Updated 11:26 am, Saturday, December 22, 2012
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.
Hired in July by the Humanist Community at Stanford, a nonprofit group independent of the university, Figdor is one of 18 "professional leaders" at the Office of Religious Life who typically work with sectarian student groups that pay their salaries. A graduate theological degree is required for the job, and the leader is entitled to office space on campus, a parking spot and a Stanford e-mail address. The leaders guide students in whatever way is needed, whether offering advice or organizing events.
Yet it was Stanford's theists, not its atheists, who insisted that there was a place for AHA! within the university's Office of Religious Life.
The Rev. Scotty McLennan, Stanford's dean for religious life, did the insisting, largely because Stanford's Memorial Church, the centerpiece of the campus, had been founded on a principle of inclusion.
In his 2007 sermon titled "The Wide Open Church," McLennan said that Rabbi Jacob Voorsanger of San Francisco had been among the clergy invited by Jane Stanford to help dedicate the new church in 1903.
McLennan quoted Voorsanger telling his audience that at Stanford, then 12 years old, "Unitarians, Trinitarians, infidels, Brahmins, Buddhists, Mohammedans, materialists, atheists, all have been heard, all were welcomed, the main condition of their welcome being that they must have something to say."
The word "chaplain," with religious origins dating back to the fourth century, "is not a perfect description" for a secular leader, but it demonstrates a parallel status, Schwab said.
The entire post, "Standford Gets an Atheist Chaplain," can be read here.