Harvard’s head chaplain is now an atheist

Well, Ill be! Harvard has over 40 university chaplaises. According to the New York Times article, their chief was elected. . . an atheist! Click here to see the latest, which I find surprising.
Harvard has had a humanist chapplain for some time. However, many of the previous ones were not very accommodating. It was encouraging to see a chaplain who could meet the needs of those who don't have a formal religion, but who can be spiritual or believe some sort of divinity. Although it is not as good as an atheist Chaplain, it is better than nothing. Greg Epstein, Greg Epstein's new boss, was raised Jewish and has written a book on humanist morality, Good Without God. The Amazon blurb is a bit too accommodating for me. However, I am an antitheist so there is no way an antitheist could become a Harvard humanist chaplain. Epstein, who is a respected man, must deal with the problems of theists and atheists.

Good Without God is a provocative and positive response for Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris and other New Atheists. It makes bold claims about what nonbelievers believe and share. Greg Epstein, Harvard's Humanist Chaplain, presents a world view that is open to nonbelievers and avoids the intolerance and hostility towards religions such as God is Not Great or The God Delusion. Epstein's Good without God is a constructive and challenging response to these manifestos. It focuses on Humanism's positive belief in community, tolerance, and morality and does not rely upon the guidance of any higher being.

It's okay. It is not a good idea for Richard Dawkins to try to offer spiritual or psychological help to someone with a penchant to the numinous. Harvard's chaplains elected Epstein unanimously, a wise move. This means that no one religion is priviledged over the others, and all faiths are on the exact same plane. Epstein may be able to bring together different faiths, which is probably a mistake. They are still faiths! His election also recognizes the rise of the nones. They now account for more than 20% of Americans. This is surely higher than the percentage of Harvard students who adhere to all 40+ real religions. The Harvard Crimson, the student newspaper, conducted a survey of Harvard's class of 2019, and found that they were twice as likely as their peers to identify themselves as atheists/agnostics than the general American population. This means that I would guess that about half of Harvard students are nones.

This reminds me that the definition of spiritual is not clear in this article. This could include God but it could also include me since we could all be considered spiritual people in certain ways. A spiritual spectrum should correspond to Dawkins' God spectrum. It would include those who are obsessed with the divine and those who simply love great art and music.

Here's how Epstein worked at Harvard.

The 44-year-old Epstein, who is the author of Good Without God, is an unusual choice for this role. More than 40 university chaplains are responsible for leading religious communities on campus, including Buddhist, Christian, Jewish, Hindu and Buddhist. He will be in charge of coordination. Many Harvard students, some of whom were raised in faith families and others who aren't sure how to identify their religions, can attest to the impact Mr. Epstein had on their spiritual lives. A growing number of people don't identify with any religion but feel the need to have conversation and support about what it means for them to be good people and live ethical lives. Mr. Epstein was born in a Jewish home and is Harvard's humanist chaplain. He teaches students about the progressive movement that focuses on peoples relationships with each other instead of God. . . To Mr. Epstein, the appointment as the organization's head is a confirmation of years-long efforts to teach on a campus that has traditional religious roots about humanism. Epstein stated that we don't look to God for answers. We are each other's answers, Mr. Epstein said. His work also includes hosting dinners for undergrads where the conversation gets deep: Does God Exist? What is the purpose of life? He was previously the leader of a Boston-area congregation of atheists and humanists that met weekly in Harvard Square. The services were centered around secular sermons. He decided to close the congregation in 2018 and focus his efforts on building relationships on campus, including M.I.T. where he is also a Chaplain. Mr. Epstein often meets with students to discuss personal and theological issues. He counsels them on how to manage anxiety around summer jobs, family disputes, social media pressures and all the other turbulence that college life brings. Greg is funny and can diffuse pressure. Ms. Nickerson, a Harvard student who converted from Catholicism into humanism, said that Greg is irreverent.

There are deists and woo-sters among Epsteins flock. But there are also atheists and humanists. And there is always someone questioning religion. Epstein will listen, but not give answers. They must discover their own answers. That's how it should be.


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