THE BLOG
12/04/2014 09:57 am ET Updated Feb 03, 2015

Bart Campolo and the Future of Humanist Chaplaincy

aenonfire/Flickr

This semester, the University of Southern California (USC) made the historic appointment of Bart Campolo as its first humanist chaplain. Because Bart is the son of Tony Campolo, a nationally renowned evangelical leader and personal pastor to President Bill Clinton, Bart's appointment received significant media attention that focused on how he told his famous father that he was a secular humanist and how that impacted their relationship. And because Bart himself had a long career as a Christian speaker and community organizer and is well known as the founder of Mission Year, many Christians have been debating the implications of Bart's "deconversion" and discussing what they can do to ensure that their friends and family members don't follow in his footsteps.

Although these public narratives have started many insightful and timely conversations, they miss a larger and more important story -- namely that Bart's experience as a Christian leader will equip and empower him to develop a national model for the future of humanist chaplaincy. As American atheist and agnostic communities move from an intellectual critique of religion to an interpersonal formation of community, Bart brings to his humanist chaplaincy a lifetime of experience in organizing communities around core beliefs and shared aspirations. Because of his previous work as a religious professional, Bart understands that a proactive, engaged, and compassionate community should be the cornerstone of any humanist movement.

By cultivating a vibrant humanist community at USC, Bart explicitly supports the mission of the Office of Religious Life in two ways: (1) engagement with the ultimate questions of meaning and purpose, and (2) engagement with faith communities on campus. Unlike most Religious Life or University Chaplain offices around the country, the Office of Religious Life at USC is not oriented around God, but rather around meaning and purpose, truth and identity, significance and authenticity, and the ultimate questions that make us human. Bart's humanist chaplaincy at USC also focuses on these ultimate questions by challenging students to think deeply about how to develop an ethical framework for secular goodness in their lives. Such a conversation has the potential to expand far beyond those who self-identify as atheist and agnostic, especially on a campus where one-third of students are not formally affiliated with any religious tradition, two-thirds of students describe themselves as "more spiritual than religious," and many students report that they are less interested in traditional religious doctrine, dogma, and liturgy, and more interested in personal reflection, spiritual exploration, and community service. By focusing on what it means to be human in this day and age, a thriving humanist chaplaincy at USC can help reclaim the promise of a liberal arts education broadly conceived, and of the humanities specifically.

Because USC's secular student group, the Alliance for Inquiry and Reason, is part of a campus community with over 90 student religious groups and over 50 religious directors and chaplains representing every major faith tradition in the world, both Bart and the secular students he mentors regularly attend a wide range of religious programs on campus and serve as leaders of USC's Interfaith Council. Indeed, their religious literacy reflects a national trend whereby atheists and agnostics know more about religion than their theistic counterparts. Within this framework of profound geo-religious diversity, Bart's chaplaincy will provide creative opportunities for secular humanists to lead interfaith service and civic engagement initiatives, both on campus and in greater Los Angeles, the most religiously diverse city in the world.

Of course, Bart Campolo is not alone in mapping out the future of humanist chaplaincy. At Harvard, Stanford, Yale, Columbia, Rutgers, American, and Tufts, courageous humanist leaders are inspiring students to tell new stories about themselves and their world. Collectively, these humanist chaplains are shaping diverse secular communities that are bringing together the spiritual and scholarly resources of the nation's elite research universities. When it comes to community formation, Bart and his fellow humanist chaplains wisely recognize that they can learn much from their theistic colleagues, especially in regards to the creation of humanist narratives, traditions, rituals, and art. And together, they can engender a new paradigm whereby theistic and non-theistic communities are not hostile to each other, but rather work together to become part of the solution for the world's great crises, and not part of the problem.