The role of secularism at the College: Why we need a non-religious chaplain

As the Preach it Forward campaign has made clear, people who enter the Chaplains’ Office do not leave any of their identities at the door. Faith identity is no exception, which is why the College intentionally hires chaplains from different religious backgrounds to better support students from a range of traditions. However, there is one spiritual identity glaringly absent from the staff of the Chaplains’ Office: secularist. Atheists, agnostics, and “nones” make up a plurality of the student body, but unlike schools including Harvard, Tufts, and Columbia, Williams has no secular humanist chaplain to support these students.

Though secularism is becoming more normalized in our society, rejecting religion can still mean feeling adrift. There is no guiding text or spiritual authorities to turn to, and certain assumptions remain about what lacking religious faith means. According to a 2017 Pew survey, 42% of Americans still think that believing in God is necessary to be moral and have good values. For many, especially those from deeply religious backgrounds, coming out as atheist to friends and family members can result in one being cut out of communities and losing valuable relationships.

A humanist chaplain could support these students, helping them navigate the challenges particular to holding a secular identity. Like humanism itself, a humanist chaplain would also affirm students without faith’s ability and responsibility to, as the American Humanist Society puts it, “lead meaningful, ethical lives capable of adding to the greater good of humanity.” They would have the skills and personal experience to connect secular students to the resources and perspectives they need to explore their beliefs. A secular chaplain would guide students without faith as they seek meaning and answers to big questions – what some would call a spiritual journey and others would call the quest to be a better person.

The Chaplains’ Office is advertised as a general wellness resource for the entire student body, and it is true that some secular students, myself included, do turn to the Chaplains’ Office for advice. We are the exception, not the rule. I came to the College fully expecting to go through my four years here without interacting with the chaplains. As interested as I was in questions of meaning and purpose, I was (and am) an atheist. Before coming to the College, many of the conversations I’d had with people of faith about these questions had left me not just dissatisfied but ashamed, feeling like my atheism was something that needed to be hidden. I was convinced that religious spaces could not accommodate me and my beliefs, however outwardly welcoming they appeared to be.

It took a week of working and living alongside the four chaplains on a spring breakout trip in Alabama to change my feelings about my place in the Chaplains’ Office. Most secular students, though, don’t have the luxury of spending that much time one-on-one with the chaplains. They will not feel comfortable seeking advice from the chaplains, and they’ll be excluded from the spiritual and moral growth that the office encourages. Hiring a secular chaplain would do more than any publicity campaign to demonstrate that atheists, agnostics, and nones are welcome in the Chaplains’ Office. It would illustrate the way that people with religious faith and those without can and should come together for dialogue and cooperation on the issues that matter to both groups.

Whether to believe in God is not the only or the most important question to be answered in life. More important are questions of how we ought to treat each other, how we discover and create meaning for ourselves, and what we value. As we work to make sure that the Chaplains’ Office provides support for students of faith with marginalized identities, we should also ensure that the office is equipped to support the many students at the College who lack religious faith but whose searches for answers are just as important.

Coly Elhai ’19 is an economics and math major from Henrico, VA. She lives in Wood.

  • It would be great for the school to have a secular humanist chaplain. This would give the religious and conservative students some one with whom they could address the world’s most pressing questions:

    1. Why should we trust secular humanists with political power when atheist leaders and atheist regimes mass murdered about 100 million people in the last century?

    2. Why is it a good idea to be an atheist when research shows atheists are more likely to be lonely, suicidal and depressed than non-atheists?

    3. Why have atheists governments been among the last to display the moral power and authority needed to end the production and viewing of child pornography?

    In addition to making fun of the whole idea of a secular humanist chaplain, I’m sure the religious and conservative students on the campus would greatly enjoy watching them twist in the wind and they seek to defend the unspeakable horrors which secular humanism has predictably and routinely brought into our world.

    • allduerespct

      Far from the “most pressing” questions currently before humanity but I’ll have a genuine attempt at answering them if you can first provide me a well-defined response to the following – fair’s fair & all…
      1.Why should we trust religious sectarians when sectarian conflict has been a blight on the development of cultures across the globe and throughout history and many of the most vile acts of torture and degradation devised by man have been conceived of and employed by those espousing the superiority of their dogma?
      2.Why is it a good idea to believe that blind faith in dogma (even assuming you in fact understand said dogma, which is by no means a given) will improve matters in the mortal realm we all share, when statistically those who identify as religious are victimised by charlatans of many kinds, bilked of much that might have given them succour and persuaded by appeals to their faith to perpetrate misery upon their fellow man?
      3. Why attempt to attribute the existence of as tragic a human failing as a catering to pederasts on a lack of moral authority from the state when the (or at least several, I won’t argue about which church gets the privilege of using the definite article) Church has not only included such individuals but has enabled, facilitated, protected and even defended them with shameful frequency over the years?
      4. When do Christians intend to apologise for prosecuting the Crusades? The slaughter at the siege of Antioch alone murdered a great many more religious folks than Robespierre ever did, no guillotine required.
      [5. For extra credit, explain the principles of “straw man” argument and provide both a strong & a weak example of such.]
      In addition to making fun of the whole idea of you knowing whereof you speak I’m sure the religious, secular, conservative and liberal students on the campus prepared to employ their minds would greatly enjoy watching you twist in the wind as you seek to defend the unspeakable horrors which those of your own religious persuasion have predictably and routinely brought into our world.
      [Edited for typo “blight” not “bought” & “whereof” you speak rather than “sheriff”]