Letters to Editor, Opinion

LETTER: Humanism at Boston University

To the Editors:

In your feature on Marsh Chapel [“A Ministry of Hospitality”, Nov. 15] published before Thanksgiving, the DFP quoted Rev. Langsdorf as saying: “Students are at a place where they’re okay to say … I’m not sure if any religion is absolutely correct — but there are all of these options for me to explore right in front of me.”

For all its tone of self-congratulation, this quote fails to acknowledge that there is a faith position (held by thousands at BU) conspicuously missing from the options available at Marsh: nontheism.

Back in 2008 Tim Martinez (CAS ‘11) and I started a group for students identifying with the naturalistic worldview of Humanism. We founded the Humanists of Boston University as an option for students who don’t believe in gods but who want a place where they feel they belong as they explore, celebrate, and practice their (non)faith. Looking toward the future, we requested that our Humanist group be affiliated with the other organizations at Marsh Chapel. Surprisingly, HBU was denied religious status, without process of appeal.

The “ministry of hospitality” turned out to be a special privilege afforded only to certain sorts of students, namely those holding belief in a higher power. The rest of us are denied the sanction and resources of the campus chaplaincy. Our Humanist community, BU seemed to say, was undeserving of aid or acknowledgement.

It’s growing hard to overlook the nonreligious, however. According to the latest American Religious Identity Survey, the fastest growing ‘religious’ demographic consists of people who don›t affiliate with any religion. These are the “nones,” including the atheists and Humanists who are coming together in a post-theistic pluralistic society to build new forms of values-based community. Data indicates that up to 25 percent of the Boston-area population identifies as religiously unaffiliated, with numbers highest among the youth.

Over the last few years, Humanism has continued to grow throughout the country. Campus chaplaincies have been founded at schools including Stanford and Rutgers. Secular congregations like Sunday Assembly are popping up all over the place.  Increasingly, the practice of Humanism is adopting the model of traditional theistic traditions, with an emphasis on shared congregational experiences and on putting values into action through service and mutual aid.

I encourage the staff of Marsh Chapel to view these demographic trends as an invitation to ministerial leadership. If fewer students identify as theists, it isn›t time to double-down on the idea that only theists can be religious. Instead, it’s time to reexamine the purpose of a campus chapel, and make sure that chapel resources are delegated so as to support the ethical and personal development of as many students as possible.

Atheist students may eschew belief in the supernatural, but we are as firm as anyone in our belief that community matters. I am hopeful that Marsh Chapel will reconsider its exclusion of Humanism from the religious council, and make good on its promise to minister to students of every path, including the godless ones.

John James McCargar, CAS ‘11, Founder, Humanists of Boston University. He can be reached at jjmc@bu.edu

Co-signed  Patrick Moffat, CAS ‘15, President of Humanists of Boston University; Zachary Bos, GRS ‘10, Co-chair Secular Coalition for Massachusetts, State Director American Atheists


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  1. Well Said John. Thanks for your comments, hopefully BU will recognize the HBU as an important and very capable group to be associated with the Marsh Chapel.

  2. As a student that loves attending this University, I agree.

    While I certainly feel the exclusion, it brings me hope to see that maybe by the time the Class of 2020 joins us, Boston University’s Marsh Chapel may have become a place that not only acknowledges, but also welcomes and encourages students who choose not to identify with any faith or religion.

    Our inclusion would allow us to finally contribute our voices to the questions that really matter.

    Cheers (:

  3. Thank you for sharing your thoughts! As someone who never really knows what to identify as but still considers herself as a spiritual individual even if I do not necessarily share in any particular brand of religion, it’s nice to be acknowledged and not dismissed simply because I do not fit any convenient label.

    Yes, religion is important for some but not for all so I urge those reading this letter to join its sentiments and show support for increased inclusion of something that is already strongly accepted – or at least not questioned on campus.

  4. “Surprisingly, HBU was denied religious status, without process of appeal.” This is very unsettling. The fact that they can’t even get a fair hearing about it is simply an act of discrimination based on religious belief. The worst part is that this attempt to marginalize HBU working: I’m a BU student, and I was totally unaware that we even had a Humanist group on campus until today!

  5. Well said, John. That quote from the previous article really stood out to me as well, forcing me to wonder why a chapel which clearly prides itself on its hospitality, does not extend hospitality to the community-oriented non-theists in the student body. I’m really glad the Humanists of BU were around while I was a student there, and I hope to see them grow more.

  6. Hello everyone! My name is Abigail Clauhs; I am the president of the Boston University Interfaith Council. Our mission statement (as stated on our website at http://buifc.wordpress.com/about/) is “to promote understanding and cooperation between all religious (and non-religious) traditions through education, in order to achieve religious literacy; through discussion, to enable open and honest communication; and by coming together over shared values through service.”

    The Interfaith Council started out as a group founded at Marsh Chapel, and, as it has grown, has become an SAO Religious Life group. We hold many events on campus to promote inter religious understanding, and have always considered humanists an extremely important part of interfaith dialogue and cooperation.

    In fact, just a couple weeks ago, on November 24th, we partnered (for the third year in a row) with the Harvard Humanist Community for our annual Thanksgiving Interfaith Meal-Packing Project (http://harvardhumanist.org/2013/11/26/closing-the-gap-donate-now-to-our-50000-meal-packing/), where we packed over 50,000 meals for hungry children in the Boston area.

    Here on campus, we have worked closely with humanists as well. Last year, we held the first annual Interfaith Fair, which was a large event that included musical performances, an interfaith buffet, and booths for different religious groups, where students could learn about these traditions. The Humanists of BU was one of the groups that participated in the event, with a table where they set up posters, objects, and other things to represent their tradition.

    In fact, I had to defend their presence there. When there was a slight controversy over including humanists at the Interfaith Fair last year (which led to some individuals refusing to attend the affair because non-religious people would be represented there), I stood up for the importance of humanists and the non-religious to be included and to engage in interfaith work, and made sure they had their table and had our support.

    Insofar as the attempt to become a Religious Life Group on campus, I personally know both some of the humanist students who were involved in the attempt to get Religious Life Group status, as well as the staff at Marsh Chapel. The Humanists of BU were never actually “denied” Religious Life Group status, which is given or denied after a presentation in front of the Religious Life Council (which includes all the university chaplains, from traditions including Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, and Islam). Instead, the process stalled due to paperwork not being turned in before the group ever got to the point in the process where they would give a presentation before the Religious Life Council.

    I would encourage Humanists of BU to restart the Religious Life Group approval process; I have certainly advocated often for the importance of including the non-religious in our religious life community, and I believe it would be received well among the Religious Life Council.

    And, as always, the Interfaith Council, born at Marsh Chapel, welcomes everyone—no religion required. Those of you who feel like there is no space for your nonaffiliated or secular viewpoint on campus—we’d love to have you involved!

  7. Moral of story: These “Humanists” should check their paperwork before they break out their soapboxes.

    Since I subscribe to humanist religious beliefs myself, I cannot be more thankful that the Interfaith Council has been so open and accepting at Boston University. Keep it up!

  8. Sorry to correct you Abigail, but you were not involved in any way with the story my letter mentions. It happened before you were a student. We filed all the correct paperwork, and a representative from Marsh told us in no ambiguity that we were being “denied” status due to the belief that the Dean had that we were undeserving. (According to this representative, the RLC could have approved us, but the Dean had already decided he would veto our inclusion if that had happened. We were denied access to the Dean to appeal his decision).

    I do not appreciate you publicly claiming that Tim and I were so incompetent as to incorrectly file paperwork. Trust me, if that had been the issue, we would have corrected it.

    There may have been another attempt after Tim and I stopped running the group, but during my tenure that certainly wasn’t the issue. Please, check your facts before you make public statements attacking someone else’s credibility.

  9. I was the advisor for the HBU at the time that they attempted to establish a relationship with Marsh. I can speak to the fact that Ms. Clauhs was not involved in the matter (that is to say, not privy to it), and that late paperwork was not at issue. That said, Ms. Clauhs IS involved now — as a proactive and welcoming representative of the Interfaith Council. Her forthright invitation to a renewed process is a most positive sign.

    To the commenter using the handle Matt, I can only say that your prejudice is showing. Soapboxes, sir? Come now. These are people — WE are people — organizing for equality. We can do better than snide pejoratives.