A Case for Humanist Chaplaincy in Africa

Feature Article A Case for Humanist Chaplaincy in Africa

I am a humanist and am training to be a chaplain. In this piece, I make a case for humanist chaplaincy in Africa. I am not a priest, a pastor, or an imam. I am not a cleric in the traditional sense. I am nonreligious. I do not profess any religion as we know it. I am a humanist. I seek to live ethically and meaningfully without a god or dogma. I believe that people can be good without god. I do not think there is a god as religions teach and preach. I don't think there is a deity out there who created the universe or who supervises and directs life on earth and waits to judge, condemn, or reward humans at the end of life. I do not believe there is an afterlife in heaven or hell for me or for other human beings, as popularly believed.

For decades, I have led efforts to organize nonreligious and nontheistic people in Nigeria. I have been working and campaigning to grow the nonreligious community. I identify as nonreligious because I consider belief in god fundamental and foundational to the religious profession. Recently, I enrolled to train as a chaplain with a little-known Regnum International School of Chaplaincy. When I told a friend about this, she asked: "But this is for a fada? Are you a fada? I said I was not and need not be. Yes, one needs not be a fada to be a chaplain. This idea is mistaken. While all pastors could be chaplains, not all chaplains are pastors. All chaplains should not be pastors or clerics.

Expectedly, other trainees are pastors or ministers. I made it clear from the beginning that I was not a religious person, and as a chaplain, I would like to minister to nonbelievers in religion or god as we know it. I want to bring a nonbelief approach to chaplaincy. I like to attend to the needs; emotional, and psycho-social needs of nonreligious people. I want to focus on the nonreligious chaplaincy needs of the public. The school managers had no issue with it. And we are getting on well. There should be a place for secular/humanist chaplaincy in institutions. Chaplains need not be religious godmen and women. Why do I think so?

Chaplaincy is a public institution and should be open to and of service to the public whether one is a believer or not. Chaplaincy entails a range of support for the spiritual and personal needs of students, staff, and workers, including prison inmates. A chaplain provides spiritual leadership and counseling to members of an institution such as a school, hospital, or prison. Chaplains offer spiritual care in clinical, military, educational, or other settings where individuals grapple with meaning, hope, and transcendence. Look, the term 'spiritual' is used in a broad sense, and does not necessarily imply belief in god or religious belonging as we know it. Chaplains help individuals deal with issues related to illness, injury, birth, or death. They offer psychosocial support to people of all faiths and beliefs. The website of the Imperial College states: "Chaplaincy is here for you whether you have a religious or a philosophical take on the world. We see spirituality, faith, and meaning as key sources of inspiration and motivation for personal development, learning, and research".

In the military, chaplains minister to military personnel of all faiths and none, including their families and civilians working for the military. At the hospitals, chaplains provide psycho-social support to patients, families, and staff. They help them alleviate fear and stress. In prisons, chaplains care for the spiritual and emotional well-being of prisoners, including their rehabilitation process. They offer programs that enhance their positive growth and development. In schools, chaplains organize religious services, provide counseling, and organize community events for students, staff, and parents. In companies, corporate chaplains assist workers and support them during crisis.

So, chaplaincy needs not be religious or faith-based. A chaplain must not be a priest, a rabbi, or an imam. A chaplain must not be a cleric as we know it. Chaplains of all religious and belief backgrounds are needed to provide support to the public. Humanist chaplains are needed because not all military personnel, patients, prison inmates, students, workers, and families are religious. Not all persons need the kind of psycho-social support and care that religious chaplains provide. Many military and police officers are atheists, agnostics, or non-religious. Some students and teachers do not find meaning in religious services. Some prisoners, patients, and company workers do not find comfort in payer or faith-based counseling and care. Nonreligious Africans need chaplains who minister and offer support that aligns with their philosophical outlook. It is necessary to have chaplains who can attend to the needs of people from no faith traditions.

Incidentally, many Africans associate chaplaincy with religion or faith. They think a chaplain must be a person of faith, a cleric, or someone from a faith tradition. No, not at all. A chaplain can come from a faith or no-faith background. Africans should be open to a religiously and philosophically diverse chaplaincy. They should embrace a nonreligious chaplaincy. African military and police, schools, prisons, hospitals, and companies should engage secular or humanist chaplains.

Leo Igwe is a board member of the Humanist Association of Nigeria and Humanists International.

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