“Progress is not accomplished in one stage.” -Victor Hugo
As many of you already know, earlier this year the Yale Humanist Community (YHC) applied for membership in Yale Religious Ministries (YRM), a collective of groups supporting the religious and ethical lives of students at Yale. After a lengthy process including a great deal of dialogue and discernment on our part, on the part of YRM, and between the two bodies, we have been informed that our application for membership was not accepted.
As an organization, we are disappointed by this decision. We wanted very much to see the Humanist community recognized in the same way as many other moral communities at Yale, and to work with the YRM as a member organization.
But we are also not entirely surprised. It is, after all, understandable that the idea of a Humanist group applying for membership in a collection of religious groups might seem to many odd at best, or wrongheaded at worst. From the very beginning, we fully expected people — religious and nonreligious alike — to have questions about our pursuing membership in the YRM.
Why Did We Apply?
We applied for membership in this group because the YHC is an intentional moral community. We weigh and discuss questions of ultimate concern. We are bound by a shared identity that speaks to our core values. Humanism is a worldview and life-stance that is, per the third edition of the Humanist Manifesto, “guided by reason, inspired by compassion, and informed by experience.” Like many religious traditions, Humanism has a rich history replete with evolving ideas, narratives, and many profound thinkers. Importantly, it is an identity for people who are often classified by what we do not believe in.
Thus, in many ways, Humanism is perhaps not all that different from a number of religious traditions in form, if not content. But while the first edition of the Humanist Manifesto in fact referred to “religious humanism,” many — perhaps the majority — of our members, myself included, identify as nonreligious. So the question of why we decided to seek membership in the YRM is entirely fair.
This is a complicated question but there is, we think, a relatively straight-forward answer: The YHC seeks to look to and learn from religious communities as we build our own. We seek relationships with our religious neighbors; to partner with them to collaborate for the common good, to learn from them, and to come to better understand one another. The YHC aspires to be a resource for students and members of the New Haven community in many of the same ways religious communities are, and though we differ from religious groups in not insignificant ways, we believe that we will better at serving members of our community by working with religious communities.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Unfortunately, we were not granted membership to the YRM because we explicitly identify as a nonreligious organization. But this decision in no way changes any of the above statements. We will continue in our work to build a community for the nonreligious at Yale and beyond, and we will continue to seek out opportunities for collaboration with religious communities at Yale and beyond.
Additionally, we see this as an indication that the idea of Humanists participating in interfaith groups, and having campus resources comparable to those offered to religious groups, is still an emerging conversation. We are a new organization without a proven track record of serving students, and this is a new idea for Yale and more broadly a new idea for many campuses. So we will continue to focus on establishing and building our community, but also on outreach and education — on building relationships with religious groups, learning from them, and educating them about who we are, what we believe in, and why we seek this kind of recognition and collaboration.
Our Relationship With the Yale Chaplain’s Office
Despite our disappointment about this decision, we are grateful that the Yale Chaplain’s Office — which coordinates the YRM — has simultaneously expressed their wholehearted support for the existence and growth of the YHC. But their support extends beyond just words — they also intend to find ways to partner with us on projects, and to collaborate on issues of shared concern. We share their enthusiasm about the potential for such collaborations without reservation.
The Yale Chaplain’s Office has also expressed a desire to continue to nurture a friendly and supportive relationship with the YHC — a relationship that precedes our organization’s existence through the Yale Chaplain’s Office’s work with Humanist students, with me, and with members of our Board, and through the longstanding Humanist representation on the Yale Chaplain’s Office student interfaith leadership council. I am happy to say that this friendly and supportive relationship has only grown since we began the process of applying for membership in the YRM, and we plan to continue to develop and nurture it moving forward. We continue to believe that we have much to learn from the important work of the Yale Chaplain’s Office, and that a relationship between our organizations will be beneficial to both.
Additionally, the Yale Chaplain’s Office has said that they consider our organization “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.” We are grateful that they agree that Humanist students deserve to have support and resources, and we stand ready to serve any and all Yale students, especially those who identify as Humanist, atheist, agnostic, or nonreligious — both independently, and through partnerships with the Yale Chaplain’s Office.
At our first YHC event a few weeks ago, I was amazed and inspired by the amount of enthusiasm and excitement I witnessed in response to the development of a Humanist community at Yale. The room was packed — every chair was filled, people were sitting on the floor, and people were even standing out in the hall. Watching so many people come together, meet one another, and express their joy over the prospect of a Humanist community for those in and around Yale, I felt more sure than ever that this was a needed resource.
The decision about our application for membership in the YRM does not diminish this feeling in any way; in fact, it only underscores the need for greater understanding and resources. In the words of C.S. Lewis: “Progress means getting nearer to the place you want to be.” Though this decision signals that we haven’t arrived where we might have liked to, we are nearer every day and we will continue building up a community that serves Humanists at Yale and builds bridges of understanding.
Though this is not the outcome we had hoped for, it does not dampen our enthusiasm for Humanist community at Yale, nor does it alter our aspirations. We remain dedicated to building a relationship of goodwill with the Yale Chaplain’s Office, and to collaborating with them as much as possible. There is much more work to be done, and we are just getting started. From the very beginning of the YRM membership application process I saw our application as the start of a new and exciting conversation — regardless of the outcome. Today, I remain eager to advance that conversation about community, support, and resources for the nonreligious at Yale.
Thanks for your support, and I hope to see you soon at a YHC event!