Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Do humanists need chaplains?

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A piece by John Crace in the Guardian combines an interview with Greg Epstein, humanist chaplain at Harvard University, with discussion of whether "humanist chaplains" are about to become a fixture in this country. Andrew Copson, Chief Executive of the BHA, is quoted, and says that while there is a need for non-religious pastoral care, for example in hospitals and prisons, the word "chaplain" is a little problematic:
"It's not ideal. Then Muslims, Jews and Buddhists aren't that happy with it either, yet they still have chaplains because people understand what they do. It's become a shorthand description of a job. You just have to strip away its religious connotations and accept that different chaplains can cater for different world views."
Of course, this ties into that ongoing debate over whether humanism should resemble religion in any way (and this isn't the first time Epstein's name has come up here in relation to it). So I'll throw it out to comments – should humanist chaplains join the ranks of Christian chaplains, Muslim chaplains, Jewish chaplains and all the other chaplains in our public services? Or should we be scrapping the lot and replacing them with counsellors? And what's the difference between a chaplain (especially a humanist chaplain) and a counsellor anyway?

Answers on a postcard (blog comment).


oda said...

Yes, humanists need chaplains. Why? Because certain issues can not be touched by a counsellor.

A counsellor helps you may peace with yourself in whatever way. A chaplain is a guide through ethics, worldview, fear, and choices. A more normative approach than any counsellor can ever have.

Christopher Gray said...

Everyone needs someone to lend them an ear, and in the village this was traditionally one of three people: the vicar, the barman or the doctor. Non-religious people need 'pastoral care' as much as anyone else, but 'counsellor' always seems a bit patrician or authoritative.

How about 'friends'? If there's one thing that marks out a Humanist, it's the ability to think for themselves and not be led by authority figures. Therefore, a humanist's friends are their pastoral carers. Perhaps the whole idea of having a 'spiritual mentor' was invented by patriarchal organisations in the first place to be a controlling mouthpiece for their dogma.

And let's not even consider the emetically quacky 'Lifestyle Guru'.

Incidentally, the word 'Chaplain' appears to stem from medieval Latin, meaning someone who is a custodian of the little cloak of St. Martin:


Luckywood said...

So what qualifies someone to be a humanist chaplain? And why is his guidance on "ethics, worldview, fear and choices" more valuable than that of any other, uh, human?

If you're religious and you derive your ethics from a higher power, I can see why you'd seek the advice of someone who's higher up the ladder. Even if you say god's equally accessible to everyone, it'd be logical that someone who's put their life into studying his revealed word would have some useful insight. But if you believe your ethics can be derived from innate human values, I don't see the point.

All the attempts by humanists to dress up their credo with ritual and all the other trappings of religion just strike me as embarrassing.

Christopher Gray said...

Luckywood, surely you'd accept that some people are wiser than others, have more knowledge, insight and experience in all sorts of matters pertaining to ethics, morals, lifestyles, happiness, etc.. wouldn't you?

Such people are useful in society to help those that are not as learned. The prime example is one's parents: they (usually) know a great deal more about how to fit into the world, and teach it to their children. Simple things like how to share, how to avoid fighting, how to make friends...

Adults have problems too, and many of them stem from ignorance or inexperience, and it's useful to have someone smart to help us find our way.

This has always been the case, and organised religions have picked up on it (just as they have with music, art, architecture, etc) and used it to strengthen their position in society. This article is merely suggesting that humanists might want to identify people that they would consider as teachers or helpers, but without using a name that has religious connotations.

It's natural to look to a teacher. Humanism isn't attempting to 'copy' religion. Rather, both religion and Humanism want to tap into what is natural for humans, albeit in very different ways (and for different motives).

Christopher Gray said...

I guess the point is that Humanism is trying to reclaim ideas of morality and pastoral guidance roles from religions. They've claimed a monopoly on it for so long that we've become used to thinking of those things as actually being rooted in religion.

We know that they're not, of course: they're natural.

Margaret said...

I have friends who are members of humanist organisations. Their friendship is more important to me that their humanism - most of them define it differently, and some never describe themselves as humanists. I'm happy for my friends to visit me in hospital, as friends, but some of the people who are likely to volunteer to be "chaplains" are the last people I'd want to see. A non-humanist friend who's a funeral celebrant wrote the other day about celebrants, "...the terribly nice tendency does get under my skin: the cloying manner, the little cabinet of emollients bursting with soothing words and mawkish verse." I know what he means. No thanks.

If they were to have a scheme over here and the BHA got to organise it, it would be as full of self-important types, doing their best to keep a closed shop, as the current ceremonies scheme. Who would qualify? And who would decide whether or not someone would qualify? And would they charge people for training?

I'm on the list of contacts at our local hospitals and hospices, should anyone want a humanist visitor. I've been contacted when a member of our humanist group was admitted, and when people wanted to find out about funerals. I'm happy to organise some practical help, but I wouldn't presume to offer any "pastoral care", other than simply befriending people, which I've done several times.

No, I think it's a rubbish idea.

Luckywood said...


Of course, I agree that there are people to whom it's good to turn to for advice and guidance. I just don't think these are the people who'd become humanist chaplains. Anyway, I'm suspicious of attempts to institutionalise that role of lending an ear, which, as you point out, is what religions have done for thousands of years. That doesn't mean humanists need to as well.

The likelihood is that most of the humanist 'chaplains' would be at least as self-important and obnoxious as any priest, maybe even more so.

Tim Maguire, Humanist Celebrant said...

I'm a humanist celebrant and the humanist 'contact' for Edinburgh University's chaplaincy centre.

I became the contact when the student humanist association asked the university to appoint a humanist chaplain. The University declined, saying that they already had a queue of potential chaplains from several religions and that they couldn't accommodate the request.

SInce my appointment, almost two years ago, other than attending various meetings, I've been called on only once, to conduct a funeral ceremony for an undergraduate. I'd be happy to do more, but as none of the students has so far asked me to lend an ear, or offer advice, I doubt I'll be run off my feet.


The title is a distraction; as Christopher Gray says, I'm there to be a listener and a friend if needed. And I will try, Margaret, not to be self-important.