Greg Epstein Explores a New Humanism March 30, 2008

Greg Epstein Explores a New Humanism

Harvard’s Humanist Chaplain Greg Epstein was featured on Speaking of Faith, a show from American Public Media, this weekend.

The website says Greg “is passionate about articulating an atheist identity that is not driven by a stance against religion but by positive ethical beliefs and actions.”

Some of the transcript with host Krista Tippett:

Mr. Epstein: Well, Krista, the most important thing that I can say about this issue is that I am in fact a believer, but I’m not a believer in the traditional sense. Humanists, we don’t believe in God. I’m an atheist; that’s what I don’t believe in, and humanism is what I do believe in.

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Mr. Epstein: And it’s simply that to me what’s much more important is what I do believe in. And —

Ms. Tippett: Right. I guess what I’m saying is you wouldn’t define yourself in terms of what you don’t believe in.

Mr. Epstein: Sure. No. But, I mean, I also — one thing, though, is that, you know, for some people, and I think one of the reasons why we run into problems around this subject is that for a long time in this country the word “atheism” has been treated as some kind of dirty word.

Ms. Tippett: Mm-hmm.

Mr. Epstein: And that, you know, it’s really, to me, it’s not morally acceptable that more people than any other group, you know, say that they wouldn’t vote for an atheist — a qualified atheist who was running for president, that this is not morally good or acceptable that people say that. And I think that we need people of all sides of the religious, of all parts of the religious spectrum, to speak out against that and to say, ‘Listen, you know, we in this country don’t have religious tests for public office and we don’t have religious tests for who’s a good person.’ And I’m not interested in talking about this sort of old canard that you can’t be good without God. That’s an issue of prejudice if you feel that way. But what I am interested in talking about is what does it mean to be good without God? And that’s — that to me is what humanism is all about. That’s why I define myself primarily as a humanist.

It’s a long in-depth interview about various aspects of Humanism — the kind you rarely see in the mainstream media. While the overall ideas of Humanism are discussed and are well worth noting, a few other parts stood out to me:

What was mentioned: The Secular Student Alliance. Ronald Reagan’s “Evil Empire” speech. The Interfaith Youth Core conference that Greg and I spoke at.

What was (thankfully) not mentioned: The whole “fundamentalist atheist” controversy. (That is so 2007.)

The rundown of the show is amazing. It’s like a little mini-history of Humanism.

Hell, the entire web page dedicated to the show has a litany of great resources.

You can download the entire episode here (MP3).


[tags]atheist, atheism[/tags]


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  • Mriana

    I was excited that Tipett took my suggestion or at least I think she did, because I did suggest it to her several months ago after she did an episode on atheism. I found this episode with Greg very interesting. His father sounded a lot like me, except I have books on Humanism too. I recommend that people check out this episode because I found it to be a keeper.

  • Something about Greg really turns me off about humanism. I like the guy, and I agree with most of what he says, but… it’s hard to place exactly what bothers me. I think it bothers me how he conflates so many ideas under this single label of humanism. Epstein basically advertises it as a complete worldview, practically a religion unto itself. If I disagree with one little part, I end up feeling uncomfortable with the whole label, and thus I don’t use it. But then, if I’m an atheist, but not a humanist, I apparently don’t have any ethics. Or so I’ve been told.

    Also, I feel dreadfully silly arguing about what to call ourselves. Didn’t South Park mock us for that?

  • I thought this was a really great program, and a good place to point people to when trying to explain my worldview.

  • Aj

    Epstein strikes again.

    But most nonreligious people are not anti-religious and this is a key. Most nonreligious people are not anti-religious.

    Even if we were to accept this unreferenced statistical analysis, what of it?

    Because we have these misunderstandings of one another. I mean, I do have to say, I mean, I think there is a need sometimes for people at atheist conferences to turn to one another and say, ‘Oh, you know, Muslims aren’t bad people. There are just extremists within every tradition.’

    Is this guy for real? I’d like to know the atheist conference where a speaker said that “Muslims are bad people”. Even more disturbing, is the statement, “there are just extremists within every tradition”. It seems to suggest that all religions are essentially good, but corrupted by bad people. Something he’s not willing to defend or make an argument for. There’s plenty of people willing to make the arguments for the opposite, that religions make good people bad, people Epstein only criticizes for their tone, tact, and strategy, not that what they say is false.

    If you believe that Islam is a religion of peace, that Christianity is and always has been against slavery, then you’re only willing to accept interpretations of text that are favourable, and you will ignore horrendous acts as not the “true” religion, against historical evidence and literary techniques. You have ceased to judge religion by its merits, by the harm or good of the ends, from the ideas therein, acted out. You have decided to discover religion as good, instead of discovering whether religion is good.

  • Speaking of Faith is an excellent program. I download the podcast “religiously”. I’m glad Krista Tippett featured Epstein.

    Another episode that would probably be of great interest to the folks here was her interview with historian Jennifer Michael Hecht on the “History of Doubt”.

  • Mriana

    Yes, I downloaded that one too. I found that one and Einstein’s God good episodes too. I hope she has more concerning secular beliefs.

  • BTW, another recent SoF episode that may be of interest to atheists was their one on “Evolution and Wonder: Understanding Charles Darwin”. Check it out.