Stanford Gets A New Chaplain (For Atheists)

Stanford-gets-a-chaplain-for-atheists-4139991

(Photo courtesy of Carlos Avila Gonzalez, The Chronicle / SF)

The Stanford University Office of Religious Life recently filled a newly created student organization position as a way to serve the student life needs of their student body.  John Figdor, the new hire, recently stated that his new position will help students in the following ways:

  • He will find babysitters for their kids
  • He will connect students with dates for Friday night
  • He will hook students up with discount tickets for film festivals
  • He will help organize community-wide service projects
  • He will host special events such as a movie night
  • He will educate students in Festivus activities such as “Feats of Strength”

The title for this newly created position? Chaplain.

Now before you go scratching your head and asking, “What do film festivals have to do with chaplaincy?” you should know that Chaplain John Figdor is also available to help students process through other aspects of student life such as death, illness, and the meaning of life – you know, the standard fare for chaplaincy work.

So why all the other non-traditional services? Well, because Chaplain John is the chaplain for atheists, agnostics, and humanist students.  And since these students largely disagree if not deny transcendence (belief in God), they lack the moral categories that propel students to the high percentage of spiritual tasks befitting a traditional chaplain.

Still yet, Chaplain John observes that “atheist, agnostic and humanist students suffer the same problems as religious students . . . [but] would like a sympathetic nontheist to talk to” as opposed to a traditional chaplain.

In other words, these specific students suffer the same as theistic students, but don’t want a Chaplain to channel their existential crisis towards a conversation about God (As someone like C.S. Lewis would).

So what does this line of work look like? How do you minister to a person in existential crisis and not direct them to transcendence for Spiritual peace and comfort? Chaplain John explains:

we emphasize the values of compassion and empathy alongside reason and science . . . Humanism is about using science and technology to solve human problems.  But it’s also the belief that we should ask if something will create suffering or ameliorate it.

So, this chaplaincy position is about utilizing science and technology to alleviate suffering and to do so with a tone of compassion and empathy. I guess that works for some people.

I commend Stanford for being consistent with their religious beliefs.  I think it would be inconsistent to profess atheism and then hire a chaplain who believes in transcendence.  When I was an atheist, I would have cried foul at such an arrangement.

However, today I am no longer an atheist.  I am a born-again believer in the resurrected Jesus Christ because of His great mercy and grace that has been bestowed upon my life.  At a point of existential crisis during my sophomore year of high school I found the approach described by Chaplain John to be lacking in a certain something.  It is an approach that aims to make us comfortable until we die. Perhaps that is why much of Chaplain John’s time is spent organizing socials and handing out movie tickets.

At my time of need, I found the approach suggested by C.S. Lewis and scores of theistic chaplains and pastors to be truly meaningful and real — that these times of pain call us to reconsider the existential questions of life and then to cry out for salvation to the only God who can save. That’s the kind of chaplain that Stanford students truly deserve…even the humanist students.

About Doug Hankins

Although not a Christian in his youth, Doug came to believe in Jesus during his teenage years. When not playing sports or pastoring Doug is probably spending time with his wife, reading a good book, or drinking some hot tea. Doug's first book Dawson Trotman: In His Own Words is available wherever books are sold. You can follow Doug on twitter.
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