Published: Tuesday, October 12, 2010
Updated: Tuesday, October 12, 2010 08:10
In the op-ed to the Daily that ran Sept. 27 entitled "A heretic's chaplain," Stephen Janick and Alexander Howard described the services which would be offered by a Humanist chaplain as well as addressed some of the logistical concerns many students and faculty have about the proposal. This op-ed piece proved to be very effective at dispelling many of the worries held by certain individuals. However, the feedback made clear areas of doubt not yet addressed by the Tufts Freethought Society (TFS). Many people question the use of the terms "chaplain" and "traditionally spiritual concerns." What is meant by these words, and how do they apply to the non-religious community at Tufts? Oftentimes these questions miss the point entirely and walk the line of demeaning the legitimacy of our proposal. Nonetheless, these semantic concerns have received considerable attention among students, and they are now getting their deserved space in print.
Deferring the issue to a dictionary produces dismal results for TFS. According to the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, a "chaplain" is a "clergyman in charge of a chapel." It is rightfully asked what interest nonbelievers would have in such a person. However, consider once more what it is that the TFS is seeking: an individual who serves Tufts by building a sense of community among nonbelievers and humanists; who organizes community outreach, interfaith and philanthropic events; and who caters to the traditionally spiritual concerns many nonreligious students face.
Not surprisingly, knowing what one wants and describing its merits to the university does little to realize such a goal. The structure and organization of Tufts plays an important role in what the finished product will look like. Take a moment and look to where one would find an individual who serves the aforementioned needs of various groups on campus. The answer is obvious: These tasks are carried out diligently by the various chaplains at Tufts University. Therefore, it should be of little surprise that TFS turns to the chaplaincy system. It is not that TFS seeks to have a dogmatic or authoritarian leader, but rather that we wish to have an individual who serves our community in the same way that the Protestant community is served by the Protestant chaplain without articles of faith, ritual or dogma.
Some trouble has arisen regarding how to properly deal with what we have called "traditionally spiritual concerns." Nonbelievers are not likely to have spiritual concerns of the supernatural kind, but it is naive to think that said students would not wonder if their lives have purpose or how to be an ethical member of society. Answers to such questions often come in religious garb, but they need not. Lacking religious conviction does not alleviate these worries, and it should be uncontroversial to note that those people lacking religion do not find the answers provided by religion to these questions sufficient.
TFS would be happy to develop non-religious analogues to words like chaplain and spiritual. In fact, much attention has been given to this task by various intellectuals for years. Despite much attention to detail and diligence, no solutions have yet presented themselves. We still lack a universally accepted method for describing a person who organizes a non-religious community of Humanists and offers philanthropic events and personal mentoring; it behooves TFS to focus more on the functional goal rather than semantic arguments. Of course we would prefer to have terms all our own that are universally and uncontroversially understood to refer to leaders of the nonreligious community. Lacking this, we will gladly settle for such an individual by another name, a chaplain. Semantics takes a back seat to function. Arguing over semantics simply inhibits progress and obscures the importance of such a program on campus.
David Johnson is a senior majoring in physics and philosophy. He is the president of the Tufts Freethought Society.