Saturday, 2 February 2013

The Chaplain is an Atheist

Imagine you’re sending your son or daughter off to college. Having just graduated from high school, they’re still young and impressionable. As parents, you’ve raised your child with strong Christian values and you’re concerned that they find a good group of like-minded Christian friends as soon as possible. Still, you know that you now have to let them spread their wings and venture out into the world away from the safety of the nest.

Coming from a small town, your child has a little bit of trouble making new friends in this new large city and its large college campus. You hear that the college has a chaplain, and so in good faith, you encourage your child to visit the chaplain. After all, you assume that a chaplain on a college campus must be sort of like a youth pastor, and he should be able to help.

We all know what they say about the word “Assume,” don’t we?

As it turns out, the chaplain your child innocently goes to is a professing atheist. To further complicate things, this chaplain is a really nice guy who befriends your child. Unfortunately, being still impressionable, your child soon becomes confused in the faith, and gradually begins to walk away from the church. Now what are you going to do?

Does this sound like a fanciful story? It’s true that I made up the story just now, but it does have a strangely truthful part as well. Apparently there are now chaplains in some schools who are professing atheists. Yes, you heard me right. An article I just read begins with,
Chaplain John Figdor has a divinity degree from Harvard. He counsels those in need and visits the sick. And he works with Stanford students under the Office of Religious Life. So Figdor is the last guy you'd tag with the "A" word. But, yes. The chaplain is an atheist.” [See full story here]
This begs two big questions.

First, how can you have an atheist chaplain when the term “chaplain” has traditionally been used in a Christian sense, or at the very least, a religious one?

My dictionary defines the word “chaplain” as, “n. a clergyman officially authorized to perform religious functions for a family, court, society, public institution, or unit in the armed forces.” Apparently, if there are now atheistic chaplains, this definition is no longer valid.

Secondly, if this is possible, does it not logically follow that such atheism can also then rightly be called a religion?

I have argued the case of atheism being religious before, such as here in of the Religious Atheist. After reading the article on the Stanford Chaplain, I am even more convinced of the possibility of atheism actually having morphed into a religion of its own. And why not? If atheism and the world wishes to redefine formerly religious terminology for its own purposes, and they’ve done it many times already throughout history, then certainly they shouldn’t balk too much at my suggestion that atheism itself is also evolving into a religion.

That’s the way I see it anyway. Peace.

"The fool says in his heart, 'There is no God.'" (Psalm 14:1)

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons


  1. "First, how can you have an atheist chaplain when the term “chaplain” has traditionally been used in a Christian sense, or at the very least, a religious one?"

    Easy. The meanings of words changes over time. When St. Paul's cathedral was built in London, it was described as "awful" and "artificial", and both of these were compliments.

    "Secondly, if this is possible, does it not logically follow that such atheism can also then rightly be called a religion?"

    No, but like "theism", it can be a tenet of a religion. Check out the Raelians or Michael Newdow's F.A.C.T. as religions that hold atheism as a tenet. You can also be an atheist and a member of a religion that does not require theism as a tenet required for membership, such as Buddhism or some forms of Judaism. But neither "atheism" nor "theism" are religions in and of themselves.

    1. You're right, Brian, meanings of words do change over time. I think I even alluded to that in this post. I too can think of many examples of this.

      I probably should add that I was being a little facetious in the way I alleged a correlation between atheism and religious belief :)

      Thanks for the comment. Peace.

  2. A few points:

    1. Stanford has multiple chaplains since any religious student group affiliated with the Office for Religious Life (more or less they have to agree to a few ground rules such as no deceptive tactics) can have a professional member who is often though not always called a chaplain. See By my quick count there are well over 10 Christian professional leaders and 1 Jewish professional leader as well as the humanist leader. Stanford university also has three chaplains on the payroll (the deans for religious life: an Unitarian Universalist minister, a Jewish rabbi, and an Episcopalian priest).

    2. Both at the prospective frosh weekend and at the frosh orientation held just before school starts the Office for Religious Life has an open house for students and parents where both (or either) can meet the various student religious groups and the professional members. It also has a pamphlet listing all the affiliated religious groups and their professional leaders.

    3. In other words it would be a bit difficult for a student by accident to find the humanist one when looking for a Christian one, and, it would be unethical (see the rules covering the groups) for the humanist chaplain not to clarify that he is a humanist chaplain and point her to the appropriate Christian chaplain when he realizes the student thinks he is a Christian chaplain.

    4. However if the student wants to continue the conversation with a known humanist chaplain (or known Jewish chaplain or known Christian but not her denomination chaplain), it is up to the student.

    5. Stanford isn't being new. Harvard has had a humanist chaplain for 3 decades (for that matter Stanford has had a humanist group with a professional member before but not, as far as I know, as long ago as Harvard).

    1. Chris (via Facebook) made the observation that, "Yet it was Stanford's theists, not its atheists, who insisted that there was a place for AHA! within the university's Office of Religious Life."

      Keeping in mind that word definitions do change, as Brian reminded us in the previous comment, I guess that's where I have the difficulty here. I still do not understand how "theists," to use Chris' terminology, can call an atheist a "chaplain." But then again, "religion" can (and has) done some pretty strange things at times that, perhaps ironically, includes going completely contrary to true Christianity as taught in the Bible.

      As for the possibility that someone would go to a "chaplain" by mistake, I do recognize that is an unlikely scenario, but I was just creating a story to set the stage for the article.

      Thanks for the comment.