Tuesday, 19 December 2017

The C Word

I've had two letters recently from humanists who are exploring the possibility of working in chaplaincy, which is very encouraging.

A few years ago, I wrote an article about the problems humanists have with the very idea of chaplaincy and, as things don't appear to have changed a great deal outside of my own university, I thought it might be worth posting the original piece here.

If you're a student, or a would-be humanist chaplain, I hope you'll find it of at least some interest and I'd welcome your thoughts. 


Humanist Chaplain? Yes, it sounds like an oxymoron, but just as there are atheists in foxholes, there are humanists in chaplaincy, and their number is growing. 

The best-known hail from the USA. Greg Epstein is the Humanist Chaplain at Harvard, whose book “Good Without God” made the New York Times best-selling list a few years back, while on the opposite coast, John Theodore has just been appointed to that role at Stanford. As atheists are the least-trusted, most feared segment of American society, it’s encouraging that in these progressive centres of learning, a humanist presence is not merely tolerated but actively welcomed.

At Universities in the UK, humanist chaplains are generally conspicuous by their absence, but things are changing. Mandy Evans-Ewing is the Humanist Chaplain at both The University of Glasgow, and Glasgow Caledonian University, which is great - until you discover that there are no humanist students, and no student humanist societies at either of them.

By contrast in Edinburgh, there’s no Humanist Chaplain (I wrote this back in 2013, when I was still only a 'belief contact') although there is a large and active student Humanist Society, and lots of humanist students. 

Their pastoral needs are met by the multi-faith team at the Chaplaincy Centre who minister to “All Faiths and None”, but as they admit, not many humanists rock up looking for their guidance and advice. The reason - I suspect - is The C Word.

Chaplain is just one of many words including pastor, spirituality and service, that rankle with non-religious people because they come with centuries of religious baggage. I don’t have a problem with it, but I think that the C Word is the main reason most students give the place a body-swerve.

I arranged to meet one of the chaplaincy centre’s few avowedly atheist fans, 19 year old Kirsty Haigh, and when I dropped by just before midday one Monday, the air was heavy with the scent of sweet potato, lime, and coconut soup, made by a smiling group of volunteer cooks.

A second-year student of International Relations, Kirsty describes herself as a closet atheist and a left wing social activist, but it’s obvious which tag is more important to her. She’s the president of her own organisation, Bollocks to Poverty, she serves on the Student Council, she’s the campaigns organiser for the Feminist Society, and she’s involved in at least three others, so she’s a busy young woman.

As she told me, “The Chaplaincy Centre is where a lot of interesting people come, people who are interested in sustainability and ethical issues, and I’ve made most of my friends here. It’s a great place to hang out, where a shared interest in social justice matters more than differences of opinion on matters of faith, or lack of it”.

I asked Kirsty why she thinks chaplaincy isn’t more popular with the non-religious. “I think when you hear the word Chaplaincy, you expect to be confronted by some kind of religious practice or by people talking to you about religion but it’s not the case at all. Yes, there are religious people here but mostly they just sit and chat like everyone else and anyway, I tend to avoid the explicitly religious events.

“The chaplaincy lets any charitable society use the upstairs space for meetings, which is great, so Bollocks to Poverty meets here once a week to campaign for tax justice. Being here allows us to approach other students and get them involved in our campaigns - it’s great for networking!”

One of the laudable aims of Chaplaincy is to generate understanding and tolerance between different faith groups, but it inadvertently makes those of no faith feel like outsiders. I spoke to Luke Hecht, who’s just been elected president of the University of Edinburgh Humanist Society. Luke, from Washington DC, is reading Evolutionary Biology, and he didn’t take long to confirm my intuitions.

“Having a centre “For All Faiths and None” run entirely by people of faith is a little uncomfortable, so we feel a bit out of place,” he told me. “We’re happy to cooperate over doing things like setting up a soup kitchen for example, and we’d do that, but really what we enjoy most is the free exchange of ideas in debate.

“Just before the Society Representatives Meeting there’s one called “Sharing Our Spiritual Treasures,” where people from different religious traditions sit around and talk about what they believe, but nobody criticizes anyone, and I don’t feel I’ve got anything I can usefully contribute to that. At humanist meetings we’re very critical, and we argue passionately over the things on which we disagree.

“As humanists, we don’t believe that all beliefs are equally valid - so debating them really is the only way to work out what we should do as a society, especially on issues like gay marriage for instance, or assisted suicide. But there’s a sense that if you criticise someone’s beliefs at a chaplaincy event, it could be taken as a personal attack, and that makes it hard for us to get involved”.

Getting believers and non-believers together may be an uphill struggle in Edinburgh, but in Harvard it seems to be rather less of a problem. When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans back in 2005, Greg Epstein and his humanist students spent their spring break working alongside people of faith to rebuild the shattered community.

“We reached out to a social justice minded evangelical group who’d been doing some good work in New Orleans” Epstein told me. “I don’t agree with all their motivation or all of their methods, but we learned a lot from them. We went into the project as equals, and it was a wonderful model. The students and I are fully aware of the ways in which we disagree but we are able to cooperate, and I’m proud of what we’re doing.

 “I look at it this way. Religion is a human invention and like all human invention it gets things wrong, but at its base, a religious community is helpful to people. Non-believers have trouble finding meaningful ways of connecting – we need to offer an alternative.”

Changing the faith-based nature of the Chaplaincy Centre may be the key. As Luke Hecht said, “A Humanist Chaplain isn’t an oxymoron. I think it would make sense, and if there was a Humanist Chaplain here in Edinburgh, we would feel more comfortable getting more involved. One thing we’d like to do within Chaplaincy is set up a kind of workshop to have ethical discussions from a non-religious perspective. That way we could we can cooperate on things that matter, while at the same time agreeing to disagree”.


“As Society becomes ever more secular, people think Chaplaincy’s kind of uncool”, says Kirsty Haigh. “But when they come here, they think it’s the coolest place ever! There’s a real sense of community because it’s like nowhere else. It’s a hidden gem”.

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