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3 Questions: The Institute Chaplain on religion at MIT

How does a community such as MIT balance scientific inquiry and faith?
Robert Randolph, Chaplain to the Institute
Robert Randolph, Chaplain to the Institute

In fall 2007, Dr. Robert M. Randolph became the first Chaplain to the Institute. An ordained minister whose career at MIT began in 1979, Randolph works alongside the members of the Board of Chaplains, who represent many religious traditions, to support interfaith discourse and to educate the MIT community about the history and role of religions around the world. Here, Randolph offers his thoughts on the religion at MIT and the need for events such as “Religion 101” to foster open dialogue and understanding about matters of faith, ethics and spirituality.

Q. Is MIT a very religious community?

A. I think it is a very religious community but I define religion fairly broadly. A college or university is a place where there’s a good bit of questioning and seeking, and that tends to travel in a complementary fashion to religious searching and seeking. Sometimes it’s hard to say what defines a religious community. The answers are multi-variant and are not necessarily traditional. You have a number of people who will say, “I’m spiritual but I’m not religious,” or things of that sort, but I think MIT is a very religious community, and it has a surprisingly constant core of fairly traditional folk.

Engineers and others here tend to be very conservative in a variety of ways, and so they’re often inclined toward traditions. They’re asking questions and they’re going to be open to new insights, but we have a surprisingly strong set of communities that one would describe as traditional. The Muslim Students Association and the Tech Catholic Community are two examples that are both vibrant and strong. We also have Hillel, with its tripartite arrangement — serving reformed, orthodox and conservative Jewish students — well represented here. In total, we have 17 chaplains representing traditions on campus that run the gamut from Latter Day Saints to Bahá’í.

Q. In some quarters, religion is positioned in opposition to science. At a place committed to scientific discovery such as MIT, how does one balance science and faith?

A. In both science and faith, one’s always asking questions and mediating the experience. There is a notion that faith is somehow blind and ignorant. But by the time you get to be a college student, faith has been mediated by a set of experiences that shape your understanding. If you have had a positive experience growing up in a religious community that was not unwilling to ask hard questions and to have difficult conversations, then it’s very in line with the religious communities at MIT, because those questions and conversations, at our best, are what we are about.

Sometimes at MIT, you run into what I call a “scientific fundamentalism” that says, “It’s our way or no way,” and tends to demand hard answers and simple conclusions to complex questions. They can be as off-putting as religious fundamentalists. I think it’s a misperception to think that faith and science cannot be compatible. When Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, was at MIT to speak about being a Christian and believing in evolutionary origins, he made a very good case of how one can be a scientist and a believer. So I don’t think they’re incompatible.

Q. You’ve noted that MIT’s community has a breadth of religious groups. If they are here and part of the campus, why host an event called Religions 101?

A. It’s an invitation for people to come in and ask all the questions they’ve ever wanted to ask a Muslim, a Christian, a Buddhist or a Jew. You know, basic questions. And it’s an invitation for these chaplains, who are all going to be there, to talk about their faith or their tradition and to answer questions.

It’s also the first public gathering of the Addir Fellows, a program that is based on the notion that’s important for people to understand the other, the stranger. The Addir Fellows are students from different traditions that commit for the year to work together to understand one another.

Just because people are intelligent and sophisticated doesn’t mean they understand each other. Often, if you sit down and talk with a Christian about the doctrines of Christianity, you’ll find that they have very little information about even the tradition that they grew up in. They’ve paid more attention to math and biology then they have to religious training. And they know even less about Islam. They are smart, but being smart doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ve been exposed to these other traditions, and that’s the key here. Religion 101 is a good place to start. What it ought to do is prompt further questions and explorations, not give the solutions. It’s not the quick summary, but the prompting and prodding that helps people to seek out information on their own.

The Addir Fellows will present “Religions 101: Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, the Basics” on Thursday, Sept. 22, at 7:15 p.m. in the W11 Main Dining Room at the corner of Amherst Street and Massachusetts Avenue The event is free, open to the entire MIT community, and dessert will be served.

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