Friday, 18 December 2009

Why should humanists be in chaplaincy?

Humanitie, the quarterly magazine of the Humanist Society of Scotland, has a new issue out. Once again, Mike and I present our rather different perspectives - this time, on the relationship between humanists and chaplaincy. Don't forget to read Mike's column over at his blog.

I was recently asked a question about the place of humanists in chaplaincy life. In a chaplaincy, even an inclusive multi-faith chaplaincy, most people are religious. To what extent is it worthwhile and appropriate for humanists and other non-religious people to seek a place in chaplaincy?

The answer is obvious to me. Clearly, though, some religious people and even many humanists don't see things as I do. So here is my take on it.

First, some background. Our university chaplaincy is very deliberately open to students and staff of "all faiths and none".

My earliest experience with the chaplaincy was when I was first learning and reading about humanism, and coming to realize that it reflected a deep part of my identity. I started looking for like-minded people, for a community to connect with. I had heard of the chaplaincy and its openness to people of no religion. I visited the chaplain and asked if she knew of any humanist groups at the university. She didn't, but she thought it would be wonderful if there were a group. She also pointed me to the Humanist Society of Scotland (HSS), which has an Edinburgh group.

There is a whole story following on from that - of attending an HSS philosophy book group, of meeting another humanist student, of forming a student group with him that has become far more active and successful than I expected - but for now let's look at that first move on my part. Why did I go to the chaplaincy in search of humanists?

First, there was my awareness that the chaplaincy branded itself as inclusive - they reach out not only to religious folks, but to folks like me. Second, for all that some humanists like to distance themselves from religious believers, there is a crucial feature that we share. Humanism is a framework for seeking meaning, for defining an ethical stance, and for sharing inspiration and expressing awe. For most religious people I've talked to, their religion does just the same: it provides meaning, defines ethics, and it is the lens through which inspiration and awe are experienced and shared. Also, perhaps even more importantly, both humanism and religions are identities around which human communities gather. So humanism is to me as religion is to religious folks. Even then, new as I was to humanism, I could see that.

So it seemed obvious that the chaplaincy - a place for religious folks to meet like-minded people, a place for people to go for spiritual counselling, and a place that explicitly included non-religious people in its remit - was the right place to look for humanist groups at the university.

And of course, that answers the question I opened with too. If chaplaincy is an obvious place for a lone humanist to go in search of kindred spirits, then chaplaincy is an obvious place for a humanist group to be connected with so that those lone humanists can find us.

Yes, there is the Internet. Yes, there are other avenues for us to find one another. But that's no reason to shut such an obvious means of connection. Besides, the sort of personal bond that people visiting the chaplaincy tend to seek is not something that can be transmitted through a computer screen.

Of course, there is more to the chaplaincy than just finding folks like yourself. There is also the inter-faith element*. The idea of people of different backgrounds coming together to discover common ground. And I think that's incredibly valuable. It's something that's lacking from a lot of the "culture war" discussions that get headlines. It's important that humanists are involved in that as well.

True, I may think that the other guy's god is imaginary. True, he may think that I'm destined for hell if I don't come to believe as he does. But equally true is the fact that we both value compassion. We both try to buy products whose production doesn't exploit the vulnerable. We both try to act in ways that will preserve the planet for the next generation. We both strongly believe in each other's right to believe as we will.

In my experience, there is no place like a multi-faith chaplaincy for bringing people of different backgrounds together and helping us to realize how much we share. Not just superficial stuff. Deep stuff. Important stuff.**

Stuff we can draw on to make the world a better place, together.

That's why humanists should be involved in chaplaincy, and in other inter-faith endeavours.

Footnotes (not included in the print version):

* Yes, I know, the term inter-faith is problematic for people like us, who consciously set ourselves apart from religious faith. It is also often used in a manner that really does exclude us. But until you can come up with a better term for a meeting of religious and non-religious worldviews, and show that other people will use and understand it, it's better than nothing.

** A Unitarian church may do the same, but I don't have enough experience at one yet to say for sure.


  1. An interesting question! I can see the purpose of it. What purposes do chaplains serve? To comfort, advise, assist certain rites of passage, and help people within a religious framework. Why not for humanists, too?

  2. "But equally true is the fact we both value compassion"

    That compassion comes from 'the fact we both value truth' That truth as you point out often results in common goals, though for most religious people the planet is worth protecting as people have to live in it rather than protecting the planet for it's own sake.

    Ideally, we would all be able to hold our own beliefs and believe them to be true, whilst defending the rights of others to hold different beliefs and respecting those who hold them.

    Unfortunately as we are all too aware religious intolerance and aetheist intolerance such as that of the Communists has been all too common.

    Regretfully society today seems to be going down the route of "well to combat the above intolerance no-one must demonstrate or say anything about beliefs as it would be offensive to others," - which ultimately would be the death of the dialogue you talk about in this post.


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