Last week, students and New Haven community members participated in a series of events highlighting the questions, debates and beliefs confronted by nonreligious individuals through Yale & New Haven Humanism Week.
Co-founded in 2012 by former Yale Ph.D. candidate Paul Chiariello and Miles Lasater ’01, the Yale Humanist Community is a campus organization for “humanists, atheists, agnostics and the nonreligious,” according to its website. Though according to the Chaplain’s Office only 0.24 percent of Yale undergraduates explicitly define themselves as Humanist, another 6.62 percent are either atheist or agnostic, and 4.52 percent are unaffiliated. The events of Humanism Week — which took place from April 2-9 — were meant to highlight aspects of the Humanist community and “facilitate important conversations related to belief, identity and meaning,” YHC Executive Director Chris Stedman said.
Events included talks on topics from America’s religious history to agnosticism, as well as a launch party for the Green Light Project — a crowd-funded initiative to install a nonreligious statue on the New Haven Green — and a day of service. The week concluded with an Animal Gratitude Ceremony led by psychology professor Laurie Santos, who sits on the YHC’s Board of Directors.
“[Humanism] really is about hearing other people’s perspectives on life and figuring out what each person can do to make the world a better place, and how can we live through a philosophy of compassion, reason and understanding for other people across the world, and really try to take action,” said Fiona Riebeling ’18, a student member of the YHC who discovered the community through dinners and events before realizing that Humanism aligned with her developing worldview. “That’s the core of it, and I think you can do that whether or not you do have a religious faith.”
The YHC applied for membership to Yale Religious Ministries in 2013, but was denied when University Chaplain Sharon Kugler said that she decided that YHC did not fit into an explicitly religious definition. Though the YHC is involved with the Chaplain’s Office, it does define itself as a group for the nonreligious. The Animal Gratitude Ceremony, for example, was as a nontheistic version of the animal blessings that occur in the Catholic church, Santos said. The overarching question of whether Humanism is a religion is a “very contentious” debate, Chiariello said, adding that part of the ambiguity comes from the various ways the word “religion” can be interpreted. Under a historical definition in which religion implies a spirituality that includes belief in a soul, heaven and God, Humanism cannot be considered a religion, given that humanists are “at best agnostic, and at most atheistic,” he said.
Chiariello added, however, that Humanism can fit into a more secular definition of religion that includes participation in a community and a system that explains “the world and how to live in it.” This approach to Humanism was echoed by Riebeling, who praised the YHC for its “support and inclusion” and highlighted that Humanism is not about denouncing religion, but rather focuses on how to improve oneself and the world despite nonreligious belief.
“My involvement in the YHC gives me access to at least some of the positives that come from being involved in other kinds of organized religions — it gives me a sense of community, a group of like-minded folks to speak with about the big questions and to work with to improve our world and our community,” Santos said. “So I think participating in Humanist activities comes with at least some of the positives of being religious.”
Humanist communities play a particularly important role on college campuses where many students arrive questioning their previously held systems of belief, Chiariello said. He emphasized that Humanist groups remove the stigma surrounding atheism — a stigma studied recently in a 2015 Gallup poll which showed some bias against atheist presidential candidates — and demonstrate to students that community service and ethical action are possible without belief in God.
A Humanist chaplain can provide unique guidance to students who are grappling with issues such as how to inform religious parents that they no longer believe in God to developing a system of ethics without religious instruction, Chiariello said. He went on to add that Christian chaplains are inclined to respond to questioning students by encouraging them to redevelop their faith in God, whereas Humanist chaplains can provide a “personal level of depth and empathy.”
Though the YHC has halted pursuit of recognition as part of the Yale Religious Ministries, Stedman said that a productive working relationship has been facilitated between the YHC and Chaplain’s Office, a sentiment echoed both by Chiariello and Yale Assistant Chaplain for Special Programs Maytal Saltiel. Saltiel emphasized that the Humanist community is “certainly” included in the Chaplain’s Office’s commitment to working with students from a variety of different backgrounds. Stedman also discussed events co-hosted with religious groups such as Luther House and St. Thomas More. Saltiel spoke to collaborations between Yale Religious Ministry groups and the YHC on service projects, as well as YHC representation in both the InterFaith Forum and as Chaplaincy Fellows.
“All of us, believers and nonbelievers alike, have to share this world,” Stedman said. “So it’s important to build mutual understanding and try to work together to solve our world’s biggest problems … I want to see a world where people of all faiths and philosophies can be open about what they believe without fear of being punished or ostracized, including the nonreligious.”
The YHC is part of the American Humanist Association, which was formed in 1941.