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After atheists asked, Tufts creates first university-funded Humanist position

Five years after a group of atheist and agnostic students launched a campaign to get a Humanist chaplain at Tufts, the university has created a Humanist staff position—the first of its kind in the U.S.

The Reverend Greg McGonigle, University Chaplain at Tufts University. Photo courtesy McGonigle, Tufts Photo/Kelvin Ma.

Five years after a group of atheist and agnostic students launched a campaign to get a Humanist chaplain at Tufts, the university has created a new Humanist staff position—the first of its kind in the United States.

The Humanist in Residence, a new staff member of the Tufts University Chaplaincy dedicated to supporting atheist, agnostic, and nonreligious students, is the first university-funded Humanist staff position in the U.S.

While there are Humanist chaplains working at universities like Rutgers, Columbia, and American, those chaplaincies do not receive funding from their respective universities, making Tufts the first to create and fund a Humanist support staff.

Atheist and agnostic students at Tufts have been campaigning for this kind of support for about 5 years:

The Tufts Freethought Society—a group of about 150 students who identify as atheistic, agnostic, or otherwise non-religious—wants the university to establish a “humanist” chaplaincy to serve as a resource for students who are interested in exploring how to live “ethical and meaningful lives” without subscribing to any religion.

Now they have this resource. Walker Bristol, a former Tufts Freethought student leader who has also interned at the Humanist Community at Harvard, recently started as the first part-time Humanist in Residence at Tufts.

The Reverend Greg McGonigle, University Chaplain at Tufts University. Photo courtesy McGonigle, Tufts Photo/Kelvin Ma.

The Reverend Greg McGonigle, University Chaplain at Tufts University. Photo courtesy McGonigle, Tufts Photo/Kelvin Ma.

I spoke with Greg McGonigle—University Chaplain at Tufts and a driving force behind the creation of this position—about this trailblazing position, why it was created, and how students have responded so far. A Unitarian Universalist minister who has served at Oberlin College and UC Davis, McGonigle is also President of the National Association of College and University Chaplains.

Chris Stedman: Why did you create this position?

Greg McGonigle: When I arrived at Tufts last summer, our President Anthony Monaco asked me to look into the matter of chaplaincy support for Humanist students. Tufts has had a large population of Humanists, atheists, agnostics, nonreligious, and spiritual but not religious students for some time—and these students, as well as alumni, had been requesting that Tufts consider adding support for Humanists in the University Chaplaincy. At the same time, the Tufts Freethought Society—the primary Humanist community on campus—has become increasingly strong and vibrant, very engaged in interfaith work, and very interested in partnering with the University Chaplaincy on programming in recent years.

I built a close relationship with the Humanist community last year and realized that increased staff support for them would be valuable—not only to them, but to our staff overall. The President asked me to present a report of my findings and a proposal; through research with various Humanist organizations and colleagues I developed a position description, and President Monaco reviewed and approved it.

CS: How would you respond to people who say that this shouldn’t be a priority for the university?

GM: There are always people who say that one or another aspect of university life at a residential university is not important—people have said this about athletics, the arts, counseling centers, multicultural centers, women’s and LGBT centers, and many other parts of campus life that U.S. students have come to expect as standard. Of course, for our religious and philosophically-minded students, involvement in spiritual life is often a central and defining aspect of their identity—and a core element of their life at Tufts. And we know that many of history’s proudest moments of social justice and liberation, as well as our deepest conflicts, have involved people’s religions, values, and worldviews. So I would say that engagement with these issues and questions and communities is central to the work of higher education today.

CS: Students at Tufts have campaigned for a Humanist support staff for years. How did that factor into your thinking?

GM: The students in Tufts Freethought built a very strong foundation and case for considering the possibility of a Humanist in Residence pilot program. The positive, intentional, and collaborative organization they have built has shown how much a well-organized and constructive Humanist organization can contribute to a campus community. This new position is in part the result of their hard work and advocacy, as well as that of Tufts’ Humanist alumni.

CS: How is this position connected to the broader work of your program and interfaith efforts at Tufts? 

GM: When I discussed the possible creation of this pilot position with Tufts’ existing chaplains, all of them were excited about its potential for enriching our programs and services for the campus overall. We know there are many students in the Humanist to spiritual but not religious cohort here—and in some ways they are the hardest students to serve because they may be unlikely to go to a group gathering and get involved. So we are excited to be equipped to better serve this part of our community.

In addition, having a Humanist in Residence as part of our staff circle will help us keep Humanist perspectives in mind as we plan interfaith programming. Given the importance, urgency, and complexity of religious-secular divides, discrimination, and differences, we believe having Humanist leadership and involvement in our work is crucial to our efforts supporting students, educating the campus, and seeking to make an impact on the world.

CS: How are students responding to this?

GM: So far everyone at Tufts I have spoken with has been very positive about the creation of this new position—especially the students in Freethought who had advocated for its creation, but also all of the students on our Interfaith Student Council and many others who have heard about it. They are excited that their friends who are Humanist and related identities will have designated chaplaincy support and they readily understand the importance of Humanist leadership and perspectives in the interfaith movement.

Some are curious about why a nonreligious person would be interested in chaplaincy or interfaith work, but when they think about it they realize that Humanists have the same needs for inspiration, reflection, caring, community, and service that religious people find in their faith traditions. Humanists share a similar quest to lead a meaningful and purposeful life and to be supported in doing that. No one has been critical of this opportunity—they are excited Tufts is leading in this area and eager to see how it will unfold in the future. We plan to do some educational efforts around this position because it is new and may not be as readily understood as other roles.

CS: This is the first university-funded Humanist staff position in the U.S. What role do you think Tufts can play in promoting this idea more broadly?

GM: We are proud that Tufts is leading in this area of university life and that we have the opportunity to add a Humanist position among our solid and leading Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Protestant, and Multifaith programs. We are also excited that our position is a trial position that may yield research useful to other universities and be a model they may choose to try. This October 26-28 we will be hosting the annual meeting of the Association for College and University Religious Affairs (ACURA)—a gathering of university chaplains from across the country—and we plan to feature Humanist chaplaincy as a part of our program that we encourage peer institutions to explore.

Full disclosure: While serving as a Humanist chaplain at Harvard, I worked with McGonigle on shaping the description, responsibilities, and expectations for this position. I have also supervised Walker Bristol as an intern and served him as a chaplain. However, I was not involved in the hiring process for this position. -Chris Stedman