NHS adds first humanist chaplain (and a small rant on accommodationism)

August 19, 2018 • 12:00 pm

Click on the screenshot below to watch this short 2½-minute video featuring Lindsay van Dijk, the first humanist chaplain to work for the National Health Service in Britain.

van Dijik was appointed by a trust, so I’m not sure the NHS actually pays her salary, but that doesn’t matter. What’s good is that she works in NHS hospitals, seems caring, is acting as a listener/psychologist and not at all as a proselytizer, and gives nonbelievers someone to talk to—someone who isn’t going to tout Jesus (most of the chaplains are Christian). And she’s not there to promote atheism, unlike those religionist who try to convert people in hospitals.

This just reminded me yesterday how, after I gave my talk on the evidence for evolution, and mentioned very briefly how the main opposition to evolution came from religion—a statement that was indubitably true—no fewer than three people, including a Jesuit priest, came up to me or questioned me about why religion and science couldn’t exist in harmony or have mutual dialogue. Rather than tell people that was possible, and that I “respect” religious beliefs, I said what I thought: that religion had nothing to contribute to science, and that while I will treat religious people with the respect due them as human beings, I wasn’t going to respect their unevidenced beliefs. We can work with the faithful to promote evolution, but can’t allow ourselves in the process to somehow give credence to the fairy tales they’ve embraced.

This got the Jesuit priest’s hackles up, and he came up to me afterwards to say that, by criticizing religion, I was driving people away from evolution and into the arms of creationists. I told him there was no evidence for that, citing the many religious people that Dawkins’s atheism had not only weaned from faith, but guided towards evolution.

In contrast, how many people say, “Well, if Dawkins would just shut up about atheism, I’d be glad to embrace evolution?” I’m sure that there are a few people who won’t embrace evolution because they think that means they must give up their faith, but I also I feel these are vastly outnumbered by those who have become secular because there’s no evidence for God—and then readily accept evolution. (There’s not much reason to oppose evolution if you’re not religious.)

As a friend of mine said, the priest’s point was like saying, “If you make fun of Santa, you’re just going to turn kids towards believing in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”

I told the priest that while Catholicism formally accepts evolution, it still has problems with accepting science in general, like its official insistence (in Catholic dogma) that we not only have souls, but that Adam and Eve were real people—the ancestors of us all. He insisted that there was a long history of Sophisticated Theologians™ who interpreted Adam and Eve, not knowing that I knew a lot about it.  I refused to argue at this point, as I wanted to hear Wynton Marsalis. I wasn’t about to tell him that both Aquinas and Augustine believed in a real Adam and Eve, not a metaphorical one. That, after all, is what the Bible says. The rest is just mushbrained apologetics.

But at my mention of a soul, another woman jumped in and asked me why I didn’t accept souls. I said that she should ask Sean Carroll, who was sitting in the audience and had explained, in his excellent talk, the impossibility of a non-material object like a soul interacting with material ones like bodies. She then said she knew souls were real because she had had past-life experiences.

The attendees at KentPresents were highly educated and seemingly wealthy, yet there were still a few among them wedded to these superstitions. What was odd, even though I loved the conference (more later), was this: it was clear that nearly all the attendees disliked Trump intensely, and chuckled and guffawed appreciately when speakers made fun of him.  It was fine to make fun of Republicans, but not  fine—at least for some—to indict religion for promoting creationism and also to claim that there’s no evidential basis for religious truth claims, for every religion makes different claims. Such is the hold of faith on even highly educated people. The fastest way to alienate liberals is to criticize religion. The surest way to make liberals love you, besides mocking Trump (and here I join them) is to go all soft on religious belief, claiming that people need it as a comfort.

84 thoughts on “NHS adds first humanist chaplain (and a small rant on accommodationism)

  1. This is smashing, Dr Coyne, and just .the. statement that I am putting in to my memory helps – folder
    in order to go over and over it until I have it so down
    as to be able to have it on my tongue’s tip
    .AT. the very next time I shall need it there
    in order to give substance to some religionist as to
    why: science and never non – evidenced religions.


  2. Very good points made here. Religion should never get a free pass and we need a lot more PCC’s out there to make sure it does not. Trump is really nothing more than the success of the twisted turns of Religion in this country. They are the ones who got the guy elected. Religion must take some of the credit for the mess we have.

  3. Watching this video, I couldn’t help but think about the arguments, confrontations, and difficulties that must occur behind the scenes in the pursuit of her work. I bet it is not at all like the unicorns and rainbows that the video makes it sound like. The religious and non-religious are bound to clash.

    1. Errm, why? Given that the chaplains’ job is NOT to promote their religion, but to listen to patients.

      I think it no more likely that a humanist would clash with a religious person, than that different religions would come to blows. I think any clashes would be more likely to result from personalities, than religion. It requires tact and understanding and aggressive personalities of whatever stripe would be quite unsuited to the work.


      1. ‘I think it no more likely that a humanist would clash with a religious person, than that different religions would come to blows.’ – in the context of chaplaincy, that is. Not saying it wouldn’t happen, but that I can’t see why a humanist would have it any worse than someone of any particular religion.


        1. I’ve wondered what a secularist non-believer can say to bomb blast survivor missing legs. Let’s say the survivor has lost her family as well as her legs.

          I’ve seen the representatives of religion in action in those circumstances & it’s a lot of nodding, platitudes & prayer beads. Presumably a Humanist chaplain might have to call in an imam, priest or whatever if ‘listening’ & hand holding is insufficient & lies & prayers are required by the distraught patient.

          I remember an Irish mum & her sister travelling all the way to Our Lady of Lourdes shrine & getting a St. Christopher medal blessed – then all the way home to put it around the daughter’s neck in hospital. I would suppose the lie helped all three.

          1. “I’ve wondered what a secularist non-believer can say to bomb blast survivor missing legs. Let’s say the survivor has lost her family as well as her legs.”

            Well you’ve asked an impossible question there (and made a pretty good case for religion-as-a-crutch, as it happens).

            I wouldn’t have a clue, but I’m bloody hopeless at sympathy. I usually tend to start babbling about my own experiences, which has been rightly ridiculed when Cheryl Strayed (of yesterday’s post) did it. I hope I would babble less than her, though (Google ‘Tiny Beautiful Things’ or, better still, don’t)

            I assume chaplain training would give them some strategies to cope with it. Probably just ‘let them talk’. That works.

            HOWEVER, the fact that some percentage of people can’t be helped does not invalidate the very large percentage of people who can, just by human contact. It is widely believed (I do!) that one reason naturopathy is so popular is not that it works, but just because many naturopaths provide a sympathetic ear when the regular doctor is too busy.


            1. Incidentally, I have nothing against a lie if it helps *in those circumstances*.

              (And by the way, lest I be misunderstood – I think naturopathy is total BS, but there must be some reason it is popular, and “it works” can’t be it)


            2. The same can be said for every con man out there. The con man says what the victim of the con wants to hear. For a while the victim feels great.

              A lie is a lie, IMO.

              1. Yes we know what you think, GBJ.

                I don’t think ‘the truth’ is usually as tidy or clear-cut as you seem to assume. And in the case posited by Michael Fisher, telling the Irish family that their blessed St Christopher medal was so much crap – how would that have helped anybody? (Rhetorical question, by the way).


              2. “STFU”? Really?

                It’s not a matter of “telling the Irish family that their blessed St Christopher medal was so much crap”.

                At issue is whether it is legit to tell them that it actually works. There’s the lie.

          2. “I’ve wondered what a secularist non-believer can say to bomb blast survivor missing legs. Let’s say the survivor has lost her family as well as her legs.”

            “You’ve been through a horrible loss. I can’t imagine how you’re feeling right now. But I’m here to listen and, with some patience over the next few weeks, months, or years, I’ll do my best to work with you and help you come to terms with it, so that you can again find happiness in your life.”

            [IMO, it’s sad that we need secular-specific counselors. IMO any NHS-paid life-counselor-type-person should be both willing and minimally able to help people of any religion, or none. A Christian counselor should be able to help a grieving or mourning atheist without injecting their own religious beliefs into the discussion, and vice versa. The fact that we need to add atheist chaplains is pretty much a tacit admission that the current chaplain corps can’t do the job of counseling that they should be able to do.]

            1. I agree with you. My main issue is I don’t want my tax pounds to fund purveyors of woo even if their NHS contract forbids most of the woo purveying. Let the local religious woo officials [priests etc] come visit in visiting hours at no NHS cost & draw the line there.

  4. “van Dijk was appointed by a trust, so I’m not sure the NHS actually pays her salary, but that doesn’t matter.”

    Yes, the NHS pays her salary. The trust referred to is an geographical administrative division of the NHS, not a trust in the usual legal sense. In this case, Buckinghamshire NHS Trust is the division of the NHS that is responsible for running hospitals in the county of Buckinghamshire, which borders London to the west.

  5. van Dijik was appointed by a trust, so I’m not sure the NHS actually pays her salary, …

    Yes it does. NHS “trusts” are part of how the NHS is organised, a “trust” has oversight of the hospitals and NHS provision within a geographical area.

  6. NHS trusts are public sector corporations almost entirely funded by the tax payer, thus chaplains are paid in the same manner as all NHS – from the public purse.

    I would prefer that the chaplain pay goes to additional secular hospital social workers who have the knowledge, contacts & powers to help in-patients & out-patients in practical ways. e.g. finding new accommodation for those who can’t cope around their current homes, home adaptations etc. There is a severe problem in winter with ‘bed blocking’ where the elderly can’t be released from the hospital ward because their home conditions are unsuitable – this means extra costs as closed wards have to be opened & extra staff employed. Also non-urgent operations are delayed.

    Bear in mind that NHS chaplains aren’t just sweet Church of England types – there’s imams too! All male, all fairly useless around women & some of them with special quirks such as being seriously anti-gay or anti-transplants. Priests etc in the patient’s community should make it their business to visit their flock in hospital rather than the hospital paying for such ‘spiritual’ extras.

  7. I thought polls have suggested that those indentifying as liberlas were much less religious than those idetifying as conservatives. Same with education levels. Is that incorrect?

  8. “The fastest way to alienate liberals is to criticize religion. The surest way to make liberals love you, besides mocking Trump (and here I join them) is to go all soft on religious belief, claiming that people need it as a comfort.”

    I’m willing to bet that an overwhelming number of liberals who comment here disagree with this.

      1. With respect and on my UK-ian parsing of your words – that seems to suggest that you are either saying that commentators here are not ‘liberals’ or that the term ‘liberals’ you used in the post actually means ‘only those liberals who like religion’?

        We may need a different word – open to suggestions. 😉


  9. It is not credible to me that a religious person would choose between evolution and creationism based on how an atheist acts. People will believe evolution, if they are going to, because it explains the living world, not because atheists are warm and fuzzy.

  10. She then said she knew souls were real because she had had past-life experiences.

    How embarrassing, saying something like this in a room full of intellectuals. The woo runs deep in this one.

  11. I don’t get it. I just do not get how it is
    that educated people can so glom on to their woo.

    They do ! I mean, Mr Mark R / Others:
    I know that they do.

    But I just cannot.not. get how it is that
    they can inide their educated brains “accommodate”
    this crazed thinking of theirs. Next to their sciences.

    A friend stated to me recently that she thought,
    “It is IN their DNA, Blue,”

    meaning litte ones when so inculcated have woo
    sewed in to their G A T Cs; but, NO, not really !

    Truly ? !


  12. She then said she knew souls were real because she had had past-life experiences.

    So would she accept that everyone is out to get her, like paranoids experience?

    I don’t think she gets very far along the line of “I feel it, therefore it must exist” thought. Most children leave that phase at 6 years or so, as I remember the statistics.

    Remind me again how religion differs from the worldviews of 5 year or younger children? I cannot come up with anything.

  13. She then said she knew souls were real because she had had past-life experiences.

    I’d bet my soul that any past life she had had did not include
    1. Being a micro-encephalic idiot.
    2. Being aborted.
    3. Being a transgender Homo erectus.
    4. Being a philosopher who argued that souls are unnecessary.
    5. Being William of Ockham.

    1. Don’t you think that your #1, #2 and #3 would be quite hard to remember (no common language in the case of #3)? And the probability of anyone picked at random being #4 or #5 must be low.

      1. No common language makes most past lives totally inaccessible. For instance, I couldn’t possibly have a past life prior to The Great Vowel Shift, because I wouldn’t be able to understand my own past memories .. or something.
        If she had been such a philosopher as in point #4, would she still claim to have had past lives?

    2. Yeah, how come everyone seems to have been a pharaoh or a Roman centurion or a knight of the round table in his or her past life?

      1. Errm, because only people of high status ever get reincarnated?


        (Do I need the obligatory 😉 ?

      2. Probably for the same reason most people in the SCA claim titles of nobility – nobody there is a peasant.

        1. I had to look up SCA – Society for Creative Anachronism or something else? I was guessing Scottish Clans Association, but such a body doesn’t exist – probably be fist fights all the way if it did.

  14. I have a high regard for Sean Carroll, and greatly enjoyed his book, but I don’t think his argument against the soul is conclusive. He seems to be saying that if the soul is (or is carried by) an unknown physical force then it should show up in experiments. But suppose it’s not physical at all?

      1. I mean, not part of our physical universe. For instance, if our universe is a simulation, souls could exist in the meta-universe where the simulation is being run.

        1. It would still have interaction effects which would manifest as violations of conservation laws.

          As for whether we live in a simulation, that’s usually just a “IT friendly” way of discussing radical skepticism, which is self-defeating as usual.

    1. If it’s “not physical at all” then the soul interacts with nothing in our universe.

      Also the term “soul” is meaningless until you describe its properties – if one of the properties is *It leaves the body upon the death of the body* then you have a problem, because it has interacted with the physical.
      It is difficult to assign properties to a soul without invoking the physical!

      1. You appear to have disproved the existence of God with very little effort.

        If God exists, and created the laws of physics, he can presumably create a non-physical realm and allow it to interact with the physical however he pleases. Or our universe could be a simulation, or a work of fiction.

        1. You can stick the word “if” in front of anything. But lacking some ability to check against reality, you’re (to quote myself) just making it up.

          If Huitzilopochtli exists you should be offering some sacrifices. How seriously are you going to take your obligation to go cut some hearts out?

        2. How about you define “soul” & play the game more honestly? By defining “soul” you’re prevented from moving the goalposts as you just did. You did it by expanding the meaning of “physical” to include simulations & “work of fiction” – whatever the latter might be! That’s not science nor philosophy you’re engaging in it’s semantics.

          Regarding simulations: If we are in a simulation we can probe for effects that don’t follow the rules we have observed/formulated for our ‘reality’. If the master programmer is placing “souls” [which you haven’t defined – please do so] into our reality then it must change something in the simulation environment [interact in some way] or there’s n o p o i n t doing it. Suppose our simulation runs at 100fps & we are only aware of alternate frames [say the even numbered ones], then you could shove the souls into the odd numbered frames perhaps. Then what? What is your hypotheses? Do souls ‘do stuff’ in the frames we can’t sense? What sorta stuff?

        3. You can suppose all the immaterial dimensions you want. But if an immaterial dimension interacts with the physical world, then that interaction would have to leave some evidence in the physical world. Sean Carroll is saying (as I understand it) that modern physics is sufficient advanced, and its instruments sufficiently sensitive, that, if such interactions occurred, evidence of those interaction would have been detected.

          The undetectable and the nonexistent are asymptotically equivalent.

          1. If the immaterial interacts only with our brains it would not necessarily have been detected (yet). No-one is putting a brain in the Large Hadron Collider, or performing quantum interference measurements within a brain.

            I am not claiming to know that anything immaterial exists. I am querying Carroll’s claim to know that it does not.

            1. So assuming for the sake of argument that you’re correct (even though I think you’re not), you’re conceding then that all interaction between the immaterial and physical dimensions is limited to communication, to alterations in human ideation — thus excluding, for example, the curing of disease, or the avoidance of natural disasters, or the outcome of ballgames?

              That’s a start, I suppose.

        4. We don’t have to prove the existence anymore than we have to prove the existence of ghosts, fairies, etc. That burden is on those who believe. Same with we are in a simulation etc.

          1. Although the simulation theory gets discussed a lot, I doubt many scientists really believe in it. It is more an interesting thought experiment like Schrodinger’s Cat.

            1. I don’t know of any serious research scientists doing work on this….to me it is just the science fiction flavor of the month.

              1. A couple of philosopher types investigated the simulation hypothesis & came to opposite conclusions – one said we must be in a simulation with near certainty because any intelligent civilisation will inevitably create simulations, some of which will be complex enough to create simulations etc etc. Thus the chance we are the real originator civ is small.

                The objection was on the grounds of energy or information [same thing] I think.

                Neither argument provides an experiment to pin down where we’re at. We have reason to believe that reality is granular in space, in energy & probably time [if time is fundamental] & this has been taken as evidence for a simulation, but others counter with it being impossible for the universe to be otherwise – if it wasn’t granular it would require infinite information, energy, time to describe a moment & nothing could change/move.

                These drugs are good!

            2. Thinking about whether we are in a simulation or not does have merit. If someone came up with an experiment that would shed any light at all on the question, it would be real progress, even if we don’t have the technology to perform it yet. As it stands, such an experiment is impossible in principle.

    2. The point is, detection and action are two sides of the same coin. Anything that acts on physical things – whether it, itself is physical or not – can be detected. If a soul is having an impact on your brain or mind, it can be detected. In such a case, in fact, we know detection can be done because your brain is already acting as a detector of the soul. Soul does something, causes change in brain, change in brain causes change in behavior; that’s the principle of detection.

      So the wooish claim that souls exist and have an impact on what you do but can’t be detected by science is pretty much an impossibility. Anything that causes a change in the world can be detected, and the bigger the local change, the easier the local detection.

      1. Just a quick add: if you’re positing souls that have no effect on behavior at all – a sort of “ride along recorder” concept, a la your idea that physical reality is a simulation and souls exist outside the simulation – then yes, it’s possible for such a thing to exist and not be detected. But that hypothesis would not be consistent with anyone experiencing past lives, or having OBE, or receiving messages from the other side, or feeling that they have a soul, or any other experience believers chalk up to their soul. That’s a deist-like belief; the immaterial stripped of any possibility of intervention, influence, or impact.

        I’m not sure if that’s what you’re defending, but it certainly isn’t the concept PCC’s conversational partner had, nor is it consistent (IMO) with many of the claims believers make about souls.

        1. Then there’s the clever little goalpost movers such as Alvin Plantinga who takes Calvin’s sensus divinitatis & says we all have it built in, but it’s ‘broken’ in non-believers. Even more conveniently unprovable than the soul & no way to discover if it’s in people, but not other animals. The gaps are approaching Planck dimensions.

    3. Here’s a comment regarding souls I posted on another site. Thought it’d be appropriate:

      … [I]f [a soul] is undetectable, it means it does not interact with the body, and therefore that it is indistinguishable from being nonexistent, i.e. it can’t be a soul as most imagine it to be.

      But if it does interact with the brain, it interacts with the brain’s electrons, up quarks, or down quarks. If it interacts via a known interaction, or has a structure made up of standard model particles, it would be monism, not dualism. If it interacts with those particles, we would be able to make the particles responsible for a soul-body interaction in the LHC or any other high energy particle physics experiment.

      We don’t make those particles. Therefore souls can’t exist.

    4. It IS physical. Neuroscientists regularly publish articles about it. They just call it other words.
      As one of my sons said at age 6, “I am myself, and I am real.”

  15. A soul weighs twenty one grams Doctor MacDougall established this fact by weighing moribund patients, and then immediately after their deaths, the difference being the weight of the soul. That was in 1901.
    Nowadays we could weigh a sperm and an ovum prior to ‘combining’ them in vitro. If a beam balance was used for the weighing then the arrival of the soul would catapult the weights to the ceiling.

  16. Minor correction – she’s the first humanist *lead* chaplain. Not necessarily the first humanist chaplain.

    And the role of the chaplain is to provide a personal contact for patients to talk to, NOT to promote any religion (or humanism).

    For patients who may be feeling lonely or neglected, this can be a valuable service.


  17. I can’t comment on the world at large, but it a strong policy in most Bay Area hospitals that chaplains can NOT religiously proselytize. (However, they do so quite a lot in the military!!)


    In a 2010 Internet survey it was established that worldwide it was European Christians who stood alone in having an extremely high acceptance of evolution (of course there aren’t that many Christians in Europe).

    While there are American Christians who changed their mind about evolution, I have no idea how many did so mainly because someone convinced them they could still be Christians. I think they just looked harder at the evidence. There is an interesting anthology of such published by BioLogos, but what the numbers are, I don’t know if anyone has any idea.

      1. You should say those figures are for the US & the Hindu 80% includes guided evolution, but still very good figures.

        The thing I’ve noticed about Hindu friends is they do generally have a scientific outlook, but it’s intermingled with a LOT of woo. For example a form of karma that says your current health & success depends on how good a life you led in previous lives, thus the disabled are viewed as somehow being deserving of their fate.

        Here’s an interesting something from The order of the Dashavatara (ten principal avatars of the god Vishnu) – it can be interpreted as a depiction of darwinian evolution:

        first avatar of God is a fish – Matsya
        then comes the aquatic reptile turtle, Kurma
        then a mammal – the boar Varaha
        then Narasimha, a man-lion being
        Vamana, the dwarf
        then the remaining four are humans of which Kalki is not yet born.

        Of course for the above to work it’s tempting for Hindus to see the various groups of animals as evolving towards us near the pinnacle – science hand in hand with their mythologies

    1. “I can’t comment on the world at large, but it a strong policy in most Bay Area hospitals that chaplains can NOT religiously proselytize.”

      It’s part of the UKBHC (UK Board of Healthcare Chaplaincy) Code of Conduct.

      (I googled it).

      “respect the rights of individuals, belief groups and faith communities to hold their own values, traditions, beliefs and practices”


      “*not* impose your values, beliefs or practices on those in your care; or fail to respect their beliefs, values or spiritual interests;”

      I’m pretty sure in that context ‘beliefs’ includes ‘non-beliefs’ so nobody split hairs over that, please.


  18. “I refused to argue at this point, as I wanted to hear Wynton Marsalis.”

    That’s one of the best responses I’ve heard in a very long time!

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