An Atheist Chaplain

Stanford University, that veritable institution of higher education in California, has recognized an atheist chaplain. John Figdor, the “chaplain,” is a graduate of Harvard Divinity School, and while he is officially employed by Stanford’s Humanist Community, the university has recognized him as a chaplain under the school’s Office of Religious Life.

Figdor was quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle as explaining that “atheist, agnostic and humanist students suffer the same problems as religious students–deaths or illnesses on the family, questions about the meaning of life, etc.–and would like a sympathetic nontheist to talk to.” Ignoring the fact that there was probably no shortage of “nontheists” around Stanford before Figdor arrived, I wonder what Figdor tells these students? When someone is struggling to make sense of an unexpected death or a serious illness or some tragedy that occurs, how could you even attempt to explain it or offer hope through it with the backdrop of “there is no God”? I cannot imagine trying…and I cannot much encouragement is readily forthcoming in that setting.

Among Figdor’s recent projects? Leading students through what he called “The Heathen’s Guide to the Holidays,” which included such heartwarming and inspirational suggestions as singing John Lennon’s “Imagine” and celebrating “Festivus,” the holiday “for the rest of us” made famous on the hit television sitcom Seinfeld.

The San Francisco Chronicle described Figdor as “one of a growing number of faith-free chaplains at universities, in the military and in the community who believe that nonbelievers can benefit from just about everything religion offers except God.” The article quoted Figdor describing his vision for “creat[ing] a vibrant, humanist community here in Silicon Valley, where people can find babysitters for their kids and young people can meet each other.” That sounds like a social club…and there are plenty of those around. So what moves Figdor to the level of chaplain? Figdor says, “we emphasize the values of compassion and empathy alongside reason and science. Humanism is about using science and technology to solve human problems. But it’s also the belief that we should ask if something will create suffering or ameliorate it.” He also stated that it is not necessary to believe in a supreme being in order to be a moral person. Of course, without a supreme being and any absolute right and wrong, “morality” is an ever-changing target, fluctuating with the whims, opinions, habits and desires of the individual–because if there is supreme being and no absolute, you cannot tell me if my behavior is moral or not. You can try, but if I deny your standard, what can you do about it? Nothing. The perk for me is then I get to accuse you of trying to force your morality on me…and in this instance it really would be your morality, since it is based purely on what you think, want and prefer.

I am poking a bit of fun at Figdor and at Stanford and at the idea of an atheist chaplain, of course, but in reality this story serves to illustrate the reality that so many in our country have tried so vehemently to deny, and that is that there is no such thing as religious neutrality. Atheism is just as much a “religion” as is evangelical Christianity, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, etc.

And why does that matter? It matters because, despite what American United for Separation of Church and State and the American Civil Liberties Union and black-robe-wearing judges across the land have tried to assert for decades now, when the government tries to ban “religion” from the public sphere it is in fact violating the Constitution, the First Amendment of which begins with this statement: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….” So as laughable as the idea of an atheist chaplain seems at face value, Stanford is right…atheism is a religion. Perhaps Mr. Figdor and his brothers and sisters in the atheist and humanist chaplaincy can convince the rest of the country of that fact, and then we can begin to reverse the tide we have been on since the 1960s. If they can accomplish that I will be perfectly happy to recognize atheist chaplains…even if their greatest accomplishment to date might be a good deal on movie tickets.

Stanford graduate student Armand Rundquist is the president of AHA!, the campus group of atheists, humanists and agnostics, and the Chronicle quoted him saying that many atheists at the school were not interested in having a chaplain…until they realized the potential perks. Said Rundquist, “He got us some discount tickets to the atheist film festival in San Francisco.”

Funny; Figdor failed to mention that among the problems both believing and unbelieving students share is overpriced movie tickets….