I don’t understand.
Chaplain John Figdor has a divinity degree from Harvard. He counsels those in need and visits the sick. And he works with Stanford students under the Office of Religious Life.
So Figdor is the last guy you’d tag with the “A” word.
But, yes. The chaplain is an atheist.
“People are shocked when I tell them,” Figdor said. “But atheist, agnostic and humanist students suffer the same problems as religious students – deaths or illnesses in the family, questions about the meaning of life, etc. – and would like a sympathetic nontheist to talk to.”
Figdor, 28, is one of a growing number of faith-free chaplains at universities, in the military and in the community who believe that nonbelievers can benefit from just about everything religion offers except God.
“A lot of people go back to religious organizations when they start having children,” whether or not they believe in God, because religion offers community, Figdor said. “What I really want to do is create a vibrant, humanist community here in Silicon Valley, where people can find babysitters for their kids and young people can meet each other.”
In the suburbs north of Manhattan, Figdor’s parents sent him to Sunday school- not for religion, but to gain a moral center, he said. Today, Figdor says that belief in a supreme being isn’t a prerequisite to being a moral person.
In humanism, “we emphasize the values of compassion and empathy alongside reason and science,” he said. “Humanism is about using science and technology to solve human problems. But it’s also the belief that we should ask if something will create suffering or ameliorate it.”
How did Figdor become involved in humanistic divinity life? [I don't really know what to call it] Well, he didn’t like what he saw around him; things like forced prayer.
He began to recognize what it was about five years ago while working with victims of domestic violence in Butte, Mont., with the AmeriCorps Vista program.
“I was able to see firsthand the experience the women had with religion,” he said. “Their religion would tell them, ‘You’re supposed to keep your family together no matter how bad it gets.’ ”
He also encountered a homeless shelter that “forced people to pray if they wanted to eat,” he said. “This was a serious problem in American society.”
Oh, the humanity! Imagine asking people eating for free to thank God for their food?! And what pastor would tell a woman to “keep your family together no matter how bad it gets“?
Apparently once Figdor met Harvard’s ‘Humanist’ chaplain everything fell into place and he knew what he must do with his life.
So, if not Christmas or Hanukkah, what does Figdor and his flock celebrate?
“At Harvard we used the ‘Seinfeld’ holiday, Festivus – the holiday for the rest of us,” Figdor laughed.
Celebrated each Dec. 23, Festivus includes such traditions as the “Airing of Grievances” and “Feats of Strength.” Invented in the 1960s by a Reader’s Digest editor named Daniel O’Keefe, the holiday became known to the world when a screenwriter for the TV sitcom “Seinfeld” – O’Keefe’s son Daniel – wrote his father’s invention into a show.
Figdor offered two: John Lennon’s “Imagine,” of course, and anything by a certain punk band whose lead singer, Greg Graffin, wrote his doctoral dissertation on evolution at Cornell University.
The band is called Bad Religion.
Evidently atheist ministers are everywhere, but this is the first I’ve heard of the practice. It doesn’t compute; not for me, anyway. There are so many psychologists and counselors out there… why atheist chaplains? After all, Humanists only worship themselves.