University of Chicago Hires ‘Humanist Advisor’ October 11, 2010

University of Chicago Hires ‘Humanist Advisor’

Josh Oxley, the newly-hired (but not paid, I’ve learned) “Humanist Advisor” for the University of Chicago, got some nice press in The Maroon:

Maroon: What else does your job entail?

Oxley: I advise for the Secular Student Alliance. I’m the graduate advisor for them. But at the same time my role is to really do whatever needs to be done for students. It’s not just about answering questions. One of my roles is to provide a voice for those students when there are bigger discussions on campus about religion or life stance things. It’s more about engaging people in the conversation and helping people realize there is a conversation. And seeing secularism as a positive rather than just a negative, which I think is the overwhelming narrative in the country.

If he can take some initiative, like Greg Epstein has done at Harvard, Oxley has the opportunity to turn this position into one of the more well-known “chaplaincies” on campus, bringing more visibility to his cause along with it.

The first step is just letting students know you exist.

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  • I’m happy (though not especially surprised) to see this from my alma mater.

    I just graduated a couple years ago. Thinking back, I’m not sure I would have gone to a humanist advisor. Not because I didn’t identify myself as a humanist–I did–but because I never felt like I was in a minority. I can’t remember feeling any kind of religious pressure or criticism from the people that I did go to for advice, comfort, etc. The life of the mind environment is a pretty safe, if not nurturing, one for freethinkers.

    That said, I’m glad that the option exists for UofC’s current and future students, and I’m glad The Maroon is letting them know about it!

  • I would love to see this at Purdue, but sadly the university is struggling even to get a full-time GLBT staffer. (Only school in the country without one)

  • i just left a silly/nasty commet for Josh at the Maroon website. snicker. what a great scam! wish i’d thought of it when i was working on my MDiv at Chicago. i hope he gets a stipend/attention out of it. it’s not like any Div students or students of The College will go to see him except for… well, silly reasons. heh.

  • Thanks for the attention here! I just wanted to clarify a bit: The Maroon misprinted the “hired” bit- I’m a Masters student who doesn’t get paid by the University for the position. I am supported by a field-work stipend all Master of Divinity students receive, which helps me devote time to the Secular Student Alliance and other secular interests on campus.

    (Hemant says: I’ve updated the post to reflect this!)

    @Ayn- Thanks for the kind words. It’s true: different people, different needs.

    @Mike- I hope Purdue can work something out. Maybe it too will have to start with a student position.

    @CD- Really? You really think I’m heading some big scam while working on my MDiv? Forget the students I’ve work with. My time with the SSA or with the Religious Advisors. Chalk it all up to taking advantage of the system. Seems pretty uncharitable, not to mention ill-informed.

  • I think a good college/university chaplain can support students of any or no faith. I went to a Christian-affiliated college, although our affiliation was pretty slim.* Our college chaplain was more supportive of and helpful to the Jewish group and the Muslim than the “adjunct chaplains” were. I’m entirely sure that if there had been an organized humanist/secular/atheist group, he would have been just as supportive of them.

    This isn’t to say that finding someone who shares your world view to talk to isn’t helpful, but I don’t think it’s entirely necessary. My point is that while this is probably a good thing, I’d tell a school administrator that if they can get a good chaplain that really understands his/her and other/non religions, then you may be better off spending your money elsewhere.

    *Depending upon how you define it. The North Carolina Court of Appeals tends to think that we’re sufficiently affiliated to basically be a church, but the fact is that you don’t have to take a single class in Christianity (you do have to take a religion class; mine was Chinese Buddhism), you never have to go to or anywhere near a church service (and well over half the school doesn’t), the church, while on campus, is owned an operated by an entirely separate entity, and the church has no say in setting curricula.

    EDIT: Oh, you’re not paid. Then I think it’s spectacular.

  • Rieux

    Another U of C alum here. This is a nice development; I wonder if Jerry Coyne has the time and energy to help out with SSA/Josh’s projects?

  • Nerdette

    Also a (fairly recent) UChicago alumna here. If the need is there for the position, great, I hope you help those that seek you out. I never saw the need there, personally. The quads are surrounded by churches, but I never felt a more religious-free existence.

    On a side note, I so miss the sound of the carillon in Rockefeller. Those bells were the closest I ever had to a religious experience at Chicago.

  • frank

    It looks like they made the same stupid mistake Harvard did. When will universities realize that an MDiv student is THE LAST PERSON ON THE FACE OF THE PLANET who should be supporting or representing secular students? When will a university hire someone who won’t misrepresent what nontheism is about to be a humanist chaplain/adviser/whatever?

  • AtheistActivist

    @Rieux: I’m a part of the SSA on campus, and we’re working on a lunch with him, so we’ve definitely had the same thought.

    @Nerdette: We certainly acknowledge that we’re not the same as an SSA at BYA or even GSU, but we do our activism in our own way, and we feel it’s important and meaningful. We’re quite glad to be joined in our endeavors by Josh.

    @Frank: Josh is an atheist and understands the secular community very well. I trust he will do a fine job.

  • Rieux

    AA—cool! Go, Maroons!

    Said it before and I’ll say it again: SSA chapters really seem to be where the action and energy is in American atheism these days. College students are kicking all of the rest of our asses. That bodes well for the future, but it makes some of us feel very old.

  • i take it back, Josh. i thought you were getting a paycheck out of it, via the Maroon write up. heh, sorry, my bad.

  • Sigh. Whatever happened to the generic counselor? I mean why don’t they just have someone with no religious designation whatsoever available to all students. If someone wants a “chaplain” there’s nearby churches of whatever ilk nearby and if their particular flavor isn’t and it’s that important to them, why did they select a school not near any branch of their brand?

    He is getting a paycheck, just from a different source. Read his comment again:

    I am supported by a field-work stipend all Master of Divinity students receive,

    Nice scam. And I do mean scam. Humanism is such a freaking religion. Sigh. Not the first Atheistic religion and, unfortunately, won’t be the last.

  • frank

    Atheist Activist,

    I don’t doubt that Josh is an atheist. My issue is this: it appears that he is using his status as a divinity student as a credential for a position supporting and representing nonreligious students. In doing so he not only makes a representation about himself (that he is a divinity student, which is true), he also makes a representation about nontheism; he represents nontheism as the sort of thing that (1) is complex enough that a person can spend a degree program studying its philosophy and (2)a person can be more qualified to be a nontheist leader in virtue of such study. This representation is not only false, it is a serious slander against all nontheists. Both Josh and the University of Chicago have insulted nontheists by representing nontheism as being similar to religion in the depth of the philosophy and relevance of the philosophy to leadership. That is my issue.

    Here’s another question that I really have to wonder about: If Josh started divinity school while a christian and then deconverted, why did he not leave divinity school when he deconverted? Isn’t that what he was ethically obligated to do?

  • Hey Josh,
    I’m a Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University and I wanted to drop by and offer some support. Yes you’re going to be attacked by some atheists who don’t understand how we are advancing the nontheist movement. But this job is so worthwhile and so much fun that it is worth suffering the few slings and barbs. Shoot me an email if you’d like to exchange notes. I’m always willing to talk to another Humanist/Atheist chaplain.

  • p.s.

    Both Josh and the University of Chicago have insulted nontheists by representing nontheism as being similar to religion in the depth of the philosophy and relevance of the philosophy to leadership.

    This really confuses me. Are you saying that studying non-theistic philosophy is not worthwhile and doing so is insulting? I just don’t understand your complaint at all.

  • Just to clarify for frank and others, the Divinity School at the University of Chicago is NOT a theological seminary. While students may go on from the div school to train for ministry, others go just to study religion–which is a valid course of study for an atheist.

    From the school’s website:

    Chicago reflects only one orthodoxy: that the rules of evidence and argument must discipline conversation, and that such rules are especially important when the topic is religion. Our faculty and students present a remarkable range of attitudes about religion as a force for good and for ill in the world. These attitudes bespeak the shared view that religion is one of our most fascinating and enduring windows into central truths about human life and being. The School aims to develop out of that conviction the richest possible conversation, and direct it to the central, complementary ends of scholarly excellence and moral engagement.

    I don’t think that enrollment in the Div School should be a requirement for the role of humanist chaplain (I doubt it is), and I don’t know Josh’s reasons for pursuing whatever his precise course of study is. Just be aware that the Divinity School is NOT a seminary.

  • frank

    p.s.,

    I have to ask what you are refering to by nontheistic philosophy? Nontheism, as an intellectual concept, is just not that complicated. There just isn’t enough there to devote serious study to. We are not in the business of developing complicated philosophies to understand the world, where we come from, what we should do, etc. That is what is great about nontheism.

    The closest thing there is is science. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with studying science. But knowledge of science simply does not have the relevance to the lives of nontheists that theology has to the lives of theists. If a person were to present a PhD in physics as a credential to be a humanist chaplain/adviser, I would find that supremely misguided.

    AynSavoy,

    As the article specifies, Josh is specifically enrolled in the MDiv program within the divinity school. That is a professional degree program for clergy. Here’s some of what the website has to say about that program:

    The M.Div. program provides a sequence of studies that requires the student to (1) establish a breadth of competence in religious studies; (2) develop a thorough understanding of scriptural, historical, and theological foundations for ministry; and (3) integrate this classical program of learning with rigorous and reflective practice.

    The program seeks to prepare religious leaders who are equipped to serve in a variety of contexts, and who will continue to learn and grow lifelong in the practice of ministry.

    Even if Josh can strip the MDiv program of its supernatural content for his studies, it is still a program designed to teach people to study complex philosophies (number 2 on their list) and apply them (number 3 on their list). This is not what nontheists do, and to claim that it is is insulting.

    To be clear, I am not at all opposed to having professionals supporting secular students. I am strongly in favor of that, and I actively support the Secular Student Alliance. And I do think that having more locally based professionals supporting secular students, rather than just one national office (which is the current state of the SSA), is where the secular student movement should go in the long run. What I am absolutely opposed to is training those professionals in institutions that traditionally train clergy. I hope I’ve made my reasons why clear.

  • p.s.

    By non theistic I mean not theistic. Secular. Nothing to do with god or religion.
    You make it sound like philosophy is only for theists, and that is just not the case. Secular philosophy is alive and well. Hell, logic is a branch of philosophy. There are plenty of moral philosophers who don’t look to any religion and whose arguments have nothing to do with any higher power. There are secular philosophers who investigate the value of society and self consciousness without looking to god.
    Science is awesome. I love science. But philosophy is pretty cool to, and can raise some interesting questions.

    What do you mean by “complex philosophies?” the human condition is pretty complex, I can’t really think of any universally “simple” philosophies.

    We are not in the business of developing complicated philosophies to understand the world, where we come from, what we should do, etc. That is what is great about nontheism.

    I disagree so much with this. there is nothing wrong with wondering what’s outside of the universe, contemplating the nature of “knowledge”, and moral values. Humanity may not have a divine destiny, but what’s wrong with figuring out our own purpose?

  • frank

    P.s.,

    What do you mean by our purpose(s)? Purposes and values are things to be chosen, not investigated or debated about as though there were a right answer. As for logic, that is no more a part of philosophy than of math or computer science. It is also not the focus of an mdiv program. And at the level one would study it in a degree program, also not relevant to humanist leadership. As for moral philosophers, they may not invoke god, but they do use the same irrational metaphysical nonsense as theologians. Moral philosophers are no more experts on morality than Any other person, and I want nothing to do with any movement that holds them up as such. I’m not saying that that’s what josh is doing, but it does seem to be what you, p.s., are suggesting.

  • @frank: The MDiv program is not necessarily as ministry-oriented as you think. Students take the degree in many different directions: counseling degrees, law degrees, Religious Studies and/or Philosophy PhD work. You can quote website blurbs all you want, but the fact on the ground is that, compared to a seminary’s MDiv program, the UChicago one is pretty broad-based and flexible, and tasked with academic rigor.

    As for my reasons for being in the program, I’m working on a more extensive blog piece to explain that. No 3 sentence blurb will do the trick. But I to take great issue with your understanding of philosophy.

    Yes, morals and values are created, not discovered. They’re derived from our own experiences, and from the experiences of past individuals. What’s wrong with reflecting on these? No one claims to be an “expert” on morals, even if they study ethics academically.

    Why write off the very human practice of asking questions, even if they don’t have quantifiable answers attached? Why not ask “how do we make meaning,” as Eric Maisel has? Or question the development of religion in the human experience, like Daniel Dennett? Or examine the human creation of ethics, like Comte-Sponville? Not to mention Onfray, Russell, or the legions of secular philosophers through time.

    All of these men are atheists who are asking deeper questions about human development, our derivation of meaning from experience, and our psychological state. How is that the stuff of theists? If we ignore that kind of inquiry, aren’t we shutting off an important part of our humanity: the ability to reason about the act of reasoning itself? To reflect, and not just act? It’s an extraordinary talent, and one we shouldn’t take lightly.

    All in all, I think our definitions of naturalism/materialism seem to be quite different. And I can’t help but wonder if your take would lead to our impoverishment as secular thinkers. But hey, that’s my take.

  • p.s.

    Personally, I think the best use of our humanity is exploration and discovery. So I am fulfilling my personal purpose by studying aerospace engineering. And yes, I can argue my personal purpose over someone who thinks that the purpose of humanity is to destroy all disenters of a particular beliefe.
    Logic is not a branch of philosophy? Seriously? That’s like saying math isn’t worth studying outside of the sciences. Logic is very much a type of philosophy, and it’s useful in almost every branch of study.

    As for moral philosophers, they may not invoke god, but they do use the same irrational metaphysical nonsense as theologians.

    Really? You are making incredibly borad statements here. What about the moral philosophy that right and wrong are socially objective? Or a moral philosophy that values the individual more than the group (or vice versa?)

    Moral philosophers are no more experts on morality than. Any other person, and I want nothing to do with any movement that holds them up as such.

    Anyone can be a philosopher, just like anyone can be a scientist. From personal experiences, I can tell you that amateur astronomers contribute alot to the field, and I imagine that amateur philosophers can do the same. The term “expert on morality” is bizarre. However, one can be an expert on the history of morality.
    There is merit in studying the philosophies of past/modern-but-distant civilizations. New perspectives can give us new ways of looking at the world.

  • p.s.

    and of course, josh says it all much more eloquently than me 🙂

  • As one of Josh’s cohort mates, all I have to say is that ministry is — although it is not limited to being — an attempt to take care of human persons.

    Josh is currently doing and will continue to do an excellent job with this, all while being true to his own commitments — non-faith commitments — and being sensitive to the facts of human lives and relationships.

    And although you took it back, @CD, even if Josh was getting paid for this from Rockefeller, the accusation that he would just be doing it to rake in some cash is still ugly and unfounded.

  • frank

    Josh,

    Your claim that no one claims to be an expert on morality is flatly untrue. I have met philosophers who study ethics academically who make precisely that claim. I would actually be surprised if there were philosophy professors anywhere who study ethics academically who do not make that claim.

    I have no problem with asking questions or with qualitative answers. I would point out that there are some questions to which there is nothing to be said. One of the other commenters suggested the question of what is outside the (observable) universe. To this question we can have no answer, and we cannot get closer to any truth by spending time on it.

    If one wants to study how humans make moral judgements, there is a field of empirical inquiry dedicated to precisely that question, it is called moral psychology. Reading philosophers, whether atheists or theists, will not bring us closer to any truth about human psychology. Your suggestion that it could is precisely why you should never have been given a position representing nontheists. Naturalists do not investigate human psychology by introspection or by reading what the thinkers of past centuries have written on the subject. That would be highly unscientific. We investigate such questions empirically, as scientists, with experiments and scientific studies. We derive truth from observation, not introspection. That is what a nonreligious worldview is all about. I hope you come to understand that someday, but until you do I will continue to maintain that you have no business supporting or representing the nonreligious in any context. I would be shocked if your MDiv training teaches you anything in this regard.

  • p.s.

    Your claim that no one claims to be an expert on morality is flatly untrue. I have met philosophers who study ethics academically who make precisely that claim. I would actually be surprised if there were philosophy professors anywhere who study ethics academically who do not make that claim.

    Not sure if you’ll believe me, but my philosophy professor doesn’t claim anything you say he should. He knows quite alot about the history and development of morals within society, but he doesn’t claim to be an expert on an individuals morality since he’s pretty much an objectivist. Maybe the ones you have spoken to believe that morals are absolute?
    Sorry you seem to hvae had a bad experience with philosophers. Can’t say my experience matches your own at all.

    One of the other commenters suggested the question of what is outside the (observable) universe. To this question we can have no answer, and we cannot get closer to any truth by spending time on it.

    But its fun!
    You don’t have to make any positive claims about it, of course doing so would be incredibly arrogant and superstitious. But there’s nothing wrong with a thought experiment or two.

    We derive truth from observation, not introspection.

    What if you are trying to learn the truth about introspection?
    Didn’t russell say that the only thing we could know for certain is that there is thinking in the universe somewhere? I believe he thought that claiming to know that you exist as an individual was fallacious. Do you think russell was not acting properlly according to the “nonreligious world view?”

    That is what a nonreligious worldview is all about.

    Are you saying I’m not part of the non-religious world because I think philosophy is useful?

    Fun fact: aristotle came up with the scientific method. Back then, philosophy and science were practically the same thing, since they constantly investigated things that were practically unobservable using logic and very simple experiments. The development of formal logic in philosophy is the basis of scientific thinking today.

  • frank

    One of the other commenters suggested the question of what is outside the (observable) universe. To this question we can have no answer, and we cannot get closer to any truth by spending time on it.

    But its fun!

    If you enjoy spending time thinking about such questions, I find that odd, but I have no objection to it. If you claim that it is useful to do so, or that it is relevant to the position of humanist chaplain/adviser, I will strongly object to that.

    Didn’t russell say that the only thing we could know for certain is that there is thinking in the universe somewhere? I believe he thought that claiming to know that you exist as an individual was fallacious. Do you think russell was not acting properlly according to the “nonreligious world view?”

    My understanding is that Russell was merely claiming that that is the only thing we can know with absolute 100% certainty, and I have no objection to that claim. If Russell was claiming that we cannot have a justified true belief in any other non-tautological proposition (which seems unlikely to me), then I would consider that to be an unscientific claim.

    Are you saying I’m not part of the non-religious world because I think philosophy is useful?

    I am saying that there are people who do not believe in a conventional god, but do believe in other unscientific things (for example, alien abductions and homeopathy), and therefor do not hold a secular worldview. I do not understand how and why you think philosophy is useful, or how and why you think it is relevant to a humanist chaplain/adviser, well enough to make a judgment as to which category you fall into.

  • p.s.

    If you enjoy spending time thinking about such questions, I find that odd, but I have no objection to it. If you claim that it is useful to do so, or that it is relevant to the position of humanist chaplain/adviser, I will strongly object to that.

    Why isn’t enjoyment useful? Being happy makes me a much more efficient worker and an overall better person.
    If i were a student and wanted to have these sorts of conversations (about ethics, what we know, etc), wouldn’t a humanist advisor be a good person to go to? wouldn’t that be useful to me, as a student? If a theist on campus were somehow ignorent of any nontheistic views on knowledge or ethics, a humanist advisor would be great; no risk of alienating a fellow student.

    My understanding is that Russell was merely claiming that that is the only thing we can know with absolute 100% certainty, and I have no objection to that claim. If Russell was claiming that we cannot have a justified true belief in any other non-tautological proposition (which seems unlikely to me), then I would consider that to be an unscientific claim.

    Congrats, you just made a philosophical argument.

    I am saying that there are people who do not believe in a conventional god, but do believe in other unscientific things (for example, alien abductions and homeopathy), and therefor do not hold a secular worldview. I do not understand how and why you think philosophy is useful, or how and why you think it is relevant to a humanist chaplain/adviser, well enough to make a judgment as to which category you fall into.

    Philosophy is an incredibly broad field. Like I said before, it gave us the basis for scientific enquiry. naturalism, epistemology, materialism, logic, ethics- they are all part of philosophy. And If you don’t find any of those ideas useful I really don’t know what to say. Alien abductions, conspiracy theories, and homeopathy have absolutely nothing to do with it, and I’m at a loss as to why you brought them up or why you seem to be lumping them in with all of philosophy.