Harvard raises eyebrows with new chief chaplain – who’s an atheist

An institution founded to instruct the clergy has taken a quietly radical step

Andrew Naughtie
Friday 27 August 2021 17:54 BST
<p>Greg Epstein, Harvard University’s new top chaplain</p>

Greg Epstein, Harvard University’s new top chaplain

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Harvard University, which was founded with a mission to educate a clergy who would minister to the early puritan pilgrims in New England, has its first head chaplain who expounds no belief in any kind of god.

Greg Epstein, a humanist who has served as a humanist chaplain at Harvard since 2005, has helped establish humanism as a well-funded and highly visible element among the institution’s numerous religious organisations, some of which go back to the university’s very beginnings. He was elected to the presidency of the university’s organisation of chaplains by its 30-plus members, who represent multiple faiths and denominations – overwhelmingly theistic ones.

As he said in a New York Times profile published as his election was announced, Mr Epstein takes an active role as a chaplain at both Harvard and MIT, and that he has a particular appeal for “religious refugees” – that is, “people raised in observant households who arrive at college seeking spiritual meaning in a less rigid form”.

In a Twitter thread sharing the news of his announcement, Mr Epstein offered his gratitude to his fellow chaplains for electing him.

“Thank you especially to my amazing @HarvardChaplain colleagues,” he wrote as he shared the New York Times profile. “This story is really about them and about the importance of our common work, which is more important than ever in these times…

“Thank you to humanist institutions who inspired me down this now 20+ year path. I wouldn’t be here but for you; you mean so much to so many of us.”

Mr Epstein is the author of Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe, which is framed as a humanist reaction against the “hostility and intolerance” of works by combative leading “new atheists” such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens.

“Tolerant, fair-minded people of all religions or none do not dwell on the question of whether we can be good without God,” Mr Epstein writes in the book’s introduction. “The answer is yes. Period. Millions and millions of people are, every day. However, the question why we can be good without God is much more relevant and interesting. And the question of how we can be good without God is absolutely crucial. Those are the questions in this book – the essential questions asked and answered by Humanism.”

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