There’s Nothing Wrong with Having Atheist ‘Leaders’ October 21, 2011

There’s Nothing Wrong with Having Atheist ‘Leaders’

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.

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  • JimG

    The problem (well, one of the problems) with having religious-style leaders for humanist groups is that religious groups are an antiquated model: based, ultimately, on the same notions as divine-right monarchy: that the leader has some sort of supernatural sanction. We know that’s not the case, just as Enlightenment leaders knew about 18th-century politics. There’s nothing wrong with leaders per se, but for humanist groups they should be leaders by common consent, as in a democracy. I think both Leah and Hemant are essentially saying this through caveats for fact-checking and conditional authority.

  • I am NOT against taking some of the good ideas from churches and applying them to humanist communities. What I AM against is giving the faithful an easy excuse to discount us, a built-in reason to say their ridiculous claims about creationism are just as good as our fact and reason-based claims of science. And by calling discussion or debate or any manner of humanist leader a “chaplain” throws us squarely into faith’s ballpark, where they get to apply there illogical and meaningless rulles to our life choices.

  • If the term “chaplains” is too churchy, how about calling them advocates?

    Regardless of the term, it’s natural and inevitable that in even rather incohesive social trends, some people will emerge as leaders, some will be the leaders’ facilitators, some will be leaders’ contradictors, a few will be loyal followers, many will be tentative or casual followers,  and a very large number will be basically disinterested, even though for some reason they fall into the category that defines the trend.

  • PZ Myers said Epstein offered this explanation:

    Humanist chaplains are trained in freethought history & philosophy, ceremony & meeting facilitation, counseling, etc.

    This suggests to me that humanist chaplains are not just leaders.  They’re trained.  Which is cool with me actually.

    But I can also see someone objecting to that, if they think some of that training is unnecessary.  This does not mean they are objecting to leaders in general.

  • IHateLiars

    PZ never complained about “leaders” or argued that “leaders” made anything “churchy”. Now you’re just outright lying about others – not a strawman, a lie. That’s pathetic. Not “friendly,” but pathetic.

    Take a vacation and get your head straightened on again because you’re losing your grip on reality.

  • Onshay

    First, why does everything have to be a “controversy”?

    Second, it is fine to have leaders but organizing to the point of having weekly meetings (or whatever) presided over by a chaplain sounds pretty icky to me and I’d imagine that it’s a turn-off to a lot of other atheists too.

    As has been mentioned, it’s perfectly fine to organize and hold meetings but when you throw someone with a title derived from a religious position as the “leader” I think that’s going the wrong direction. I would certainly think twice about participating in such a group.

  • qtip

    I can’t get my head around why any atheist group would choose the word “Chaplain” … there are so many perfectly good terms they could have chosen. What was their motivation for choosing “Chaplain”? I honestly don’t understand.

  • Andy

    We are in serious trouble if we cannot quickly and easily
    explain the difference between an atheist group that meets on Sunday mornings
    and a religious group that meets on Sunday mornings.  In many ways I think it would serve as a
    wonderful way of comparing and contrasting how we are the same and how we are


    I accept that the word “Chaplin” may be problematic for some
    people in the atheist community that were somehow traumatized by religion.  May I suggest the title of “Sensei” instead?  If not can somebody suggest another title
    that would be better?  Btw, even if you
    have a person that is professionally trained to give interesting talks, referee
    debates, has organizational skills, and how to comfort people in times of grief
    without having to resort to unsupported claims of an afterlife, that doesn’t
    mean that that person is the single point of authority within a group.  You can elect a board that runs things and
    the Sensei is simply a facilitator, or you can separate meetings on the first
    Tuesday of the month were all members in good standing (i.e. paying) are able
    to vote on any and all issues for the group.

  • Andy

    I apologize for the formatting of my post.  I type everything in word first because my spelling is horrible.  Unfortunately for some reason when I copy and paste directly from word it screws up where the new lines are.  I have to remember to copy from word to notepad and then into the comment box to have things come out clean.  Gerrr!

  • Anonymous

    The ‘Sensei’ idea is really interesting.  I’m a big fan of Yudkowsky, who has promoted the idea of rationality dojos.  We don’t have many tight-knit communities devoted to building up people’s ability to reason.  Formal schooling is a lukewarm instantiation of this idea at best, since so many of the people in the group aren’t all that committed to the goals.  

    Yudkowsky actually wrote a strange series of linked short stories imagining what life in a ritualized rationalist community would look like.

  • Seriously? You’re going to live your life by checking everything against what the religious might think? If you’re going to give them that much power over you, why not just admit you lost and stop being an atheist.

  • How to freak out atheists:

    1) Use werds.
    2) See 1)

    This is kind of hilarious to watch, a group of presumably grown adults thinking they’re so weak that they’ll be materially hurt by someone using the words “chaplain”. 

  • Aaron Scoggin

    originally a priest or minister who had charge of a chapel, now anordained member of the clergy who is assigned to a specialministry. The title dates to the early centuries of the Christian church.”Chaplain” is probably not the right word to describe secular leaders, as secularism has nothing to do with the Christian church. 

  • Aaron Scoggin

    Judging by the comments  on here, I’d say you’re wrong. 

  • Anonymous

    You know, there’s this new thing called “Protestantism”.

    And the vast majority of churches use democratic methods to choose pastors. And if the majority of a congregation disagrees with a pastor’s teaching or conduct, they can democratically vote him out of that position.

    Those who don’t know how church leadership works should probably avoid describing it.

  • Erp

    The vast majority of churches (in the world and a significant proportion of US churches) are Catholic or Orthodox and most certainly can’t vote out or in their ministers.   Among Protestant denominations some churches are congregational in style such as most Baptists (voting in and out is the rule), some are limited democracies (only some people can vote as in WELS and some Missouri Synod Lutheran churches where only adult males in good standing can vote), and some more hierarchical (I don’t think Episcopal priests can be voted out though they are voted in [and diocese approves] and  United Methodists appoint from above).   Some churches are also one man (or woman) shows (think  prosperity gospelers).

    Existing Humanist communities tend to be congregational and I suspect the ‘leader”s power may range from full fledged leader (possibly the founder of the local chapter) to the person who handles the paperwork and sees that everyone knows what everyone else is doing to the person who handles ‘rituals’ (weddings, etc.) and counseling (visiting the sick, the distressed, or the bereaved, helping with funeral arrangements).

  • Joel Justiss

    “Unlike churches, we can all be leaders of our own tribes.”

    From my experience with a great variety of churches, I’d revise that to “Just like churches…”.

    One thing I learned when I abandoned religion is that there is no one “right” way to do things.  There is an unlimited number of ways to help people.  I personally wouldn’t seek to become a chaplain because of my opposition to warfare, but I wouldn’t criticize someone who sees the role of chaplain as an important way to serve military personnel.  If that’s what you want to devote your efforts to, I’d say go for it.

    I’m also less picky about language than I was as a Christian.  I’ve realized that (at least for English) dictionaries aren’t authoritative.  They merely reflect the meanings that people give to words as they use them.  Languages grow and become richer as people begin to use words in non-traditional ways.  The word “chaplain” may have Christian roots, but it is now the standard term used by the military for representatives of all religions, and there is no reason not to expand its meaning to include non-religious people who serve as leaders and counselors.

  • LOL. 

    Yeah, the “OMG THEY USED ‘CHAPLAINS’, NOW THE THEISTS WILL USE THAT AGAINST US AAAAH!!!!!!” comments from the humanist group in boston article support your statement so VERY well.

  • Official Rule of Teh Tehist-Hater Atheizt Clubz: PZ IS ALWAYS RIGHT.

  •  Words have meaning and some people like to communicate accurately.   Do you call your daughter your wife?

  • Secular Humanists claim not to be practicing a religion.   A chaplain is a religious representative.     So they are sending a confusing message if they are going to call their leaders chaplains.   Are they a religion or not?    Sounds like they are.    If they aren’t religious representatives then they shouldn’t be called chaplins. 

    It’s pretty ridiculous next they’ll have Mullahs and Imams, and yet expect not to be seen as a religion.

  • Words have meanings but no ability to harm or change physical objects. If I call my (imaginary) daughter my wife, it does not transform her into my wife, nor would it make someone correct in stating she is now my wife. 

    By the same token, just because an atheist group calls their leader a chaplain, a colonel, or a grand poobah does not make them a church, the army or the grand order of water buffalos. The fact that a bunch of idiot theists may use that as yet another excuse to say yet more stupid things about atheists is the weakest, most spineless excuse on the planet, and is effectively giving them power over you. “We can’t do that, WHAT WILL THE THEISTS SAY????”

    Seriously, do you actually think about stuff, or just spout the drivel your elders tell you to.

  • and if they call themselves colonels, they might be confused with the military.

    by really, really stupid people.

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