Humanist Chaplaincy, Freethought Society discuss future at Tufts

The University Chaplaincy Humanist in Residence Walker Bristol (LA'14) in front of Goddard Chapel on Feb. 10. Ziqing Xiong / The Tufts Daily

Chaplaincies in American universities have long been associated with just a few major religions. Tufts was founded by Universalists and used to host the Crane Theological School. Since its early days, Tufts has gone on to expand the University Chaplaincy to include several religious traditions. However, as the number of non-religious students at Tufts has grown, the University Chaplaincy has sought to make itself a more welcoming space for non-religious students.

“According to our incoming student spiritual interest surveys, over 30 percent of Tufts students claim identities within the broad Humanist umbrella [such as] atheist, agnostic, Humanist, nonreligious, spiritual but not religious, etc.,” Reverend Gregory McGonigle, the university chaplain, wrote in an email to the Daily.

In response to this trend, and following efforts by the Tufts Freethought Society, Tufts established a Humanist-in-Residence position as part of the University Chaplaincy through a two-year pilot program, starting in 2014. This position was the first university-funded Humanist chaplaincy in America. According to McGonigle, the chaplaincy is here to stay.

“Based on the success of the pilot program over the past year and a half, I can confirm that President Monaco has approved the continuation of the Humanist in Residence position going forward,” he said. “We are very excited that it will continue as a regular part of the University Chaplaincy staff team starting July 1, 2016.”

Walker Bristol (LA ’14) is currently the Humanist in Residence for the Chaplaincy. He is also pursuing a graduate degree at the Harvard Divinity School. Bristol has started several programs through the chaplaincy, including bi-weekly discussion meetings and holding weekly office hours to meet with students individually. He described the position as relatively flexible, depending upon what the students who reach out require from him.

“As we have better articulated what a chaplaincy does and the chaplaincy has grown its presence on campus, I think people of these different perspectives last year and this year have started to want to access those resources in different ways,” Bristol said. “And I think this position itself is a really important component of that, because it makes the chaplaincy a more accessible space to people who don’t identify as religious in the traditional sense.”

Bristol described how Humanism can encompass a wide set of beliefs. He serves students ranging from pure atheists to those simply unsure of their religion.

“Humanism as a movement, with a capital ‘H’, is something that is relatively new, and it’s essentially, for most people who identify as Humanists, Humanism is a way for them to express an affirmative value system in the absence of being part of another religious tradition,” Bristol said.

The Humanist Chaplaincy also often cooperates with Tufts Freethought Society, a group that played a large role in bringing a Humanist chaplaincy to Tufts. Bristol himself was involved in Freethought as an undergraduate, and the group continues to co-sponsor events with the Humanist Chaplaincy, including a “Humanism in Action Panel” held last year.

“Freethought tries to create a space where people can discuss … questions that are important to them or important to their life or just, you know, the world’s big mysteries,” Corrinne Smith, Freethought’s current vice president, said.

According to sophomore Smith, the Humanist chaplaincy provides a more personal opportunity for pastoral care to students, while Freethought offers a larger community of students.

Despite differences across faiths, Bristol enjoys working alongside the other chaplains, including through the chaplaincy’s interfaith service programs.

“I definitely appreciate being able to work on a team of Chaplains and a religiously diverse team and a team of people who come from different backgrounds,” Bristol said. “Building this connection is just by working in the same building as people and meeting with them regularly and knowing the kind of projects that we’re working on, which are at once independent and complimentary to one another.”

Sophomore Marina Rakhilin, the current interfaith chair of Tufts Freethought, said that Freethought features the same openness to interfaith discussion and interaction.

“I never considered I would be going and … talking casually with the Reverend on a weekly basis,” she said. “When I came in freshman year, I had never had a religious or church community ever and to find Freethought, to find this whole world, I want to do that more for more freshmen,”

In the future, Bristol hopes to have someone in the Chaplaincy position who can provide more of a full-time commitment and hold regular programs for students. Currently, given his graduate work and other job commitments, it is difficult for him to dedicate more time and resources towards the chaplaincy.

“I love the Tufts community because it’s been my home for so long and I hope that somebody can do this for a long period of time and become a real presence on campus who loves the community the way that I do and who can invest their whole self into it,” said Bristol.

While Tufts is one of only a few universities that offer a Humanist chaplaincy, the changes in American religious demographics suggests that it may be the beginning of a larger trend.

“As the number of Americans who claim identities within the broad Humanist umbrella grows, university chaplaincies are increasingly asking the question of how we provide spiritual and ethical support to the changing demographics of our campus populations,” McGonigle said in an email. “I think Tufts is charting a course that others are likely to follow in seeking to serve the unique demographics and needs of spiritual life at this time.”