Greg Epstein, the longtime Humanist chaplain at Harvard University, has just been elected as the head of all the school’s chaplains. That would be an honor by itself, but the fact that an atheist is now the president of their dozens of chaplaincies — having been unanimously chosen by a group of religious leaders — is yet another sign of how Secular Americans are part of the broader “religious” landscape.
The New York Times sees it as a significant appointment:
Mr. Epstein, 44, author of the book “Good Without God,” is a seemingly unusual choice for the role. He will coordinate the activities of more than 40 university chaplains, who lead the Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist and other religious communities on campus. Yet many Harvard students — some raised in families of faith, others never quite certain how to label their religious identities — attest to the influence that Mr. Epstein has had on their spiritual lives.
“There is a rising group of people who no longer identify with any religious tradition but still experience a real need for conversation and support around what it means to be a good human and live an ethical life,” said Mr. Epstein, who was raised in a Jewish household and has been Harvard’s humanist chaplain since 2005, teaching students about the progressive movement that centers people’s relationships with one another instead of with God.
While there will inevitably be some knee-jerk reactions about why there’s a need for a Humanist chaplain at all (“Isn’t that an oxymoron?”), Epstein’s presence matters. He’s able to offer students a secular alternative to those Bible-bearing priests who only offer religious consolation. That’s a valuable resource, especially for people who may want to talk about loss or depression without someone bringing up God or the afterlife. To be able to help students that way — while giving support to other chaplains who are seen as leaders in their own faiths — is why Epstein’s role is so valuable. You can read some of his own thoughts about the new role right here.
I’ve known Epstein for years, and most recently, we worked as part of a coalition of Humanists trying to get Joe Biden elected. On a side note, I would love to see this new role for him serve as a launching pad for the Biden administration to bring him aboard as an advisor on matters of faith, especially since he represents a group of Americans that’s far bigger than many religious groups that have always had the ear of the White House.
(Featured screenshot via YouTube. Portions of this article were published earlier)