Five years after a group of atheist and agnostic students launched a campaign to get a Humanist chaplain at Tufts, the university has created a new Humanist staff position—the first of its kind in the United States.

The Humanist in Residence, a new staff member of the Tufts University Chaplaincy dedicated to supporting atheist, agnostic, and nonreligious students, is the first university-funded Humanist staff position in the U.S.

While there are Humanist chaplains working at universities like Rutgers, Columbia, and American, those chaplaincies do not receive funding from their respective universities, making Tufts the first to create and fund a Humanist support staff.

Atheist and agnostic students at Tufts have been campaigning for this kind of support for about 5 years:

The Tufts Freethought Society—a group of about 150 students who identify as atheistic, agnostic, or otherwise non-religious—wants the university to establish a “humanist” chaplaincy to serve as a resource for students who are interested in exploring how to live “ethical and meaningful lives” without subscribing to any religion.

Now they have this resource. Walker Bristol, a former Tufts Freethought student leader who has also interned at the Humanist Community at Harvard, recently started as the first part-time Humanist in Residence at Tufts.

The Reverend Greg McGonigle, University Chaplain at Tufts University. Photo courtesy McGonigle, Tufts Photo/Kelvin Ma.

The Reverend Greg McGonigle, University Chaplain at Tufts University. Photo courtesy McGonigle, Tufts Photo/Kelvin Ma.

I spoke with Greg McGonigle—University Chaplain at Tufts and a driving force behind the creation of this position—about this trailblazing position, why it was created, and how students have responded so far. A Unitarian Universalist minister who has served at Oberlin College and UC Davis, McGonigle is also President of the National Association of College and University Chaplains.

Chris Stedman: Why did you create this position?

Greg McGonigle: When I arrived at Tufts last summer, our President Anthony Monaco asked me to look into the matter of chaplaincy support for Humanist students. Tufts has had a large population of Humanists, atheists, agnostics, nonreligious, and spiritual but not religious students for some time—and these students, as well as alumni, had been requesting that Tufts consider adding support for Humanists in the University Chaplaincy. At the same time, the Tufts Freethought Society—the primary Humanist community on campus—has become increasingly strong and vibrant, very engaged in interfaith work, and very interested in partnering with the University Chaplaincy on programming in recent years.

I built a close relationship with the Humanist community last year and realized that increased staff support for them would be valuable—not only to them, but to our staff overall. The President asked me to present a report of my findings and a proposal; through research with various Humanist organizations and colleagues I developed a position description, and President Monaco reviewed and approved it.

CS: How would you respond to people who say that this shouldn’t be a priority for the university?

GM: There are always people who say that one or another aspect of university life at a residential university is not important—people have said this about athletics, the arts, counseling centers, multicultural centers, women’s and LGBT centers, and many other parts of campus life that U.S. students have come to expect as standard. Of course, for our religious and philosophically-minded students, involvement in spiritual life is often a central and defining aspect of their identity—and a core element of their life at Tufts. And we know that many of history’s proudest moments of social justice and liberation, as well as our deepest conflicts, have involved people’s religions, values, and worldviews. So I would say that engagement with these issues and questions and communities is central to the work of higher education today.

CS: Students at Tufts have campaigned for a Humanist support staff for years. How did that factor into your thinking?

GM: The students in Tufts Freethought built a very strong foundation and case for considering the possibility of a Humanist in Residence pilot program. The positive, intentional, and collaborative organization they have built has shown how much a well-organized and constructive Humanist organization can contribute to a campus community. This new position is in part the result of their hard work and advocacy, as well as that of Tufts’ Humanist alumni.

CS: How is this position connected to the broader work of your program and interfaith efforts at Tufts? 

GM: When I discussed the possible creation of this pilot position with Tufts’ existing chaplains, all of them were excited about its potential for enriching our programs and services for the campus overall. We know there are many students in the Humanist to spiritual but not religious cohort here—and in some ways they are the hardest students to serve because they may be unlikely to go to a group gathering and get involved. So we are excited to be equipped to better serve this part of our community.

In addition, having a Humanist in Residence as part of our staff circle will help us keep Humanist perspectives in mind as we plan interfaith programming. Given the importance, urgency, and complexity of religious-secular divides, discrimination, and differences, we believe having Humanist leadership and involvement in our work is crucial to our efforts supporting students, educating the campus, and seeking to make an impact on the world.

CS: How are students responding to this?

GM: So far everyone at Tufts I have spoken with has been very positive about the creation of this new position—especially the students in Freethought who had advocated for its creation, but also all of the students on our Interfaith Student Council and many others who have heard about it. They are excited that their friends who are Humanist and related identities will have designated chaplaincy support and they readily understand the importance of Humanist leadership and perspectives in the interfaith movement.

Some are curious about why a nonreligious person would be interested in chaplaincy or interfaith work, but when they think about it they realize that Humanists have the same needs for inspiration, reflection, caring, community, and service that religious people find in their faith traditions. Humanists share a similar quest to lead a meaningful and purposeful life and to be supported in doing that. No one has been critical of this opportunity—they are excited Tufts is leading in this area and eager to see how it will unfold in the future. We plan to do some educational efforts around this position because it is new and may not be as readily understood as other roles.

CS: This is the first university-funded Humanist staff position in the U.S. What role do you think Tufts can play in promoting this idea more broadly?

GM: We are proud that Tufts is leading in this area of university life and that we have the opportunity to add a Humanist position among our solid and leading Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Protestant, and Multifaith programs. We are also excited that our position is a trial position that may yield research useful to other universities and be a model they may choose to try. This October 26-28 we will be hosting the annual meeting of the Association for College and University Religious Affairs (ACURA)—a gathering of university chaplains from across the country—and we plan to feature Humanist chaplaincy as a part of our program that we encourage peer institutions to explore.

Full disclosure: While serving as a Humanist chaplain at Harvard, I worked with McGonigle on shaping the description, responsibilities, and expectations for this position. I have also supervised Walker Bristol as an intern and served him as a chaplain. However, I was not involved in the hiring process for this position. -Chris Stedman


  1. I guess the higher education bubble has not hit Tufts yet. (And it does not seemed to have occurred to the student affairs apparat to tell the pesky ‘freethinkers’ to go talk to the counseling staff.

  2. Ah yes, the self aggrandizing free thinkers….

    We love everything about humanity, except any part of humanity that believes in a christian god or traditional morality. And we love absolute freedom, but still want a huge enormous gov to watch over us all and protect anyone from disagreement that we believe is a minority.

  3. Humanism (atheism) is a religion. A negative religion, a no-good religion, but still a religion. Hence the demand for a “humanist chaplain” to shepherd the ever-faithful devotees of the cult.

    • Exactly, apparently they need a group to help them lead ethical lives. They feel left out and need some group-think for affirmation which indicates they are unsure of themselves. Seems more like group therapy and, btw, I’m not the least bit religious.

  4. Judging from the comments here, it looks like Stedman’s “interfaith bridge-building” is coming along swimmingly! It must be very rewarding to foster such mutually enlightening dialogue with persons of faith.

  5. One of the reasons why humanist chaplains are a good idea is evidenced by these types of ad hominem insults, which we human beings seem to enjoy lobbing at each other. (One hopes mostly because we have the cloak of online anonymity.) When we insult (rather than reasoningly dialogue about) another’s worldview, we harm the other by diminishing their capacity to think or respond reasoningly rather than emotionally. Our species claims its ability to reason as its best tool for individual and group survival — so why do we not realize that undercutting others’ ability to reason, and triggering them to respond emotively, is consequently a fundamentally immoral act? We need to admit that — hence the secular community can also use chaplains to keep our atheist community members on track to reasoning with, not flaming, people who speak prejudicially or irrationally, and to refrain from acting prejudicially or irrationally themselves. There is all too much foul-mouthed invective being hurled between theists and atheists (as well as between liberals and conservatives); it’s time humanity finished its potty-training and admitted that “ad hominem” is “bad” hominem.

    • Well said. I completely agree, but lets cut to the poimt and follow that logic.

      Why not just recognize the freedom of all people to believe whatever they want? And once done, not in any way force your view on them. Your religious? Ok. Your not? Ok. Its when we group togather that it obviously doesn’t work. So, lets just split up amicably. We all know we won’t agree ultimately….so why force a grouping that will only quarrel? That seems dumb.

      We need a secular oriented branch if gov. We need a religiously oriented branch of gov. Each autonomous, self funded. Seperate.

      • You are right, they are not ad hominem insults. Just childish insults. When it comes to talking to atheists, you and several others degenerate into immature nasty-minded nonsense.

        You tend to save ad hominem insults for 1st Amendment issues, :)

      • Sorry, Art Deco, but that term applies exactly to the verbal grenades being lobbed here — Frank:

        ad hominem |ˈad ˈhämənəm|
        adverb & adjective
        1 (of an argument or reaction) arising from or appealing to the emotions and not reason or logic.
        • attacking an opponent’s motives or character rather than the policy or position they maintain : vicious ad hominem attacks.
        2 relating to or associated with a particular person : [as adv. ] the office was created ad hominem for Fenton. | [as adj. ] an ad hominem response.
        ORIGIN late 16th cent.: Latin, literally ‘to the person.’

    • Rev. Dr. Norman Martin

      Frank Burton
      Appreciate your comments. As a clinical chaplain/pastoral counselor for many years, I agree that a Chaplain for Secular-Humanist would, hopefully, improve dialogue between the theist and non-theist communities. I sure hope it does.

      I don’t care for the name “The Tufts Freethought Society”. This certainly seems to claim that those who are theist or the faith community (which I prefer), don’t think, at least freely. Unreasoning (or non-thinking) believers in God, are more like of members of a cult, not Christianity as I know it. Yes I have heard (especially as a chaplain): “I know I’m not to question God,” or “I know I shouldn’t doubt God.” They are only expressing their questions, doubts and grief; as chaplain I explain to them that being such things are natural and guide them through their pilgrimage of their crises. Yes there is some poor theology and poor thinking among some of the faith, but to assume that to have faith in a power higher than yourself means not to think freely is ridiculous.
      A member of the Way will test their reasons for faith, and will question God and will carefully study scripture. They will compare various texts. They will take note of how Paul’s emotions and Stoicism may be reflected in his writings.

      Does free thought mean free from thoughts, or only We are Free Thinkers? That will crush any dialogue before it starts, on either side.

      • Hi Rev. Martin —

        There is a name for the theists, atheists, liberals and conservatives who join each other to more consistently practice everyday reasoning, regardless of their worldviews. They are called Pluralistic Rationalists, or “Plurationalists.” Just as local campus Christians, Muslims, Objectivists, Republicans, or Socialists all have the right to freely associate with their own worldview-based groups, so too do Campus Atheists or Freethinker groups have that right. But because pluralistic rationalism is a practice, not a worldview, we plurationalists (regardless of which ideological tribe we also belong to) encourage our colleagues to start an “extra” group on the side, a group where all our different tribes sit sit down at the roundtable of reasoning discourse. Our main goal? To practice acceptance (not denial) of facts; to practice questioning (not unquestioning acceptance) of assumptions; and to practice reasoning (not emotive) dialogue — in other words, we seek to practice & encourage being objective, open-minded, and equable instead of subjective, close-minded, and emotional. Plurationalists believe such practices are an expression of a fundamental morality, because encourage each of us to practice our most notable human ability — our sapience — to the best of our present ability.

        So I’d encourage you to start a plurationalist dialogue or meetup group at your church, and invite your local community atheists. To learn more about pluralistic rationalism and the groups that endorse it, Google the term or check it out at Wikipedia.


        Dr. Frank H. Burton
        Executive Director, The Circle of Reason

        • Rev. Norm Martin

          Frank B.,
          I really appreciate your response and information. I have searched the Circle of Reason website. I find the idea of a secular bible study most intriguing. If any Baptist related church can start such a study group it would likely be the one to which my wife and I belong. It was integrated in 1970’s, has international members (and an ESOL program). Openly gay members including the Chairperson of the Deacons who is in a same sex committed relationship.

          • Secular Bible Study (SBS) in Minneapolis/St. Paul, MN, started as a mutual outreach effort between a Methodist church and MN Atheists, and ever since has had both theist and atheist attendees joining each other to learn and discuss topics concerning the historical and societal impact of the Bible, religion and theism in general. You may be able to get a lot of local press by inviting your local city’s atheist meetup group to participate. Due to holding joint dialogues with SBS and plurationalists, and hearing how their atheist members felt excluded by the term “interfaith,” the Minnesota Council of Churches recently voted to become the first such religious council in the nation to change the name of its “interfaith” dialogue group to “interbelief,” in order to be more welcoming to secular participants with ethical or philosophical beliefs but without religious faith. The secular community was gratified at this attempt by their religious brethren to reverse their prior implicit exclusion of the local secular, humanist and atheist community members. I would encourage your dialogue group to pioneer such an effort in your community.

      • The term and modern concept of “freethought” goes back to the 1600’s and it does have a specific meaning. Originally it meant freedom from sectarian hierarchies such as the Catholic Church and freedom from scriptural authority or dogmatic theologies.

        I don’t think it is fair for religious people to complain about how the complimentary connotation of “freethought” excludes them. “Faith” also has a complimentary connotation, while “doubt” and “skepticism” more often than not have unflattering connotations. At some point those of religious faith come to a ledge where they then make a leap of faith and in a very real sense submit to the authority of the higher power they believe to be a benevolent Creator. If you are a person of faith, own that, and stop pretending that being faithful is compatible with being totally rational. It’s not. I’m not making a judgement on it, and nobody should make a judgement on it. We’re talking about what we think about the big picture items, the meaning of life and source of our morality/ethics.

        Anyway, if you guys get “faith”, which is CLEARLY a complimentary term that suggests certain unflattering things about us unfaithful, why can’t we label our mindset on these big picture matters “free thought”? Seems fair.

        • Totally rational? Who is totally rational?

          People of faith I know do not consider they are totally rational.

          Nor do freethinkers and atheists I know claims that particular honorific to that particular degree.

          Perhaps we should each just stick to claiming we should commit to acting as rationally as we can in our daily lives, and leave the afterlife — and the mantle of “total rationality” — to our personal opinions about ourselves?

    • “…keep our atheist community members on track to reasoning with, not flaming”

      “on track”? I don’t like the sound of that.

      Uncivilized, curse-filled, angry rants can be
      be very useful because they are often extremely creative – which is why people do it. Some of the best ideas are born out of exhaustion and frustration.

      Also, when someone spews hateful language but later reflects on it – the result is usually very constructive. We should not fear most angry language.

      HOWEVER, when someone spews hateful BELIEFS – that is different.
      Those must be challenged directly.
      Unfounded beliefs and assertions are where the danger is.

      “…Those who would not have me as their King, Execute them in front of me.” – JESUS
      (Luke 19:27, the lesson at the end
      of Parable of the Minas)

      • Uncivil curses induce people to react emotionally. How can emotive arguments and their irrational reactions be a good thing when acting emotionally defeats reasoning, the best mechanism that we humans have to survive?

        If, as an atheist, one takes pride in declaring one’s worldview to be “reason”-based, or claims Rationalism to be an exclusive ability of only the non-religious, then how can one simultaneously justify emotively undercutting others’ rational capacity by insulting them?

        Plurationalists call for us all to more consistently practice reasoning, regardless of our worldviews, whether atheist or theist (or liberal or conservative). That puts the onus upon us each to also try to argue rationally, not emotively. If one rejects rationalism as a practice, or claims that emotive invective is a moral tool for argumentation, one is claiming that irrationalism is a suitable tool to elicit rationalism — which is self-contradicting.

        I admit that it is not traditional to claim that insulting others is immoral. (We get so much emotional satisfaction from our verbal aggression.) But that’s the logical conclusion of accepting reasoning as a fundamentally moral practice in which we all should strive to consistently engage.

        • Frank,
          Thank you for your suggestions to me for starting an interfaith or interbelief group. We do have a area ministerial group (small) here, I’ll introduce the idea.
          I, for one, am thankful you have brought reason into the comments on this website.

          • I’d advise calling it an “interbelief” group and explicitly inviting theists and atheists. You may be surprised at the turnout. You can contact me to inquire about suggested dialogue formats that can maximize the civility and reasoning, and minimize the denialism, dogmatism, and emotionalism. If you are interested in topics your group can discuss, check out what we’ve done in the Twin Cities by Googling “Secular Bible Study Meetup” and “First Minneapolis Circle of Reason.” Good luck, and let me know how it goes — I can be reached via the email link at The CIrcle of Reason website, and maybe our admin staff can publicize your group once its starts up.

          • P.S. Rev. Martin, you asked earlier, “Does free thought mean free from thoughts, or only We are Free Thinkers? That will crush any dialogue before it starts, on either side.”

            The Freethought movement began in the 19th century, when religious restrictions on behavior and thinking for oneself were much more common than they are today (except for certain fundamentalist religous organizations.) Also, preachers of the day actively frowned on questioning scripture, which is not as true today.

            Hence the name “Freethought” and “Freethnker” didn’t appear back then to be as pejorative to the religious as it does today — yet the name stands today due to tradition. Some modern atheists do like and accept that monicker because it does connote that outsiders cannot think freely. I feel that’s a regrettable and short-sighted choice to make, and would prefer freethinkers find a descriptive something that doesn’t appear to rely on the assumption that non-freethinkers don’t freely think.

      • Uncivilized, curse-filled, angry rants have their place, usually on a stage coming out of the mouth of a seasoned, brilliant stand up comic who might seem as if he or she is saying it off the cuff, but in reality has carefully crafted the bit and thoroughly practiced the delivery. In other words, as explicit theater.

        Most uncivilized, curse-filled, angry rants which emerge spontaneously in everyday life just result in alienating others, even one’s own allies. I can’t even say how many fellow women freethinkers I’ve met (though many men, too) who stay as far away from the atheist flame wars as possible. And to go back to the original quote, the track we’re meant to be kept on is one that avoid *flaming*. Flaming isn’t intelligent. It is the shifting away from ideas into personal insults intended to emotionally wound the opponent. That’s the damned definition. Flaming has no more merit than getting totally plastered has any merit.

      • P.S. Calling people “sheep” is ad hominem argumentation, and ad hominem argumentation is herding people emotively, not persuading them rationally. So, who are the shepherds here? And who the teachers?

        • Jonathan J. Turner

          I disparage neither sheep nor shepherd.

          …he that entereth in by the door is the shepherd of the sheep.

          The like-minded free-thinking (capital-H) Humanist students have requested, and are getting, a Humanist chaplain, so I offered my paraphrase of the article’s subject in the spirit of John 10:1-5 & 11-16 (as found in the Jefferson Bible), as well as in parallel phrasing to the motto of Boy Scout leader training: Every youth deserves a trained leader.

          By the way, let us note that this campus Humanism project amounts to Unitarian Universalism under a new (older) name, but shorn of the religious, political, and historical UU problematics (they may grow back).

          Good luck, Tufts Humanists, and remember to play nice with others.

  6. I don’t get it. This is apparently a “token” atheist position to palliate the freethinking students, but it’s more like pulling the wool over their eyes. If the person who gets this job is an atheist worth his/her salt, there will be plenty of epistemological debates; the friction will be immediately felt, the faculty will become uncomfortable, and the position will quietly be immobilized or dropped. The job of an atheist is to try to get theists to THINK for themselves, to question why they believe what they do and whether or not that makes any sense. If fact, the only way this person will NOT disturb anyone if he/she says nothing. After all that, however, congrats to the students, it’s a step in the right direction. NEXT, try to come up with a solution to the problem of the tax-exempt status of churches and religious organizations.

    • There are plenty of theists who maintain they do think for themselves, and are not uncomfortable defending their worldviews. In many cases, it isn’t our worldviews that are the source of antagonism between some theists and atheists. It is our less central, but ofttimes unquestioned assumptions about the legitimacy of imposing one’s doctrinal rules upon others in our broader society. This is where there is room for dialogue: Where the fundamentalist finally grows to admit he still thinks non-believers or infidels will end up in Hell, but that it would be immoral to send them there himself. And where the strong atheist finally grows to admit that he still thinks theists are deluded about the afterlife, but that many theists can and do still live a reasoning life on this planet.

    • “The job of an atheist is to try to get theists to THINK for themselves…”

      I’m an atheist, and that’s not my job, and I’m rather taken aback that you claim to know what my and every other atheists job is with regards to spreading the word.

      Maybe you missed the “humanist” part. While atheism is part of humanism, there’s a heck of a lot more to it.

    • Marf’s correct, Jack — it is not the job of an atheist to try to get theists to think for themselves. It is the job of a plurationalist. And plurationalists have no “word” to spread, as we don’t espouse a worldview. Reason is not a worldview. It is a practice. (That’s why among our number are avowed theists and atheists, as well as avowed liberals and conservatives.)

    • Jack,
      “NEXT, try to come up with a solution to the problem of the tax-exempt status of churches and religious organizations.”
      You evidently think that losing their tax exempt status will help destroy them. While you are wrong, In my opinion, why not go after the wood turning associations, the hunt clubs, the NRA, the rocks clubs and the thousands of other non-profit organizations.
      there are thousands of 501c3 groups in this nation.

      According to your post the new position of Chaplain to the Atheist students should be one of an evangelist for the atheist cause, to get theist to turn from their sinful (theist) ways and turn to nothing greater than themselves or at least be more like you.

        • Jack and other wanting to strip churches of 501(c3) tax exempt status. Here is another for your list: “The Atlanta Freethought Society is a 501(c)(3) non-profit educational organization.” I have a good idea that most such societies are also tax exempt.


  8. It doesn’t matter how you pray, or who you pray to…. The result is always the same NOTHING FUCKING HAPPENS. have A nice day and welcome to reality.

    • Thats why people become atheist because they somehow think a higher power is there to take care of them. Its a terrible egotistical posistion. Not being religious, but I do understand the concept which is faith in an afterlife and living a better life in the present, not a hip pocket god to pull out and solve all your problems. Personally I think beliefs are a personal thing and I despise all forms of organized religion or any groups “steering” people but I will not argue it with anyone. Its their own business. I only have opinions. These groups are just an intellectual version of religion where people try to reason their way to some meaning in life. Free-thinking becomes group-think.

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