Joe Haldeman writes a letter

And it’s a good one, too.

I was dismayed to read that MIT has decided, after a hundred years without, that it needs a chaplain.

MIT is about science and engineering and mathematics. There is no place for belief in those disciplines. Only doubt: we accept evidence but constantly test it.

Our students, especially the ones from America, have grown up in cultures saturated with religiosity. We should give them a little break from it while they’re here.

MIT needs religion like a bull needs mammaries.


(Professor) Joe Haldeman

I have to take exception to that last line, though. I can think of many situations where male contributions to nursing would be useful. I don’t see that believing in baseless superstitions has any virtue at all in modern civilizations, so Haldeman is being too generous in his assessment.


  1. Scarmentado says

    Now don’t be too hasty–there may be a very good reason. Perhaps the science/tech thing has gotten stale after a century, and it’s the first step in transitioning to the Mass. Institute of Theology.

  2. hephaistos says

    I’d bet tomorrow’s lunch money that the proposal for a chaplain came from either (a) an engineering professor or (b) a theoretical chemist.

  3. Rich says

    He did done writed some excellent SCI FI books also:

    The Forever War
    Forever Free

    erm they’re the two I liked bestest.

  4. says

    Yes, but from MIT’s perspective it’s almost certainly a matter of providing services to students who desire them, rather than implying any kind of endorsement of, or rapprochement to, religion. Likely, they’re right about that, too.

    On the whole, I’d rather see them skip it, while providing whatever counseling services appear appropriate. But if students were pressing for it, I can’t really say that there’s anything wrong with it, so long as it’s accommodating students’ needs (or “needs” if you wish), and not outside religious pressures.

    Glen D

  5. Louise Van Court says

    A chaplain is there to offer help during times of loss. Read the description below from the MIT Faculty Newsletter Vol. XIX No.6 May/June 2007 by Robert Randolph and tell us what is so objectionable about the role of the chaplain.

    “In January, I was appointed the first Chaplain to the Institute. Part of my job description was to ask just that question: “How do we respond to loss?” When I first came here, the prevailing metaphor was that of a machine. MIT was like a huge machine that simply kept moving. We seldom paused and when we did there were those who noted critically that not much work got done! The end result was that little attention was paid and we were rather callous and unreflective in our responses to a significant part of the human experience.

    I am grateful that this attitude has changed over time and the appointment of a Chaplain speaks to that change. Part of my task will be to ask about how we are to grieve and to seek ways to help that happen. After Virginia Tech, we held a memorial service for those lost in Blacksburg and when our own resident Hokies came to share their grief, it was clear that this was an important gesture.

    If conversation protects us from danger, it also contributes to our healing in times of loss. To facilitate these healing conversations, we have put in place protocols that should help in planning memorial activities.

    More importantly, however, we all can come to recognize our need to carve out space so we can reflect and respond to those circumstances that challenge our very being.

    In our lives together, the most important lessons we learn may well be how to survive and grow through the sorrows that would otherwise stop us in our tracks.

    So, where do these responses leave us? I think that total safety is an illusion, but we have in place resources and plans that contribute to our wellbeing in even the most challenging circumstances. As well, we have come to realize that how we deal with the unthinkable can contribute to our long-term wellbeing. To my mind MIT is a healthy and safe community. I am not sure one can ask for more.”

    It just sounds like adding a human touch to me.

  6. Jimmy says

    Personally, I’d guess the proposal for a chaplain came from a their existing advisory/counseling staff. I’d have to guess that there may be some student-of-faith issues which secular counselors are ill-equipped to handle

    Assuming religion and science can be separated in one’s life, and I am, shouldn’t we be teaching students of faith to separate them? It seems like MIT is an ideal institution for such efforts.

  7. sIamang says

    Can anyone be an MIT chaplain? Or do you have to be a bullshitter from one of the “accepted” denominations?

    It actually piques my interest… how COULD they possibly choose among all the possible religions, without an appeal to majority or tradition or some such nonsense.

    I’d really love for them to attempt to find the person who represented the most logically and empirically defensable religion.

    Unless these waters are navigated very carefully, this will be a difficult process. Let them pick any of the various monotheisms as the official doctrine of MIT. Then watch as all the other One True Religions attack.

    Pandora’s box.

  8. says

    Science/Math is only a ‘huge machine’ (ie cold, uncaring, unnatural) to Biblotarians who are scared shitless of technology and innovation. Incidentally, those are also the same people who run to god-garbage when bad shit happens, the opposite direction of science and rationality.

    And that ‘human’ quote is idiotic and can only make sense to some tard chaplain who doesnt know jack about math or science… Oh wait, he was a DEAN of MIT? Disgusting.

  9. Owlmirror says

    It just sounds like adding a human touch to me.

    It certainly looks like they want a grief counselor. So why not call the position “Grief Counselor” rather than “Chaplain”?

  10. CalGeorge says

    “I think it’s an important decision of MIT to appoint a chaplain because … it recognizes that there is a dimension of the whole person that’s not necessarily measured in the laboratory, in the test tube, things of that sort,” Randolph said. “Who we are is quite a bit more complicated than that, and a chaplaincy done right can be of help in that regard.”

    MIT now has an official on campus who willfully misleads people about the existence of God. Great.

    They join Harvard in perpetuating a gross stupidity.

    Congratulations, MIT.

  11. Siamang says

    Louise Van Court,

    Those are pleasing words the Chaplain writes, and he seems like a nice fellow. But if that is the end-all and be all of his job description, I see nothing that any other considerate, focussed person educated and practiced in grief counselling coudn’t perform REGARDLESS of their religious views. To single out the job description and making it a Chaplaincy is to make a religious argument that this post could not be filled by anyone other than a religious believer from a locally popular religion (I’m taking a wild stab that Robert Randolph isn’t a Mulim, a Sikh, a Wiccan, a Jew or a Scientologist).

    He uses the metaphor of MIT as a machine, and you add “It just sounds like adding a human touch to me.”

    It is sad to me that adding religion is what people seem to mean by “a human touch.” I’m fully human without religion, so it seems to me the only folks in favor of this stuff are believers already.

    Jimmy writes:

    “I’d have to guess that there may be some student-of-faith issues which secular counselors are ill-equipped to handle”

    What, they don’t got churches in Cambridge now? What if a member of the local Roman Catholic Church has a student-of-math type of question? Should the local archdiocese appoint their first ever Mathematics professor?

  12. David Wilford says

    After a couple of world wars, Vietnam and just plain old run-of-the-mill human suffering you’d think by now that MIT would have descended into the pits of despair due to the lack of a chaplain for 100 years. So I put this all down to the climate of religious correctness that’s been affecting this country since the Republican Party decided there were votes in pandering to fundamentalism.

  13. Rey Fox says

    “Yes, but from MIT’s perspective it’s almost certainly a matter of providing services to students who desire them”

    Yes, because churches are just SO hard to find.

  14. says

    I for one am glad my therapist doesn’t descend into insipid godbottery. I’m perfectly happy (well, ‘cept for the depression) to stick to discussions about things that exist with my group.

  15. says

    How depressing.

    MIT’s administration continues to surprise me with their ceaseless efforts to fix what isn’t broken. And you wonder why I haven’t donated a cent to the alumni fund?

  16. Captain Al says

    I’m sure there are plenty of “qualified” chaplains in the Cambridge area. Why not just refer needy students to one of them and save the expense.

  17. says

    But I thought MIT was immune to this kind of thing! It’s MIT!

    My indignation probably won’t stop me from applying there though. It’s difficult to be picky about these things when one is a powerless, desperate student.

  18. Larry Lennhoff says

    MIT already has numerous religious organizations on campus. The MIT Hillel has two different rabbis on staff IIRC, frex. There are others as well, including fringe religions such as the campus crusade for Cthulhu.

  19. mothra says

    The condescension of MIT to have a chaplain is yet another manifestation of the Wedge Strategy. Now there will be someone with administrative authority to facilitate the use of university meeting halls for YEC & DI groups. Oh, I almost forgot, MIT is an engineering school, no true biologist. . .

  20. says

    Well, at least I have (yet another) canned reason to say no the next time they call me asking for money. And if Randolph is the first chaplain …. well, let’s just say they aren’t starting by putting a good foot forward.

  21. Sastra, OM says

    Throwing morals, meaning, understanding our humanity, and dealing with our losses into the category of “religion” once again neglects those larger umbrella categories called “philosophy” and “ethics.” Religion simply adds in supernatural fact claims, and then either comes up with some distorted thing you’d never arrive at through worldly reason, or buttresses otherwise reasonable ideas with the fuzzy goosedown of faith.

    I say it is time for philosophy majors to redeem themselves for their fling with postmodernism, and make themselves useful (and profitable) again. They must get sick of being asked “But what are you going to do with that?” Instead of chaplains, why shouldn’t universities like MIT have “Resident Philosophers?”

    Hey, I like it. Talk about bringing in what is really significant to the “human experience” …

  22. says

    I shouldn’t have started thinking about it; now I’m all confused. MIT has had a chapel (which has regular services in many denominations, etc.) and a “religious life” or whatever center. What role does a chaplain serve that that entire staff didn’t already?!

  23. says

    I grew up (partly anyhow) in Cambridge MA during the early seventies. My stepfather was prof at MIT. I used to go there quite often and just cruise the halls… sometimes meeting people like Harold Edgerton. One time when I was about 11 years old I was in a hall near his labs ogling some of his photographs. He noticed me and my friend and invited (hauled?) into a lab and started showing us some pretty interesting demonstrations and kept asking, “So, what do you thing is happening?” It was a really cool place to hang out.

    Anyhow… as I remember it there has been a chapel on campus for at least 34 years. Right across the street (Mass. Ave) from the main building (the one with the dome). I just checked their website and:
    detail map and building W15 is the chapel and W11 is where the Chaplains office is.


  24. BaldApe says

    “I can think of many situations where male contributions to nursing would be useful.”

    Curiously, although we can think of situations in which they might be useful, and it seems that a lactating male is within the realm of physiological possibility, it doesn’t happen.

    As I understand it, MIT takes some pride in the fact that it is possible to navigate the entire campus without ever going outside. Perhaps it is the threat of the outdoor environment that is so daunting to those students who desire a chapel?

  25. Erp says

    Odd. Stanford dropped the title of chaplain a few years ago and replaced it with ‘Dean of Religious Life’. The holder’s main purpose, I think, is to coordinate. The current holder describes himself as a Christian Unitarian and I’m not sure how much if at all he believes a god interacts with the world. Overall the office of Religious Life probably gives conservative Christians conniptions (the other senior members are a female rabbi and a female Episcopalian minister). For community memorials (such as after 9/11) they are usually very careful to be inclusive of humanists as well as other non-Christian religions.

  26. M Otis Beard says

    MIT is not enclosed by a giant impenetrable force field. If students wish to seek comfort in the counsel of a priest, they can easily visit one of the many churches in the surrounding area. Religious instruction, religious counsel, religious ANYTHING should be provided by the community, where facilities and personnel are already available in abundance… not by an institute of higher learning devoted to technological subjects.

  27. David W. Fenton says

    I grew up on a farm that raised hogs. My father would count the nipples on potential male breeding stock and buy a boar who had the most nipples, on the theory that he would pass that number on to his female offspring, which would make for brood sows that could feed very large litters.

    Thus, he always said, the phrase “as useless as teats on a boar” was wrong, because they *were* useful.

    Was his homegrown genetics analysis reasonable? I don’t know.

    David W. Fenton

  28. bacopa says

    Not only are there local chruches to serve the religious needs of the students, most larger campuses have a Newman Center, a Hillel Center beyond the edges of the campus, and the Baptists and Methodists usually have formal student associations. Heck, I was once at Valhalla at Rice on Palm Sunday and the Episcopalians were handing us drunks palmetto leaflets and cards inviting us to Good Friday services.

    There is no need for a chaplin at a major university. Plenty of support for the students without one.

  29. Epikt says

    I don’t think we need to worry too much about an epidemic of woo unless they start talking about building a new chapel. The current one is very small, and even stuffed to the gills, it’s capable of holding only a negligible fraction of the community. Besides, it’s pretty clear that the chapel’s real purpose is to provide a small, intimate space for organ recitals. And the moat gets used for the involuntary bathing of undergraduates who make insufferable puns.

    On the other hand, having a grief counselor available after the first freshman exams would have been nice.

  30. Bill Dauphin says

    Perhaps the science/tech thing has gotten stale after a century, and it’s the first step in transitioning to the Mass. Institute of Theology.

    Almost certainly not coincidentally, Haldeman’s latest novel, The Accidental Time Machine, features a future version of MIT that is run by a theocratic hierarchy (but then, so is the whole U.S. East Coast, in this imagined future). Apparently this godward drift has been on his mind for at least as long as it takes to get a book to market.

  31. Peter Ashby says

    Randolph’s comment about MIT being a machine and him bringing some more humanity to it betrays something which I think is often overlooked. To Randolph and people like him, engaging one’s brain to the fullest is somehow inherently unhuman. As a scientist I have encountered this attitude to me and what I do frequently. I have even fallen into it unthinkingly myself.

    This is a dangerous and pernicious thing, the use of the faculties of the mind is a very, very human endeavour. We are Homo sapiens, the curious ape. To deny this is to deny a part of our humanity as much as Randolph et al think we underplay other aspects of our humanity. Only my family gets my poetry inflicted on them but just because Randolph doesn’t see them does not mean I am some sort of rationalist monster. Some people are simply shy, and forcing shy people to be exhibitionist is cruel. It is simply another way of being human.

    So be aware and fight against such expressions, they are not benign and they betray a dangerous prejudice against a large and valid part of being human.

  32. Matt Heath says

    *sigh* University College London also recently-ish appointed a chaplain after a century and three quarters of committed secularism. Where’s left?

  33. Fernando Magyar says

    “So why not call the position “Grief Counselor” rather than “Chaplain”?” Hmm, how about an atheist grief counselor with a degree in psychiatry? Or a voodoo witch doctor with a pin cushion doll.

  34. Jon H says

    I’m guessing it’s being done as a response to student suicides.

    It probably wouldn’t do any harm having a chaplain for people to consult if they wish, especially students who are considering suicide or otherwise have problems that aren’t being served by counselors or whatever.

    (And, really PZ, can you honestly say that psychologists, therapists, and counselors don’t sometimes deal in woo just as bad as religion, if not worse?)

    It’s not like students are being required to attend mass. A campus chaplain is just a campus facility that can be used if desired, like a bowling alley or incompetent campus barber.

  35. Jon H says

    Haldeman wrote: ” There is no place for belief in those disciplines. ”

    Not even belief in one’s own abilities?

    Sorry, but what an asshat he is. I wonder how many of his students have capped themselves.

  36. Peter Ashby says

    The point Jon H is that MIT got on just fine without one for one hundred years as stated in PZ’s original piece. So why do they suddenly need one now? It is I think yet another example of the endarkenment, moving away from the secular past.

  37. MartinM says

    I wonder how many of his students have capped themselves.

    The number of profoundly stupid comments on this thread is remarkable.


  38. Pyre says

    M Otis Beard @ 31: “MIT is not enclosed by a giant impenetrable force field.”

    Now if only they’d applied the chaplain’s salary to that project instead….

  39. morpheuspa says

    “A man without religion is like a fish without a bicycle.” — dangifino who said it.

    I always liked:

    A man without religion is like an iguana without a Betamax.

    And ditto, dangifino who said it…