Geoff Ballard is a member of the ACT Humanist Society and began working as a volunteer chaplain at both the ANU and the University of Canberra in 2016. All but three universities in Australia have a Chaplaincy service – mostly staffed by volunteer religious chaplains- but there are no other secular university chaplains in Australia for those of ‘no faith’. By contrast, there are well established Humanist chaplains in many universities overseas including Harvard, Stanford, Toronto, Edinburgh, Glasgow and in the Netherlands.
But isn’t Chaplaincy all about religion? Geoff is not anti-religion. “As a Humanist with a personal spiritual journey including the Anglican priesthood and Quakers, and training and experience as a counselling psychologist and psychotherapist, I believe that young people today are still on a spiritual quest to find meaning and purpose in their lives with some solid values. These can be found outside the traditional monotheistic belief systems of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism”, he says.
He sees the presence of a Humanist chaplain as completing a spectrum of religions and beliefs on campus, along with others like Buddhists, Baha’is, Hindus, Sikhs and Pagans. Humanists believe that you can lead a good life without god and have a positive outlook on life guided by rational thought, focusing on the importance of human cooperation and compassion when solving problems. Geoff aims to inculcate the values of compassion, friendship, reason and hope in his work, believing that his presence can contribute to the well-being of students and staff, whether they already have an established faith system or are searching for answers about existential questions.
Geoff agrees with Cardinal Newman that a university has a greater role than just doling out degrees; it is about shaping the whole individual. He hopes that university chaplains, whatever their belief system or worldview, can be part of that vision. He says: “The general Australian community is culturally Christian but the religious landscape is changing. There is spirituality without religion, and spirituality without god. I want Humanists to be welcomed by universities, to be able to engage with students who claim ‘no faith’ – those who are sometimes called, ‘the good without god’ community. By offering hospitality and inclusive friendship, demonstrating their common values, chaplains can actively and intellectually engage in the university community.”
Lyndon Storey, ACT Humanist Society Convenor said, "It's wonderful to have one of our members pioneering Humanist chaplaincy in these universities. Humanism is a philosophy of life which can inspire people to engage in compassionate care and community service. Geoff’s work, along with that of those of our members who volunteer in pastoral care roles at Canberra Hospital, is evidence that our approach of supporting and helping humanists who are interested to engage in community volunteer work is bearing fruit. We are working to get to the stage where having humanists in such roles is not remarkable; but the norm.”
Geoff is also a student himself, enrolled in a PhD at Western Sydney University, looking at the role of chaplaincy in Australian universities. As well, he is a new Board member of the Pastoral Care Council of the ACT.