Humanist Chaplains: Championing Connection & Inclusion across North America

Chaplains Marie-Claire Khadij, Elisa Rosoff, Srishti Hukku, and Joshua Berg engage in a panel discussion at The Rise of Humanist Chaplains: Exploring the Emergence and Impact of Secular Chaplains (photo via Atheists United)

Last month, a historic panel comprised of humanist chaplains from four distinct sectors was held at the University of Southern California (USC), Los Angeles. This panel, entitled The Rise of Humanist Chaplains: Exploring the Emergence and Impact of Secular Chaplains, could not have occurred a mere few years ago, as professional, endorsed humanist chaplains did not exist in all sectors represented on the panel prior to June 2022.

Panelists included Joshua Berg (hospital), Srishti Hukku (university), Marie-Claire Khadij (military), and Elisa Rosoff (prison). Atheists United, the USC Office of Religious and Spiritual Life, the Humanist Society, the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard and MIT, and Humanist Canada sponsored the program. The panel was facilitated by USC’s Associate Dean for Religious Life Vanessa Gomez Brake and Atheist United’s Executive Director Evan Clark. Summarizing the impetus for orchestrating this panel, Clark reflected, “Humanism means nothing if it’s not used to improve the lives of those around us. Our panelists clearly demonstrate the power of humanists in care work, and inspired participants to bring our humanism bravely into all endeavors we take on.”

Greg Epstein, humanist chaplain at Harvard and MIT and New York Times bestselling author, posted on his LinkedIn page when he learned that a date was set for the panel,

This was basically the dream, when I first started working as a humanist chaplain, 19 years ago. There were only a handful of us in North America who were working publicly as such, despite larger numbers in Europe and an unknown but clearly significant percentage of chaplains who were, privately, nonreligious… It turns out there were always more than enough talented and determined people who could excel in offering care, pursuing meaning and purpose and justice, and imagining and building community, both despite and *because of* their atheism or agnosticism. Now, thanks to many of their efforts, a first: professional humanist chaplains in four fields—medicine, education, prison, and military—are gathering to discuss and help (re)define our profession.

Epstein is likely the most famous humanist chaplain in North America, given the success of his book Good Without God, yet he has always wanted the movement to grow; to expand to bring the much-needed, evidence-based emotional care work of a chaplain to people who do not identify with religion.

In true humanist style, the panel started with a secular invocation led by Chaplain Berg in which he invited participants and panelists to reflect on the way we interact with the land and our environment. Berg emphasized humanist values of being fully present and engaged in all that we do, being life-long learners, and acting from a place of humility and compassion. He closed by inviting us to act courageously, quoting Audre Lorde, “it is better to speak remembering that we were never meant to survive.”

After introductory remarks, the panelists shared photos and spoke about important moments that led them to their current roles. Turning to the audience, Chaplain Hukku next led an interactive exercise, inviting everyone to close their eyes (if they were comfortable doing so), reflect on the chaos of the past week, and identify one person who had made their lives a little bit easier during that time. Next, members of the audience (both in-person and virtually) were invited to enter discussion, connecting with their neighbors to share how caring for one another is an essential part of the human experience.

The panelists then tackled a range of questions from the moderator and the audience. Looking into the past, panelists briefly covered the history of chaplaincy, the meaning of humanism, and the importance of humanists as chaplains. Although a range of perspectives exist on whether humanists can and should be chaplains, the panelists challenged exclusionary beliefs. Of note, Chaplain Hukku emphasized that although dominant narratives exist about chaplaincy and its origins, a broader anthropological lens might suggest that care work transcends time, space, and geography regardless of the associated label. Therefore, Hukku suggested that humanist chaplains provide professional “cradle-to-grave” care services, as their care recipients navigate experiences that raise existential, emotional, ethical and equity-based issues.

The panel also remarked on the importance of this emerging role, and how humanist chaplains facilitate meaning-making without doctrine. Lastly, looking ahead, each panelist shared their hopes for the future of the profession and how they choose to promote respect, inclusivity, diversity, equity, and accessibility in their roles. Perhaps most importantly, from an intersectional perspective, as the only racialized and volunteer chaplain on the panel, Hukku emphasized the importance of ensuring that going forward these roles are economically viable positions. Hukku also encouraged members of often marginalized groups (brown/black people, LGBTQIA+ folks, etc.) to consider paid careers as humanist chaplains.

After the panel, Chaplain Rosoff reflected, “When I signed my covenant to begin work as a clinical professional chaplain at a North Carolina prison, I had no idea I would be the first openly humanist chaplain to inhabit this role. People often ask, ‘Is it hard? Do people reject you based on your personal beliefs?’ In reality, my clinical training and experience in various chaplaincy sectors (parish-based, prison reentry, hospital, etc.) has served me well for the position of ‘prison chaplain,’ even in the ‘Bible Belt.’ Essentially, clinical professional chaplaincy values are humanist in nature, and therefore, I have not found it difficult to serve all people of all theological and/or philosophical backgrounds, while people with different beliefs from me have not found it challenging to relate to me or my work.”

To summarize her experience, Hukku shared, “This panel demonstrates that humanist chaplains are part rebel, part activist and part service provider. We play a critical role in helping people through liminal spaces—periods of transition—that cause great discomfort. Each of my colleagues continue to lead the way, as humanists have done so historically, by fighting for human rights, such as those enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Through our work and our person, we emphasize values of social and planetary responsibility, freedom from religion, critical thinking, empathy, ethical development, altruism, and social justice.”

All of the chaplain panelists shared a feeling of groundedness in community after the event. Chaplain Khadij reiterated the importance of a humanist perspective on any interdisciplinary team, “Everyone benefits from a diverse chaplain team. The more religious traditions, spiritual traditions and worldviews that are represented within a chaplain team, the more efficient they become in providing care as a team. No matter what inspires a chaplain to do their job, ultimately we are all here because as humans we care about the human beings we serve… you do not need to be religious to be a chaplain. You simply need to want to care for others.”

Overall, the emergence of humanist chaplains is helping facilitate diversity in society’s largest institutions, broaden the meaning of humanism, build community, and change the world. This event beautifully highlighted the struggle and opportunities that come with such groundbreaking work.