By Marcia Marino
Some of the patients for whom chaplains offer spiritual care are atheist, agnostic, or humanist (secular). Chaplains who have lived most or all of their personal and professional lives within a Christian community might feel hesitant or uncomfortable offering spiritual care to patients from diverse groups.
First, for clarity’s sake, a few definitions. An atheist believes that God does not exist; an agnostic does not have a definite belief whether God exists or not; a humanist has values and beliefs based on the idea that people are basically good and that problems can be solved using reason rather than religion.
Here are a few basic reflections based on my experiences of serving as a Unitarian Universalist chaplain (who is a Buddhist) in a hospital system serving a predominantly Christian patient population. Of course, some of these suggestions are ones used by effective chaplains daily.
- Do not assume that the atheist/agnostic/humanist patient was previously part of an organized religious tradition. Their families may be atheist, agnostic, or humanist. Or not. It might help to encourage family members to share their stories so that the dynamics present in the room are clear.
- Do not assume that an atheist/agnostic/humanist patient is angry at God. These patients have come to their spiritual beliefs through their own unique journeys. Their spiritual choices may have much more to do with what they chose to walk toward than what they chose to walk away from.
- Do not be afraid to engage the patient in conversation. If she or he is feeling well enough, feel free to ask about their spiritual journey. If you understand their journey as an atheist/agnostic/humanist, it will be easier to be a more effective chaplain for them.
- Do not assume that a patient who is an atheist/agnostic/humanist will change her mind and have a huge spiritual metamorphosis during the process of dying. It will likely be offensive to the patient if you or anyone else asks about such a thing. It may be important to also work with the nursing staff to help them understand and respect the spiritual beliefs of the patient.
Those are some of the Do Nots. How about some Dos?
- If there is time during these days of short inpatient stays, ask the patient to tell you some stories about himself (much as you would with any patient). If possible, ask: What has brought the deepest meaning to your life? This response may help you understand the patient’s spiritual beliefs from a new perspective.
- Be your effective chaplain self: Offer your open-hearted, open-minded, deep listening self to these special patients, just as you do with others. Patients — no matter who they are — recognize authentic caring.
- Know that there is a higher than usual chance that these patients will want no visit from you. They may have had previous experiences with a chaplain or clergy member that left them dissatisfied or worse. They may also fear proselytizing or judgment from a chaplain.
Once I was called to see an atheist who had been out to dinner with two of her best friends from her apartment complex. She had suddenly collapsed at the restaurant, and her friends called 911. Scans at the local hospital revealed that she had a brain tumor, and she had emergency surgery. I stopped to see her the next morning. She was groggy, but awake.
I asked her if I could do anything to support her as a chaplain. She asked me to please do two things: To seek permission for her two good friends to come visit her in the ICU; she had no family. And secondly, to find new batteries for her hearing aids. I asked her for an empty package of her batteries and set off.
I spoke with the patient care manager of the ICU, who cleared the patient’s friends for visiting right away. They had waited downstairs all night, and I went to the lobby to give them an update. I witnessed a poignant reunion of close friends before leaving the ICU that day.
The next day the patient was completely awake. Her first words when I stopped in were, “You’re not going to pray for me, are you?” I smiled and said, “Actually, that thought had not crossed my mind.” I asked how she was feeling and whether the batteries had arrived. They had, but she was frustrated. She had trouble inserting them; one of her neighbors always did it for her.
“Would you mind if I did it?” I asked. She looked a bit hesitant, but handed me her aids and the batteries, and I inserted them.
She looked at me with a funny smile. “I know that they don’t teach hearing aid battery classes at seminaries.” I nodded, and told her that I had worked as a speech pathologist for 10 years before going to seminary, and had worked with many people with hearing aids. I needed to get going, and asked if I could do anything for her as a chaplain today. She smiled, and said, “You already did. Thank you.”
Ministry with atheists/agnostics/humanists happens within our relationships of caring without prayer or ritual. It is still richly meaningful — just in a different way from other ministries.
Chaplain Marcia Marino, D.Min., BCC, teaches pastoral care online for the Church of the Larger Fellowship (Unitarian Universalist) and for the Oates Institute. She lives in Milwaukee, WI, where the Brewers are in another rebuilding season, and she may need a chaplain if the rebuilding continues.