Freethinkers Respond to Ignorance About Humanist Chaplains October 22, 2010

Freethinkers Respond to Ignorance About Humanist Chaplains

A few weeks ago, I mentioned an op-ed piece in which people at Tufts University declared their desire for their own Humanist Chaplain.

The Primary Source, a conservative magazine on campus, has pushed back and mischaracterized the position.

Thankfully, Stephen Goemen and David Johnson of the Tufts Freethought Society are there to respond:

… Do people actually harbor such simplistic and extreme beliefs about our proposal?

The Source puts our fears to rest when they write, “The freethinkers want an equal right to pray to … nothing and an equal right to spiritual advice for … a soul they don’t believe they have.” This suggestion, clearly the result of a vain attempt to be thought-provoking or insightful, shows that the Source is ignorant of both what a Humanist chaplaincy is, as well as how mainstream theological chaplains function.

Yes, the Humanist chaplain would be different from the other chaplains. We do not believe in God nor do we believe in the efficacy of prayer or the importance of the soul. However, we do care about our community, we care about philanthropy, and we have questions that counselors are not equipped to answer: questions about ethics or morality, for example. A good friend pointed out that one would not want to turn to a counselor or therapist who is trained in understanding mental problems when one has an ethical, moral or metaphysical dilemma. Just as a chaplain is not fully equipped to deal with depression or bipolar disorder, a counselor is not prepared to answer these kinds of questions from a non-religious and Humanist perspective. While there is some overlap between the supportive roles of a chaplain and a counselor, it by no means eradicates the need for either.

It’s an excellent response to an ignorant charge.

We’ve all heard people say things like, “What do atheists do when they get together? Sit around and not pray?”

Well, no, we do quite a bit — Participate in discussions, hold debates, listen to speakers, do volunteer work…

Similarly, Humanist chaplains have a tough job to do — even if others may not know what that job entails — and I like the idea that there might be a counselor (of sorts) that I could visit when I need some personal help… one who understands my faith background and knows not to use god as part of any solution.

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  • Hitch

    Good stuff!

    Actually one of the most intriguing things to observe for me is this confounding of the social/personal/psychological need and support with religion.

    And the inverse, that somehow without religion all of these are negated (or it’s just nihilism).

    It’s odd too because of course there are plenty of secular support structures in our society.

  • Still not warm and fuzzy about the use of ‘chaplain’. I believe by choosing a different term it could provide some leadership to those religious chaplains (and others) whose work now consists of primarily non-religious activity.

    It’s unfortunate that ‘counselor’ tends to be associated with mental health and ‘advisor’ with academic issues as both words have a richer pool of meaning they draw from.

    The best term I’ve been able to come up with thus far is ‘advocate’. It embodies the idea of listening and talking; providing support; speaking up for the Humanists on campus and for Humanist ideals.

    The important thing is that they get a resource person and can recognize what his or her role is and how to get help when needed.

  • Christophe Thill

    I don’t understand this “counselor” thing. Is it a typically American job? Does it consist, as I seem to understand, in giving people advice you’re not qualified to give? Or is it necessary to have a specific degree?

    If you need help, go see a psychologist. Those people are trained to deal with your problems. Of course, they take into account the fact that you are a non-believer (or a believer). They’re not here to tell you what to do, but to help you see clearly in yourself, and find out solutions by yourself.

  • Hitch

    Counselors are early entry psychologists or social workers if you will. It’s not so much necessarily about deep issues, but about social need, guidance, points of entry (a counselor may suggest some more involved talk therapy for example).

    But they are also more. It’s about organizing an accessible space as well as organizing social activities, interpersonal stuff etc.

    But yes I think the concept is somewhat American.

    For example I don’t think that many European school systems routinely have counseling personell, whereas that is quite normative in the US.

  • Aaron

    @Christophe Generally a counselor needs a degree in psychology or something similar, but not a PhD. Master’s degrees are common and most states require at least a bachelor’s. So a counselor is a bit like a psychological nurse, similar to the “medical” nurses that are standard in schools.

  • Paige

    Christophe Thill,

    I believe you have fallen victim to a common misunderstanding of the counseling profession. As a member of the community, I hope I can clear things up for you. We are NEVER to give advice unless it is an extreme situation such as domestic violence, suicidal thoughts, homicidal thoughts, etc.

    I am currently in a Masters program for counseling. We are required to have a Masters degree in counseling, go through internships and then (at least for the state of Missouri) have supervision under a Licensed Professional Counselor for 2 years, full time. Only then can we gain our licensure. A “life coach” does not need a degree and this may be what you’re thinking of. A counselor is a trained professional to help individuals, couples, families, and groups think for themselves and gain the tools necessary to become independent of the counselor. We are supposed to work ourselves out of a job, essentially.

    A psychologist, with a Doctorate degree, is going to be heavily vested in research and teaching college and university courses. They sometimes do clinical work, of course, but it is not necessary and sometimes insurance would rather pay for an LPC than a Dr. Someone has to pay for that degree, right? A psychologist would also not be able to prescribe medication, as this is left for those with an M.D., i.e. psychiatrists.

    I hope this clears things up a little bit. Feel free to go to the American Psychological Association website ( for further information.

  • Paige

    @ Hitch: There is nothing “entry” about our profession. We deal with real life crises and people in need. People come to us when there is nowhere else to turn. Please do not slight our profession.

  • frank

    I still don’t like this chaplain idea. I don’t see what legitimate questions there are for one to address. I’m not clear on what a legitimate “metaphysical” question is to a nontheist with a scientific world view. If you want to know something about how the world works, go ask a science professor or take a science course. They have lots of those on most college campuses. If you want counseling that doesn’t involve god talk, they have psychological professionals for that on most college campuses too, either in independent counseling centers or as part of health services centers. As for moral questions, what could make one person more qualified than another to address those? What training could a humanist chaplain have that would make him/her the right person to go to for moral questions? Until someone can provide a good answer to this question, I don’t think the role that these tufts students want to exist should exist. A secular organizer could be a good sort of professional to have on college campuses, but not a secular ethical adviser or counselor is not.

  • Ben

    In college, I was outspoken as an atheist in public, and even head of my SSA. I was dumped by a girl that I loved because I was an atheist. Before then, we had barely mentioned the idea of religion. This isn’t a new occurrence. Three times before, my relationships have ended for the same reason. This was even before I came out as an atheist. (I grew up in the bible belt)

    When she dumped me, I then considered going back in the closet as an atheist and giving up this part of my life so that the rejection would end. I needed council and I would have liked nothing more than to consult a humanist chaplain at this time. Instead, I had to speak to a southern baptist chaplain who couldn’t understand my beliefs.

    There are lots of atheists that could use council with regard to coming out as an atheist, dealing with religious family and friends, and even the religious students that are questioning their faith. Why do people always have to turn to the religious chaplains when faith is in question?

    Most of all, a humanist chaplain is one of many steps that a college can take to help secular students feel accepted. Colleges usually have a religious affiliation, a chapel, and an entire department devoted to religious study. That, combined with the social exclusion of atheists, we could use all the support we can get.

  • ThatOtherGuy

    Don’t worry about the Primary Source. I went to Tufts, just graduated a few years ago, and pretty much the only people who take the Primary Source seriously are the Primary Source staff. They’ve been under fire numerous times the past few years for publishing racist and islamophobic material, they were run by a scumbag and everyone knew it. Their readership is essentially nil, they basically just troll at this point.

  • Non-Litigious Atheist

    @frank: I tend to agree. I don’t have any problem with some sort of counselor, and I guess if we’re stuck with the religious divisions of chaplains, a Humanist chaplain is just as good as any other.

    But were it up to me, there would be no chaplains at all, just counselors willing to address student concerns no matter what their religion, no matter if they eschew all religion, no matter if they’ve never given religion a second thought. The religion part should be a non-issue. Just like you don’t have soccer counselors, football counselors, and so on.

    BTW, ‘what’s the point in living with all the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’ seems like a metaphysical question that a science professor wouldn’t be well qualified to answer. It also doesn’t seem to be a psychological health issue, since a psychologically healthy person might well ask it – for example, someone about to lose everything he’s ever worked for.

  • Richard Wade

    A good friend pointed out that one would not want to turn to a counselor or therapist who is trained in understanding mental problems when one has an ethical, moral or metaphysical dilemma.

    Sorry, the good friend is just wrong.

    Sounds like the good friend is still stuck in the social assumption that ethics and morals are only the jurisdiction of clergy, and that psychologically-based counselors have no competency in such matters. That’s absurd. The good friend does not understand what counselors actually do.

    Just as a chaplain is not fully equipped to deal with depression or bipolar disorder, a counselor is not prepared to answer these kinds of questions from a non-religious and Humanist perspective.

    Wrong again.

    As a counselor, my education included specific training in ethics, ethical behavior, moral dilemmas, and ethical counseling. It was not just the professional ethics governing the conduct of psychotherapists. Ethics were a part of many of the other courses I took in psychotherapy.

    In the field I was asked ethical questions by my clients and patients all the time. Struggling with addiction, mental disorders or relationship problems always includes problems about finding the right thing to do.

    I wouldn’t just shrug these questions off and say, “Sorry, that’s not my field.” My role in that regard was to nurture the person’s innate ethical sense, so that he could find the right thing to do, and he would develop skills to make wise decisions in the future. It was an intricate, back-and-forth process.

    I never injected religious ideas into the mix, but the client might be drawing from his religious background, and I worked with him. If his solutions were too simplistic or mechanical, and they didn’t adequately address the complexities of the matter, I’d point that out, so he would come up with a more nuanced, more skillful response to his problem.

    The Ask Richard letters often ask me ethical questions, and I just come straight out with my advice. An advice column is not psychotherapy, which requires that on-going feedback relationship to explore and promote the person’s skills and insight to meet such challenges in the future.

  • having had some very, very bad experiences with social workers, Phd/MD psychiatrists, and other mental health professionals, i am very much in favor of a peer humanist advocate (the word i’d choose instead of “chaplain”). and while i don’t mean to generalize, there are plenty of psychological professionals who bring their own religious beliefs into their practice. ask a lot of us queer people who got sent to some of them for a “cure” to our homosexuality. yes, that is still happening, even today, despite the APA’s removal of homosexuality from the list of “mental disorders.” same deal with atheism; if you think all mental health professionals are as professional as the ones posting here, you’re dead wrong.

    as for the “need” for a position like this, i agree with those who argue that sometimes, people need to know the person they are speaking with is NOT a believer, because the issue at hand related to that, or some other matter of non-believers in a majority world of faith-full people. yes, i believe in training for counseling professionals, but there are many different kinds and degrees of training. and sometimes, peer counseling is the best kind. like they said, there’s no reason why there can’t be both counselors trained and licensed in the psychiatric arts, and peer counselors trained in humanism. when we need a licensing agency for humanists, it will be a great day of rejoicing for all of us, yo.

  • Tufts Student

    This was an overreaction to a joke. What they were responding to was something in a humor section of a magazine that mocks various aspects of life at the Tufts campus. The full text is:

    “It’s a prayer…about nothing!: Lately, Tufts association of agnostic/atheistic students, the Freethought Society, has been more vocal about their desire for a “humanist chaplain,” on an equal level with the rest of the chaplaincy at Tufts. The cause celebre, appropriately, is equality. The freethinkers want an equal right to pray to…nothing and an equal right to spiritual advice for…a soul they don’t believe they have. Hey guys, no offense, but we already have secular advice-givers. They’re called “counselors” and “therapists.””

    The Freethought Society overreacted to this joke (mixed in with things that were much more offensive) from a publication whose editor in chief is an atheist. Also, now the whole campus thinks freethought are assholes because of this. Job well done, TFS.

  • If a Humanist Chaplain doesn’t do anything religious, why the use of the word “chaplain”? It seems like a VERY religious word. If it has a secular meaning too, I’d say that’s irrelevant. The word “chaplain” inspires the idea of religion. It’s impossible to miss.

    I could never confide in any “chaplain” no matter whatever other label they used. Sometimes people say Atheist activists act like they’re trying to promote some kind of Atheist religion. Well the use of the word “chaplain” seems to play right into that. Can we not just stick to secular-sounding labels? Do we really need to participate in that program so badly that we’re going to use religious labels on ourselves? Bleh! Count me out.

  • Nonanonymous

    @ Joe Zemecki

    The Tufts group addresses all of your points in their two earlier op-eds. Highly recommend you read it to find your answers.

  • Hitch

    @Paige: My apologies. I don’t try to be disrespectful. I do not mean to diminish the profession in the least, in fact the opposite.

    I mostly try to translate the counselor role into a European perspective.

  • Non-Litigious Atheist

    @Tufts Student: Thanks for letting us know!

    Some people are such hard-core advocates that they lose any sense of humor when the joke’s about them. Any possibly negative comment about atheists becomes a purge.

    This is sort of like how NAACP types derail the careers of shock jocks to push their own agenda. The lives they destroy are acceptable losses so long as they can push their agenda at any cost.

  • Hitch

    I find it fascinating how much politics can be found promoted in just a few comments.

    I don’t believe for one minute that “Also, now the whole campus thinks freethought are assholes because of this.”

    But I do believe without hesitation that it reflects what the poster thinks.

  • Tufts Student

    @Hitch: read the comments on the article. All of the non-Freethought posters thought it was absurd. The Primary Source made a fairly non-offensive (and not even that funny) joke, and Freethought attempted to capitalize on the unpopularity of the publication to lay into them for this joke and make their point more accepted. This is just a long string of things Tufts Freethought has done to piss people off. A lot of campus, and even a sizable portion of the atheist population (which is a fairly significant population at Tufts, hovering around 30-35%) hates what they’re doing. They’re seen as wanting to create a religion without god, and are hated for their perceived attempts to convert people. The religious people don’t like their proselytizing, and the atheists don’t like the religious aspects to what they do

  • Hitch

    I read some comments. Yeah the “non-freethought posters” may not be positive, but I have yet to see atheist organizations doing something good for the non-religious and that getting cheers from the “non-freethought posters”.

    The rest is spin and your personal view.

    I see a lot of hangup over the word chaplain… guess people cannot look beyond words at the content. And the content is just fine, if not clearly desirable.

    That believers do not want atheists visible in any way and will make a stink if they are, that is not new. But that certainly is no reason not to work for something positive.

    And btw, I just don’t believe that you are a spokesperson for the 35% (or the remaining 65% for that matter).

  • Hugh

    I roll my eyes when religionists ask, “what do atheists do when they get together, talk about nothing?”, and think they’re being incredibly clever and original. The response I like to give is: suppose you move to Scotland and discover that a great many people believe in the Loch Ness Monster, and not only believe in it but worship it as a god. There are Loch Ness Monster worship centers on every corner, and no-one can get elected to public office unless they into “Loch Ness Monster bless Scotland” in every second sentence. Furthermore, a considerable portion of the tax you pay goes to support LNM worship (which is of course tax exempt) and you dare not reveal that you don’t believe in the LNM, for fear of being socially ostracized as an evil and stupid person, possibly losing your job, losing custody of your children should you divorce, etc. etc. Under the circumstances, you would be eager to get together with other LNM disbelievers and discuss what a crazy mixed-up country you lived in, and how to cope – you certainly wouldn’t sit around in silence!

  • Tufts Student

    @Hitch: did I ever claim to speak for the 35%? I do, however, speak from the knowledge that many of my atheist friends (yes, what a shocker, I have atheist friends and tolerate their opinions) oppose what TFS is doing, and some of their own members don’t like the course it is taking. These aren’t the people you want to be the public face of atheism at Tufts

  • Hitch

    I have yet to read a word of them that I would find objectionable.

  • muggle

    Not that I care what Tufts has but firstly, why is a college supplying spiritual leaders of any sort that the students could go to a nearby church to access?

    And, secondly, why the assumption that it’s making someone available for all freethinkers? It’s not. It’s making someone available for the religion of Secular Humanism.

  • Other Tufts Student

    To clear up some of the accusations by Tufts Student, who in my opinion must agree with everything in the supposed “joke” article written in the Primary Source piece from the sounds of the arguments being made, most of the student body at Tufts, religious and nonreligious alike, until just recently, had no idea the Tufts Freethought Society even existed. I don’t understand how the accusations of,

    “A lot of campus, and even a sizable portion of the atheist population (which is a fairly significant population at Tufts, hovering around 30-35%) hates what they’re doing”

    can even be made due to the fact that there were very few people other than the members of TFS that knew of the clubs existence. The society recently hosted a week of thought provoking guest speakers and lectures attended by hundreds, so the population is now aware, but this happened not two weeks ago. before then few knew and fewer cared what TFS did. But back to the Chaplaincy topic, the one thing I don’t understand about the arguments against it, such as those coming from Tufts Student, are why do you care? Why do you care that we get this. It won’t change anything in your life. It wont affect anything you do. This is something for us, the atheists who feel its a good idea. It takes nothing away from you, so why do you care other than you just don’t want us to have this for your own conceited and hateful views. If anyone knows one legitimate reason why us having this takes away from a religious student at Tufts, let me know, but in my mind, there are none.

  • Rob

    We do not believe in God nor do we believe in the efficacy of prayer or the importance of the soul.

    Umm…I know several humanists who believe in God and in the soul. Humanism is not so much a religious stance as it is the notion that your fellow man is more important than ideology. That’s why the term secular humanism exists, to distinguish it from general humanism (which can be theistic or non-theistic.)

  • Litesp33d

     Like all words the meaning of them changes over time. In the 20th and 21st century the definition of Humanism is as follows.  A modern movement composed chiefly of non-theistic humanists
    and humanist churches and dedicated to achieving the ethical goals of
    religion without beliefs and rites resting upon superstition.  This somewhat makes a mockery of someone calling themselves a Christian humanist (small h) because Christians (unless they mean cultural Christian ie raised in what would be considered a Christian country) believe in God whereas a Humanist understands that Gods are man made.  Call yourself what you like but if you believe in God you are not a Humanist (capital H).

  • Litespeed

    I find it highly amusing when the religious, trying to make joke say something like  “What do atheists do when they get together? Sit around and pray to no one?”  As far as atheists are concerned that is exactly what the religious are doing.

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