FREQUENTY ASKED QUESTIONS
What do humanists believe?
Humanists International, an umbrella organization representing humanists worldwide, adopted the Amsterdam Declaration 2022 as the most current statement of humanist values. In answer to the question, what is humanism:
“A humanist bases their understanding of the world on reason and science, rejecting supernatural or divine beliefs. They endeavor to make ethical decisions using reason and empathy, and aiming for the welfare and fulfillment of living things.”
At the Humanist Chaplaincy, we see humanism as the sum total of the positive beliefs and values of atheists, agnostics, and allies. A great resource is a series of videos about humanism produced for the British Humanist Association by the Humanist Chaplaincy’s 2010 Lifetime Achievement Awardee Stephen Fry; and the book Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe, by our chaplain, Greg Epstein.
What is a humanist chaplain?
A humanist chaplain holds advanced training as the equivalent of a member of the clergy and has been called by an institution — typically a university, hospital, or military unit — to serve as a chaplain. Humanist chaplains first emerged in the 1960s in the Dutch armed forces. The first humanist chaplain in North America was Tom Ferrick. Tom founded our organization in 1974-75, and was succeeded in 2005 by Greg Epstein, the current Humanist Chaplain. There are now humanist chaplains at many universities across North America and in Europe, as well as an increasing number of humanist chaplains in healthcare settings. The public radio show, “Interfaith Voices,” profiled Greg Epstein and his work as a humanist chaplain and spoke with other humanist chaplains on their work in healthcare and other settings.
What is the Humanist Chaplaincy’s mission and vision?
The Humanist Chaplaincy’s mission is to build an inclusive community of atheists, agnostics and allies, creating a new model for how humanists celebrate life, promote reason and compassion, and a better world for all. Our vision is to offer every nonreligious student at Harvard and MIT an opportunity to become a humanist leader and to provide an example of humanist values so strong that people elsewhere will be inspired to build a humanist community of their own.
Do I need to be affiliated with Harvard or MIT to attend programs?
Some programs are for the Harvard or MIT communities only. The meditation program and some special events are open to all. The best way to find out about our events is to sign up for our newsletter.
Where is the Humanist Chaplaincy located?
We currently make use of event spaces at Harvard, MIT and the surrounding community. We also hold online events.
Are recordings of past events available online?
Yes, we have a video archive of past programs on Facebook (you don’t need a Facebook account to view them).
How can I get involved?
Please use the contact form on this website to let us know how you’d like to participate in our work.
What are the values and expectations shared by Humanist Chaplaincy members?
Not every humanist sees eye-to-eye, and there’s no test required to join. That said, we do have a list of shared values we aspire to embody. These include: reason; compassion; creativity; justice; integrity; awareness; enthusiasm; feminism; equality; science; skepticism; dialogue; diversity; progress; equity; service; mindfulness; personal growth; love; and intersectionality. We also try to cultivate norms or common assumptions about interpersonal interaction that can help guide us as we strive to build a meaningful community. We strive to speak and listen from the heart, engaging our emotional awareness and compassion in addition to our reason. We work to create a space safe enough to show up as your whole, vulnerable self. We assume good will. We work diligently and proactively to be an inclusive community, welcoming all regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, socioeconomic status, or religious or cultural background. We are all imperfectly human and so, perhaps most importantly, we are willing to learn and grow.
How are you funded?
We serve students at Harvard and MIT (and occasionally at Tufts, Northeastern, Boston University and other area schools), without any expectation of payment or donation. Of course, none of this is possible without the generous financial support of people like you, so please do consider donating as generously as you can.
But I thought you were funded by Harvard (or MIT)?
No. We are an independent 501(c)3 charitable organization, incorporated under Massachussets law. We raise all of our funds on our own.
But… Harvard (or MIT) at least pays Greg Epstein’s salary, right?
In 2021-2022, Greg Epstein served a term as President of Harvard Chaplains and received a small stipend from Harvard to compensate for the administrative work of the chaplains' office. However, Harvard University does not pay any of Greg Epstein’s salary or benefits for his work as the Humanist Chaplain at Harvard, nor does it cover any our organization’s other expenses. This unpaid “volunteer” status has long been the way that, for example, the rabbis of Harvard Hillel or the priests at the Harvard Catholic Student Center function on campus. All but one of MIT’s 25 chaplains also serve as volunteers: we receive no funding of any kind from MIT, either.
In the 1990’s, John L. Loeb, Sr., an alumnus of Harvard College, included the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard as a very small part of a large gift to Harvard to ensure there would always be a Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard. We currently receive approximately $40,000 annually as revenue from this gift; however, this is a fraction of our annual budget. Everything else must be raised from our supporters!
We are also currently a chapter of the American Humanist Association (AHA), a national umbrella organization, but we are independent from the AHA and receive no funding from it.
Is the Humanist Chaplaincy a nonprofit organization?
Yes! We are an independent 501(c)3 non-profit organization.
How was the Humanist Chaplaincy founded?
For most of our history, this organization was known as the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard (HCH), and we primarily served humanist, atheist, and agnostic students at Harvard University. Our founding chaplain and Executive Director, Tom Ferrick worked for decades out of a small, windowless office in the basement of Harvard’s Memorial Church. Here is a transcript of Tom’s recollections of his life and of the founding of HCH.
In 2007, after Ferrick’s retirement, we held a large 30th anniversary conference, The New Humanism: Diverse, Inclusive, Inspiring, to celebrate our past and articulate a new vision. In the following years, HCH began to organize events and programs for the general public in addition to Harvard students; as these programs grew in popularity, including several sold-out events in Memorial Church, we raised funds to lease space for a small community center in Harvard Square. In 2018, we were forced by financial limitations to close our community center and make use of other spaces for our events.
Will you be serving other universities in the future?
Over our history, we have served tens of thousands of local attendees and members; thousands of students on more than a dozen colleges or universities; and dozens of individuals who have gone from participating in our programs to becoming humanist chaplains, professional leaders, celebrants, or community leaders elsewhere. Many community organizations, in the United States and Canada, have already drawn inspiration from our model to build and grow like-minded institutions of their own. While we are currently “at capacity” in working to serve the thousands of humanist/atheist/agnostic students at Harvard and MIT.
Is humanism “speciesist”?
No. The word “humanism” is intended to indicate an inclusive attitude embracing all humanity, but our concerns do not end at the species boundary. The rights of animals are a subject of concern to humanists. Humanism recognizes the special place of the planet earth, and all its interdependent systems, as humanity’s home in the vastness of the universe. That’s why the Humanist Chaplaincy’s logo is the pale blue dot.
What if I believe there may be a god, but I’m not very religious? Am I welcome?
We welcome allies, i.e. individuals who may not be humanists themselves but are supportive of humanists and of our mission. Not everybody who uses “god language” actually believes in a supernatural figure controlling the universe. Some people think of “god” as a word that describes what they think of as the highest and best way to be or to do. If you think of “good” or “love” when you hear the word “god,” you may well find yourself at home here at the Humanist Chaplaincy.
Do you have any suggested readings?
Good Without God; What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe by Greg Epstein
Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress by Harvard Professor and Humanist Chaplaincy Advisor Steven Pinker
Secular Meditation: 32 Practices for Cultivating Inner Peace, Compassion, and Joy - A Guide from the Humanist Community at Harvard by Rick Heller
Humanists in the Hood: Unapologetically Black, Feminist, and Heretical by Sikivu Hutchinson
Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism by Susan Jacoby
The Little Book of Humanism: Universal lessons on finding purpose, meaning and joy by Alice Roberts and Andrew Copson
The Little Book of Humanist Weddings: Enduring inspiration for celebrating love and commitment by Andrew Copson and Alice Roberts
The Humanist's Devotional: 366 Daily Meditations from Some of the World's Greatest Thinkers by Jessica Hagy
Atheism and Agnosticism: Exploring the Issues by Peter Huff
How can I become a humanist chaplain?
We really do get this question a lot. Unfortunately, it’s not easy to answer! The profession is maturing and growing– we’ve gone from one or two humanist chaplains nationwide when Greg Epstein became the Humanist Chaplain at Harvard back in 2005, to dozens today. There is still no easy formula, however. University humanist chaplains tend to be people who have earned graduate degrees and gained some professional experience as clergy or the equivalent, in addition to having worked to gain some significant knowledge of humanism; hospital and health care chaplaincy requires a rigorous accreditation process.
Hospital chaplaincy positions for humanists, while still extremely rare, can be applied for, by qualified and accredited candidates, through traditional hospital chaplaincy channels. University humanist chaplaincy may not require board certification and may currently have a higher public profile than other types of humanist chaplaincy positions, but these positions too are currently extremely difficult to come by and harder still to maintain. There is no single formula or “right way” to become a university humanist chaplain. If you are already highly qualified for such a position, you might start by identifying which university or college you might be interested in serving. You should then learn as much as you can about how that institution does and does not certify chaplains to work on its campus– ultimately, every school has a unique policy so we can’t tell you what to expect, here. If a review of the school’s policies, practices and relevant leadership indicates the possibility that a humanist chaplain might be accepted or welcomed, then you might look into an application process. Bear in mind, however, that in almost every case, you will be expected to work entirely as a VOLUNTEER– i.e. you will not be paid ANY money at all by the college or university. You will be expected to raise ANY/ALL salary and benefits on your own, so you need to be every bit as much a resilient and creative entrepreneur as you are a deep-thinking humanist clergy leader.
In most cases, we can only recommend that you first get involved with the humanist movement and learn about it– perhaps first through the Humanist Society or the American Humanist Association Center for Education. If you are local to the Boston area and gain admission to an accredited divinity school such as Harvard Divinity School or Meadville Lombard Theological School, we may be able to work with you more closely and help you get trained.
In a handful of very rare cases, the Humanist Chaplaincy has agreed to consult with an individual or group seeking to establish a humanist chaplaincy at an educational institution. In most of these cases, the individual or group has been able to offer a significant grant to the Humanist Chaplaincy in exchange for our time, advice and in some cases our active help in moving this process forward. If you’d like to inquire about such a possibility, be in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.