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.