Tufts Puts ‘Humanist’ Chaplain On Its Own Payroll, First In America
Ends five-year campaign by ‘freethought’ advocates to get their own spiritual adviser
In the midst of a hiring spell this summer for its University
Chaplaincy, Tufts University added its first non-religious chaplain: a
“humanist in residence.”
That’s not what makes the position at Tufts unique, though. It’s the first university-funded humanist chaplain in the country.
The appointment of Walker Bristol, a Harvard Divinity School master’s student who only graduated from Tufts in May, ends a five-year campaign by the Tufts Freethought Society to add a humanist chaplain. Bristol himself was a leader in the society.
The new hires all have connections to Harvard Divinity School and similar interfaith backgrounds, as noted in Tufts’ announcement last week.
The chaplaincy poached Zachary Cole from Harvard’s Humanist Community
for its outreach specialist. New Muslim chaplain Celene Ibrahim-Lizzio
taught at Episcopal Divinity School and lectures on interfaith relations
and “gender and sexuality studies.” Chanta Bhan, the new Protestant
chaplain, leads a “multicultural consulting firm.” The chaplaincy already has Catholic and Jewish chaplains and a Buddhist chaplain intern.
But in contrast to the other hires, Bristol’s position is only a
two-year pilot “designed to assess the desires for and benefits of
designated chaplaincy support” for non-religious groups, Tufts said.
The role of the humanist chaplain is to “serve any students who are
atheist or agnostic or humanist, but also who are not traditionally
religious, or are searching, or are spiritual but not religious, really
anyone who does not fall into the normal traditional boundary lines we
draw when we think of religion,” Bristol said in an interview with The College Fix.
Humanism differs from most established religions because there is no
unifying dogma or a set of regulations, according to Bristol, who
studied religion and philosophy at Tufts.
It comprises “a wide stance for atheists or people who don’t identify
with organized religion to affirm that they have values and moral
commitments towards serving humanity with what we have at our disposal
here on earth … rather than elsewhere and kind of living in the present
in that sense,” Bristol said of humanism.
Bristol said he’s available to “anyone who is looking for someone to
talk to very generally about their spiritual and ethical commitments and
their moral problems they are having in their day to day life.”
The university was previously hesitant to add a non-religious position to the chaplaincy, Bristol said.
“Originally there was a lot more distance both on the part of the
student body, the administration and just outside the university to the
idea of having a humanist chaplain” when he was a student, Bristol said,
“because people generally just didn’t really understand what the need
for it was, or didn’t really understand what humanism was and why it
would be useful.”
“Now that the position has been established and that I’m meeting with
students … people are really starting to see how this is really helpful
and useful to the rest of the community,” Bristol said.
Yale University, Stanford University, Columbia University, Harvard
University, Rutgers University and American University all have humanist
chaplains, according to Humanist Chaplaincies, but those positions are all funded externally.
Rev. Greg McGonigle, the top chaplain at Tufts and a Unitarian Universalist, said in an interview with Religion News Service that the humanist “trial position … may yield research useful to other universities and be a model they may choose to try.”
He defended the university-funded position by noting that “many of
history’s proudest moments of social justice and liberation … have
involved people’s religions, values, and worldviews.”
McGonigle did not respond to a request for comment by The College Fix.