Humanist group falls short of official recognition

When the newly organized Yale Humanist Community applied for official recognition from Yale’s religious community at the beginning of the school year, the group realized its request was an unusual one.

The YHC was a nonreligious group striving to join a religious community — so when its application was rejected in late September, the group’s founders were disappointed, but not entirely surprised.

The YHC was founded in 2012 by Paul Chiariello GRD ’18 and Miles Lasater ’01 as the first university-wide association for humanists, an umbrella term for nontheists who believe in using reason and human experience to create a set of ethics. But shortly after the group applied for membership to Yale Religious Ministries — an organization that comprises campus religious groups such as the University Chaplain’s Office and the University Church — its request was turned down.

“We had a good discussion at that time, and individuals expressed thoughtful concerns, positive feedback and diverse wise counsel to me,” said University Chaplain Sharon Kugler in an email to the News. “[But] after much discernment, I decided that the nonreligious nature of the YHC did not fit with membership in a group with explicitly religious self-definition.”

The YHC decided to apply for membership this year after it hired its first two staff members — Chiariello as director of operations, and Harvard Assistant Humanist Chaplain Chris Stedman as coordinator of humanist life — over the summer. Although humanists explicitly identify as nonreligious, Chiariello said the YHC was nevertheless optimistic about its prospects because of the shared missions between humanism and established religious traditions.

Prior to the group’s founding, there were only two humanist organizations on campus: the Yale Humanist Society for undergraduates, and the Open Party for students at the Divinity School. Despite failing to secure membership within YRM, YHC leaders said they will still continue with their mission to be a resource for the entire university and even for the city of New Haven.

Even though Chiariello said he felt “shock and disappointment” when the Chaplain’s Office turned down the group’s request, he added that the YHC remains optimistic. On Sept. 23, Stedman wrote an open letter on the group’s website explaining the significance of the decision and how the group will proceed.

Stedman said he is looking forward to collaborating with the Chaplain’s Office on future areas of shared interest. The Chaplain’s Office will also still promote resources and support for humanist students, faculty, alumni and community members, he added.

“When we entered into the process of applying for membership, we began cultivating a relationship with the Chaplain’s Office,” he said. “At that time the discussion was about formal affiliation, but since then that conversation has shifted into one of collaboration. The way we see it is that the conversation has shifted, but certainly hasn’t ended.”

But some members of the humanist community felt that YRM’s lack of recognition deprives the YHC of a valuable platform. Before Kugler’s decision was announced, Chiariello expressed hope that official University recognition could help dispel some general misconceptions about humanism.

Ari Brill ’15 — a student member of the group — said it is “unfortunate” that the application was rejected because of the potential relationship that could have developed between the group and the Yale community.

“I think the Chaplain’s Office officially recognizing [the group] could have led to a perception of a less insular humanist community,” Brill said. “[One] that reached out to and learned from Yale’s active and well-established religious organizations.”

While the YHC has not ruled out the possibility of applying for YRM membership again some time in the future, Stedman said it is not currently a priority.

“Humanism is perhaps not all that different from many religious traditions, in that it has history, stories, ideas, principles,” Stedman said. “We want to build relationships with religious neighbors and collaborate for the common good.”

The YHC staff will meet with Kugler next week to plan specifics for future collaboration.

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