Chris Highland served as a professional “Interfaith Chaplain” for 25 years in school, congregation, detention and street settings. Over a long period he has been a minister, teacher, writer, shelter director and housing manager. He’s worn many hats. He was a Parish Associate in a Presbyterian Church for ten years. In 2001 he left his Christian ordination and “came out” as a secular freethinker. He is the author of ten books including Meditations of John Muir, My Address is a River and Life After Faith. Now and then he posts on Beyond God and Natural Bible.
With many years of active listening and “presence,” he is skilled in bridging diversity and working toward collaboration and respectful communication across mental and artificial boundaries. He is regularly in conversation with people who hold a variety of faith positions. Continuing to teach naturalistic courses in universities, seminaries and congregations (in the tradition of Paine, Wright, Stanton, Thoreau, Muir, Burroughs, Whitman, Ingersoll and others) Chris has a strong interest in redefining and practicing a new form of chaplaincy in a secular context.
In 2016, Chris became a Humanist Celebrant through the American Humanist Association. He continues his memberships in the Speakers’ Bureau of the Secular Student Alliance, The Clergy Project, Americans United and the Freedom From Religion Foundation. He writes a weekly “Highland Views” column for the Asheville Citizen-Times.
Chris is a “Compassionate Freethinker” rather than an angry Atheist or anti-Religious warrior. However, he does have some strong opinions on these matters and can get fairly worked up over nonsense. He shares some of that compassionate agitation with his wife Carol, a progressive-style Minister and (former) Interfaith Director.
The purpose of this blog is primarily to offer commentary on issues that matter, and to offer a listening ear to agnostic, atheist, freethinking students of Life. While respectful and questioning theists are welcome to visit and engage, the Chaplain is not interested in contentious debate or illogical theological distractions. Secular Chaplain is intended to be a safe sanctuary for reasonable contemplation, discussion and personal support.
What is a ” Secular Chaplain”?
As defined and practiced here, a Secular Chaplain is someone who finds goodness in the natural world–the only world we have–without being distracted by some imagined “supernatural.” It helps to be knowledgable in both the religious and secular fields. A Secular Chaplain seeks to be available to non-theistic persons in a supportive and advisory role with special concern for assisting people in human service, environmental organizations or academic settings to “build bridges rather than walls” to encourage communication, cooperation and collaboration rather than confrontation, conflict and divisive contentiousness (more “pro” than “con”).
A Secular Chaplain takes to heart these words from the old naturally Secular Chaplain, John Muir,
“The natural and common is more truly marvelous and mysterious than the so-called supernatural. Indeed most of the miracles we hear of are infinitely less wonderful than the commonest of natural phenomena, when fairly seen.”
(My First Summer in the Sierra (1911)
Secular Students: SSA can help get me to Your Campus for a presentation! Invite Chris!
Many photographs on this website including header images are by Chris Highland
18 thoughts on “About”
Am looking forward to many friendly and intellectually stimulating discussions; I am definitely an outlier clergyperson myself.
Sounds good, Karen. I appreciate the engagement. I’ve often thought that Chaplains should have a respectful, meaningful forum apart from “official” channels to discuss the remarkable work we have done and continue to do. Welcome and thanks!
I really appreciate your blog and viewpoint. I was deeply indoctrinated by my family, friends, and community growing up, and have only recently liberated myself from ideals with which I don’t necessarily agree. I do have strong faith in a greater power and consider myself a very spiritual person, but I don’t believe that things are necessarily the way I was taught they are in church. I believe that politics and the human desire for power and control have molded too much of what religion is today, making it mostly a lie. I’m still learning and I still struggle to know where I fit in. It is a hard journey and I suffer anxiety due to the disapproval of family and friends on a regular basis. But I have the utmost confidence in my decision to take a different path than most others around me. It’s nice to come read on these topics and become more informed about the subject in general. Thank you for your efforts.
Thank you for your comment. That deep indoctrination may take a long time to free yourself from. The vestiges of faith linger long. That “greater power” may not have to be named. I say Nature is Enough because I think (not “believe”) that Nature is the greatest power, indeed is everything. No supernatural needed. Yet, I respect a faith perspective that wonders and questions and doesn’t have to name it all. Your learning and struggle are not easy, but healthy and necessary. As people “coming out” say, it gets better! The disapproval you hear or feel from family and friends is tough. No one can tell you how best to handle that. I hope there are people you can trust to speak honestly with. Your openness to learn and grow and investigate is admirable and mature. Hang in there and stay in touch. All good things.
I nominated you for the ‘Very Inspiring Blogger Award’. You can see what I’m talking about here:http://godlesscranium.com/2014/06/29/the-very-inspiring-blogger-award/
Hey, that’s great, mike, thank you! I honor your thoughtful cranium too!
May I ask a question? If there is so much demand for secular chaplaincy, how come people outside of hospitals are not clamoring to set up nontheist gatherings, and places like Society for Ethical Culture struggle for members?
I suspect that most of those who request a chaplain assume they are going to see some kind of clergyperson, and accept you as a compassionate human substitute.
You can always ask a question (smile). If there’s a “demand for secular chaplaincy” I’m not hearing about it! Seriously, I think if more people knew what it means to be a Chaplain and not a Preacher or Missionary, I’m guessing more would indeed ask for it, and even demand it. I wish they would. For instance, a quarter million U.S. troops have “no religious affiliation” but there are less than 2% non-Christian military Chaplains. See any problem there?
You mention hospitals. I know some very good Chaplains who work on teams and though they each have a faith affiliation, they do their compassionate work in the hospital as professionals with no sectarian agenda. That’s smart, appropriate and effective, from what I see. It’s the same kind of collaborative chaplaincy I’ve practiced for 30 years. It may not be popular–yet–but it works, and most people appreciate this model (with or without faith).
As for struggling for memberships. . .well, so are many churches. As for being a “compassionate human substitute” I have to smile. As if a “clergyperson” isn’t human, or compassionate? Btw, as a seminary-trained person with a masters degree and a card from ULC saying I’m ordained, I can still call myself a clergyperson. . .when I want to.
And I’m fine being known as a compassionate human being! Thanks for asking.
I’ve been interested in the idea of secular/humanist chaplins for a while now. I was able to meet Chris Stedman in April, and I’m able to call my university’s humanist chaplin a personal friend, so I’ve found myself thinking about what it means to be a chaplin for non-believers a lot lately. It sounds like a very interesting job.
We need more to pick up the freethinking torch here, Hessian. Good to hear you’re connecting with innovative people. I encourage you to keep investigating and thinking about this. Invent something in your own community. Then let us know what you’re creating!
I aspire to head in this sort of direction myself. I just left the faith a few months ago so I am trying to get all of the negativity out of my system, and writing about my reasons for leaving Xianity, but my goal is to eventually focus on positive humanism primarily.
Not an easy “conversion” (to freethinking), but necessary. Positive is good! I wish you well in the new adventure, and hope you will continue offering your comments to the discussions.
Thank you Chris.
I’d be careful about lumping the world into natural and supernatural. All of science is labeled supernatural and woo-woo until it’s accepted by a certain percentage of scientists.
Back in the day, they called electricity the work of the Devil and demonized the first guy to suggest doctors wash their hands and instruments between surgeries. As recently as the late 1980s, infants were still being operated upon without anesthesia due to the stubbornly lingering belief that certain ages do not yet feel pain. Look it up, it’s horrifying.
These examples boggle our modern minds but to stand up and defy the “truth” back then was to commit social and vocational suicide, often even to wind up in jail.
A lot of cutting edge ideas that are being lambasted by the current scientific cannon will be tomorrow’s accepted fact. My own focus of neuroplasticity and how thoughts affect the whole system as a top-down effect was laughed out of the room ten years ago. Now, there are over a hundred pop psychology books touting tips on how to “hack your brain” and even entire new departments in universities and colleges dedicated to the concept.
I never use the word supernatural or the term New Age. In the end, they are merely inaccurate measures of time.
Hi Chris –
Thanks so much for sharing your journey, gifts, and dialogue here. I’m in a similar spot as some of your other commenters….formerly seminary trained, but left the profession and since the church (Lutheran) after coming to terms with my free-thinking perspective. I jumped to the corporate world, essentially abandoning any form of formal pastoring, but chaplaincy or spiritual service has never left me as my true purpose….just haven’t known what structure to leverage to get out there.
I’m realizing now that I need to be one of those builders and just start somewhere, something, and see where it goes. Your site and experience is true inspiration…thank you.
I’d appreciate your perspective on the Human Chaplaincy movement…..it seems to have momentum and working to carve out a space on campuses and other institutions where a more organic, one-by-one approach may have a tough time. Your thoughts?
Thanks for your comment and question, Heather. It sure sounds like you have taken wise and healthy steps forward. I am also seeking ways to be “one of those builders” and I’m glad you’ve found some encouragement here.
Maybe “just starting somewhere” is the best way. We look deeply at the real environment–work, social, family–and try new ideas. Maybe something no one has done. Of course, the rub is the practical, the sources of support, money, people who can assist, the time and energy to do it.
I think you mean the Humanist Chaplaincy scene. It seems promising to me, and I am slowly looking for ways to connect with that movement. You may find both The Clergy Project and American Humanists Association helpful as you learn more and consider your own unique role to play.
Feel free to let me know how the trails open forward for you.
In Nature we trust.
Many thanks, Chris.