The New Chief Chaplain at Harvard? An Atheist.

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The elevation of Greg Epstein, writer of “Good Without God,” reflects a broader inclination of young radical who progressively place arsenic spiritual but religiously nonaffiliated.

Greg Epstein has been Harvard’s humanist chaplain since 2005.
Credit...Cody O'Loughlin for The New York Times

Emma Goldberg

Aug. 26, 2021, 5:00 a.m. ET

The Puritan colonists who settled successful New England successful the 1630s had a nagging interest astir the churches they were building: How would they guarantee that the clergymen would beryllium literate? Their reply was Harvard University, a schoolhouse that was established to amended the ministry and adopted the motto “Truth for Christ and the Church.” It was named aft a pastor, John Harvard, and it would beryllium much than 70 years earlier the schoolhouse had a president who was not a clergyman.

Nearly 4 centuries later, Harvard’s enactment of chaplains has elected arsenic its adjacent president an atheist named Greg Epstein, who takes connected the occupation this week.

Mr. Epstein, 44, writer of the publication “Good Without God,” is simply a seemingly antithetic prime for the role. He volition coordinate the activities of much than 40 assemblage chaplains, who pb the Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist and different spiritual communities connected campus. Yet galore Harvard students — immoderate raised successful families of faith, others ne'er rather definite however to statement their spiritual identities — attest to the power that Mr. Epstein has had connected their spiritual lives.

“There is simply a rising radical of radical who nary longer place with immoderate spiritual contented but inactive acquisition a existent request for speech and enactment astir what it means to beryllium a bully quality and unrecorded an ethical life,” said Mr. Epstein, who was raised successful a Jewish household and has been Harvard’s humanist chaplain since 2005, teaching students astir the progressive question that centers people’s relationships with 1 different alternatively of with God.

To Mr. Epstein’s chap field chaplains, astatine least, the conception of being led by an atheist is not arsenic counterintuitive arsenic it mightiness sound; his predetermination was unanimous.

“Maybe successful a much blimpish assemblage clime determination mightiness beryllium a question similar ‘What the heck are they doing astatine Harvard, having a humanist beryllium the president of the chaplains?’” said Margit Hammerstrom, the Christian Science chaplain astatine Harvard. “But successful this situation it works. Greg is known for wanting to support lines of connection unfastened betwixt antithetic faiths.”

The dozens of students whom Mr. Epstein mentors person recovered a root of meaning successful the school’s enactment of humanists, atheists and agnostics, reflecting a broader inclination of young radical crossed the United States who progressively place arsenic spiritual but religiously nonaffiliated. That inclination mightiness beryllium particularly salient astatine Harvard; a Harvard Crimson survey of the people of 2019 recovered that those students were 2 times much apt to place arsenic atheist oregon agnostic than 18-year-olds successful the wide population.

“Greg’s enactment isn’t astir theology,” said Charlotte Nickerson, 20, an electrical engineering student. “It’s astir practice betwixt radical of antithetic faiths and bringing unneurotic radical who wouldn’t usually see themselves religious.”

The Harvard chaplains play an outsize relation connected campus, touching hundreds of students’ lives whether done Mass offered by the Catholic Student Center oregon Shabbat dinners astatine Harvard Hillel. Its person reports straight to the bureau of the assemblage president.

To Mr. Epstein, becoming the organization’s head, particularly arsenic it gains much designation from the university, comes arsenic affirmation of a yearslong effort, started by his predecessor, to thatch a field with accepted spiritual roots astir humanism.

“We don’t look to a deity for answers,” Mr. Epstein said. “We are each other’s answers.”

Mr. Epstein’s enactment includes hosting dinners for undergraduates wherever speech goes deep: Does God exist? What is the meaning of life? He antecedently ran a congregation of Boston-area humanists and atheists who met successful Harvard Square for play services that centered connected secular sermons. In 2018 helium closed that down to absorption his clip connected gathering field relationships, including astatine M.I.T., wherever helium is besides a chaplain. Mr. Epstein often meets individually with students who are struggling with issues some idiosyncratic and theological, counseling them connected managing anxiousness astir summertime jobs, household feuds, the pressures of societal media and the turbulence endemic to assemblage life.

“Greg is irreverent and bully astatine diffusing pressure,” Ms. Nickerson said, recalling a clip helium joked that if her summertime internship got excessively stressful she could ever get fired — past she would person a bully communicative to share.


Credit...Tony Luong for The New York Times

Some of the students drawn to Mr. Epstein’s secular assemblage are spiritual refugees, radical raised successful observant households who get astatine assemblage seeking spiritual meaning successful a little rigid form.

Adelle Goldenberg, 22, grew up successful the Hasidic assemblage successful Brooklyn, wherever she recalls being told that she could not be college. In preschool, erstwhile asked what she wanted to beryllium erstwhile she grew up, her reply was simple: a bride. It was the lone happening she could envision for a miss similar herself. When she turned 19, she applied to Harvard successful concealed and fled the community.

Once astatine Harvard, she was wary of assuming immoderate spiritual label, but she inactive yearned to find radical wrestling with issues deeper than world achievement. She started attending meetings of the humanist radical and discovered successful Mr. Epstein a signifier of mentorship that felt astir similar having a secular rabbi, she said.

“When the pandemic deed I was like, ‘Greg, bash you person clip to speech astir the meaning of life,’” Ms. Goldenberg recalled. “He showed maine that it’s imaginable to find assemblage extracurricular a accepted spiritual context, that you tin person the value-add religion has provided for centuries, which is that it’s determination erstwhile things look chaotic.”

Ms. Goldenberg reflected anew connected however improbable her way had been erstwhile her parent asked to spot the assemblage yearbook: “I told her, ‘I don’t deliberation you’re going to similar it,’” Ms. Goldenberg said. “It says I was co-president of the Harvard Humanists, Atheists and Agnostics. And you tin spot my shoulders.”

Nonreligiosity is connected the emergence acold beyond the confines of Harvard; it is the fastest increasing spiritual penchant successful the country, according to the Pew Research Center. More than 20 percent of the country identifies arsenic atheist, agnostic oregon nonreligious — called the “nones” — including 4 successful 10 millennials.

The reasons that much young Americans are disaffiliating successful the world’s astir spiritual developed state are varied. The Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith attributes the inclination partially to the increasing confederation betwixt the Republican Party and the Christian right, a diminution of spot successful institutions, increasing skepticism of religion successful the aftermath of the Sept. 11 violent attacks and a displacement distant from accepted household structures that centered connected churchgoing.

Mr. Epstein’s assemblage has tapped into the increasing tendency for meaning without religion successful God. “Being capable to find values and rituals but not having to judge successful magic, that’s a almighty thing,” said A.J. Kumar, who served arsenic the president of a Harvard humanist postgraduate pupil radical that Mr. Epstein advised.

Other Harvard chaplains person applauded Mr. Epstein’s efforts to supply a field location for those who are religiously unattached, skeptical but inactive searching. Some said his enactment to pb the group, pursuing its erstwhile Jewish leader, seemed obvious.

“Greg was the archetypal prime of a committee that was made up of a Lutheran, a Christian Scientist, an evangelical Christian and a Bahá’í,” said the Rev. Kathleen Reed, a Lutheran chaplain who chaired the nominating committee. “We’re presenting to the assemblage a imaginativeness of however the satellite could enactment erstwhile divers traditions absorption connected however to beryllium bully humans and neighbors.”

And for immoderate members of Harvard’s humanist and atheist community, exploring humanism has brought with it a richer knowing of faith.

Ms. Nickerson grew up successful a working-class Catholic household wherever she struggled to link with rituals similar Mass. But during her freshman twelvemonth astatine Harvard, she recovered herself susceptible of long, lively conversations with her devout grandmother. Ms. Nickerson realized that her engagement with Harvard humanism had fixed her the connection to recognize her grandmother’s theology.

Last spring, the 2 were tending roses and daylilies successful the household plot erstwhile they got connected the taxable of surrender. Ms. Nickerson’s grandma reflected connected the aspects of her beingness that were successful God’s hands; Ms. Nickerson agreed that it was important to admit each the events beyond quality control, though she does not judge determination is simply a deity involved. Ms. Nickerson past shared a Buddhist parable that she had learned from the humanist club, which her grandma aboriginal passed connected to her Bible survey group.

“We understood the thought of surrender successful a akin mode adjacent though 1 of those explanations came with God and the different didn’t,” Ms. Nickerson said. “I find I’m much fluid successful my spiritual conversations now.”

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