Beyond Religion: The Role of Humanist Chaplains in Africa

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Photo by Roman Kraft on Unsplash

As a humanist training to be a chaplain, I advocate for humanist chaplaincy in Africa. I’m not a religious leader – priest,pastor, or imam. My belief system is nonreligious; I find meaning and ethics without a god or dogma. People can be good without religion. I don’t subscribe to the traditional concept of a god or an afterlife.

For decades, I’ve led efforts to organize nonreligious Nigerians and grow the nonreligious community. When I enrolled at the Regnum International School of Chaplaincy, a friend questioned, “But isn’t that for priests?” I explained that chaplains need not be religious. While pastors can be chaplains, not all chaplains are pastors.

Unsurprisingly, most trainees are religious leaders. I clarified from the outset that I’m nonreligious and would serve nonbelievers. The school embraced this; we’re working well together. Institutions should include secular/humanist chaplains.

Chaplaincy for All

Chaplaincy, a public service, should be open to everyone, regardless of belief. Chaplains offer a range of support – spiritual and personal – for students, staff, and prisoners. They provide spiritual leadership and counseling within institutions like schools, hospitals, or prisons. They offer spiritual care in various settings, helping individuals grapple with meaning, hope, and transcendence. “Spiritual” here is used broadly, not necessarily implying religious belief. Chaplains help with illness, injury, birth, or death, offering psychosocial support to people of all faiths and beliefs. As Imperial College’s website states: “Chaplaincy is here for you… whether you have a religious or philosophical take on the world. We see spirituality, faith, and meaning as key sources of inspiration and motivation for personal development, learning, and research.”

Military, Hospitals, Prisons, Schools, Companies

Military chaplains serve personnel of all faiths, including families and civilians. In hospitals, they offer psychosocial support to patients, families, and staff, alleviating fear and stress. Prison chaplains care for inmates’ spiritual and emotional well-being, aiding their rehabilitation with programs for positive growth. School chaplains organize religious services, counseling, and community events. Corporate chaplains assist workers during crises.

Humanist Chaplains Are Needed

Chaplaincy doesn’t require religious affiliation. A chaplain need not be a priest, rabbi, or imam. We need chaplains of all backgrounds to serve the public. Humanist chaplains are essential because not everyone is religious. Many military, police, students, and workers don’t find solace in religious services or counselling. Nonreligious Africans need chaplains who align with their worldview, attending to the needs of those from non-faith traditions.

A Change in Perspective

Many Africans associate chaplaincy with religion. This misconception needs to change. Chaplains can be religious or nonreligious. Africans should embrace a religiously and philosophically diverse chaplaincy, including nonreligious options. African institutions – military, police, schools, hospitals, and companies – should engage secular or humanist chaplains.

About the Author

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

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