On the home page of the Yale University chaplain's office is a photo collage of a dozen people of various ages, faiths, and ethnic backgrounds. One wears a head scarf, one a plastic lei, one a fake mustache. One has cucumber slices on her eyes.
All, we feel sure, are human. Yet humanists—followers of “a progressive philosophy, rooted in scientific naturalism, that affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment"—are not currently represented on the long list of Yale Religious Ministries at the chaplain's office.
That soon could change.
The Yale Humanist Community, launched last fall, is "in the process of working with the Yale Chaplaincy Office to officially be recognized as a Yale Chaplaincy," says the humanist group's new website. A group of alumni, students, and others are organizing events and raising money to hire a staff person—who might or might not be called a chaplain.
"I’m interested in providing a positive service environment, support, meaning that includes ritual” for people who aren’t religious, says one of the organizers, New Haven entrepreneur Miles Lasater ’01. “The other choice is a nothing, a lack.”
Lasater's interest in a humanist chaplaincy at Yale grew, he says, when he learned that universities like Harvard, Stanford, and Rutgers have such positions—and when he saw last October's Pew Forum report that among Americans under age 30, fully one-third have no religious affiliation.
Paul Chiariello, now a Yale PhD candidate in philosophy, felt that lack as a Rutgers undergraduate.
"I grew up very religious," Chiariello says. "It was a very difficult time when my views started to change, and I didn't have anyone to talk to. I felt very alone. If I knew there was a community, that would have been a consolation.”
Chiariello helped found the humanist chaplaincy at Rutgers. The "chaplain" title, usually associated with religious ministry, was not controversial, he says. He personally likes the "communicability" of the term: "I can easily tell you a whole lot in a short time by simply saying it’s a chaplaincy."
Still, "at Yale there are some people that are concerned about the name,” he says, adding that the title has not yet been decided upon.
The Humanist Community aims to be broader and more permanent than the undergraduate-run Secular Student Alliance, whose website is heavy on atheist warriors such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens and satirical pokes at religion, such as the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.
“While there’s a place for humor," Lasater says diplomatically, "it’s a serious endeavor to help people find meaning.”