With a charismatic young leader, Yale’s humanists are building a community that looks a little bit like church.
David Zax ’06 is a freelance writer in Brooklyn.
Chris Stedman, executive director of the Yale Humanist Community, found and lost religion before finding an ethical framework in humanism. View full image
On Sunday, in a sunlit attic on Chapel Street, a group of 20 people are gathered in fellowship. Convened by a young man with religious training, the group has come together to socialize, share thoughts on what they believe, and listen to a sermon of sorts on how to improve the world. In many ways, it is like countless other services happening in churches around the city. But one thing sets apart these people, half of whom are Yale-affiliated: most of them don’t believe in God.
That is true, too, of their leader, the 29-year-old head of the Yale Humanist Community, Chris Stedman. Trained at a theological school in Chicago, he served as a “humanist chaplain” at Harvard for several years before moving to New Haven in 2014 to build a similarly secular community here. Today, listening to his invited speaker discourse on “The Nonreligious in American Politics,” Stedman looks nothing like the archetypal chaplain. (Indeed, he’s not officially a Yale chaplain; he calls himself the Yale Humanist Community’s executive director.) He wears skinny gray jeans cuffed above his mustard-yellow socks and green sneakers; tattoos peek from the sleeves of his slim blazer. Most chaplains you’ve known probably haven’t opted to pierce their noses and stretch their earlobes, as Stedman has.
A recent survey of American freshmen found that a quarter identified as nonreligious, up from 11 percent in 1973. A Pew survey in 2014 found that nearly as many Americans generally were religiously unaffiliated, with over 7 percent declaring themselves either atheist or agnostic.
What’s striking about the Yale Humanist Community, then, isn’t what it doesn’t believe in, but what it does. The most familiar brand of atheism is often hostile to religion—think Richard Dawkins’s book The God Delusion or the late Christopher Hitchens’s God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. But an emerging kind of nonbeliever is less excited about insulting organized religion and more excited about borrowing parts of it: coping mechanisms, action plans for life, communities that help you adhere to the life you aspire to live. The Yale Humanist Community is built around this approach.
The Sunday meeting draws to a close by having members of the audience form small groups, introduce themselves, and discuss what they have heard. In one corner, Tom Krattenmaker, a religion journalist who serves as Yale Divinity School’s director of communications, confers with Tanya Barrett of the Connecticut Coalition of Reason and Norm Brody, who retired in 2011 as Yale’s associate director of facilities. They set about discussing how the nonreligious might become an organized political force.
All are used to questioning, and answering questions about, their nonreligious identity. “I never knew I was a secular humanist till I read about it in the New Haven Independent last year,” says Brody, adding that while he knew what he had come to believe, he hadn’t had a label for it. “Religious people ask me, ‘Do you get together just to talk about what you don’t believe?’” says Barrett. “I say, ‘No, we get together to talk about the same things religious people talk about.’ People who don’t believe need a safe place to talk about how they deal with death, how they deal with children—all your everyday issues, but from a secular perspective.”
The American Humanist Association defines humanism as “a progressive lifestance that, without supernaturalism, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead meaningful, ethical lives capable of adding to the greater good of humanity.” Each person’s path to secular humanism is different, but there are recurring themes, like stops at fervent faith and fervent anti-faith along the way. Stedman’s own story is as emblematic as any.
He was born in Minnesota to a relatively nonreligious family that fractured painfully when he was 11. Around the same time, he began reading difficult books like Roots and Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl, which filled him with questions about how people could be so cruel to each other. When he was invited to an evangelical church one day, his conversion was sudden and complete: here, finally, was a community that was asking the same questions about the world he was, and offering answers about how to behave in it.
There was one problem. At the same time, Stedman was realizing something about himself: in the pathologizing language of his newfound evangelical community, Stedman knew he was “struggling with same-sex attraction.”
He began praying constantly and fasting. He kept a journal detailing his struggle. He became despondent and withdrawn, fearful that someone would discover his secret and cast him out of the church. Until, one day, his mom picked Stedman up from his lifeguarding class and told him she’d been worried enough about him to search his room. She’d found his journal.
His heart dropped. My life is over, he thought. Surely this would be the last conversation he would ever have with his mother.
Instead she said, “I just want you to know that I love you, and we’ll figure this out.” The next day, she took him to a minister at a Lutheran church, who offered a new perspective on the reconcilability of Stedman’s faith and sexual orientation. “It was life changing,” he recalls. “It was the first time I heard someone in a position of religious authority say, ‘This isn’t black and white.’”
Stedman wound up going to a Lutheran college, which he credits as challenging him to rethink all his beliefs, including his belief in God. It was “terrifying,” at first, he says. But gradually, as he questioned more and more, he found that he wasn’t able to convince himself that God’s existence was real.
Next came a combative stage fueled by reading atheist authors like Dawkins. “It’s a rite of passage for some folks,” he says of this stage. “Mine was not as exciting as other people’s, because I still had my Minnesota-nice thing.”
And he still felt called to serve others: eventually, he enrolled in the Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago, where he studied pastoral care and began to work for a group called the Interfaith Youth Core. One day, the organization’s leader—an observant Muslim named Eboo Patel—took Stedman aside. “You know, Chris, you identify as an atheist. But a lot of things you say really resonate with humanism.” Patel pressed into Stedman’s hand an early copy of a book called Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe, written by a humanist chaplain at Harvard named Greg Epstein.
Reading the book was like finding a key. Within a year, Stedman was working alongside Epstein in the humanist chaplaincy at Harvard; soon after, he was writing a book of his own. Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious was published by Beacon Press in 2012, and soon made Stedman a fixture in the media, articulating with a new clarity just what he and those like him didn’t—and did—believe.
Stedman has a weekly lunch meeting with the None/Others, a group at the Divinity School that is affiliated with the Humanist Community. View full image
There have likely been freethinkers and nonbelievers on Yale’s campus even since its earliest days. But organized secularism here reached a new stage around 2008, when some students formed a humanist group. The group drew some of its inspiration from Harvard’s humanist chaplaincy, the nation’s longest-running, founded by a lapsed Catholic priest some 40 years ago.
Yale’s humanists began a dialogue with Stedman, expressing a desire to form a similar chaplaincy at Yale. In 2013, students secured seed funding from Miles Lasater ’01 to help pilot the Yale Humanist Community. Stedman moved to New Haven in 2014, taking up residence in an office in a coworking space on Chapel Street.
The Humanist Community joins a wide-ranging set of campus ministries at Yale. University Chaplain Sharon Kugler—herself a Catholic layperson—has a paid staff of 10 to 12 people, including the two pastors of the University Church in Yale, a Hindu life adviser, a coordinator of Muslim life, and an assistant chaplain who coordinates outreach to other faiths. Kugler has also convened, under the banner of Yale Religious Ministries, a group of 40 leaders from 22 independent campus organizations serving Catholic, protestant, Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, and Buddhist believers. (Among them are the religious leaders of St. Thomas More Catholic Center, the Slifka Center for Jewish Life, and the Episcopal Church at Yale; although they are called chaplains, none is employed by the university.)
The Yale Humanist Community’s affiliation with Yale is best described as semiofficial. It does not receive funding from Yale, and it is not part of Yale Religious Ministries. But Stedman is a fellow of Davenport College, and YHC last year became an approved internship site for the Yale Divinity School. A description of YHC and its programs exists on the University Chaplain’s Office website. Stedman also teams up weekly with Maytal Saltiel, an assistant chaplain for special programs, for an informal pastoral event held at an interfaith space on Old Campus. And Kugler has said that she “wholeheartedly support[s] the existence and growth of the Yale Humanist Community,” calling it “a valuable resource for all our students, but especially for those who have needs that can be best met through the engagement of a secular humanist perspective.”
Nationally, humanist chaplaincy is “very much an emerging field,” says Stedman. There is a continuing effort to have a humanist chaplain approved in the US military; the Navy rejected one such application in 2014, provoking a lawsuit whose results are pending. Stedman says he supports humanist chaplaincy across multiple institutions, including the military, hospitals, and hospices.
Whether officially recognized or not, Stedman’s life looks much like that of a chaplain. He convenes like-minded people, invites speakers, coordinates discussion groups, organizes activism. He offers one-on-one pastoral counseling and couples counseling. He officiates at weddings, succors the grieving, helps students resolve conflicts with their families. His flock steadily grows, with more than 900 people now on the YHC mailing list.
And members of the humanist community find that it manages to fuse and catalyze various aspects of their personalities—some might even say souls—in a way that other secular groups can’t. “I appreciate having a place to tackle big, hard questions with people coming at them from a similar perspective to mine,” says Chelsea Blink ’21PhD. She admits she wouldn’t mind if YHC were “churchier,” replete with singing and preaching, but she acknowledges she may be in the minority in that regard.
“Something enviable about religious communities is the regularity of that weekly religious service,” says Stephen Goeman ’17MDiv, who interns with YHC, “and how that can drive people in the congregation to hold others accountable for ethical positions.”
“I love that language of accountability,” adds Stedman, citing a study showing that even nonreligious spouses who attended church regularly were more civically engaged. “We have collectively agreed to these certain moral views. We’ve made a commitment to one another.”