Harvard’s Atheist President of Chaplains

Can atheists hold a religious occupation? Apparently, in this day and age, they can.

Greg Epstein is a 44-year-old humanist chaplain who has recently been “unanimously elected by his peers” as president of Harvard University’s group of 40-plus chaplains.

Humanist chaplains have been fast cropping up in our educational circles. “Humanism is the belief that you can lead a good life without god,” states the Humanist Chaplaincy Network website.

Epstein, with his 17 years of service at the Ivy League and his several years at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, his New York Times bestselling book Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe, and his featured contributions to various media outlets, the Reform Jew-turned-atheist has made a name for himself “as a ‘godfather to the [humanist] movement.’”

And if that weren’t perplexing enough, Epstein is also an ordained “Humanist Rabbi from the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism.”

His mission can be condensed to the following remark: “We don’t look to a god for answers. We are each other’s answers.”


Faith in a Not-Higher Power

As a chaplain, Epstein’s passion is primarily for the students. In his time at Harvard, he has been noted as “a very good conduit to all the different faiths,” “more than 20” of which are represented by the group of chaplains he now leads.

Of his worldview he explains, “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.”

Epstein’s “strong-held faith in community” complements all too well the exodus from organized religion gaining speed among Americans, especially among the dominating generation of Millennials. According to analytics titan Gallup, the last three years saw a 13-percent decline among those who “[belong] to a church, synagogue or mosque.” Additionally, its research found that only 36 percent of Millennials hold church membership in comparison to 50 percent of Gen X, the generation which came before them. It concluded that there are “two major trends driving the drop in church membership—more adults with no religious preference and falling rates of church membership among people who do have a religion.”

Are Gallup’s results surprising when considering the influential position chaplains like Epstein hold in the educational strongholds of our nation? College is a time when the future of America is solidifying the ideologies that will shape the rest of their lives.

“The way Greg talked about humanism was really powerful for my own faith formation,” said a former Harvard graduate student. “It was a faith in humanity and a faith in community and a faith in myself and what I could be, as I contributed to our larger whole.”


How to Be Good

Let’s address what The Christian Post called “a total contradiction in both purpose and logic.” In its article, the faith-based news source cited several definitions of chaplaincy and concluded with the impossibility of melding it to humanism and atheism. “How can you conduct a worship service if there is no God to worship?” its author Michael Brown asks.

It could be argued, however, that the source of worship hasn’t disappeared for a humanist; it has simply shifted to something else. The Bible states that we are built to worship: “Do you not know that to whom you present yourselves slaves to obey, you are that one’s slaves whom you obey, whether of sin leading to death, or of obedience leading to righteousness?” (Romans 6:16). Worship is innate to a human being. We’re going to do it, whether we like it or not or whether we realize it or not.

And we’ve seen what a graduate student learned from Epstein, that her faith is not in God but in herself. To a humanist, then, faith is built upon mankind, society, “community,” as Epstein puts it. Man, then, is what is being worshiped, and the dictates of man are what is being followed. The Bible explains that these are they “who [have] exchanged the truth of God for the lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever” (1:25).

While the game of linguistic semantics seems to be playing out all over society, it is clear, when reading the Bible, that there can be no reconciliation between humanism and the true Word of God, no matter how you put it, state it, or angle it. “You shall have no other gods before Me” (Exodus 20:3) and “you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength” (Deuteronomy 6:5) are undeniable for the Christian faith. No patchwork can be made out of Christ’s declaration, “No one is good but One, that is, God” (Luke 18:19). No salvation exists except the salvation by the one “name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12)—that is, the Lord Jesus Christ. There is only one gospel (Galatians 1:6–8); there is only one God (Ephesians 4:6; 1 Timothy 2:5).

Epstein has, sadly, come to the opposite conclusions. But let us all take heed: “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death” (Proverbs 14:12). There is a path that may appear to lead to ultimate goodness, but no one can be good without God.

Take a walk with Pastor Doug Batchelor through the account of “Jesus and the Rich Young Ruler” to discover how to truly gain what Epstein and other humanists are so longing to achieve—true goodness.

Kris W. Sky
Kris W. Sky is a writer and editor for Amazing Facts International and other online and print publications.
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