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Two women whose faces are not visible hold hands as they sit in armchairs.
Chaplains talk with anyone, regardless of whether or not the patient has a religious affiliation – and some chaplains themselves are not religious. Jacob Wackerhausen/iStock via Getty Images Plus

Religious leaders without religion: How humanist, atheist and spiritual-but-not-religious chaplains tend to patients’ needs

In times of loss, change or other challenges, chaplains can listen, provide comfort and discuss spiritual needs. These spiritual caregivers can be found working in hospitals, universities, prisons and many other secular settings, serving people of all faiths and those with no faith tradition at all.

Yet a common assumption is that chaplains themselves must be grounded in a religious tradition. After all, how can you be a religious leader without religion?

In reality, a growing number of chaplains are nonreligious: people who identify as atheist, agnostic, humanist or “spiritual but not religious.” I am a sociologist and research manager at Brandeis University’s Chaplaincy Innovation Lab, where our team researches and supports chaplains of all faiths, including those from nonreligious backgrounds. Our current research has focused on learning from 21 nonreligious chaplains about their experiences.

A changing society

Thirty percent of Americans are religiously unaffiliated. Research suggests that people who are atheists or otherwise nonreligious sometimes reject a chaplain out of wariness, or shut down a conversation if they feel judged for their beliefs. But this research has not accounted for a new, increasingly likely situation – that the chaplain might also be nonreligious.

No national survey has been done, so the number of nonreligious chaplains is unknown. But there is plenty of reason to think that as more Americans choose not to affiliate with any particular religion, so too do more chaplains.

Nonreligious chaplains have been a part of hospital systems and universities for years, but they came into the national spotlight in August 2021 when Harvard University’s organization of chaplains unanimously elected humanist and atheist Greg Epstein as president. Humanists believe in the potential and goodness of human beings without reference to the supernatural.

Other recent reporting on humanist chaplains has also focused on school campuses, but nonreligious chaplains are not limited to colleges and universities. Eighteen of the 21 nonreligious chaplains we spoke with in our study work in health care, including hospice. The Federal Bureau of Prisons allows nonreligious chaplains, but we were unable to find any of them to participate in the current study.

A middle-aged man and woman seated in a row of chairs turn around to talk with a handful of college-age kids.
Humanist chaplain Bart Campolo, center, and his wife, Marty, right, mingle with students at the University of Southern California in 2015. AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

Not all settings allow nonreligious chaplains, however, including the U.S. military.

Authentic calling

The idea of a “call” from God is central to many religious vocations: a strong impulse toward religious leadership, which many people attribute to the divine.

Chaplains who are atheists, agnostics, humanists or who consider themselves spiritual but not religious also can feel called. But they do not believe that their calls come from a deity.

Joe, for example, an atheist and a humanist whom we interviewed, has worked as a chaplain in hospitals and hospices. He says that his “light bulb moment” came after a history professor told him that beliefs are the source of a community’s power. While atheists do not believe in God or gods, many do have strong beliefs about ethics and morality, and American atheists are more likely than American Christians to say they often feel a sense of wonder about the universe. Joe’s call was not “from a divine source,” but nonetheless, he says this experience “kind of filled me with a sense of control, and confidence, and presence” in his life that grounded his sense of a calling.

Sunil, another chaplain our team interviewed, was inspired by his college chaplain, whom he calls “a really influential presence.” The chaplain helped Sunil answer questions about identity and values without “necessarily having any religious or spiritual leanings to it,” and encouraged him to go to divinity school.

Today, Sunil tries to help others answer those same questions in his work as a health care chaplain – and to offer deeply thoughtful, meaningful spiritual care to people who aren’t religious.

Education and training

Most chaplaincy jobs require a theological degree. Along with coursework in sacred scriptures and religious leadership, chaplaincy training usually involves clinical pastoral education, where students learn about hands-on, care-oriented aspects of their profession. This involves learning to provide care to everyone, regardless of their religious background.

Although coursework is broadly the same for all students, religious or nonreligious, the actual experience of earning a degree is very different for nonreligious students. In the United States, Christian students are easily able to enroll in a seminary or divinity school that shares their faith identity and spend their years of study learning about their own tradition.

Chaplaincy programs that focus on non-Christian traditions are available, but scarcer, and our team does not know of an overtly nonreligious chaplaincy program. In recent years, more seminaries have welcomed nonreligious students, but nonetheless, nonreligious students often find themselves focusing their study on traditions to which they have no personal connection.

Yet there is a surprising bright side.

‘I am here to support you’

Being deeply immersed in traditions that are not one’s own is one of the reasons that nonreligious chaplains can be so effective.

A poster that says 'We are with you,' with an illustration of someone sitting in scrubs as dozens of ghostly figures hold them.
Artwork posted by a chaplain in a break room in the trauma surgery ICU at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. David Ryder/Getty Images

For example, our team asked Kathy, a health care chaplain, how she approaches prayer with religious and nonreligious patients. “My goal is to try to meet that person where they are and pray in a way that’s helpful and comforting for them, or meets whatever the need is that’s arisen during the conversation that we’ve had,” she said. Like all chaplains, Kathy is there to accompany, not proselytize. While she herself prays to the “great mystery,” she is comfortable facilitating whatever prayer is needed.

Claire, a chaplaincy student, agreed with Kathy and described her own first experience meeting an evangelical Christian patient. It was easy, she said, because “you’re not trying to fix anything. You’re just trying to meet them where they are. So that’s it.”

Nonreligious chaplains are used to thinking outside the box. Having learned about major world religions, many of them can find overlapping values and beliefs with their patients, such as finding beauty and meaning in the natural world or finding strength in their conviction that human beings are inherently good.

Cynthia works in the palliative care department in a hospital and tells her patients, “I am here to support you in whatever is meaningful to you right now and whatever is most important in your life in this moment.” She asks patients: “What are you struggling with right now? What are your goals? What do you hope for? What are you afraid of?” – trying to “unpack that with a spiritual lens rather than a medical lens.”

Cynthia is an example of why spiritual care by nonreligious chaplains may be surprising, but is likely here to stay. Based on our research, nonreligious chaplains are as capable as religious chaplains of meeting a person in their darkest hour and taking them by the hand.

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