Stanford, California — One of the most well-known research universities in America is now utilizing an atheist chaplain to counsel unbelieving students on campus.
Stanford University has added 28-year-old John Figdor to its Office of Religious Life, joining 17 other chaplains and individuals that reach out to students of various faiths. According to reports, Figdor’s responsibility is to meet with students and to visit the sick.
“Atheist, agnostic and humanist students suffer the same problems as religious students — deaths or illnesses in the family, questions about the meaning of life, etcetera, and would like a sympathetic nontheist to talk to,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle.
Figdor, who has a seminary degree from Harvard School of Divinity, first served as a chaplain at Harvard before moving west to work with students. It is stated that a Unitarian Universalist minister named Scotty McLellan, who heads the department, urged Stanford to hire an atheistic chaplain. Figdor was then later given the job by the Humanist Community on campus.
Figdor states that his goal is to foster an environment where those who do not believe in God can socialize.
“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,” he said, adding that he has also been a part of movie nights and other events.
However, the San Francisco Chronicle outlines that at first, some atheist students did not want a chaplain. The campus president of Atheists, Humanists and Agnostics, Armand Rundquist, said that at first there was not much interest in having the new appointee, but since he helped get them tickets to an atheist movie in the area, they have welcomed Figdor.
Writer Alan Jones, Dean Emeritus of Grace Cathedral, recently applauded the appointment.
“His appointment not only broadens the conversation about ‘belief’ and ‘unbelief,’ but also exposes the confusion at the heart of that conversation,” he recently wrote in an article published by the Huffington Post. “We need a new conversation and it looks as if it has a chance at places like Stanford. Things at the heart of reality are not easily defined or dismissed. So, instead of clobbering each other with ‘beliefs’ or ‘unbeliefs,’ we might simply exchange stories to help us understand the meaning of our longing.”
However, others stated that the notion of an atheist chaplain was an oxymoron in terms.
“You would think that, of all people, atheists would be the last ones in need of chaplains,” writes Nathan Harden of College Fix. “We don’t see why Figdor needs a Divinity degree, considering how he does not believe in the existence of any divine being.”
While McLellan helped land Figdor the job in part due to his belief that Stanford’s Memorial Church had been founded on “inclusion,” Harden disagreed with his conclusion.
“If you read a little about the church’s history, you learn that Jane Stanford, the woman who paid for the construction of the Memorial Church, also spurred the ouster of the church’s first minister, R. Herber Newton, only a few months after the church opened — all because his Christian theological teachings were too liberal,” he explained. “It’s true that the church was built to be a non-denominational Christian place of worship. But, we hardly think Ms. Stanford’s vision of ‘inclusion,’ when she donated all that money to the university, would have extended to the active spread of atheism among the student body.”
“More likely, she’s turning over in her grave about now,” Harden added.
Photo: Jawed Karim