Harvard University’s newest chief chaplain is an avowed atheist, according to a report from The New York Times. Greg Epstein, author of the book Good Without God, was unanimously elected to his new role by his peers and begins this week.
"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," Epstein said.
Raised in a Jewish household, Epstein received ordination as a humanist rabbi from the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism in 2005. After that, he has worked as the humanist chaplain for Harvard since 2005.
Some of Epstein's interests include ethics in technology, meaning, and purpose beyond religion, secular humanistic Judaism, racial justice and healing, and the philosophy and practice of interfaith work, according to his biography page on Harvard's website.
"Greg was the first choice of a committee that was made up of a Lutheran, a Christian Scientist, an evangelical Christian, and a Bahá’í," said Lutheran chaplain Rev. Kathleen Reed, chairwoman of the nominating committee. "We’re presenting to the university a vision of how the world could work when diverse traditions focus on how to be good humans and neighbors," according to the Washington Examiner.
Harvard's school year begins Sept. 1. Epstein will work with the University's 40 chaplains to assist students coordinating religious events and helping counsel students through spiritual struggles, Relevant magazine reported.
Margit Hammerstrom, the Christian Science chaplain at Harvard, said Epstein’s generous spirit had made him popular with the other chaplains, even though they don’t share his humanist perspective. "Maybe in a more conservative university climate there might be a question like ‘What the heck are they doing at Harvard, having a humanist be the president of the chaplains?’" she said. "But in this environment it works. Greg is known for wanting to keep lines of communication open between different faiths."
Atheism and agnosticism have increased over time at Harvard. Over 40% of students at the school identified as either atheist or agnostic in 2020, compared to roughly 32% in 2017, according to the Harvard Crimson, the school's student newspaper.
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