The Case for Atheist Chaplains
by Vanessa Gomez Brake
This article was originally published on April 15, 2013 by The Interfaith Observer.
Promoting Pastoral Care for Us All
Because words like ‘chaplain’ and ‘chaplaincy’ have religious connotations, some atheists and non-believers prefer not to use the terms. Nonetheless, a need for atheist chaplains exists, and a growing number of people are stepping into the role. Atheists, a significant portion of the public, have needs like anyone else, seek out mentors and counselors who can advise them and care for them. But the issue is bigger than being acknowledged and represented in the healing community, important as those matters are.
Chaplaincy, whatever the tradition, is unique in several ways. Unlike most clergy vocations, their work serves the public at large, not a membership of believers in a particular location. Chaplains do their work in the world: in hospitals, hospices, and retirement centers – in the military and in schools – in fire and police departments, prisons, corporations, even for sports teams and animal care facilities. Their care is not dependent on shared beliefs but on the assumption that all of us deserve being cared for in times of need.
Instead of organizing worship services and staffing congregational committees, chaplains tend to engage in emotional, spiritual, religious, ethical, existential, and pastoral care, one on one. They minister to people from dozens of different religious and non-religious perspectives. This amazing dexterity is something pastorally inclined atheists know well, having had to maneuver and operate in alien communities, relating to friends and colleagues making different assumptions and conclusions about life.
My own non-believer story is about learning to feel comfortable about chaplaincy and explaining why I think it is important to welcome humanist, non-theist caregivers into the ranks of chaplaincy. Already they are doing important work and deserve acknowledgement.
Serving the Unaffiliated
As a humanist and atheist, I have been intrigued in recent years with the rise of secular leadership on school campuses, local communities, and various institutions across the country. At my high school, students could join various faith-based clubs for lunch time gatherings, pre- or post-school activities, even off-campus events.
How good it would have been if the Secular Student Alliance had had a group at my school, where I could have met like-minded folks my own age. Aware how negatively atheism is viewed by some of my peers, I felt compelled to keep this aspect of my identity a secret to most of my friends and family. As a teenager, I could have benefited from a supervisor and group of students who shared my worldview and would engage with my existential questions.
In college, there was no secular student group either. Instead, as a religious studies major, I befriended atheists and agnostics in my classes. As a junior, I was invited to bring ‘my whole self’ to an inter-worldview (interfaith) dialogue group. Participants were encouraged to ‘speak your truth’ and engage with people of different beliefs. It was a turning point in my life, an opportunity to be true to myself and engage with and celebrate the diversity of our backgrounds, traditions, and worldviews.
Though I was the only atheist in the dialogue group, I made some wonderful connections and felt affirmed in the process. But there was no ‘home’ for me there. An evangelical Christian friend was active in a Christian student group, a Jewish friend took part in Hillel, and a Muslim also took part in a Muslim student association on campus. All of these respective faith groups owned buildings on campus or less than a block from campus, where students could gather. Being connected to them didn’t mean joining them, though, and there were no atheist, humanist, or free thinking groups.
So in looking for a counselor, I turned to an Episcopalian minister and a rabbi to be my mentors. They were splendid with this atheist student. Professors teaching women’s studies and religious studies, they taught me to think critically and to question everything I read. They challenged me, for which I am ever grateful. Still, at some level they could not fully relate to my secular worldview and experiences. As an adult, I am happy to know secular student organizations exist today, as well as atheist, agnostic, humanist meet-ups and community opportunities that meet that need.
The interfaith dialogue group at college stretched me, facilitated my personal growth, and challenged me to make this world a better place. Because interfaith activities connected with my own personal callings for peacemaking and community building, I pursued an interfaith vocation. That goal led to my current position at The Chaplaincy Institute – An Interfaith Seminary and Community (ChI). Atheists, agnostics, humanists, and ‘spiritual but not religious’ students have graduated from ChI, along with students from a wide diversity of religious, spiritual backgrounds.
ChI offers chaplaincy coursework that includes humanism and caregiving, sacralization of the mundane, ethics from an orientation of awe, and more. The Interfaith Spiritual Direction program recently offered classes on “Guiding Atheists & Agnostics” and “Dreamwork for Atheists.” Whether a student is a ‘believer’ or secular, this kind of coursework equips ministers, and chaplains in particular, to minister to people from vastly different backgrounds and beliefs.
The spectrum of non-belief is broad and deep, ranging from new atheists to ‘spiritual-but-not-religious,’ from agnosticism to certain Buddhist traditions, from strict materialism to self-identifying as non-affiliated. So why does this atheist work at a seminary? Why do I want to encourage atheist chaplaincy and other forms of secular leadership?
At its core, chaplaincy is about taking the ‘sacred’ out of the church, mosque, synagogue, and temple to bring it to the people, wherever their circumstances. No matter where people are encountered, a chaplain meets them where they are, physically or spiritually, and offers support. Chaplains listen. They bring a sense of the sacred, of wonder and awe, to a secular context. They address particular needs and find beauty in the mundane. In all these endeavors, including the non-religious with the religious provides the public with a richer, more representative, authentic expression of care.
I often refer to chaplains as activists, who seek, bring, or ‘be’ peace. Chaplains care for, connect with, and nurture the people they work with, people who seek them out and come from who knows where. If the chaplain is good, it will not matter what traditions he or she and you come from. Nevertheless, I cannot tell you what joy it is to know that among the community of chaplains studying and ministering in the world today, theists and atheists can now work together for a kinder, happier world.
Multifaith Chaplaincy Resources
American Association of Pastoral Counselors
American Correctional Chaplains Association
Association for Clinical Pastoral Education
Association of Professional Chaplains
Buddhist Chaplaincy Training
Corporate Chaplains of America
Federation of Fire Chaplains
Humanist Chaplaincies (in the U.S.)
Humanist Chaplaincy Network (in the UK)
International Conference of Police Chaplains
Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers
Military Chaplains Association
Muslim Chaplaincy Training
National Association of Catholic Chaplains
National Association of Jewish Chaplains
Types of Interfaith Chaplaincy & Ministries
Published with the author’s permission.