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Do We Need More Humanist Chaplains?

I wanted to highlight this excellent post on JT’s blog about the rewards of activism:

Joe was sick in the hospital, and asked a friend of his to go down to Philadelphia to collect the award for him. Friend went to see him in hospital, said “Joe, what do you want me to tell these folks when I pick up the award?” He’s looking at Joe lying there sick as a dog, and thinking about his life, all the struggles, all the hard times, you know, trying to fight for social justice, and racial justice, and trying to deliver on the promise of “liberty and justice for all” and all the hard battles, and all the hard work, and Joe looked up at him and said, “Oh, tell them how much fun it was. Tell them how much fun it was.”

I couldn’t agree more with this. I started writing as an atheist because it was my passion, but the main reason I keep doing it is because it’s ridiculously fun. I love blogging, getting instant feedback, getting into conversations and defending my viewpoint in an argument. I love meeting awesome people at atheist conventions; I always come away from those feeling like a charged battery, full of positive energy. I love speaking and meeting freethinking students who are doing amazing things; it gives me confidence that the next generation of activism is well underway. (And, I won’t deny it, when we defeat some evil, bullying theocrat and kick him while he’s down, it’s a good feeling.) If anything, I wish I had started doing all these things sooner.

It occurred to me the other day that with the amount of time I spend on my blog and all my other writing, it’s almost the equivalent of a second job. But I’ve never thought of it that way, because it doesn’t feel like work at all. I would happily do it forever for no money at all, just because being part of the atheist movement and its energy is such a joy.

I realize, of course, that I have the luxury of not having to do it for a living, and it’s good that there are so many other people willing to contribute their time and energy for free. It’s that passion that sustains us, that makes us successful. But we’ll never build a successful, nationally influential social movement by only working on evenings and weekends. We need people who can give us the full measure of their effort, and that means that we need to offer full-time jobs that pay a living wage.

We need jobs for journalists, for columnists, for freelance writers, for TV, radio and podcast hosts. We need jobs for lawyers, for spokespeople, and for lobbyists in Washington, D.C. and the state capitols. We need jobs for organizers, for convention planners, and people who can manage and run secular charities and foundations. We need jobs for camp counselors, humanist chaplains, secular therapists. In short, we need to build an infrastructure. We have some of this already, but we need as much as we can get.

Building infrastructure isn’t sexy, isn’t glamorous, and doesn’t make headlines. It’s a tough, tedious, often thankless slog. But it’s incredibly important to build a foundation for lasting growth in the secular community. The most important thing we can do, as I’ve argued previously, is to come out of the closet and advocate on behalf of atheism. But even if we win people over, which we’re doing, the next step has to be to build institutions that can absorb and channel that growth. If atheists remain a disorganized, amorphous mass, we’ll remain targets of prejudice and persecution, and it will be easy for society to ignore us. We don’t need leaders or marching orders; nor do we need a creed or a party platform. But what we do need is structure and community: a way for like-minded people to meet up, to exchange ideas, to support each other, and to unite in pursuit of common goals.

And on that note, occasioned by some discussions I had after my talk in Syracuse last weekend, I’ve been mulling this one over: Is it desirable for college atheist groups to seek to have a humanist chaplain on the faculty as an adviser?

I think there are both good and bad points to the idea. It would give a stronger sense of continuity, especially important in a university setting where student leaders are constantly moving on. It would, as I said, create more job openings for people to work as part of the secular community – it might be an excellent role for some of those trapped-in-the-closet atheist clergy who are looking for a way out. And it could give us a larger platform in the running of large, important institutions like universities. (Friendly Atheist has a link explaining more about what humanist chaplains do.)

On the other hand, I can see how it would feed the misconception that atheists are just like a religious group, as well as detract from the important leadership role that freethinking students have to play. And I have to admit that one of the more prominent existing humanist chaplains, Chris Stedman at Harvard, hasn’t exactly covered himself in glory. We need more of a secular infrastructure, but we most certainly don’t need any more tiresome scolds lecturing us all about how we need to be nicer. (We have enough of those already.)

I’m interested in readers’ thoughts on this subject. Is it worth our time and effort to advocate for the creation of positions for humanist chaplains?

Image credit: Hamed Saber, released under CC BY 2.0 license


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