You would think that, of all people, atheists would be the last ones in need of chaplains. But Stanford University, taking a cue from Harvard, recently brought in an atheist to function as a chaplain to non-believing students.
According to the San Francisco Chronicle, a professed atheist named John Figdor was recently hired at Stanford to, essentially, help students grow in their faithlessness, and to become firmer in their convictions that God does not exist.
Figdor has a seminary degree from Harvard Divinity school. He used to work as an atheist chaplain at Harvard before moving to the west coast to tell students the bad news that life has no meaning. We don’t see why Figdor needs a Divinity degree, considering how he does not believe in the existence of any divine being.
Apparently, many atheist students are also perplexed. Stanford graduate student Armand Rundquist told The Chronicle that many atheists aren’t interested in having a chaplain, which leads us to wonder why anyone bothered to hire one. Although, Rundquist did say there was at least one tangible benefit: “He got us some discount tickets to the atheist film festival in San Francisco.”
Cheap movie tickets–what else is an atheist chaplain good for?
As absurd as it seems to simply have an atheist chaplain, even more absurd is the story of how Figdor got to Stanford in the first place. A fellow named Rev. Scotty McLennan, Stanford’s dean for religious life, was the one who insisted that Stanford needed an atheist chaplain. McLennan helped lead the effort to get Figdor hired and brought to campus. He said this was especially important because Stanford’s Memorial Church, a centerpiece on campus, “had been founded on a principle of inclusion.”
Not so fast.
If you read a little about the church’s history, you learn that Jane Stanford, the woman who paid for the construction of the Memorial Church, also spurred the ouster of the church’s first minister, R. Herber Newton, only a few months after the church opened–all because his Christian theological teachings were too liberal. It’s true that the church was built to be a non-denominational Christian place of worship. But we hardly think Ms. Stanford’s vision of “inclusion,” when she donated all that money to the university, would have extended to the active spread of atheism among the student body. More likely, she’s turning over in her grave about now.
Nevertheless, the man in charge of religious life at Stanford today thinks an atheist chaplain is a great thing for students. According to his official bio, Dean McLennan is an ordained member of the Unitarian Universalist Church–an organization that describes itself as “a liberal religion that embraces theological diversity.” I guess we can deduce from the hiring of Mr. Figdor that, at least for Dean McLennan, “theological diversity” means that religion makes sense even for those who believe religion doesn’t make sense.