And this trend has found its way inside the walls of the world’s greatest bastion of science and rationality.

A Quiet Revival of Religion on Campus
Ever since the last presidential election, pundits and analysts have been trying to get their heads around the renewed public presence of the evangelical demographic. According to the conventional wisdom, an urgent concern about moral values has caused the influence of religious conservatives to increase. Whether this is true in the wider American context or not, it doesn’t appear to describe what is going on at MIT. The growth in evangelicalism at the Institute coincides with a broader surge in spiritual interest on campus.

In fact, the religious options at MIT are so diverse that a freshman arriving at orientation in search of a faith could spend the next four years sampling every conceivable spiritual path without ever having to cross the river. MIT’s board of chaplains currently is made up of three Jews, one Roman Catholic, five mainline Protestants, five Protestant evangelicals, a Mormon, a Muslim, two Hindus, and a Buddhist. Then there are the more than 30 registered student-led religious organizations. A few of those are ethnic specific, such as the Chinese Bible Fellowship. But most of the organizations represent a denomination of a world religion or, in the case of the student-led group Atheists, Agnostics, and Humanists, of a nonreligion. Twenty-three groups represent different branches of Christianity, including Christian Science and Mormonism, while the remaining groups cover everything from Bahaism to Paganism.

Attendance at religious services and group membership are rising as well. Father Paul Reynolds, MIT’s Roman Catholic chaplain, has seen attendance at Sunday mass services double to about 400 over the last eight years. Rev. Kevin Ford, team leader for the evangelical group Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, has seen a dramatic increase since the early 1990s. Campus Crusade, which barely existed two years ago, now has approximately 90 students involved in its small-group network. Weekly Hindu worship services bring together about 100 students, and Friday prayers draw roughly 70 students to the Muslim prayer room throughout the day. About 120 students participate in weekly Buddhist meditation—a ritual that three years ago drew only five students.

While some chaplains and students see God’s fingerprints on these impressive numbers, others see a clear cause-and-effect between increased involvement and new outreach methods.

“Years ago there was just one Jewish chaplain on campus serving all students,” says Miriam Rosenblum, director of MIT’s Hillel. “Now there are three. Each community—Conservative, Reform, Orthodox—sets its own goals for how it wants to worship and function as a community.”

Division into small groups has also worked for Ford. Intervarsity used to be a single, monolithic presence on campus, but in the early 1990s, the students wanted to subdivide. Now, there is an Asian-American group, an African-American group, and a graduate business student group, among others. The combined membership of these subgroups varies between 200 and 300 students a year—two to three times the total membership in the late 1980s. “Maybe,” jokes Ford, “it’s because there are so many engineers, and they like things very specific.”

But what these groups really provide, more than ritual or theology, is community. And according to Reynolds, that is the single greatest desire of today’s students. When Reynolds first came to MIT, the campus community was grieving the tragic death of Scott Krueger, the freshman who died of alcohol poisoning in 1997. “It really got me focused on helping people by creating more places where they can connect on a personal level,” Reynolds says. Since then, Reynolds has been working hard to make the Tech Catholic Community on campus more than just a Sunday mass. By providing such things as community dinners, prayer groups, and retreats, he contends, “We are becoming a place where people come together and feel a personal attachment in an academic environment that can tend toward the impersonal.”

Within this matrix of religious activity, a group like Campus Crusade can easily blend into the woodwork. However, Campus Crusade is on a mission—namely, to bring what it considers to be the pure, bare-bones essence of the Christian gospel to every undergraduate student on campus. Not only does the Crusade have the financial means to do this, but its members also put a huge chunk of their time and energy into strategizing ways to reach students—such as depositing into every undergrad’s mailbox care packages that include everything from ramen noodles to postcards inscribed with the group’s Web address.

But mainly, groups like Campus Crusade offer something that is far less tangible, something typically described as the “evangelical experience.” Consider their Wednesday night gathering of small life-group leaders in Building 5. Caroline Peirce, a recent graduate of Wellesley College and an intern at Campus Crusade’s MIT chapter, is leading the group in prayer. “Praying should be like breathing,” she says, and from their unblinking faces and straight postures, it’s clear that the assembled students are taking in each word. “Everywhere we go, everything we do, we should always be lifting up short prayers.”

Peirce explains that prayer can be subdivided into four main constituents: adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication (as a memory aid, she offers the group the acronym ACTS). She cites Bible verses supporting each of these prayer components, and soon everyone’s personal, dog-eared copy of the scriptures joins the clutter on the table. One student follows along in a paperback that is held together with duct tape.

Leading the group through each of these four stages, Peirce encourages everyone to start “adoring” God extemporaneously—and getting these students to pray out loud requires no prodding whatsoever. The room starts to buzz with the sound of their audible adoration. Eventually they move on to confession, and for this they sit silently for the better part of five minutes. Even for these students—as wholesome-looking a lot as you’ll ever find on campus—there is apparently no shortage of things to confess.

For thanksgiving, they take turns expressing their gratitude to the Almighty—an exercise that reveals much of what draws them so deeply to this faith. They thank God for “the joy you give us, friends who hold us accountable, your peace, your faithfulness even when we’re faithless, the strength to make it through tough times, guiding us so that we don’t have to go through life alone, listening to us, loving us in spite of our shortcomings,” among other things. Their eyes are closed, but their faces are full of expression. The language of their prayer is earnest, sincere, conversational. Were it not for telltale phrases such as “Lord, we lift up to you,” any one of the students might be having a heart-to-heart phone chat with a dear friend.

And this, undoubtedly, is part of the genius of modern evangelicalism, the core of the evangelical experience: the seamless synthesis of the personal and the spiritual. There is little that’s abstract about the God with whom they speak so casually and passionately. All the mysteries of faith seem overshadowed by a sense of the divine that’s as tangible as a beaker.

Uniqueness and Diversity: Values in Conflict
Building W11, MIT’s Religious Activities Center, is located on the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and Amherst Alley, just a stone’s throw from the MIT Chapel. From the outside, the beige structure doesn’t look like much at all, but inside the casual observer will find the physical embodiment of the many nuances of MIT’s religious life.

Immediately on the right is the Muslim prayer room, with one door marked as the women’s entrance, the other the men’s. A curtain separates the two sections, and students deposit their shoes on a rack before they enter to lay down their prayer mats. Inside, the murmurs of prayer are accompanied by the tiled echo of splashing water from the foot-washing room. Down the hall is the Jewish prayer room.

Downstairs, the chaplains’ offices surround a common area, facilitating casual and incidental contact among the various faith groups. Standing in the center of the common area, one can turn in a half-circle and easily make eye contact with all of the chaplains—or almost all of them. The offices for the evangelicals are down the corridor and off to the side. None of the chaplains appears to interpret this placement as anything other than a logistical accident. Nevertheless, the setup is eerily symbolic: if there is any sort of religious divide on campus, it is not between different religions but rather between the conservative and dogmatic interpretations of faith, on the one hand, and the progressive or liberal expressions of it, on the other.

Many might expect to find the greatest contention between the Jewish and Muslim communities. However, the opposite is true. According to Suheil Laher, MIT’s Muslim chaplain, shortly after September 11 the Islamic students began hosting an interfaith Ramadan dinner for the MIT community. The now-annual event drew about 600 attendees in 2004. Fewer than 200 were Muslims. What’s more, the hosts provide a kosher menu. “To know that in this day and age, with these headlines, that there’s an Islamic group who makes sure that they have kosher food at an event is a wonderful thing,” says chaplain Rabbi Ben Lanckton.

In fact, the chaplains are positively ebullient when the discussion of interfaith dialogue comes up. The mood sours, however, when the conversation veers toward the relationship between evangelical Christian groups and liberal mainline Christian groups.

Angelin Baskaran ‘07, one of the student leaders in Campus Crusade, believes that the mainline Christians could be helping to undermine much of what she and her peers are trying to accomplish. Many of these mainline groups, she says, emphasize the compatibility of all world religions, which she believes makes it difficult for her group to communicate what she calls the “uniqueness” of the gospel.

Many religious leaders on campus clearly find this tension to be uncomfortable and asked not to be quoted by name on the topic. One liberal chaplain, for example, finds it disturbing that some conservative Christians tend to present  answers in sound bites. “I personally can’t tell you my views on the Bible or Jesus Christ in sound-bite fashion. If I do, I feel like I’m selling something.” And one of the Jewish chaplains takes offense when some evangelicals (mostly outside groups) describe Jews who convert to Christianity as “completed Jews.” “The implication is that I, therefore, am an incomplete Jew.”

This sort of tension is exacerbated by the desire of conservative Christian groups to evangelize the campus. For instance, Campus Crusade’s mission statement reads, “Our goal for this decade is to help give every man, woman, and child in the entire world an opportunity to find new life in Jesus Christ.”

Being so candid about such a message poses a clear challenge to the larger community, and the matter is complicated by the fact that all MIT chaplains have to sign a statement that outlines the manner in which proselytizing is to be conducted on campus. According to Ford, “In everything we do, we’re aboveboard, and we understand that no means no.”

One reason for the discomfort between evangelicals and mainline Christian groups may be fundamentally conflicting definitions of religion. For many, religion means a combination of cultural and spiritual traditions and practices, which often involves a particular ethnic narrative. For evangelicals, religious truth is divine revelation and nothing else.

Science and Religion: New Ardor Between Old Foes?
Evangelical Christians have been making national headlines lately for their tug-of-war with science. The pressure-cooker controversy that has emerged in the last few years over embryonic stem cell research joins the long-standing conflict over whether it is appropriate or desirable for public schools to teach religious-inspired interpretations of life’s origins, such as “intelligent design” theory, alongside Darwinian evolution. So then, how do religion and science coexist among MIT’s more conservatively minded faithful?

Baskaran, who is one of the key student leaders in Campus Crusade, provides insight into the mindset of MIT’s crusaders. The Indian-born chemical engineering student is the daughter of a geophysicist father and a mother who studied microbiology. While half of her extended family is Hindu, Baskaran was raised Plymouth Brethren, one of the most conservative Protestant denominations. When she was a child, her family immigrated to the United States.

While always a star student in the sciences, Baskaran read the nonfiction theological writings of C. S. Lewis, along with some St. Augustine, when she was 13. Upon entering high school, she says, “I knew that Christianity needed to be completely integrated into my life.”

Today, Baskaran believes that premarital sex and homosexual activity are sins, and that women should not be allowed to be leaders in church. She also believes that those who have rejected Christ will be eternally lost—that they can never go to heaven.

Turning to matters more secular, however, Baskaran steps out of line with the stereotype of evangelicals as hard-line proponents of  right-wing policies. When she talks about incorporating her Christian worldview into politics, she talks about things such as raising the minimum wage and lobbying the government to regulate businesses that run sweatshops. And while she doesn’t agree with homosexual marriage, she believes same-sex couples should be allowed to adopt children, arguing that it is immoral to deny a child a family.

And above all else, Baskaran sees science as Christianity’s ally, two ways of examining and understanding the world that coexist in a seamless unity. “When people here express an interest in religion, faith versus science is the last thing to come up—if it comes up at all,” she says.

This willingness to accept both science and religion caught MIT Campus Crusade director Mike Bost off guard. Before coming to MIT a year ago, he spent a lot of time boning up on the history of religion/science conflicts, expecting that if there were any place on earth that would put up a good fight, it would be MIT. He was wrong. When students unaffiliated with religious groups come to him with questions, they typically want to know things like, What is my purpose in life? or, How can I find community? They are rarely, if ever, conflicted over how their desire to believe in God butts heads with the claims of, say, physics. “Frankly,” he says, “I really wish the subject came up more than it does.”

Few people have spent more time thinking about this than Harvard theologian Harvey Cox. In his most recent book, When Jesus Came to Harvard, Cox looks at how today’s undergraduates are reconciling religious worldviews with the culture at large. “The enclosed scientific universe of a few decades ago, where everything can be measured, simply no longer exists,” he says. “Today, the universe has a lot more openings here and there.” He sees this exemplified in his undergraduate course at Harvard on the life of Jesus, where he no longer has to brace himself when he begins to discuss the healing narratives and the resurrection. “This is a new era,” he says.

Cox believes that today’s generation of college students is largely backpedaling against the secularism of its baby-boomer parents, who, in turn, likely backpedaled against their own religious upbringing. “These kids aren’t ready to take on the full package of Grandma’s religion,” Cox says, “but they have the sneaking suspicion that Grandma was onto something.”

That shift is something that might, on first blush, appear to be the jackpot for the average college chaplain. “There’s something about this undergraduate generation right now that’s beginning to look for spirituality, for something other, even more so than the Generation X-ers preceding them,” says Reynolds. “I see this in the interests they have, in the questions they raise, in their attitude in general.”

But some are worried that an uncritical acceptance of the resurrection may signal that “truth” is becoming a bit too relative and personal, leaving little room for transcendence. Back in the 1990s, groups such as Intervarsity often brought to campus speakers who specialized in defending the rationality of religious faith. The purpose of these presentations would be to engage nonreligious students in a vigorous question-and-answer exchange. “Students would love to stop and engage him,” says Kevin Ford. “Today, that sort of thing is greeted with a yawn.”

Ford wishes that students would apply the same rigor they use for science and technology to all areas of their lives—including interrogating the tenets of religious faith. “I’m worried that truth has become very stretchable, very relative,” he explains, confident that faith is resilient enough to not only survive such questioning but also to be strengthened by it.

In the meantime, the campus chapel continues to buzz with activity every Sunday. Rumor has it that the moat surrounding this 50-year-old structure was unofficially meant to signify the separation of science and faith. However, through an architectural sleight-of-hand, when sunlight shines on the surface of the water, it reflects inside the chapel, creating a shimmering effect along the red brick interior and suggesting that the separation between science and faith is a very thin one indeed.

Uh oh–you've read all five of your free articles for this month.

Insider Online Only

$19.95/yr US PRICE

You've read of free articles this month.