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.