Once upon a time, some of the best church-state minds in American life went toe to toe over a serious question that was very hard to describe in short news reports. The basic question: If there is such a thing as Secular Humanism, a school of thought with its own moral beliefs and sort-of clergy, then why isn't this a religion just like all the others? In other words, why is it fine for a Baptist to social worker to receive federal funds if he agrees to preach as a secularist, or a Universalist, but she or he cannot receive those funds if this same Baptist preaches sermons based on traditional Christianity? Why isn't that a state endorsement of one doctrine over another?
Actually, those arguments never went away. I think most reporters simply gave up trying to cover them.
I thought of that intellectual maze the other day when I saw The San Francisco Chronicle story about an interesting, and in this day and age a rather logical, development on the campus of Stanford University. The headline was blunt: "Stanford gets a chaplain for atheists."
Wait, wait, we're not talking about a new appointment in the biology or sociology departments.
Chaplain John Figdor has a divinity degree from Harvard. He counsels those in need and visits the sick. And he works with Stanford students under the Office of Religious Life.
So Figdor is the last guy you'd tag with the "A" word.
But, yes. The chaplain is an atheist.
"People are shocked when I tell them," Figdor said. "But atheist, agnostic and humanist students suffer the same problems as religious students -- deaths or illnesses in the family, questions about the meaning of life, etc. -- and would like a sympathetic nontheist to talk to."
The story asks many of the logical and appropriate questions about this development, including the practical and financial details of how Figdor fits into the structure of the 18 other "professional leaders" linked to the Office of Religious Life on campus. For example, the atheist chaplain is required to have a theological degree and he gets his own clergy parking space and office.
Some atheists and agnostics like this idea. Some are not all that excited.
Atheists, after all, have better things to do with their time on weekends than sit in circles and talk about big ideas.
Armand Rundquist, 26, a Stanford graduate student in electrical engineering and president of AHA! -- the campus group of atheists, humanists and agnostics -- said many atheists aren't interested in having a chaplain.
Then they discovered additional benefits to Figdor's talents.
"He got us some discount tickets to the atheist film festival in San Francisco," said Rundquist, adding that "it's been really great" to have Figdor as part of what he called a new movement at Stanford.
In the end, I thought this very interesting news story had two serious holes.
First of all, I kept waiting for some kind of serious response to this development from other campus chaplains -- especially from traditional faiths -- at Stanford and elsewhere across the nation. I understand that liberal believers would see this as a leap forward for religious, I mean nonreligious, inclusion. That's part of the story. But were there really no Catholics, Orthodox Jews, Muslims, Eastern Orthodox Christians, evangelicals and others to offer insights into their interactions with their new colleague? None?
Also, I really wanted the SFGate.com team to dig deeper into that fascinating quote from Figdor about the emotional and, yes, spiritual needs of atheists. I am referring to his confession that "atheist, agnostic and humanist students suffer the same problems as religious students -- deaths or illnesses in the family, questions about the meaning of life, etc."
Is it safe to assume that he has already faced challenges such as these? If this is the case, what did he say? What books did he quote? What intellectual prophets did he reference? In short, what is the human content of his ministry?
In short, it's good to know that his flock celebrated the Seinfeldian season of Festivus and that students still like John Lennon's "Imagine" and the songs of the band Bad Religion. That's good stuff. But, in the end, I wanted to know more about this new chaplain's beliefs and even the content of the comfort that this non-minister offers in times of crisis.
Oh, and by the way: Wasn't that a rather boring headline in the Chronicle? If you were writing a short, punchy headline for that story, what would you have said?