The Need for a Humanist Chaplain at Tufts September 30, 2010

The Need for a Humanist Chaplain at Tufts

Stephen Janick and Alexander Howard have an excellent op-ed in the Tufts Daily about the need for a Humanist chaplain at their school:

While [Tufts Freethought Society] services the needs of its current membership through weekly meetings and the sponsorship of lecture series, its club status limits its ability to accommodate the needs of the broader non?religious community. The establishment of a Humanist chaplaincy at Tufts would provide non-religious Tufts students an organizational infrastructure and legitimacy greater than what TFS can provide.

The Enrolling Student Survey of the Class of 2012 reported that of the nearly 60 percent of students who responded to the question concerning religious affiliation, over 30 percent marked “none.” While not all of these non?religious students would utilize the services of a Humanist chaplaincy, it is likely that a Humanist chaplaincy would see a rate of participation similar to other chaplaincies on campus.

We freethinkers desire one place on campus that can serve as a hub for secular guidance, philanthropy and community. The establishment of a university-supported Humanist community will not only provide a resource for students to contemplate secular answers to traditionally “spiritual issues,” but it will also allow the secular worldview to have a valued social presence equal to that of the other belief systems present on our campus.

It’s easy to knock on Humanist chaplains as being too “spiritual” or touchy-feely — hell, I know I’ve said that before — but as I’ve gotten to talk more with Greg Epstein and John Figdor who run the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard, I’ve learned more about the possibilities of that position.

There’s the building of a local community for non-religious people. There’s programming events that might be of interest to atheist students. (The Harvard folks have events going on all the time. When I was in college, I was lucky to do something interesting with my atheist group once a month. Twice? That was pushing it.)

The amount of counseling they do is incredible. There really aren’t a lot of professionals you can talk to about issues like the death of a loved one, an upcoming wedding, or an addiction you’re battling that don’t involve the mention of a higher power.

Humanist Chaplains are like fire extinguishers. I’ve never had the need to use them, but many other people have, and it makes me feel better knowing they’re close by.

And if religious chaplains are given a place at the table, it’s only fair that Humanist chaplains be included as well.

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  • I asked a few military chaplains about what it would take for me to become an ‘atheist chaplain’. Dismissively, I was told something along the lines of ‘atheism isn’t a religion, so NO.’

    While I agree that it isn’t a religion, it’s clearly not ‘No religious preference’ as my dog tags annoyingly stated for years. Mentioning the Flying Spaghetti Monster elicited a smile from their faces, but my ‘AHA! I DO have a religion.’ didn’t work.

    The military chaplains wear many hats in the army, but they never quite remove the Jesus hat. If any soldier is having emotional or marital problems, they are sent to their Chaplain.

    For the sake of brevity, I’ll get to my point. The military definitely has a need for a humanist or atheist chaplain. I’d say that any university would probably be greatly served by having such a service, and I can only hope that one day some of these humanists will be aiding the thousands of active duty atheists, agnostics, and free thinkers.

  • Claudia

    @Japanther, I fully agree with you about the need for Humanist chaplains. It doesn’t surprise me that the military would be resistent to it. I’m sure many chaplains, even if they have the best intentions, will be a total loss when called upon to provide comfort and council without resorting to a higher power.
    Though not perfect, Unitarian Universalists are usually great folks and often very receptive to nontheists. The Military Associatin of Atheists and Freethinkers recommends the UU military chaplains to atheists in foxholes while still pushing for specific chaplain services.

  • Bob

    While many who are coping with addiction use the term “Higher Power,” to mean ‘God,’ it was never intended to be such, because addiction isn’t unique to any one religious group. Insisting that Higher Power = Jesus Christ is likely to push more people out the door. That doesn’t mean you won’t find groups that are Christian, just that it’s a mistake to conflate the term as being exclusively religious.

    A friend once told me, “If you deem your higher power to be a rock, then it’s a rock.”

    So, for a non-theist, rationality would be the higher power, superior to the irrationality of addiction.

  • Rieux

    I definitely think the current academic humanist chaplains are too accommodationist and willing to slight their less good-cop brethren.

    But the idea is still a very good one, and the Tufts students are absolutely right. Go get ’em, Jumbos.

  • Hitch

    I still don’t like the word “Chaplain”. It is a turn-off. Humanist Advisor, Guidance, Councelor, … lots of options that don’t evoke deistic ritual notions that in fact might keep people away who had bad experiences in these traditions.

    But in any case, the principle is very good and I’m sure the work is too.

  • Reminds me of the piece I wrote last year: How Long Until We Have Campus Atheist Resource Centers?

  • I’m not a fan of the term “chaplain” either (and neither are the two chaplians I’m friends with). Originally it was meant to distinguish a religious who served at a chapel in some institution rather than in an actual church, but in recent years the job seems to have come to resemble a combination of Julie and Isaac from “The Love Boat” with prayers and preaching tacked on as an afterthought.

    Rather than adopting a term that can give the erroneous impression that the “humanist chaplain” is doing the same things as the religious ones, why not take the opportunity to point out that the religious chaplains have changed their priorities to better reflect the human needs that have been identified as God moves from centre stage.

    There is much more emphasis on counselling vs. just prayer, on providing activities that extend beyond religious ritual to provide a more balanced set of activities for believers in that faith tradition and there tends to be a great deal more tolerance for diversity among community members “preached” by chaplains than some of their church-dwelling contemporaries.

    Let the humanist counsellor/coordinators (or whatever they can be called) provide the example of serving the whole person, using the resources of the whole community, and not, as the religious do, shrugging and pointing skyward on the tough issues.

  • cat

    Why aren’t we asking the more pertinent question of why the heck a non-religious university has chapels and priests at all? Let the students go off campus for religious services, just like they have to for booze.

  • Erp

    The term ‘chaplain’ has become somewhat more religiously neutral from its original meaning of strictly Christian (see Jewish and Muslim chaplains) and has the advantage that it often comes preset with certain expectations (sometimes legal expectations). I understand that a US military chaplain if told in confidence something (e.g., I’m gay) is not required to reveal that while a secular military psychologist or counselor may have to. I would also distinguish between the role, chaplain, and any title (which might be father, rabbi, imam, and for humanists perhaps something else).

  • ThatOtherGuy

    I actually just graduated from Tufts last year, I’d love to see them get a Humanist Advisor… I’m not a fan of the word “chaplain” either.

    The Tufts Freethought Society does decently, I’m fairly certain, I imagine there’d certainly be a market for a Humanist Advisor…

  • For all those who wonder whether all of us Humanist chaplains are accomodationist, I think it would help to think of me as the “New Atheist” chaplain at the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard. Check out our website at or email us at

    – J. Figdor

  • Rieux

    Message received, Jonathan. Anybody willing to describe himself (or herself) as “the ‘New Atheist’ chaplain” within any organization warrants more benefit-of-the-doubt from me.

    I can’t say I’ve heard of you before, but I take back any and all implications regarding you in what I wrote previously.

  • Nick

    Why can’t we call them a counselor and be done with it?

    Whenever I hear somebody describe why a chaplain is needed (religious or otherwise) I hear exactly what I would expect as a counselor’s job description. This is especially true for military chaplains.

  • Richard Wade

    I agree that “Chaplain” is an inappropriate term for a secular professional helping secular students or secular military personnel. We don’t have to keep imitating the terms and roles of religious predecessors. “Counselor,” or “Advocate,” or “Counselor-Advocate” would make much more sense.

    I’d love to have a job like that at a university, but I’d insist on something other than “Chaplain.”

  • Kayla

    Is humanism a religion? Or is it another term for atheism? If it’s just another term for atheism, why would humanists need a chaplain?

  • We’re called Chaplains because that is the term reserved for that specific job in the University context. We don’t go insisting that atheist doctors call themselves something different since “doctor” is originally a Catholic title bestowed on clergy. And for the record, as the Asst. Humanist (New Atheist) Chaplain at Harvard, I don’t insist on anyone calling me chaplain, and neither does Chaplain Epstein.



  • Aj

    Is “doctor” originally a Catholic title or is it latin for “teacher”? Is “chaplain” a title originally bestowed on a keeper of a relic? I don’t think it matters.

    To me the word “chaplain” means a priest or priestess who is employed to supply religious rites in a context outside a temple, in a secular endeavour, in the military or a prison for instance. Meanings change, perhaps others do not associate the title “chaplain” with religion. If they do I think it gives the wrong impression for humanists to be calling themselves chaplains. If they associate “chaplain” with the duties assigned to chaplains that are secular then it’s a rather apt title, and meanings of words evolve in this way.

    It’s not wise for humanists to replicate religion. Humanism is not a religion, it is not one of many “faiths”. We don’t need humanism having the same problems as religion.

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