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Religious Groups Can Often Be Divisive

Column by Stacey E. Blau
Opinion Editor

Hey, freshmen, there are atheists at MIT.

And pagans and Muslims and Hindus and Buddhists and Jews and a bunch of different flavors in between.

Of course, you can't miss the slightly different version of that slogan directed at freshmen that's on signs around campus. The real signs read, "Hey, freshmen, there are Christians at MIT." Well, well, well. Who'd have thunk it?

When I first saw those signs as a freshman three years ago, I wondered what exactly they were supposed to mean to me. So there are Christians at MIT. Yeah. So what? Should I be any more interested in that fact than, say, the fact that there are bird watchers at MIT? The sign was talking to me, I guessed, since I was a freshman, but on the other hand, I certainly wasn't Christian, nor was I the least bit interested in becoming one.

I might not have cared at all had it not struck me that the sign was different from the other signs put up by activities in the Infinite Corridor. The other activities with poster spaces tell you about themselves and maybe even try to get you to join. But the assumption the Christians sign makes is that there's some reason you should be very interested in the fact that there are Christians at MIT.

Who would be interested in such a message? Christians, obviously, and possibly some others who want desperately to be proselytized. Surely the message is not a purely informational one. (Did someone actually doubt that there were Christians at MIT?) Ostensibly, the sign is directed at all freshmen, as though they'd all somehow be interested in Christianity. Well, word to the wise; not all freshmen are Christian. And not all of us appreciate being addressed as though we were.

Religion is a serious matter at MIT, often taken a little too seriously - and a little too divisively. It isn't only Christian groups that are at fault. Many other religious groups (and ethnic groups, for that matter) seem to clump together in disturbingly large numbers.

The tendency for people to want to be part of a group is natural, particularly when they might feel lost and unattached during a time like the start of college. A good, healthy religious group recognizes this reality and tries make newcomers feel welcome. Many religious groups at and around MIT do their best to help freshmen adjust.

Not all religious groups, however, make a good-faith effort to do quite that. Some groups take advantage of the insecurity freshmen feel during their first few weeks at college, drawing them into huge time commitments and pressuring them under the guise of promoting a strong religious commitment. These groups have been known to isolate freshmen and ruin their lives for a substantial period of time.

The biggest such group to watch out for around MIT is the Boston Church of Christ, a Christian cult that sends out proselytizers in pairs to recruit heavily at MIT, often illegally in the Infinite Corridor and, strangely enough, in the East Campus courtyard. There are also the Scientologists (a more blatant sort of cult, if only for their obvious silliness), who pass out fliers at the 77 Massachusetts Ave. cross-walk about self-improvement and your IQ; what they want in actuality is your money.

If you steer clear of those two groups, you'll probably be okay. But don't think for a second that just because you're not joining an out-and-out cult doesn't mean you're not necessarily joining a group that doesn't put significant divisions between you and others. I'm far from a fan of the idiotic and endless rhetoric around MIT about the need for unity, but it doesn't take much to see where some of the dividing lines around here start. Hopefully, you won't need a bad experience with religion to show you.