When it became known that the new chief chaplain at Harvard University was an atheist, there was considerable international chatter. People wanted to know: Who is this atheist who has never seen the inside of a foxhole?
Greg Epstein, 44, author of “Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe, a 2010 New York Times bestseller, has been the humanist chaplain at Harvard since 2005. Epstein, who describes himself as a humanist/atheist, was elected President of the University Chaplains’ Organization by more than 30 of his fellow chaplains. His election was met by cheers from woke religious communities, especially ‘reconfigured’ Protestant Christian denominations that are now a shadow of their former orthodox selves. The Harvard Catholic Chaplains released a statement emphasizing the “administrative nature of the presidency,” a coy way of suggesting that administrators have no ideological power or influence but are there merely to arrange meetings, smooth out possible irreconcilable differences between people, give introductions at lectures and carry big briefcases as they go from place to place. God may be dead but the intricate business of humanity is endless.
The selection of Epstein as head university chaplain should come as no surprise. A Harvard Crimson survey of the class of 2019 found that more than 16 percent identify as atheists and more than 21 percent as agnostic, while some identify as “spiritual” (a vague term meaning anything from a belief in crystals to an intense love for humanity when high on cannabis). Students without a religious affiliation call themselves “nones,” meaning someone who puts their faith in human beings (politicians, world leaders) rather than a divine or supernatural being. Epstein’s election as chief chaplain is in keeping with this trend, especially given the leftward tilt of academia and the spread of woke ideology into the theological realm.
The word chaplain is derived from the word chapel or a place of worship, and yet it’s a title that Epstein embraces, proof that wokeness has eclipsed standardized English usage. This queer development would have Harvard’s founders, all religious men, scratching their heads in feverish consternation.
After Epstein’s election as president, The National Review observed that it isn’t so much that Epstein has rejected religion, “but rather chosen political leftism as his new faith — which just so happens to be the dominant creed of Harvard and of many elite institutions.” The Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith offered his view that the Humanism of ‘Nones’ has taken off because of “the growing alliance between the Republican Party and the Christian right, a decline of trust in institutions, growing skepticism of religion in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and a shift away from traditional family structures that centered on churchgoing.”
Christian Smith’s comment is a mouthful in need of mouthwash because the “threat” of the Christian Right hardly registers in 2021 when practically the whole of Christianity harmonizes with the radical social agenda put forward by progressive Democrats. Furthermore, the September 11 attacks have everything to do with fallible “Man” (and his misuse of free will), and not God,
The auxiliary bishop of Los Angeles, Bishop Baron, founder of Word on Fire Catholic media, weighed in on Epstein’s election: “If a professed atheist counts as a chaplain — which is to say, a leader of religious services in a chapel — then ‘religion’ has quite obviously come to mean nothing at all.”
Religion, of course, sinks into meaninglessness when it merges with secular culture so that the two become indistinguishable.
This doesn’t mean, however, that Epstein is an angry, intolerant atheist in the tradition of the infamous Madalyn Murray O’Hair (1919-1995). Critics admit to his being “extremely likeable.” His chaplaincy web page shows a wide range of Woke-related interests. Epstein loves “ethics in technology; meaning and purpose beyond religion; existentialism and humanism in literature and popular culture; developing healthy masculinity from a feminist perspective; secular humanistic Judaism; racial justice and healing; the philosophy and practice of interfaith work.”
In many ways, Harvard’s new chief chaplain sounds like a zillion other educated, sophisticated left leaning academics. He’s the norm.
Epstein’s public charisma can be observed in various online videos that show him speaking before groups, like the Harvard Humanist Hub in Harvard Square. Epstein’s polished “evangelical” style has him sounding like the “Dr. Phil” of atheistic humanism. He talks with his hands (but not in an excessive way), makes appropriate eye contact with the audience, and goes out of his way not to offend “believers.” The humanist chaplain is also a bit of a ham, such as when he MC’d the Humanist Hub memorial service for Tom Ferrick in 2014
Tom Ferrick is an important link when it comes to a fuller understanding of Greg Epstein.
Ferrick, an ex-Roman Catholic priest-turned-humanist-atheist, founded the Harvard humanist chaplaincy in 1974. Epstein likes to refer to Ferrick as “the world’s first avowed atheist to become a university chaplain.” In an article about Ferrick in the Huffington Post, Epstein wrote more about his mentor:
In so many ways, Tom was ahead of his time. He bridged the chasm between religious and Humanist communities before most people even knew the latter existed. Now, a third of young Americans identify as nonreligious, and local communities for atheists are starting up like popcorn in the microwave, maybe even by the thousands, often calling themselves cheeky names like “Godless Congregations.
Epstein took over Ferrick’s role in 2005 after the latter’s retirement. Epstein was assistant chaplain at the time and training for the rabbinate at the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism. Epstein, like his predecessor, believes that Humanism is the natural outgrowth of religion that has not lost sight of science.
Tom Ferrick’s transformation from Jesuit priest-to-atheist began when he was the assistant Catholic chaplain at Dartmouth College and was questioned by the students he counseled there. Ferrick claims he had no answers to offer when the students asked him the big questions about life, death and suffering.
Ferrick in many ways mirrored what was happening to some intellectually-inclined Catholic priests in the years following the Second Vatican Council: Rebel priests at that time became interested in social justice causes, non-violence and civil rights although some priests threw the baby out with the bathwater and became atheist or agnostic when they bought into the freedoms of the sexual revolution. In Ferrick’s case, once he came out as a gay man he ceased identifying as Christian or even a believer.
Ferrick, according to Epstein, lived on $7,000 a year while maintaining a monastic lifestyle. When he went public with his intentions to leave the priesthood and the Church, Boston’s Cardinal Cushing called him in for an interview but failed to get him to change his mind. Ferrick stands in stark contrast to Daniel Berrigan, a priest of the same era who became an antiwar activist and a political radical but who stayed in the Church and alienated his leftist friends when he then went on to fight for pro life causes.
Ferrick’s 2014 memorial service opens (predictably enough) with a singing/ guitar rendition of John Lennon’s Imagine, after which Epstein introduces friends of the deceased. The service ends with Epstein singing solo as the accompanying guitarist pretends not to notice the chaplain’s multiple missed notes.
“We don’t look to a god for answers,” Mr. Epstein has been quoted as saying. “We are each other’s answers.” Of course, one could answer that with a brickbat from Issiah 2:22: “Stop trusting in mere humans, who have but a breath in their nostrils. Why hold them in esteem?”