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A Humanist Perspective on Pastrol Care

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English-speaking humanists find themselves operating within a language marked by Christianity. The term pastoral care has its origins in Christianity and Christian spiritual development. Chaplain also has its origins in Christianity. The role of the Chaplain was, along with members of the clergy, to support people’s spiritual development, and to offer them pastoral care. I once joked that the British Humanist Association should create a NEWSPEAK division dedicated to eliminating old religious phrases and creating new secular alternatives, in the style of the totalitarian government of George Orwell’s book 1984. However, language is forever in flux and words have a life of their own; that is to say, the meaning of words changes as their use changes and it turns out that some words do not need the efforts of centralised language-planning to become secularised.


The humanist chaplain

Although it may be a little surprising, nowadays one can find humanist chaplains offering what they call pastoral care. Because Humanism is a form of atheism or at least agnosticism, pastoral care clearly cannot have much to do with encouraging spiritual development in the sense of a relationship with God. The reason for there being humanist chaplains offering pastoral care is largely the result of chance. Because England was formerly steeped in Christianity, there were chaplaincy roles in all the traditional universities and in many schools. However, while these roles remained, immigration, conversion and loss of faith in Britain has weakened Christianity’s prominence. Because chaplains performed many important functions with their pastoral care, yet the Christian framework within which these were understood was being replaced by a pluralist framework, it became possible for humanists to be employed by schools, colleges and universities, or to volunteer in a chaplaincy role. Chaplains from various backgrounds provide something similar to Christian pastoral care in these contexts.


Humanist pastoral care

So what is pastoral care and how can its practice be informed by a humanist outlook? It is no secret that life can be difficult and school, college and university life are no exception. There are many personal and sensitive reasons why students might need to talk with someone privately and in confidence. None of this looks to be specific to a particular worldview. Where one’s worldview might enter the picture is in the case of what advice one thinks should be offered (or indeed whether one feels one should offer advice at all). As the go-to person for those who need to share something personally troubling, what does one do in this role? Can humanism inform the way pastoral care is delivered?


Because in Humanism, emphasis is put on an individual’s intellectual freedom and responsibility, it would be bizarre for a humanist to offer heavy-handed advice or instruction. Instead the chaplain would listen attentively and ask questions in order to understand the problem but rely on the ability of every individual to use their reason to find the best way forward.


When someone is actively seeking guidance, however, the humanist chaplain would also put an emphasis on the promotion of happiness and so one of the relevant aspects will be about how people’s happiness has been affected and is likely to be affected by any subsequent actions.


By listening carefully and asking pertinent questions, important things can happen. The chaplain is the attentive listener who asks unobtrusive questions to prompt the person seeking help to explain their situation and thoughts. During the process it is not just the humanist chaplain who comes to understand the problem. Often the person seeking guidance is helped to a better understanding of their problem and can see ways of resolving it. The process makes them feel valued and less isolated because they have shared what is on their minds and feel understood.