Yale Humanist Community Applies for Official Recognition from Campus Ministries… and Gets Rejected

When the Yale Humanist Community formed last year, they were hoping to eventually become one of Yale’s Religious Ministries — given the same sort of credibility and weight, so to speak, as the Roman Catholic, Quaker, Sikh, Hindu, Baptist, etc. communities. Yes, they were non-religious, but they offered many of the same benefits to students as the other groups did, provided a solid foundation and identity for non-religious students on campus, and sought to become a part of the larger dialogue about faith on campus.

Unfortunately, they recently received word that their application was rejected:

“We had a good discussion at that time, and individuals expressed thoughtful concerns, positive feedback and diverse wise counsel to me,” said University Chaplain Sharon Kugler in an email to the News. “[But] after much discernment, I decided that the nonreligious nature of the YHC did not fit with membership in a group with explicitly religious self-definition.”

some members of the humanist community felt that YRM’s lack of recognition deprives the YHC of a valuable platform. Before Kugler’s decision was announced, [YHC director of operations Paul] Chiariello expressed hope that official University recognition could help dispel some general misconceptions about humanism.

It’s a disappointment, even if you believe atheists shouldn’t be involved in anything “interfaith.” Not because the atheists won’t be there for the students but because their office won’t carry the official title, whatever that might mean.

(Incidentally, the Harvard Chaplains include the Humanists without a problem.)

Chris Stedman, the YHC’s Coordinator of Humanist Life, issued this response on the group’s website:

Unfortunately, we were not granted membership to the YRM because we explicitly identify as a nonreligious organization. But this decision in no way changes any of the above statements. We will continue in our work to build a community for the nonreligious at Yale and beyond, and we will continue to seek out opportunities for collaboration with religious communities at Yale and beyond.

Though this is not the outcome we had hoped for, it does not dampen our enthusiasm for Humanist community at Yale, nor does it alter our aspirations. We remain dedicated to building a relationship of goodwill with the Yale Chaplain’s Office, and to collaborating with them as much as possible. There is much more work to be done, and we are just getting started. From the very beginning of the YRM membership application process I saw our application as the start of a new and exciting conversation — regardless of the outcome. Today, I remain eager to advance that conversation about community, support, and resources for the nonreligious at Yale.

When even Chris Stedman gets rejected from something that’s supposed to be “interfaith,” you know atheists have an uphill battle. It’s the same sort of backwards thinking we’ve seen in the military, where atheist soldiers have needs that religious chaplains just can’t properly address. Instead of opening the door a little wider to make things better for everyone, they’re sticking by their definition of what a chaplaincy ought to be and believing in God is a prerequisite.

I just don’t understand what Yale Religious Ministries stands to lose by accepting the YHC into its fold.

I asked Chris what the YHC plans to do in the future — will they apply again in the future? — and he said this via email:

While we certainly aren’t ruling out the possibility of reapplying at some point down the road, that’s a conversation that’s internal to the Yale Humanist Community Board right now. Currently, our primary focus is on continuing our work with the community of atheists, agnostics, and the nonreligious at and around Yale — on demonstrating through this work that we are in fact a valuable resource and an integral aspect of diversity at Yale — and on expanding our relationship with the Yale Chaplain’s Office.

We will work with [the Yale Chaplain's Office] to ensure that all students are served, and represented, in responses to crisis or tragedy on campus. We will also co-sponsor interfaith dialogue and community service events.

By the way, Chris will be inducted as a Davenport College Fellow this week, which represents a formal affiliation with Yale on an individual level, which is at least a step in the right direction.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • The Other Weirdo

    Wait, I’m confused. Now atheism is not a religion? Who knew?

    • momtarkle

      But, Reverend Hambone sez it is!

    • ATM

      Secular humanism is much more than atheism and it was ruled to be equivalent to a religion by the Supreme Court I believe back in 1956. If secular humanism is equivalent then I would think that it should have the rights and privileges to congregate.

      • Erp

        Not quite right. In 1961 in Torcaso v. Watkins which ruled that the government at any level could not require a holder of a public office to affirm belief in God. As a remark in a footnote it was stated:

        “Among religions in this country which do not teach what would generally be considered a belief in the existence of God are Buddhism, Taoism, Ethical Culture, Secular Humanism and others.”

        However that is a footnote and not a statement of legal status. It references Fellowship of Humanity v. County of Alameda 1957 where a specific humanist group won recognition as a religion for tax purposes but not ‘Secular Humanism’ (a term never mentioned in that decision) as a whole.

  • Mick

    If I was in a group that started calling itself a religious ministry I’d let my membership lapse.

    • momtarkle

      A lapsed member is not a pretty sight.

  • Ewan

    They might have some things, even many things, in common with religious groups, but they’re not one. You can make a case that Yale shouldn’t have a group specifically for ‘Religious Ministries’ at all, but not that the humanist group suddenly becomes either religious or a ministry just because they do.

  • ZenDruid

    I reckon Paganism has enough of a pragmatic basis in naturalism and humanism, and thus probably rates a better chance by the loose criteria of ‘religion’.

  • duke_of_omnium

    I actually see Yale’s point here: when you insist that you’re not a religion, then it shouldn’t surprise you when somebody agrees with you.

    That said, if a groups is providing — for lack of a better word — “para-religious” services (such as counseling), equity seems to demand that they be entitled to whatever goodies are furnished to other service providers.

  • Smiles

    Would offering them a “honorary membership” be out of the question? Let them draw their own lines, but still include those who have something to offer the community and the discussion.

  • Erp

    Seems odd. Stanford had no problem in including its Atheists, Humanists, and .Agnostics group in their equivalent, Stanford Associated Religions. Though a difference seems to be that at Yale the non-student professional leader (often know as a chaplain) joins while at Stanford it is the student group that joins with or without a professional leader. Another seems to be that others already recognized by Religous Ministries get a major say on newcomers; at Stanford only the university deans for religious life (the equivalent of Yale’s Chaplain office Chaplain and Associate Chaplains) who are university employees get a say.

    For Yale the agreement includes the following condition (recognized by a faith community) which I suspect is what got choked on by some (and not I suspect by the Chaplain’s Office proper).

    1. I affirm that the religious organization I represent on campus is recognized by a faith community and acknowledged by the University Chaplain, to both of whom I will be accountable.

    See http://chaplain.yale.edu/sites/default/files/YRMagreement.doc

    for the full document.

    Have the student leaders joined the Yale inter-religious council which seems to be separate from the Religious Ministries?

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

    I just don’t understand what Yale Religious Ministries stands to lose by accepting the YHC into its fold.

    They have much to lose. They’ll lose that Yacht Club Feeling. It’s that wonderful sense of exclusivity, specialness, and superiority that comes from being in the Great Spook’s favor. It’s that delicious ability to turn away those for whom they have disdain and contempt that they can just barely conceal, begrudgingly, only because of some vague and fading memory, something their mothers said long, long ago about being polite.

    If those heeyoomannists are allowed in and they provide all the same practical, real-world, people-to-people services that the (ahem) real ministries provide but without the gauzy mystique of their various Great Spooks, then it will start to become apparent that the mystique is an unnecessary part of what they do. It will become apparent that they’re all just being humane, and oh no, no, that will never do. There’s no Yacht Club Feeling in just being humane. That’s some plebeian thing those… heeyoomannists do.

  • Abbé Faria

    A better question is why do these schools have chaplain offices to begin with? If you want to talk to a priest, go to a church, don’t demand that the school provide you with ‘spiritual guidance’ as well as an education.

  • Ateu, e dai?

    Just change the name to Yale Pastafarian Community and go get your official recognition…