Veritas Forum Lessons, Part 2: Dialogue is Hard

A couple weeks ago, I coordinated the planning for the Veritas Forum at MIT, “Does Science Point to Atheism?”. I’ve already written about one of the lessons I learned from coordinating the forum, and this post is another. I have at least one more post planned, relating more to the content that was discussed, which I’ll wait to post until the recording is available online. (When it is, it’ll be posted on the event website.)

Ultimately, much of how the forum goes comes down to the speakers we invite. The single biggest complaint we got in the feedback afterwards, particularly from the atheists, was that the secular speaker we selected was an agnostic. While everyone agreed that both speakers were very agreeable, the atheists were particularly disappointed that their own viewpoint wasn’t represented.

It wasn’t an advertising problem, as we made sure to fully explain what the forum would be about with a rather long subtitle: “A Christian chemist and agnostic physicist discuss God, miracles, and the evidence that shapes their perspective.” I wasn’t originally a fan of the title, but came to see how it provided the speakers with topics like the “God of the gaps” and miracles to discuss.

No, the limiting factor, in both our planning and the results, was finding a good speaker to represent non-religious viewpoints at MIT. Finding Professor Van Voorhis was relatively easy, as he had spoken at many Veritas forums before. In fact, I saw him speak at the Veritas Forum at Caltech, while I was visiting during my first year of graduate school here. (He had seen me around MIT, so I looked familiar there.) We knew what we were getting into 

By contrast, the pool of secular speakers is fairly thin. Agnostics and atheists don’t gather together as frequently as Christians, so while they form the majority of the professors at MIT, it’s harder to tell which of them would feel comfortable to speak in a forum like ours.

We initially invited a couple famous MIT professors who took at least a week to turn us down, before sending out a bunch of invitations at once, including to Professor Formaggio. We were fairly relieved when he responded, and were excited to finally have our two speakers. At the same time, we were a little nervous, as we had very little idea what we were getting into with him. I think it turned out great, but perhaps wasn’t what everyone was expecting in the first place.

On the feedback forms we collect from the audience, we asked them to name professors who they think would be good speakers at future forums. The most common name we got was Max Tegmark, who was in fact the speaker at the Veritas forum at MIT two years ago. While it’s good to have additional confirmation that we made the right choice two years ago, he’s already someone we know about.

Fortunately, a couple more of the professors we invited in the same batch as Professor Formaggio also responded, saying they would be interested. We told them that we had found another speaker, but saved their contact information for future years.

There’s a core tension at the heart of the Veritas Forum, particularly at a place like MIT which every year features dialogues between speakers from different perspectives. The organization teams at each university are Christians, usually coming from the different fellowships. And yet we always strive to include one speaker from a secular perspective.

As I like to explain it, the Veritas Forums have two core purposes: Evangelism and dialogue. The ultimate hope for many of the Christians who invite their friends is for them to come to an understanding of the truth of the Christian faith. For many, the Veritas forum serves as the first step in such a process, giving them an avenue to bring up the questions that our faith addresses.

At the same time, the way we achieve that first step is through dialogue. Rather than everyone remaining in our own cloistered communities, we model the process of coming together to wrestle with the big questions that universities are really all about. This is why Veritas Forums are able to foster a healthy partnership with universities, due to this shared vision.

The Veritas people like to explain that we all believe that with greater conversation, everyone will eventually come to the truth, and seek to serve as the catalyst for that truth.

I was reminded of this tension in a couple ways in the last month.

Thanks to an undergraduate friend’s eager tabling (thanks Priyanka!), I’m also on the emailing list for Fossil Free MIT, a grassroots organization petitioning MIT to divest its $12.4B endowment from top fossil fuel companies out of concern for global warming. In contrast to the more volatile movement at Harvard, the MIT group has been taking healthy steps to engage with the MIT community and open a full discussion on campus, building momentum for an institute policy change.

One component of this was a debate they held on campus, the Thursday before the Veritas forum. I wasn’t able to make it, but another friend took detailed notes (thanks Sterling!). With his permission, here they are:

(If you have an hour and a half, you can also watch the full debate online here.)

Reading those notes, it does seem like the divestment side had a stronger case, and I’m generally supportive of their cause. At the same time, I’m sympathetic to the recognition that divestment will do nothing to directly alter the market forces at play, and the desire to work with fossil fuel companies rather than casting them as uniformly evil.

(Also, in case anyone is wondering, there is no disagreement on the reality of human-caused climate change at MIT. The question they were wrestling with is what MIT should do about it.)

After the debate, here’s how how the Fossil Free MIT people described it:

The pro-divestment team trounced the opposition in the first-of-its-kind Divestment Debate, in front of an audience of over 500 people.

Of course, as the moderator announced, there was no formal declaration of winners and losers in the debate, so this is a subjective claim. Given that, it’s not surprising that the Fossil Free MIT leaders would claim resounding victory.

At the same time, there’s something a little bit weird about the student group organizing the debate clearly favoring one of the sides. Unfortunately, I haven’t talked to any of their leaders, so I’m not sure how they found the speakers. Both sides seem appropriately credentialed and well-spoken to me, but that doesn’t mean that they picked out the “best” speakers they could find to argue against their own cause.

Again, this isn’t meant as a criticism — like the Veritas Forum, it seems like they did the best they could do to make it an even debate, especially since their side has so much more energy and enthusiasm (also analogous to the Veritas Forum). But I’m sure they faced the same tension of wanting to support their own side but not in a way that would turn off people on the fence.

When I first started helping out with the Veritas Forum in my first year at MIT, I was most struck by the way follow-up was conducted. After having a forum featuring a Christian and an atheist (this was the year we got Max Tegmark), the only follow-up events being offered were from the Christian fellowships, often dinner discussions afterwards, or invitations to talks by Christians on a similar topic.

This felt to me like a bait and switch, and I’d been uncomfortable with some of these sort of follow-up events in the Veritas forums I’d been involved with at Caltech. We saw someone who eventually became a Christian as a result of one of them, and yet it felt quite awkward, with me and two other Christians tried to answer her questions about Christianity. (After getting baptized, she would fall away, but I’m not sure how much the nature of her conversion played a role.)

I thought, we can do better. Let’s hold a discussion similar to the Veritas Forum itself, but with student speakers, multiple times throughout the year! I wasn’t able to put anything together before the forum to announce, but we collected e-mail addresses of people who would be interested in such events via the feedback cards that year, tailoring them to what we wanted (something I didn’t do this year).

After the forum, I started talking with one of my math friends who went, Alex Zhu, who described himself as an agnostic atheist, and really liked Max Tegmark’s presentation. Alex and I enjoyed talking together and he eventually agreed to speak at a Student Veritas Forum with me. Later, I was able to find another speaker through e-mailing the leaders of the Secular Society at MIT, Luis Hong Sanchez. Luis is a humanist who comes from a Baha’i background, and is fascinated by religion and big questions. Both of them were just freshmen at the time, but they were willing to speak in front of an audience about their beliefs, which was cool to see.

In talking about this idea with the Christian fellowship leaders, the Baptist Student Fellowship president, Daniel Gillund, told me that he agreed with the desire for more dialogue-based followup events, and would be willing to speak. So we had a panel of four! Here’s how I advertised it:

The MIT Student Veritas Forums are a new event series to bring together students of different faith perspectives for a friendly discussion about matters of faith, science, and anything else related to those topics. For MIT students and by MIT students, we aim to discuss topics relevant to all of us, in hopefully a way that many can relate to. This Saturday’s event is the first, and will feature four student speakers:
  • Sam Elder is a 1st year graduate student in applied math and a Christian. He likes to try to think rationally about everything, including his faith.
  • Luis Hong Sanchez is a freshman majoring in physics and an agnostic. He wants to lead his existence with more questions than answers. 
  • Daniel Gillund is a junior in Mechanical Engineering & Physics and is a follower of Jesus Christ. He believes that reason alone cannot provide answers to the most important questions in life.
  • Alex Zhu is a freshman who will be majoring in general math, and is an agnostic atheist. He enjoys pondering philosophical questions.
The evening will start with a discussion on some prepared topics by the speakers, followed by a time for questions from attendees. We want to emphasize that this is not a debate, but a friendly dialogue. We hope to start a pattern of productive discussions that also don’t skirt away from the heart of the places where we disagree.

We ended up getting around 20-25 people to show up, both from people who had checked their name off at the forum and personal friends of the speakers. We split the time between topics that we each wanted to discuss individually, and questions from the audience. By a show of hands, the audience unanimously agreed that it was a resounding success.

Trying to keep the momentum going, though, was tough. We held a couple more forums like this in Fall 2013, bringing in another secular speaker in Abdi Dirie, but the attendance dwindled steadily to just one, a friend of Alex’s, at the last one. At that point, I gave up and decided to focus my efforts on the Veritas Forum itself.

I never really understood why the idea tanked, but I have some ideas. Of course, it’s hard to maintain momentum over a summer. It would have helped to actually publicize the event with posters, and plan it out at least a month in advance. Going from zero to a poster is probably the part of the marketing-attendance curve where more marketing would have been worth the time.

In the end, we all ended up going our separate ways. Luis, Abdi and I joined the Addir Fellows program, an interfaith discussion group with similar purposes of understanding people from other faiths that I’d highly recommend. Alex also started a blog, and Daniel got married.

And maybe that’s for the better. Apart from my popular Soylent post, I typically have 100-200 people at least open each of my blog posts. That’s an order of magnitude higher than the number of people who attended our most successful student Veritas forum, and while the impact of a live event is surely higher than a blog post, it’s clearly easier to engage with people on their own time than through a scheduled event.

What was the other recent occasion that made me think of the tension inherent in Veritas Forum dialogue? Through the forum this year, I met Sebastian Garza, a sophomore and the president of the Secular Society of MIT. He loved the forum this year, and told me that SSOMIT loves supporting discussion and would be excited to co-sponsor the forum next year. I decided to sit down with him and talk through how that might look, as well as get to know him and SSOMIT a bit better.

In doing so, I explained the two core motivations behind the Veritas forum, evangelism and discussion, and he was comfortable enough co-sponsoring while only being on board with the discussion component. In addition to being officially listed as a sponsor, the main ways they would be able to help out would be in picking a secular speaker to invite, and then further publicizing the event to their mailing list.

The other possibility this raised in my mind is that it makes it possible to advertise follow-up events in good faith, listing, say, a SSOMIT discussion along with the events that the Christian fellowships put on. There’s also a chance that we might come back with a new and improved version of the Student Veritas Forums for next year. Either way, we decided that we don’t have enough time in this school year to plan anything.

That said, if we do go back to that idea, it’s going to have to be revamped. Sponsorship from SSOMIT will go a long way, but we’ll also need to poster and probably mass-BCC the dorm mailing lists (something I was hesitant to do the last time). And all of that will only be after we find good speakers. Should we read the general lower level of commitment to Veritas (particularly from the undergrads) as making this idea not worth it? Or is this just what we need to get people interested in helping organize the real deal?

Honestly, I’m not sure, and I’d be interested in your feedback. I’m still evaluating all of my commitments for next year, but the one thing I’ve decided is that I won’t be coordinating the main Veritas Forum itself. I’ve run with my two ideas, one inside the box (this year) and one outside the box (last year), and it’s someone else’s turn to take the reins. Of course, I’ll still be around to help out in small ways and advise whoever does coordinate it, but I’m stepping down now in order to declare nice and early that we need to find someone new.

3 responses to “Veritas Forum Lessons, Part 2: Dialogue is Hard

  1. Pingback: What Are You Building? | The Christian Rationalist

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