The chaplain who doesn’t believe in God

A prison fence with thick rows of barbed wire. The sky surrounding is a deep blue with light streaming in from the right side.
Paige Vickers/Vox; AP Photo

A spiritual atheist’s journey to helping death row inmates.

When you hear the word “chaplain,” you probably think of a priest or an Imam or some other kind of traditional clergyperson — that’s what springs to my mind in any case. Which is why I was surprised when I stumbled upon an article in the New York Times magazine from earlier this year about an “atheist chaplain” working on death row in an Oklahoma prison.

The piece is about a convicted killer, Phillip Hancock, who didn’t believe in God but wanted a spiritual adviser with him as he approached his execution. The chaplain is a man named Devin Moss, who spent a year in daily conversation with Hancock and eventually traveled from Brooklyn to Oklahoma to be with him in his final hours.

The whole notion of an atheist chaplain is interesting, of course, but even more interesting are the deeper questions here about what spiritual care looks like without religion and what it means to confront our death without God or a belief in the afterlife.

I wouldn’t call myself a religious person, but I do take the spiritual life seriously and, whether you’re a believer or a non-believer, it seems important to understand what religion offers to people and what it would mean to offer something similar in a secular context.

Which is why I invited Moss onto The Gray Area to talk about what being a humanist chaplain (he prefers that term over “atheist”) means to him and what his experience on death row taught him about religion and the universal struggle to face death with dignity.

Below is an excerpt of our conversation, edited for length and clarity. As always, there’s much more in the full podcast, so listen to and follow The Gray Area on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you find podcasts. New episodes drop every Monday.

Sean Illing

You did your residency as a chaplain at Bellevue Hospital in New York City during the pandemic. What was that like?

Devin Moss

It was intense and full of people in acute moments of crisis, at that hospital in particular. But I cannot imagine a better place to learn what it means to be spiritual. Because I came into this incredibly insecure about spirituality in general and what kind of spiritual care I can provide to people when I’m a non-theist. How can I do this without God? It was scary as hell and it was profound as hell at the same time.

Sean Illing

Were you a different person coming out of that?

Devin Moss

Absolutely. And even on a daily basis, my shift hours were from 2 to 8 or 9, and around 1 I’d be like, Ugh, I can’t believe I got to go back and do this today, but when I’d leave at night, I’d be like, Wow, I could never have imagined that would happen today, I learned so much! I felt like a different person leaving at night than when I got there in the morning and that was a repetitive cycle over and over again.

Sean Illing

We’re talking because I happened upon this article about your experience on death row. I guess I’m curious how you found yourself there in the first place. How does a humanist chaplain from Brooklyn end up on death row in Oklahoma?

Devin Moss

Soon after I finished my residency at Bellevue, the American Humanist Association sent me an email saying that there are some attorneys that represent this man on death row named Phillip Hancock in Oklahoma, and he’s looking for a non-theist chaplain and they wanted to know if I was interested. I said I was absolutely interested. And on reflection, to be candid, I felt called to do that from a spiritual care perspective, but I also was very much intrigued by the story.

So I wrote Phil a letter, introduced myself, left my phone number in it and said, If you find that I am the right person to represent you or be by your side in such a important time, I would love to do so, and then we talked and hit it off and started a journey of almost a year.

Sean Illing

Did you have strong feelings about the death penalty before you went to Oklahoma? Did the experience change your views one way or the other?

Devin Moss

I did not have strong opinions. I’d describe my views going in this way: If there was a chance for anybody innocent to be executed, then I’m not for it.

And yet, knowing that there are monsters among us, I still had this hypothetical scenario in my head, and it’s the one that everybody who’s pro-capital punishment will use: If it was your daughter (and it’s always the daughter, no one says if it were your son), and she was murdered and raped, that should be the litmus test of how we think of capital punishment. That’s the argument that the state legislators in Oklahoma use and I don’t know where I got it, but that was also in my head prior to working with Phil. And in the case of such a heinous violent crime, then yeah, I would be okay with capital punishment. That’s how I came into it.

Those are real feelings. If a parent had to go through that horrible, horrible scenario, they have every right to feel that. And I’m not advocating that anybody can’t feel those very strong and real emotions but what I didn’t realize until I was actually in the soup is that there are a lot of externalities. The ripples of who it affects, they’re significant.

The legislators make the laws, the judicial branch of the state does the sentencing, but guess who does the executions? None of them are doing the executions, none of the family of the victims are doing the executions, it is everyday people. It’s people like me, it is the corrections officers in the small towns where this is more than likely the only employment opportunity they have and we are the ones that are doing this.

I spoke with a man named Adam Luck, who was the former chair of the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board before the execution, and he said, Everybody that has a hand in doing the execution itself, part of them dies in some way. Although that sounds like a dramatic statement, it’s absolutely 100 percent true. The warden isn’t for it, the corrections officers aren’t for it, and so with all of the externalities and all the pain, it creates a karmic ripple that is multigenerational.

Sean Illing

The last words Phillip heard were yours — what did you say?

Devin Moss

The whole thing was surreal. The whole day was surreal. Even that morning, the morning of the execution, the governor still hadn’t made a decision whether to grant clemency. The execution was scheduled for 10 am, so it was postponed an hour and a half and Phil is strapped to the gurney for an extra hour-plus, which is horrible to think about. And the night before, they messed up his last meal, I can’t even express to this day how angry that makes me and I can imagine what it does to the spirit of someone that just cannot get any demonstration of humanity on any level.

Normally, the spiritual care adviser generally gets 30 to 45 minutes with the person that’s going to be executed, but because the governor had delayed, the press corps had already made it through security, and I was just trying to maintain my poise and not get frazzled. And we went through this maze where the head chaplain then left me in this sally port and the corrections officers escorted me up to the front door of the execution chamber.

It was there that the masked corrections officer who would be in the room with us greeted me because the corrections officers that are in the room need to be anonymous. And then I could see in his face that he was nervous and that he was scared and that he was also affected by this moment. It was in that moment that I realized that part of my role is just to bring as much calmness and peace into that space as I possibly could.

Earlier that morning, I had written an invocation, a prayer of sorts, that I knew needed to be said and I did it immediately because I wanted to claim that space for Phil so that we could make it sacred and not let any time go by without making sure that he felt that this was his time.

Sean Illing

Do you remember the prayer that you wrote?

Devin Moss

When I originally wrote it, I wrote something about “I call into the space the spirit of the divine” and then I crossed that out and instead I just wrote “I call into the space the spirit of our humanity” because it was very clear to me that this was a human problem and not a theological issue. And I had the answer to the Philippians riddle, Show me something real, tell me something true. I seeded that within the prayer, I wanted him to know that he was loved and that I was a conduit to that love and that he was not alone. And then I also invoked the spirit of grace, of strength, of surrender, and, interestingly, I ended it with an amen just because it felt right.

I also understood too that there were other people in that room, besides Phil and I, that I think needed to hear these words and so I claimed that space for him. And then I followed it up with telling him how our relationship affected me and what it meant to me and that he is a loved human. He died well, with grace. I made sure that he knew that he was loved and he was not alone. And so, in this weird moment of an execution, which is weird to say, there was peace.

Sean Illing

Part of what interests me about your story is this question about whether we need religion, or something like religion. The fact that you felt called to do this work speaks to this. Do you feel like there’s a God-shaped hole in the modern world that needs to be filled by something even if that’s something isn’t supernaturalism or religion in a conventional sense?

Devin Moss

I do believe that. I do believe that there is a God-shaped hole in all of us and I do not feel that it needs to be filled with dogma. The question that I get asked a lot in this regard is, “How do you prepare someone who’s dying, who doesn’t believe that there’s something next?” The answer is in the reframing of the question.

If there is something next and if that’s what you believe, fine. And if we’re wrong, then great. But what’s more important is everything that you’re doing before that moment — that’s the most important, not after. What happens after is after, but it’s the transition that’s important and how you get there and all these micro-steps tracking back throughout your life.

So do we need spirituality as individuals? Yes, I think so. And I would also say, as a culture, whether it’s a collective consciousness or a resonance that connects us to each other and connects us out to something bigger, there’s something real there and we need to make sure those points are connected.

Sean Illing

I’ve really come to be annoyed with a certain kind of atheist that can only approach religion as a set of epistemological claims, as though scanning the Bible for bogus claims about biology or history will amount to some death blow for religion. And I understand where that comes from. This has always been tricky for me because I do think religion has done immense damage in the world. I think it has caused a lot of needless suffering in the world. I think it still causes a lot of needless suffering in the world.

There are people in this country who want to create a theocracy here, who want to chain women to their reproductive cycles because of their religious beliefs, and those people are enemies of liberal democracy in my opinion. It’s important to say all of that. But it’s also important to recognize that religion, at its best, is a near-universal expression of this human need for connection and ritual and meaning and it’s a mistake to not grapple seriously with the implications of that, especially if you’re a non-believer.

Devin Moss

I see spirituality and theology as two completely different animals. I see religion as an expression of the spiritualities. Because the way it works now is that spirituality is an expression of religion, but I say flip it. I’m a huge proponent of rites of passage rituals, I’m a huge proponent of even making rituals throughout your day and you can develop them for yourself, you can be as syncretic as you need to be just to make sure that it is bringing intention throughout your day.

The expression of spirituality can be your lived religion and we can see what that looks like. Even if it’s Sunday mornings, we’re going to sweep up the sidewalks in Brooklyn and have coffee and cake, that’s an important spiritual expression and can be considered religion without the pomp and the history and all of those things.

Sean Illing

A humanist chaplain may not be able to offer the solace that comes with belief in the afterlife, but what kind of solace can you offer someone as they approach the end?

Devin Moss

Death is hard for everybody and it’s hard because we avoid it personally and we most definitely avoid it as a culture. How a culture dies is a direct reflection of how they live and we do not die well in modern America. I would probably take out the border between faith and non-faith when it comes to how to die well and I would just say that dying well requires work that is to be done while you’re still very much alive, whether you have faith in a supernatural power or not.

To hear the rest of the conversation, click here, and be sure to follow The Gray Area on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Pandora, or wherever you listen to podcasts.

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