(RNS) — When the community of Catholic students gather to worship on the Tufts University campus near Boston, candles are lit to represent the light of God. They are also a symbol of a rare religious pluralism: the candles used at Sunday Mass and other services are handmade by the Humanist Community at Tufts, a student-run community “that strives for limitless meaning,” as its mission statement says.
It’s not just Catholics: Other spiritual communities on campus also use candles made by Humanists in their religious rituals.
It has become a signature of our community,” said Anthony Cruz Pantojas, 30, the school’s humanistic chaplain, who calls the group’s candlelight ministry “one of our offerings to the Tufts community at large.” The candles, said Pantojas, who uses the pronouns they and they, affirm humanists’ compassion for their religious counterparts.
Perhaps even more surprising is that the Humanists use their candles in their own rituals, held most Thursday nights and led by a member of the group, which varies by exam schedule but numbers around 20 students.
“What we do depends a lot on the student leading that day,” Pantojas said. “I open each Thursday meeting with a few words and then participate alongside the students, just taking space as leader for a few closing words.”
The very act of coming together is part of the ritual aspect of the community spirit of the humanists. “We get ready, we set up the space together, we have the activity or conversation, we eat together and then we clean up together. We build community to the extent that we take care of our space together, making it special in the meeting and also in the respect we have for it and for others”, said Pantojas.
And just as making candles unites students in performing a service for the Tufts community, lighting some of the candles has become a recurring part of the evening. Creating rituals in community, even if it’s not centered on God, Pantojas said, elevates the group’s time and experience together.
Almost 1 in 10 Americans are atheists or agnostics, but there is much to non-believers believe. As the Tufts Humanist Community shows, these non-religious also provide a similar sense of belonging, ritual, community service, and mutual support, as religious communities have traditionally done, but without the formal hierarchy, prayer, or assertion of power. superior.
Humanism is gaining ground particularly on college campuses, as students ask big questions, explore disbelief, and seek deep friendships. The paid number humanist chaplains on campus is still in the single digits nationally, and it was not long ago that the news that Harvard University had appointed a humanist as its senior chaplain arched eyebrows.
But as universities move to serve the 35% Of the millennials and 40% of Gen Z who say they have no religious affiliation, the number of humanistic chaplains is growing.
Pantojas recognizes that HCAT is poised for a larger space on campus and is poised to support the student population that identifies as agnostic, atheist, freethinking, questioning, and humanist with expanded outreach and programming. This autumn they will teach a course entitled “The practice of the human being: humanism for everyday life”, on what Pantojas calls “the genealogies of humanist thought”.
Still, Pantojas is among the few humanists who fully integrated into the chaplaincy staff on a US campus. His mandate is to care for students, support pluralism, and empower student humanists and student leaders. And they are by no means anti-religious. Pantojas actively encourages humanists to visit and participate in meetings with other religious communities, seeing it as part of interfaith dialogue and part of exploring one’s own ethical being.
Pantojas’ own journey towards humanism began with, and was enriched by, contact with a variety of religions. Born in Puerto Rico, a Catholic-dominated but highly varied religious landscape, Pantojas encountered a variety of religions, beliefs, and non-theistic beliefs. This Afro-Caribbean world of faith and free thought, which includes a strong tradition of activism, imprinted them with a sense that the determined community supports “collective flourishing” through “economic, racial and ethnic dynamics.”
But Pantojas took an unexpected first step toward humanism by choosing to become a Jew at Temple Beth Shalom, the only Reform synagogue in Puerto Rico. From there, Pantojas found a home in humanist Judaism, which for Pantojas focuses less on God than on “Jewish civilization and its humanistic expressions.”
The tradition deepened their focus on secular humanism, which they studied at the American Humanist Association Center for Education in Washington, a training center created by the Humanist Institute and the American Humanist Association. It was there that Pantojas began the “journey toward envisioning a career as a professional humanist in North America,” they said. His master’s degree in leadership studies fostered his growing identity as a “transreligious theologian and community activist” with an interest in “historical legacies of trauma, reparative modes of relationship, and alternative epistemes of spirituality and natural inquiry.” These explorations, Pantojas said, are both personal and professional.
As different as humanist spiritual exploration sounds to the uninitiated, Pantojas’s work at Tufts would be familiar to almost any clergyman on campus. “After we wrap up our meeting, I make time for students to express, decompress, deconstruct, or share stories that emerged over the course of our time together in community. I also make sure they can spend time with me during regular office hours each week.”
Jo Chung, a Tufts student and HCAT board member, said, “We recognize that food insecurity is a reality for many, and this semester we volunteered for Building Audacity to pack meals for families in the Boston area. In the past, we have also participated in environmental cleanup efforts such as cleaning up the Fells and Mystic River.”
But above all, Pantojas said the humanist community “gives students a place to be,” an important service as students, like others, grapple with society’s epidemic of loneliness. While college is often seen as a time for bonding with new friends, class discussions, and not least, parties, studying can be isolating. Much of the emphasis in HCAT is on “connecting book learning to the stories that guide our lives and encourage us as people,” Pantojas said.
Said Chung, “Although HCAT is a fairly small group, we recognize that we are embedded in a network of relationships with the community that surrounds us.”