An Interview About the Future of the Harvard Humanist Chaplaincy

The Humanist Community at Harvard — headed by Greg Epstein, with Chris Stedman serving as Interfaith and Community Service Fellow — is about to undergo some big changes.

Not only are some new hires coming from Secular Student Alliance affiliate groups, a brand new community is being created at Stanford University headed by Jonathan Figdor (the current Assistant Humanist Chaplain at Harvard). This is very exciting news for anyone who wonders whether there’s a future in the movement for our best young activists.

Greg and Chris filled me in about some of the new hires, the creation of the Humanist Community at Stanford, and the future of the Harvard group.

What was it about Conrad Hudson that made you want to hire him as Executive Assistant to the Chaplain/Administrative Manager?

Conrad Hudson at the CFI Leadership Conference (Photo credit: CFI)

Chris Stedman: We are so thrilled that Conrad is joining us at the Humanist Community at Harvard. He brings a wealth of experience in supporting community-building efforts for the nonreligious — from the creativity and dedication he put into founding and organizing ReasonFest, to the leadership he demonstrated with the University of Kansas Society of Open-Minded Atheists & Agnostics and as the treasurer and audit committee chair for the board of directors for the national Secular Student Alliance, Conrad has experience and enthusiasm to spare.

Conrad is joining us at a really exciting time. We’re going to have a lot going on in the fall and beyond at HCH. As we enter a period of significant growth, Conrad is an ideal person to bring on. He’s such an efficient, visionary organizer; someone who is really talented at facilitating experiences for others. He has demonstrated an ability to juggle several projects simultaneously and make it seem really smooth for everyone involved, so I think he’s going to help HCH be more proficient and more balanced. He’s one of the most passionate, hardworking young Humanist leaders in the country, and he shares our vision for Humanist community — so it feels like a perfect fit.

What was it about Chelsea Link that made you want to hire her as a Campus Organizing Fellow?

Chelsea Link (left) with HCH 2012 Outstanding Lifetime Achievement Award in Cultural Humanism honoree Mary Roach (Photo credit: Meredith Keffer)

Chris Stedman: Chelsea also has a ton of experience in Humanist leadership under her belt; she was the Vice President of Outreach of the Harvard Secular Society, and she currently sits on the board of directors for the national Secular Student Alliance. Additionally, Chelsea has done a good deal of work around bringing atheists and the religious into dialogue and common action — like Conrad, she’s an alumnus of Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC) programs. She also served as an Alumni Coach for IFYC, was the President of Harvard College’s Interfaith Council, and played a big role in supporting our Values in Action interfaith and community service program. Her interfaith efforts are just a part of her significant commitment to social justice — last year, she was recognized with a Service to Humanity Award for her many philanthropic endeavors.

In addition to Chelsea’s obvious leadership skills and her dedication to equality and justice, she’s an experienced community organizer. When she was in high school Chelsea founded and directed an innovative summer camp, and since then she was responsible for so many student programs at Harvard. Her passion and dedication for taking the initiative to organize and execute unique, collaborative programs that further Humanist values really sealed the deal for us.

I can’t really put into words just how excited we are about Chelsea and Conrad. They’re generous and kind, intelligent and hardworking. We’re lucky to have them join us as collaborators.

How many staffers are now at the HCH? How many were there, say, a year ago?

Chris Stedman: At this time last year, Greg and [Assistant Humanist Chaplain] John Figdor were the only two full-time staff members at HCH, while Sarah Chandonnet (HCH’s incredibly talented and dedicated Outreach and Development Manager) and I were both part-time. Last summer, Sarah and I moved to full-time, and the brilliant James Croft came on as a Research and Education Fellow. Now, we’re adding two new full-time members to our staff — bringing us to five full-time staff members.

When I joined the staff in November of 2010 as a part-time contractor, we were a very earnest, very scrappy crew working with very slim resources. Sarah, John, Greg, and I coordinated an independent nonprofit organization trying to do a lot with a little, and relied heavily on our volunteers. (We still do — our community remains, and because of our mission always will be, extremely volunteer-driven.) When I made the decision to join HCH to coordinate Humanist student programs and pilot our interfaith-nontheist community service initiative, Values in Action, it was a gamble. I took a leap, put my student loan payments into forbearance, found the cheapest sublet I could get in Boston, and committed to the idea that I was going to put everything I could into making it work. Since then I’ve had other job offers that would allow me to do more than just start making my student loan payments again, but I haven’t really entertained them because this is where I want to be, and this is the work I want to be doing.

Though we’ve grown a lot in the last couple of years — our community is thriving and diversifying, and the impact of Values in Action on the local community has exceeded my wildest hopes — we’re still doing a lot with a little. This isn’t the place to work if you’re trying to get rich. If you’re at HCH, it’s because you love it. But because my colleagues and I love what we do, it makes the work that much more enjoyable. We’re still small and scrappy, but we’re growing because we are passionate about promoting Humanist community and Humanist values.

It’s rewarding to see Chelsea and Conrad join the team, as they are two of the exceptional, emerging young Humanist activists we’ve been lucky to work with over the last few years. Chelsea has been a part of our community on the ground, but we’ve also worked closely with Conrad. Watching them develop into engaged, passionate activists has confirmed my belief that it is essential to invest in young people — something our friends at the Secular Student Alliance, Center for Inquiry on Campus, and Interfaith Youth Core do so well — because they’ll carry this movement and its values into the next generation. We’re fortunate to get to play a role in the personal and professional development of people like Conrad, Chelsea, and all of the students we’ve worked with over the years, and I’m excited to see Chelsea and Conrad support new young leaders in their roles at HCH.

How did John Figdor end up beginning a Chaplaincy at Stanford? Was that Harvard’s doing? Or did Stanford approach you? What will he be doing there? How will that group be different than the Harvard one?

Greg Epstein: John is going out to Stanford to direct a new, independent organization, so for the most part I’d let him — and members of that new community — speak to your question. There are a few things I can say from my point of view, though.

I’m very proud to see John, with whom I’ve personally worked for five years here at Harvard, get a chance to go out and start something in such an incredible place. When we hired him as Assistant Chaplain two years ago, the plan was for it to be a two year appointment, and for him to explore what he wanted to do next during that time — so this is an ideal result in a lot of ways. From what I hear, there are going to be several obvious parallels between the Humanist community at/around Stanford, and our community at Harvard. And I think it’s safe to say that our collective success here and the positive, community-oriented approach we’ve taken were influential on those folks’ decision to start something in the first place. I mean, during John’s time here, we’ve done some amazing things together, and not only will he take the best of those experiences with him, I also take the long view that we — him, myself, and the other leaders of our respective organizations — are going to be working together, collaborating, for many years to come. The goal is for thriving Humanist communities to become the norm across the U.S. That’s something I think we’re all looking forward to achieving together.

All that said, Figdor definitely has his own style and his own way of doing things, that may have been a little obscured over the years while he was working with me, with us. Now that he’s leading his own thing, you guys are going to see John unleashed, or unfiltered or — I’m not sure what the best metaphor to go with here is — but it’s going to be big. He’s going to make a mark.

John Figdor

John Figdor: Let me begin by clarifying that we are not launching a Humanist Chaplaincy at Stanford, but are launching a Humanist Community at Stanford (HCS). My fellow heathens have convinced me that the term “Chaplaincy” smacks too much of religiosity. Additionally, it puts the focus of the community on the Chaplain, and for Humanists, the Chaplain isn’t the focal point of the Community. I’ll be the Executive Director of the Humanist Community at Stanford, using the term “Chaplain” only when performing Humanist rituals, such as weddings, funerals, and baby-namings, Interfaith events (I know, we need a better name for this, like just “service,” but I digress…), and other appropriate contexts. In the community, I’d rather just be known as John.

Also, let me clarify that I won’t be beginning a community at Stanford, but am working with an incredible Board of Directors that interviewed me and offered me the job, and will be helping me plan an awesome year of service events, speakers, and community programs. While the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard didn’t launch my program, I am very thankful for its support, particularly Greg’s, in giving me the training and expertise I needed, serving as a test lab for me to experiment with community programs, and giving me exposure. Without Greg, I never would have met the person who assembled the Board of Directors, flew me out to interview in Palo Alto, and hosted me at his house.

As for what I will be doing there, let me begin by saying that the Board of Directors is working on developing a mission statement to focus what my mission as Executive Director of the HCS would be. However, that said, I will be doing things like bringing in speakers, organizing student and community events and programs, coordinating with other Humanist/Atheist groups in the NorCal area, meeting with students for Humanist “philosophical counseling,” and writing/speaking/debating about Humanism. All of this is a direct carry-over from my role as the Assistant Humanist Chaplain at the Humanist Community at Harvard (*yes, it also changed its name). However, at the Humanist Community at Stanford, I will also be doing things like visiting Humanists in the hospital and helping launch and promote Humanist discussion groups at Silicon Valley tech companies (following on a successfully established model). In many ways — and perhaps, most strikingly, visually — the Humanist Community at Stanford and the Humanist Community at Harvard (HCH) will be quite similar. However, there is one somewhat significant difference in focus between the two organisations. While HCH presents the Lifetime Achievement Award in Cultural Humanism and promotes Humanism and the Arts, I intend for the Humanist Community at Stanford to focus on the Humanist idea of using technology to solve problems. This is not to say that HCS doesn’t care about the arts (after all, I went to a liberal arts college and studied Philosophy), or that HCH doesn’t care about Science (Steven Pinker and E. O. Wilson are on Harvard’s Advisory Board), but instead reflects the diversity of approaches to Humanism.

Besides expanding outreach on campus, what is the long-term goal of the Humanist Community at Harvard?

Greg Epstein: Two things. First, we’re working to create a community around this university that truly reflects the best of the incredible human beings who live here and live by humanistic values. A university is a microcosm of the entire world, only with a particularly intense focus on attracting innovators and leaders, and on attracting the kind of critical thinkers who tend to be atheists and agnostics at higher rates than the general population. But foremost, the people here are people, they’re human beings who have many of the same needs for community as anyone else. So for us that means starting a Sunday school so people with kids can come together to teach them humanistic values and identity; it means dramatically expanding our celebrant program so we can begin to meet the huge demand we’re seeing for beautiful secular weddings, funerals, baby namings, etc.; it means helping more and more students feel supported in their quest discover the most meaningful life they can possibly live, in a world where meaning does not get handed to you by god, a church, a guru, the forces of the universe, or anything else. We’re working to discover and build that community in a way that is completely consistent with science, completely focused on this world…and also creative and fun and daring.

Our second long-term goal may be less obvious for an organization like ours, and I’ll say less about it right now. But I for one wouldn’t be doing all of this at the local level unless I believed it was worth doing globally. A lot of us around here see the day coming where this kind of community is going to be everywhere. And we’re doing our part to make that happen.

What will HCH be doing in the coming year in terms of events/projects?

Greg Epstein: We’ve got a lot of fun things in the works — 2012-13 will be our biggest and best year yet in terms of programs people can participate in, whether they’re at Harvard or not, and even whether they live in Boston or not.

We’ll be starting a pilot Sunday School program, researching and maybe even working with other Humanist Sunday Schools elsewhere in the country. People interested in that should contact us now at info@harvardhumanist.org — we’re especially looking for local families with kids at the moment. Others elsewhere can expect to be able to read about and learn from our experience over the course of the year. Chris and Chelsea will obviously continue their great work on our Values in Action community service programs, including the one coming up in New Orleans in June. And we’ll continue giving out our Lifetime Achievement Award in Cultural Humanism and some of the other things people have gotten to know us for.

Also, for the first time we’re going to host a series of monthly public programs, throughout the year, exploring a single topic. The idea is to really get into depth about a particular aspect of Humanism each year, and to provide content that groups elsewhere can follow and learn from and contribute to. We’ll announce details on the topic itself later in the summer but for now I’ll say it will be at least somewhat connected to the last public forum we hosted this year, where our guest was Dr. Paul Zak, the neuroeconomist from Claremont University in CA. You may have seen Zak’s famous TED talk on trust, morality, and the brain chemical oxytocin — we had him give a special version of it focusing on how oxytocin can promote trust-building and more fulfilling experiences for those looking to build community for atheists and agnostics. As part of the session, we sang songs like “All You Need is Love” and even “Love Train” (it had to be the first group of humanists to publicly sing that one in this century!), led people through a five minute “metta” (or loving-kindness) meditation, and then as part of saying goodbye to people until the fall, we took Zak up on his strong recommendation that you need 8 hugs a day to maintain an optimal oxytocin level. Do we sound flaky if you weren’t there? Quite possibly. Am I sorry? Hell no. It was the kind of experiential program we intend to do a lot more of, and judging by the reaction of the once-again completely jam packed crowd, it went over really well.

In terms of how all of that relates to our program series for the fall, though? Again, we’ll make more announcements later. I’d love to have you and your readers be the first to know!

How will HCH’s success help/affect people who don’t attend Harvard?

Greg Epstein: Oh, in a lot of ways. I’ve already said a mouthful here though. If I could close by emphasizing one thing, it is this: over the past few years, I’ve lost count of all the people who’ve written to us saying they were inspired by some aspect of what we were doing to build positive Humanist community, and they wanted to know how they could get involved, whether they lived in Kansas or California or wherever. But we had no infrastructure to help them. Just reading the email could be overwhelming. That’s going to be different now. Though we’re still relatively small, we want to hear from folks again, starting in July or so. There are a lot of ways we can work together.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • Tom_Nightingale

    Great to hear from Greg and John on the Humanist “Community” project.  I’m still used to calling it a Chaplaincy hence “”, but I like the change.  I want to smack the people who say “this SMACKS of” anything.  Really annoying to me.  I think John’s comment that the new title ”puts the focus of the community on the Chaplain, and for Humanists, the Chaplain isn’t the focal point of the Community.”  Is all that needs to be said.

    And it’s true, the community is the center, and the chaplain mainly a facilitator.

    I’m proud to have attended the New Humanism conference at Harvard back in 2007.  It gave me hope that there were others out there more interested in improving the lives of nonbelievers in addition to addressing religious issues.

    Looking forward to more great stuff from Greg, John, and the thriving humanist communities they help sustain!

  • Jfigdor

    Thanks for your support, Tom!