Leah Libresco (who’s now on Patheos!) adds her thoughts to the “chaplain controversy.”
She answers the question of whether a Humanist group should have a leader or whether that makes us too “church-y”:
An egalitarian community can still have people specialize and take on leadership roles. Anarchy is not the only way to respect the members of an organization and let them contribute…
It can be completely rational to create structures of authority and even to let your Grand Panjandrum trump your own judgment. Just condition your submission on the trust they’ve earned and make sure their claims have real-world implications that serve as fact-checking, so you can update your assessment of their authority.
She’s right on that, of course. There’s nothing wrong with having a leader, regardless of what we call them. Unlike churches, we have no problem fact-checking our leaders and calling them out if necessary.
What about the suggestion that having “chaplains” means we’re just like a religion? It’s flimsy at best. It’s an honorific, not a capitulation to faith. Different groups are going to function in different ways. If one group wants to hold special ceremonies, sing songs, have weekly meditation sessions, and do community service, I don’t know why any atheist would have a problem with it. None of those things are anti-secular. A fixed celebration doesn’t imply automatic mind-numbing.
If it’s not your thing, go start your own group. Unlike churches, we can all be leaders of our own tribes.
There’s a reason groups like American Atheists and the American Humanist Association both exist — they cater to very different groups of people. Same goes for Humanist Sunday Schools, local Meetup groups, and campus atheist organizations — some of us prefer one over the others. But the more ways we get our message out there, the more people we can reach. (And hopefully, we can work together when needed.)
To suggest that one group is less worthy than another because its leader takes the best ideas from church culture and applies them in a secular way is pretty petty.