Humanist Chaplains

A group of non-religious students at Tufts want an institutionally appointed spiritual guide, just like the Christians, Jews and Muslims have. Is this the next wave of campus clergy?
November 12, 2009

While many higher-education institutions have been affiliated with particular religions since their founding, there has been a broad movement in recent years to accommodate religious diversity by enlisting additional chaplains to serve different faith groups, such as Muslims, Jews, Hindus and various Christian denominations that might not have been present at institutions' foundings.

Now an organization of non-religious students at Tufts University is saying: Hey, what about us?

The Tufts Freethought Society -- a group of about 150 students who identify as atheistic, agnostic, or otherwise non-religious -- wants the university to establish a “humanist” chaplaincy to serve as a resource for students who are interested in exploring how to live “ethical and meaningful lives” without subscribing to any religion.

They may not be alone, according to Alexander W. Astin, founding director of the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles, who has studied the issue. “Most students -- religious and non-religious -- have an interest in what we consider to be spiritual issues: the meaning of life, their most deeply felt values, why they're in college, what kinds of lives they want to lead, how connected they feel to others, etc.,” Astin wrote in an e-mail.

“The current chaplaincies just don’t address the needs of those students,” said Xavier Malina, president of the society at Tufts. “A lot of students might want spiritual guidance but don’t feel comfortable going to the available chaplains on campus, [who] might not satisfy their spiritual needs.”

“Perhaps there is some validity there,” said Don Brewington, president of the National Association of College and University Chaplains. However, Brewington added that spiritual guidance may require “a little more than humanism will and can provide.”

“Using the word ‘spiritual' -- that seems to be somewhat contradictory,” he said.

Still, Brewington said he was reluctant to pass judgment on the notion of a humanist chaplaincy, since Wednesday -- when he learned about the Tufts campaign -- was the first he had ever heard of such a thing.

That's probably because there are only three such chaplaincies in the country. Only Harvard University, Rutgers University, and Adelphi University retain humanist chaplains, according to Harvard’s Greg Epstein. Stanford University and Columbia University have had them in past years, Epstein said, but the positions are currently vacant.

Epstein, who grew up Reformed Jewish and studied Buddhism and Taoism before becoming certified as a "humanist rabbi" by the Harvard Divinity School, said the paucity of Humanist chaplains on college campuses is a shame.

“Right now, higher education is failing miserably to provide a place on campus where non-religious students can find purpose, compassion, and community,” Epstein says.

“A lot of students come to campus knowing they’re not religious, but also not knowing what they do believe,” says. The opportunities for discussion, meditation, and service that grow out a chaplaincy “help them learn more about the positive aspects of their identity,” he says, “not just what they don’t believe in.”

So what does a humanist chaplain do?

Barry Klassel said he has held three meetings since he was appointed at Rutgers in October. At the first, Klassel introduced himself with a series of slides — the geometry of a galaxy, cave paintings, his granddaughter — each illustrating what he considers profound truths of the human condition: our desire to know about our universe, to make our mark on history, and to survive and propagate our species.

At the second meeting, he broke the students into groups and had them discuss their own beliefs about how they fit into in the universe, as well as their personal challenges and how to meet them. At the third meeting, Klassel invited two professors to discuss theories of ethical behavior.

“Humanism is about the whole human being,” he told Inside Higher Ed. “When I talk about things that inspire me, I’m talking about things that actually move me … imagination, creativity, respect for what we find beautiful, and what we find ugly.”

Science and reason are important, Klassel said, “but when you want to address the whole human being, you also have to address imagination, creativity, the senses, [and] the memory.”

Epstein, who recently wrote a book on Humanism called Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe, said he is working with the Harvard Divinity School to formulate a curricular track for humanist chaplains, similar to the school’s track for aspiring Unitarian Universalist ministers.

“This is one of those things that there needs more top-down investment to bring out the grassroots support,” he said. “People like philanthropists and university administrators need to invest in this new strategy, because I think they’re going to realize that there’s a huge constituencies on their own campuses that they’re not serving.”


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