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Where the secular and the devout come together

Published: Thursday, February 10, 2011

Updated: Thursday, February 10, 2011 06:02

Tufts College was founded on a doctrine of illumination. When Charles Tufts declared that he would "put a light on" Walnut Hill, he was likely referring not only to improving nighttime vision, but improving vision in all walks of life, dispelling ignorance and intolerance, and upholding inclusivity and diversity.

The light of religious and spiritual inclusion shines from Goddard Chapel. Now, the students supporting the establishment of a humanist chaplaincy at Tufts are certainly not arguing that it shines particularly dim, only that it could shine even brighter. Humanism is a movement dedicated in large part to encouraging cooperation and compassion among individuals from all backgrounds, whether they espouse passionate religious beliefs or none at all. A humanist chaplain, and the community he or she inherits, would be invested in both approaching the world's problems from a secular perspective, as well as in hearing out the perspectives of his or her religious and spiritual peers.

The existing Tufts Chaplaincy shares that noble goal: According to its website, "[the University Chaplaincy] reaches beyond traditional religious groups to address concerns in all aspects of university endeavor  … including teaching, community service, counseling, helping to address ethical and spiritual concerns for Tufts." A humanist chaplain's primary goal would be to work in conjunction with his or her colleagues to tackle these issues from the perspective of the nonreligious. Such a secular worldview may be left by the wayside in the current chaplaincy framework — even while almost a third of the Tufts student body shares this perspective.

Humanism would fit securely within the Tufts Chaplaincy alongside the established ministries of Catholicism, Protestantism, Islam and Judaism. Not only would a humanist chaplain speak for and accommodate the needs of the considerable nonreligious population on campus, but having a faculty member dedicated to such goals would encourage nonreligious and humanist students to participate in the numerous activities and events organized by the chaplaincy itself. To have secular students join the religious, and to have them share each other's traditions and perspectives, would tighten the bonds connecting the individuals of the notably diverse Tufts student body as a whole.

Additionally, the vision statement of the Tufts Chaplaincy includes an element of loyalty to the university; a commitment that as one of its members becomes more invested in his or her religious practices at Tufts, he or she will also become more invested in Tufts itself, particularly among the university's chaplains. The values inherent in the humanist perspective are not only consistent with those of Tufts University itself, they are almost indistinguishable: a dedication to equality and diversity, to intellectual curiosity and critical thinking, and to personal responsibility and accountability.

Currently, the secular humanist perspective is not unrepresented on campus: The Tufts Freethought Society (TFS) has already sought to create a welcoming community that allows nonbelievers to feel comfortable discussing issues from a nonreligious angle. A humanist chaplain would follow the example of his or her religious colleagues associated with the Muslim Students Association at Tufts or the Tufts Protestant Student Fellowship, working in conjunction with the existing student group to ensure that the needs of its student community are adequately met. Offering other services, such as interfaith opportunities, counseling or community outreach programs — services that TFS currently finds difficult to provide — would allow the group to welcome a community concerned with much more than just freethought-based discussion, a goal the group has long wanted to achieve.

In a recent phone conversation, Tufts' Protestant Chaplain Reverend Kerrie Harthan highlighted the importance of extending Goddard Chapel's reach into the unrepresented student community. "The fact is, some [students] might say, ‘I don't think [in the same] way that the chaplains we do have think.'" Whether it's a matter of distrust toward religion or merely a desire to speak to someone who shares your worldview, Rev. Harthan believes we should not "wait until somebody's in trouble; if there is even a hint of somebody falling through the cracks," the chaplains are obligated to help them. While stating that she could not speak for her colleagues at the University Chaplaincy, Rev. Harthan holds that her experience on multi-faith teams with humanist colleagues, working with the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations and members of the ethical culture movement, has helped her "keep a flexible, nimble, open mind and heart."

Protestantism and humanism face many of the same congregational challenges: When a community lacks a central body from which to derive its values, as Catholicism has with the Vatican, it isn't always easy to come together as a community. Humanism also shares the Buddhist value of ongoing teaching and education as well as the characteristic skepticism and questioning often present in Jewish tradition. In this regard, a humanist chaplain could well serve as the glue with which to bring and hold various other traditions together, thus making it a prime perspective from which to encourage interfaith work.

What sets humanism apart from religious traditions is the belief that one's power lies not in heaven above, but within oneself and others. Despite our differences, we all are so similar and thus responsible for the betterment of ourselves and our community. We shine in this world without reliance on holy illumination; Let us contribute this light to the many that already glimmer from the chapel atop the hill.


Walker Bristol is a freshman who has not yet declared a major. He is a member of the Tufts Freethought Society's Humanist Chaplaincy Committee.

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