Why I am a Humanist Chaplain

Why I am a Humanist Chaplain December 18, 2012

This piece originally appeared at harvardhumanist.org.

This post is a part of the Humanist Community at Harvard’s 2012 Blogathon, a 12 hour blogging marathon by Chris Stedman and Chelsea Link to support HCH’s end-of-the-year fundraiser. Chelsea and Chris are both publishing one new post per hour, for twelve hours straight, and none of the posts have been written or drafted in advance. For more blogathon posts, click here. If you enjoyed this post or any of the others, please consider consider chipping in to support our work.

I’m often asked, “What is a Humanist Chaplain, exactly?” Usually the questioner places a strong emphasis on the word is, or on Chaplain, or both. Often the question is accompanied by either a quizzical facial expression or a look of unadulterated bewilderment.

I get the confusion. Why would an atheist and a Humanist be a Chaplain, which is defined by Mirriam-Webster as “a clergyman officially attached to a branch of the military, to an institution, or to a family or court” or “a person chosen to conduct religious exercises (as at a meeting of a club or society)”?

When I enrolled in a theological school to study for a Master’s in Religion in Pastoral Care and Counseling, I wasn’t setting out to be a Humanist Chaplain. I wanted to study religion — to try to better understand religious communities. I went to seminary to learn alongside people preparing for professional religious leadership because I wanted to understand how religious communities function, why they gather, and what they do. I also wanted to see how religious communities interacted with one another, and if it was possible to bridge the gaps between them.

In that respect, I began to do interfaith work with Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC) — and though I wasn’t sure I would, I found that there was an important place for atheists in this work. But I noticed there weren’t many atheists involved, and wanted to understand why. Semantic issues with the term “interfaith” aside, I began to recognize that the absence of the nonreligious in interfaith work was partially explained by the lack of nonreligious communities connected to it. Those who excel at transcending religious differences through interfaith work are frequently grounded in their own community, and many of them have found interfaith work because their own religious communities helped connect them to it. So I set off on a search to find out what kinds of atheist communities existed. Sure enough, I found atheist and Humanist communities — and as I did, many of them expressed an interest in interfaith work.

In their excellent book American Grace, Robert Putnam and David Campbell found that religious Americans are much more civically engaged than the nonreligious. They give more to charity — both religious and secular charities — they volunteer more time to charitable causes, and they’re more involved in their communities. But Putnam and Campbell reported that a high level of civic engagement was not correlated with how devoutly religious a person is, but instead with how involved he or she was in a religious community. They also reported that an atheist spouse who attended services was as likely to be civically engaged as a religious person. Thus, they suggested that nonreligious communities could serve a similar function in inspiring and connecting people to be civically engaged.

For similar reasons, I decided I wanted to be a Humanist Chaplain — I wanted to help organize nonreligious communities. Not only because I think nonreligious communities help atheists, agnostics, and other secular folks have an opportunity to enter into interfaith contexts, but also because I think communities can provide many benefits to participants. (For more on why this is the case for nonreligious individuals, check out a recent Humanist Community Project announcement.)

Does every Humanist community need a “Humanist Chaplain”? Probably not. But I think that communities do need some kind of infrastructure in order to function and be sustainable. Our staff of five plays an important role in supporting our community. We plan programs, run a community center in Harvard Square, raise money for our events, and communicate news and updates to the general community.

Personally speaking: more than anything else, I see my job as a community organizer. I meet with members of our community, ask what kinds of programs they’d like to see, and work with them to organize these programs. Our events are collaboratively planned, with help from both staff and volunteers. I coordinate our interfaith community service program, Values in Action, and I can tell you that none of our events would be possible without the hard work of volunteers. For example: our last major event — a meal-packing event that packaged 40,000 meals for food-insecure children around Boston — relied heavily on volunteers. And we wouldn’t have it any other way. A healthy community is a collaborative one.

So, why not just call my job a “Community Organizer”? Well… I’d actually be totally fine with that. But Harvard categorizes positions like mine under the title of “Chaplain.” There are almost 40 Chaplains at Harvard, representing a variety of worldviews — many of which are non-Christian. We all use the same word because we all want to ensure that all students and community members have access to the same resources, and that they get equal representation. Additionally, my job includes doing “Pastoral Care” work. Many students want someone to talk to, and I make myself available for them. I’ll never forget an incident last year, when a student called me with a personal emergency and had no one else to turn to; I immediately ended the meeting I was in and went to go speak with the student. Having people available to help in times of need, or just to listen, can be vitally important.

I didn’t write this post to persuade you that “Chaplain” is the best word to use, or that anyone should necessarily use it. But I hope I have explained why I use it right now, and why having a resource for nonreligious people in a campus setting (or community members across the board) can be valuable.

When I was a college student studying religion, I realized I didn’t believe in God. This was a difficult time for me — many of my relationships had been created through participation in the church, and my identity was tied up in my religious beliefs. I didn’t feel like there was anyone I could talk to who understood my changing beliefs, or could help me sort out what I was going through. I felt extremely isolated. If there had been a Humanist Chaplain and a community on my campus, it would have made a huge difference.

So call it what you want, but I love that I have a job where I get to work with others on building a community that helps people. Or as Mark Vonnegut said: “We’re here to get each other through this thing, whatever it is.” Chaplain, community organizer, whatever it is — let’s help each other build community.

Chris Stedman is the Assistant Humanist Chaplain at Harvard and the Values in Action Coordinator for the Humanist Community at Harvard. He is the author of Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious, and the founder of the blog NonProphet Status.

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