Concerning the new Stanford chaplain for campus atheists

Once upon a time, some of the best church-state minds in American life went toe to toe over a serious question that was very hard to describe in short news reports. The basic question: If there is such a thing as Secular Humanism, a school of thought with its own moral beliefs and sort-of clergy, then why isn’t this a religion just like all the others?

In other words, why is it fine for a Baptist to social worker to receive federal funds if he agrees to preach as a secularist, or a Universalist, but she or he cannot receive those funds if this same Baptist preaches sermons based on traditional Christianity? Why isn’t that a state endorsement of one doctrine over another?

Actually, those arguments never went away. I think most reporters simply gave up trying to cover them.

I thought of that intellectual maze the other day when I saw The San Francisco Chronicle story about an interesting, and in this day and age a rather logical, development on the campus of Stanford University. The headline was blunt: “Stanford gets a chaplain for atheists.”

Wait, wait, we’re not talking about a new appointment in the biology or sociology departments.

Chaplain John Figdor has a divinity degree from Harvard. He counsels those in need and visits the sick. And he works with Stanford students under the Office of Religious Life.

So Figdor is the last guy you’d tag with the “A” word.

But, yes. The chaplain is an atheist.

“People are shocked when I tell them,” Figdor said. “But atheist, agnostic and humanist students suffer the same problems as religious students — deaths or illnesses in the family, questions about the meaning of life, etc. — and would like a sympathetic nontheist to talk to.”

The story asks many of the logical and appropriate questions about this development, including the practical and financial details of how Figdor fits into the structure of the 18 other “professional leaders” linked to the Office of Religious Life on campus. For example, the atheist chaplain is required to have a theological degree and he gets his own clergy parking space and office.

Some atheists and agnostics like this idea. Some are not all that excited.

Atheists, after all, have better things to do with their time on weekends than sit in circles and talk about big ideas.

Armand Rundquist, 26, a Stanford graduate student in electrical engineering and president of AHA! — the campus group of atheists, humanists and agnostics — said many atheists aren’t interested in having a chaplain.

Then they discovered additional benefits to Figdor’s talents.

“He got us some discount tickets to the atheist film festival in San Francisco,” said Rundquist, adding that “it’s been really great” to have Figdor as part of what he called a new movement at Stanford.

In the end, I thought this very interesting news story had two serious holes.

First of all, I kept waiting for some kind of serious response to this development from other campus chaplains — especially from traditional faiths — at Stanford and elsewhere across the nation. I understand that liberal believers would see this as a leap forward for religious, I mean nonreligious, inclusion. That’s part of the story. But were there really no Catholics, Orthodox Jews, Muslims, Eastern Orthodox Christians, evangelicals and others to offer insights into their interactions with their new colleague? None?

Also, I really wanted the SFGate.com team to dig deeper into that fascinating quote from Figdor about the emotional and, yes, spiritual needs of atheists. I am referring to his confession that “atheist, agnostic and humanist students suffer the same problems as religious students — deaths or illnesses in the family, questions about the meaning of life, etc.”

Is it safe to assume that he has already faced challenges such as these? If this is the case, what did he say? What books did he quote? What intellectual prophets did he reference? In short, what is the human content of his ministry?

In short, it’s good to know that his flock celebrated the Seinfeldian season of Festivus and that students still like John Lennon’s “Imagine” and the songs of the band Bad Religion. That’s good stuff. But, in the end, I wanted to know more about this new chaplain’s beliefs and even the content of the comfort that this non-minister offers in times of crisis.

Just saying.

Oh, and by the way: Wasn’t that a rather boring headline in the Chronicle? If you were writing a short, punchy headline for that story, what would you have said?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • sari

    “But atheist, agnostic and humanist students suffer the same problems as religious students — deaths or illnesses in the family, questions about the meaning of life, etc. — and would like a sympathetic nontheist to talk to.””
    The big question here was how an atheist chaplain differs from a psychotherapist.

    • Patrick

      No liability? That, I would guess, would make his care ‘pastoral’, hence chaplainship, etc. He’s not a mental health professional, so all that leaves is some kind of paid ‘inspirer’ or something.

    • http://coalitionforclarity.blogspot.com/ Robert King

      Or a grief counselor; or a life coach; or a social worker; etc.

      This is not meant to be snarky. It’s a legitimate direction the story could have gone. What is the difference between the chaplain’s office and the counseling office at the university? What does one offer that the other does not? Or whom does one serve that the other does not?

      This is also a question that could be asked regarding chaplains of religious faiths, and might have a great deal of bearing on the questions about chaplains in the military. One might discover whether all religions see “chaplains” as fulfilling the same role or not.

  • Jerry

    I’m wondering about the “spiritual but not religious folk” who believe in God. It does not seem like he would be an appropriate chaplain.

    And Sari asks a very cogent question.

  • tmatt

    You’re right, Jerry. That’s another question to ask about the make up of the religious affairs office. Perhaps the spiritual but not religious folks — this is not a joke or a stab — are mixing with the Unitarians.

    • sari

      I also wonder if his job description includes advocacy for nontheist students. Does he step in in response to student complaints?

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    “The big question here was how an atheist chaplain differs from a psychotherapist.” Touché.

    The word “chaplain” derives from “capella,” meaning chapel, which itself derives from the Latin for “cape” after a building that enshrined St. Martin of Tours’ cape that he cut in two to give one-half to a beggar who turned out to be Christ Himself. In other words, the word “chaplain” is suffused with religious meaning. …

    • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

      From the article, page 2:

      The word “chaplain,” with religious origins dating back to the fourth century, “is not a perfect description” for a secular leader, but it demonstrates a parallel status, Schwab said.

  • tmatt

    Readers:
    This is not a place to take a shot at atheists and their beliefs. I will strive to spike comments to that effect.

    • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

      tmatt, I was not taking a shot at atheists but at how the word “chaplain,” as suffused as it is with religious meaning and context, could be applied — either by Stanford or by a journalist — to someone who professes to have no religious faith.

  • FW Ken

    I was thinking social worker more than psychologist, but that’s more my background.

    And yes, the article didn’t answer several questions. I get that the kids like discount movie tickets, interesting, charismatic speakers, and babysitters (thinking down the road a little). But statistics on liberal religious groups suggest that long-term viability is a problem.

    Then there are the practical ethics. Talking about compassion and ethics is fine, but really, what if instead of complaining about homeless shelters having prayer before meal, you opened a shelter. You know… DID SOMETHING. Maybe there is something practical this group is doing, or at least planning something? Shoot, in my town, the biggest night shelter is run by a coalition of liberal religious types (they were started by the Presbyterians) and I’ll bet there are some Nones on the board of directors. Religious liberals can do this sort of thing.

    But that goes back to the core question: are we talking about a religion here?

  • tmatt

    ROBERT:
    That’s close to my thoughts and further reason to have talked to other colleagues in that faiths/unfaith office. To what degree is tolerance and respect working on both sides of the office? It would have been good to have talked with others.

  • Erp

    Stanford did not hire a humanist chaplain; it recognized a humanist chaplain hired by a local humanist community and chosen as a professional leader by a student group (just as it recognizes professional leaders of other student groups such as the Catholic community or the various evangelical Christian groups or the Jewish groups). SF gate also overstated the perks; no parking space goes with the position (just permission to buy a permit to hunt for a parking space along with several thousand other hunters). People might want to look at http://www.stanford.edu/group/religiouslife/cgi-bin/wordpress/students/sar/ which lists some more info on Stanford’s Office for Religious Life including which student groups are affiliated.

    Chaplain is the term used nowadays in the military, in prisons, or in hospitals no matter what religion or life stance (and in the US military, Baptist chaplains are most certainly paid by the government to provide religious services to Baptists). Though the US has no humanist chaplains in the military (unless you count some of the UU military chaplains or perhaps some of the Jewish chaplains), some militaries such as the Dutch do.

  • Dave

    The difference between an atheist chaplain and a social worker is theological training. Atheists, agnostics and humanists, especially when young, can still get caught up in questions like “Why is there anything at all?” or “Can I discern a purpose for my life?” Someone with theological training may help the student through some of those thickets.

    • Jay

      Yes, what you are saying is technically true. Theological training is the big difference; however, do social workers and/or other professionals not have an equally sufficient capability of handling these questions? I would say no, but then again I believe 100% in God. There are many skilled professionals who deal with these types of personal matters and do not have a specific degree in theological training. I know a psychiatrist who goes to my Bible study whose company (partially funded by the state) lets them discuss spiritual and religious matters if the client brings up the topic and wants to talk about it.

  • northcoast

    The Stanford family that endowed the University also donated money for its non-denominational chapel, and I guess that is why this highly regarded institution has an Office of Religious Life. The State universities that I attended had nothing that would be comparable, although there are denominational institutions adjacent to the campus to serve students.

    Haven’t we been reading recently about people seeking to have chaplains provided for atheist soldiers?

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  • bob

    Every story on this blog suggests another. How about asking how it can be that Stanford students, high SAT scores and grades and all the rest come to be so weak in the knees that they need a Chaplain About Nothing (another Seinfeldian idea?) for any reason at all? How did some well heeled donor come to discern this need? I’d love to see the criteria for hiring or firing someone for the position. How do you fail; have a student start believing in something? Whenever I read about what happens at expensive colleges I treasure my state university degree all the more.


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