Language often gets in our way when we move out into new territory. For example, the word "interfaith" which has been used for many years to describe encounters between people of differing religious traditions was once understood to be expansive and inclusive. But for many, "interfaith" encounters meant a Methodist talking to a Baptist or, if you really wanted to be adventurous, to a Roman Catholic.
But that kind of interfaith experience was still all in the family- the Christian family. In more recent years, interfaith efforts have expanded as the religious landscape changes. From an activity involving different kinds of Christians talking to one another, interfaith began to include the other "Abrahamic" traditions: Judaism and Islam. And then non-Abrahamic traditions like Buddhism and Hinduism, or earth-based traditions like Shinto, Taoism, or Wicca.
Can we talk about "interfaith" when many of these traditions do not understand "faith" in the same way, or even consider it an important part of their tradition? And what are we to do with those who do not believe in a god at all?
Recently, the Humanist Community at Stanford University hired an Atheist Chaplain. According to an article in SFGate last month, Chaplain John Figdor, a graduate of Harvard Divinity School and an atheist, works as part of the Stanford Office of Religious Life to serve the needs of students for counseling, support, and a place to share with others who share their (non-) beliefs. Figdor says, ". . .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."
It's not surprising that such a step would take place at Stanford. The Office of Religious Life has long worked to include a diversity of traditions in its work. Their statement of purpose includes an effort to guide and enhance not only "spiritual" and "religious" dimensions, but "ethical life" as well on the Stanford Campus. An atheist chaplain, whose office sits side by side with those of other religious leaders, is a reminder not to ignore or discount the ethical and compassionate contributions that can be made by people of many faiths, and of none.