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