Chris Stedman, the Assistant Humanist Chaplain at Harvard who is now setting up a similar chaplainship at Yale, reports some encouraging progress at MIT, which has removed a traditional prayer from its graduation ceremonies and may soon get their own humanist chaplain.
In April 2014, Aaron Scheinberg—a doctoral student in planetary science at MIT and founder of the school’s Secular Society student group—wrote an opinion piece for MIT’s student newspaper about the long-running tradition of a prayer at graduation, kicking off a campus-wide discussion.
Less than a month later, it was announced that the prayer would be replaced by an “inclusive, secular invocation.”
With the prayer removed, Scheinberg and the Secular Society are already on to their next project: Launching MIT’s first Humanist chaplaincy.
Scheinberg explained the importance of such a chaplaincy.
CS: The Secular Society at MIT is now working to create MIT’s first Humanist Chaplaincy. Why? How will this help MIT students?
AS: My experience this semester brought home the value of organization. People will keep quiet about an issue if they think no one shares their concerns. Without the Secular Society, I would not have decided to pursue the prayer’s removal. I wouldn’t have received nearly as much encouragement or strategic support. And I might have been taken less seriously if I had been alone rather than a representative of a larger student group.
Sadly, due to leadership turnover, student workload, and the natural skepticism of many atheists towards organized nonreligion, our group’s existence has been sporadic over the years. The best way to ensure continuity and direction within the group is to establish a chaplaincy. Long-term committed leadership will help the community grow and help expand our community service and interfaith activities.
A secular chaplain would also provide a type of counseling that is currently lacking for nonreligious students. Where a religious student might seek a priest’s guidance on existential, ethical or even social matters, to whom can the rest of us turn? The benefits of a Humanist chaplain would not be limited to secular students—everyone benefits when other community members are happier. Further, just as I can reach out to the Catholic chaplain for a nuanced and accurate view of Catholicism, so too will our chaplain be a resource for anyone interested in a fair view of the atheist perspective.
I’d love to see this replicated at universities all over the country.