Godless chaplain

Religion Stanford brings atheist into its Office of Religious Life | Thomas Kidd

Godless chaplain

John Figdor
Carlos Avila Gonzalez/San Francisco Chronicle/Polaris

Although it may sound like a contradiction in terms, Stanford University has appointed an atheist “chaplain” to serve its non-believing students. Stanford’s independent Humanist Community technically employs John Figdor, but he is an officially recognized chaplain under Stanford’s Office of Religious Life. As reported by the San Francisco Chronicle, the Harvard Divinity School graduate Figdor explains his work by saying that “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.”

Scotty McLennan, the dean for religious life at Stanford, who is a Unitarian Universalist minister and the author of books including Jesus Was a Liberal, eagerly welcomed Figdor as a campus chaplain, saying that the hire made sense because Stanford itself had been founded on inclusive principles.

The Stanford family, who created the university in 1885 in California, did explicitly prohibit the school from aligning with any particular denomination. But Stanford’s founding grant also called for the university to teach students the doctrines of “the immortality of the soul, the existence of an all-wise and benevolent Creator, and that obedience to His laws is the highest duty of man.” And the family established the campus’ Memorial Church for nonsectarian worship, and so that “all those who love Our Lord Jesus Christ may partake of the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.” Chapel attendance at Stanford has been voluntary.

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Figdor originally entered Harvard Divinity School with the aim of becoming a religion journalist, but along the way he met Harvard’s own humanist chaplain, and became his assistant. Stanford’s Humanist Community hired Figdor in July. He recently led students through a program he calls “The Heathen’s Guide to the Holidays,” in which he suggested alternatives to celebrating Christmas or Hanukkah. Among the options was singing John Lennon’s “Imagine,” and observing “Festivus,” the holiday “for the rest of us” made famous in an episode of TV’s Seinfeld

A $100 million legal fight over land and buildings in the Fort Worth Episcopal diocese—perhaps the largest church property case in American history—is headed to the Texas Supreme Court. Most congregations in the Fort Worth diocese broke away from the U.S. Episcopal Church four years ago, because of disputes over issues including the 2003 ordination of Gene Robinson, a noncelibate homosexual, as a bishop in the national church. Episcopal Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori removed Bishop Jack Iker of Fort Worth from his position within the denomination in 2009, but he remains the leader of the breakaway diocese.

Fort Worth has joined other conservative dioceses and congregations as part of the Anglican Church of North America. ACNA contrasts itself with the liberal churches of Canada and the United States, asserting on its website that “the Church has no authority to innovate: it is obliged continually, and particularly in times of renewal or reformation, to return to ‘the faith once delivered to the saints.’”

As with breakaway Episcopal congregations across the country, Fort Worth’s leaders argue that they should retain control of their buildings, but the national denomination sued the diocese in 2009 to take facilities away from the seceding churches. A state district judge ruled against the diocese in 2011, and precedents from other cases around the country suggest that Fort Worth’s appeal to the Texas Supreme Court might not succeed, either. For instance, in April 2012 Virginia’s breakaway Falls Church Anglican congregation lost an appeal to retain its historic property, as well as bank accounts, in a lawsuit filed by the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia. —T.K.

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