Why We Need Humanist Chaplaincies

The Rutgers Experience

By Barry Klassel
[Reprinted with permission from the Humanist Network News]

“Successful society requires religion,” read the headline of an editorial in the March 23, 2011, edition of the Daily Targum, Rutgers student newspaper. It went on to suggest that, without religion, one loses one’s moral code and sense of purpose. I knew they would feel journalistically obligated to print my response because I’m a recognized spokesperson for a group whom the editorial offended. I’m the humanist chaplain at Rutgers University.

When a vigil was to be held to mourn the death of Tyler Clemente, a gay Rutgers student who committed suicide after some reported cyber-bullying, I asked to speak. It was appropriate that I be there, as the humanist chaplain, along with the leaders of two campus religious groups. The press was interested in my words because of my unusual job title, and I was featured in coverage by the major northern New Jersey newspaper, the Star-Ledger, and on the ABC local evening news broadcast.

When a Christian student asked, in all seriousness, “Why would someone get married if they weren’t looking for the blessing of God?  What would be the point?” I told him about the beauty of two mortal human beings pledging their lives to each other and the communal celebration that engendered. The student posed his question to me because I’m the humanist chaplain.

And because I’m the humanist chaplain, a non-religious student felt comfortable asking me to help him decide if he should come out as an atheist to his fundamentalist family knowing with certainty the disruption it would cause.

I told these stories to an audience gathered at the 70th Anniversary Conference of the American Humanist Association just a week and a half ago. They were at the session entitled “The Future of Humanism: Humanist Chaplaincies and Leadership on Campus and in the Military,”  which featured talks by me and Gary Brill from Rutgers, Anne Klaeysen from Columbia University, Greg Epstein and Jonathan Figdor from Harvard University and Jason Torpy of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers and board member of the American Humanist Association.

I wanted to begin the session by describing my actual experiences to make clear the unique and significant role humanist chaplaincies can play in the lives of non-theists,  in the university culture, in the wider community, and in the future of the humanist movement. And I wanted to encourage support for chaplaincies on an individual, a local, and a national level.

It’s very important that student groups thrive on campus and the work of organizations such as the Secular Student Alliance must be encouraged, but chaplaincies have a distinct and complementary function. Chaplaincies can provide a permanent humanist presence and can help student groups stay strong as their leadership changes with graduation. We can maintain contact with students beyond their graduations and help them find groups to join when they settle down with jobs and families.

Chaplaincies have a special status within the university structure and have access to those with administrative power. We can influence university policy. We can speak with a voice equal to that of traditional religions. We can partner with others to do good works. We can universalize awareness, understanding and respect for non-theist life choices. We have the clout to invite special guest speakers. We can bring together faculty, staff, administration, alumni, members of local community groups and the public, along with students. We can help those who are going through difficult times and provide access to needed services. We can change traditional ceremonies or create new ones to reflect humanist values and outlook. Our activities are of special interest to the media. In fact, we can be a model of how humanist communities can provide for the social, emotional, and intellectual needs of individual members and their families.

At Rutgers, we have much to learn and many things to teach. Our chaplaincy was approved just two years ago this month. We have found where to table and how to make students aware of and excited about us. As a result, we now have over 400 on our mailing list. We’ve brought national figures to speak, such as Roy Speckhardt, Maggie Ardiente, Dave Silverman, and Margaret Downey, and we’ve asked some members of our talented faculty to give presentations, but we are still figuring out what activities will keep students interested, how to interact with student groups and how to make ourselves stand out among the myriad of offerings at the university. This week, we are hosting the first meeting of the newly chartered Humanist Alumni Group, which we helped to establish. However, by having the Alumni Association email an announcement to all alumni in nearby counties, we stirred up some opposition. I’ve gotten emails from some parties offended to have received information from atheists, including one which concluded with the words “May God have mercy on you.”

On the other hand, we at Rutgers have had the most recent experience successfully navigating the process of being approved as a chaplaincy, so we have advice to offer that has been tested. Currently there is no central source for information about chaplaincies, no handbook on how to get started or how to organize for success, no regular meetings for chaplains, but we’re working on that. Meanwhile, the existing chaplains and their associates are available individually to anyone who wishes to investigate the possibilities.

Each university is different, of course, but it’s clear that most of them are likely to house a high concentration of students for whom humanism is the right option, if they can find a community that will welcome them. Building the special type of community that is a humanist chaplaincy will take time and continuing support.  Leadership must be flexible and creative. Financial resources must be provided to help it take root and fundraising expertise made available to help it become self-sustaining. Given the right backing, humanist chaplaincies can help pave the roadway for future generations of humanists.

Barry Klassel is the Humanist Chaplain at Rutgers University and a certified Humanist Celebrant. The Humanist Chaplaincy at Rutgers University is sponsored by the Humanist Society, the New Jersey Humanist Network, and the Red Bank Humanists.