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Who Needs a Humanist Chaplain? News from Harvard University

Honestly, I’m not making this up. I somehow overlooked the May 14 edition of The Boston Globe, and therefore missed the report that Harvard University’s humanist chaplain is set to retire this summer. Seriously folks, Harvard has an endowed humanist chaplaincy.

Here’s how the newspaper described the program: “A presence on campus for more than 30 years, the humanist chaplaincy sponsors, among other things, the Harvard Secular Society, a group with about 20 active undergraduates who meet to discuss philosophical matters. Humanists bow before reason and science rather than the shrine of a deity; their prophets are rationalist thinkers such as Erich Fromm and Bertrand Russell.” Wow — only 20 students actively participate?

There’s more: “Harvard humanists are preparing for a milestone this summer, the retirement of the man who started it all, chaplain Thomas Ferrick. A former priest, Ferrick lost his parents to tuberculosis as a child and found refuge from the loneliness of foster care in the idea of a loving God. But as an adult, he left Catholicism and the clergy after several disagreements. (His I’m-out-of-here moment came with the church’s rejection of birth control.) Today, he says, he is one of only 10 or so humanist chaplains on American campuses. Harvard’s chaplaincy is in particularly good shape, having been endowed both financially, by a wealthy alumnus 10 years ago, and communally, by what campus humanists call the warm embrace of the school’s religious chaplains and students. Harvard officials knew they had many secular students requiring a guiding chaplain, Ferrick says. This is the Ivy League, not the Bible Belt.” Just how does one humanist guide another?

If only twenty Harvard undergraduates particpate in the Harvard Secular Society’s programs, it can’t be because only twenty Harvard undergraduates are secularists. My guess is that secularists recognize that they do not need a chapain, or a secular society for that matter. They have the university culture itself, where secularist ideologies reign. Furthermore, who needs a chaplain to tell college students that they can have sex with each other? They can get that message everywhere else. Strangely enough, the Harvard Secular Society seems to be tracking with liberal Protestantism in this regard. Who needs a church that tells you exactly what the secular world is telling you?

ONLY SECULAR LINKS FOR THIS SOCIETY: Rich Barlow, “For Harvard Humanists, End of Era,” The Boston Globe, May 14, 2005. See also the Harvard Secular Society.