The new head chaplain at Harvard began work this week, directing the university’s more than 40 religious leaders who connect with and guide students from a wide array of faith backgrounds. There’s just one rather unusual twist: he’s an atheist.
Greg Epstein, 44, the longtime head of Harvard’s humanist chaplaincy, was unanimously elected by his peers to represent the chaplains, a group that has functioned at the university for centuries and is comprised of leaders from more than 20 different faiths.
“It’s a milestone of inclusion,” said Epstein, who started as the school’s humanist chaplain in 2005. “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 is an atheist and a humanist, meaning essentially that he believes humans can be moral and ethical without the guide of religion. At the core of his beliefs, which he said diverge from those of some atheists, is a strong-held faith in community.
The author of the New York Times bestseller “Good Without God,” he is quick to emphasize the “good” of irreligion, rather than the fact that it is “without God.”
Epstein joined the chaplains at Harvard in 2004, serving as the assistant to Thomas Ferrick, the university’s first humanist chaplain. Now, as head of the group, he aspires to promote collaboration across faiths and bolster the work of leaders with whom he fundamentally but respectfully disagrees.
One colleague applauded his selection.
“It’s great to have someone who was coming from a really a non-traditional background,” said Reverend Adam Lawrence Dyer, a Unitarian Universalist who is the chaplains’ head of diversity, inclusion, and belonging. “Especially as this is an institution that has a lot of traditions.”
Epstein said his professional journey was influenced heavily by his childhood in Flushing, a neighborhood in Queens, New York. In the 1980s, he said, Flushing was considered one of the most religiously diverse communities in the world.
“I saw early on that there was no one right way to be human,” said Epstein, who noted his mother left Cuba for the US at age 13. “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 said his main focus has been the students. To them, he is a mentor who guides them in good times and bad. He’s introduced some to humanism for the first time, and encouraged them to explore and understand other religions.
“He’s a very good conduit to all the different faiths,” said Luis Esteva Sueiro, a sophomore who began identifying as an atheist before enrolling at the Ivy League college.
He first stumbled across Epstein’s name while reading about humanism on the chaplains’ website. He reached out to Epstein months later during a difficult time.
“It was illuminating,” he said of their Zoom meeting. “I left the conversation feeling much more grounded. Humanism, it’s kind of filling the void that others fill with religion.”
Epstein has encouraged him to begin talking to his friends about their faith, “to understand what they believe, and why they believe it,” Esteva Sueiro said. At a friend’s invitation, Esteva Suerio observed Ramadan last April, participating in the daily after and the after-sunset meal of Iftar, he said.
Epstein’s ascent aligns with an uptick in irreligion across the US and at Harvard over the past several decades. A Gallup poll in March found that 21 percent of Americans — up from just 8 percent in 2000 — do not identify with any religion, and that Millennials in particular are turning away from organized religion in increasing numbers.
In 2019, a survey by the Harvard Crimson found that nearly 17 percent of students there identified as atheist.
At the forefront of movement at Harvard is Epstein, who presents humanism as a way for atheists to reject the existence of a higher power while still being part of a faith community.
“The way Greg talked about humanism was really powerful for my own faith formation,” said Mary Ellen Geiss, who was part of a humanist group with Epstein when she was a graduate student at Harvard. “And it was faith formation, even though it wasn’t a faith in God. 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.”
As head chaplain, Epstein communicates directly with the office of Harvard’s president. He’ll still guide students through tough conversations, but his focus now is the good of the community as a whole.
“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.”