Harvard’s new head chaplain: An atheist

Harvard University’s new head chaplain started work this week, serving as the director of the Ivy League institutes more than 40 faith leaders who guide students from a wide range of religious backgrounds. Ironically, he is an atheist.

Greg Epstein is the newly-elected president of the chaplains at Harvard University reports the Boston Globe..Epstein will be tasked with coordinating the activities of over 40 chaplains, who lead the Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, and other faith communities on the Cambridge campus.
44-year-old Epstein, served as the longtime head of Harvard’s humanist chaplaincy. He was elected unanimously by his peers to represent the chaplains, a group that has operated at Harvard for centuries and includes leaders from more than 20 different religions.

“It’s a milestone of inclusion,” Epstein said. “It marks that people who have serious disagreements around important things can also have serious cooperation and real love and mutual respect that is bigger than their difference.”

Epstein considers himself to be both an atheist and a humanist. This means that he believes humans can be moral and ethical without the guidance of religion.

Epstein authored the New York Times bestseller “Good Without God.” In it, he places an emphasis on the “good” of irreligion.

Epstein initially joined the chaplains at Harvard back in 2004. At that time, he served as the assistant to Thomas Ferrick, the university’s first humanist chaplain. Now, as the leader of the group, he aims to push collaboration across faiths and boost the work of the religious leaders with whom he fundamentally disagrees with.

One colleague praised his selection.

“It’s great to have someone who was coming from a really a non-traditional background,” Reverend Adam Lawrence Dyer, a Unitarian Universalist who is the chaplains’ head of diversity, inclusion, and belonging said. “Especially as this is an institution that has a lot of traditions.”

Recalling his childhood in New York City, Epstein said “I saw early on that there was no one right way to be human.”

“There was no one right way to believe, there was no one right way to disbelieve. The most important thing was that we were all human beings.”

In his 17 years at Harvard, Epstein has introduced some students to humanism and encouraged them to discover and understand other religions.

In 2019, a survey by the Harvard Crimson discovered that close to 17 percent of students identified as atheists.

As a head chaplain, Epstein now answers directly to the office of Harvard’s president.

“Who cares whether one community grows or another community grows?” said Epstein. “We have to grow our relationships with one another. Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, humanists, atheists — we have to put up a united front against the forces of inhumanity and the impulses of inhumanity. And I think we can do it.”

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