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Last month, the Harvard Chaplains’ Organization made an eye-catching move that, believe it or not, promises to touch believers and nonbelievers alike. In a unanimous vote carried out by a select group of campus religious leaders, the organization elected humanist chaplain Greg Epstein — an atheist — as its president.
Much of the press coverage surrounding Epstein’s historic election has sensationalized the choice, highlighting the apparent irony of an atheist holding a traditionally religious position (at a school founded to educate clergy, no less). Some explained the situation as only possible at liberal old Harvard. Meanwhile, the Harvard Catholic Center has attempted to downplay the election’s importance by claiming that Epstein serves a purely “administrative role” in the organization – whatever that means.
In reality, Epstein’s presidency is indeed significant, a bit of a shock, and – most importantly – cause for celebration.
The current diversity of Harvard Chaplains helps serve the spiritual needs of the Harvard community and promotes interfaith cooperation and open-mindedness. Epstein’s election only reaffirms this mission. A plurality of this year’s newest students at Harvard identify as either atheist or agnostic, and the number of nonbelievers across the country is steadily rising. Epstein’s unanimous election signals to these students that Harvard is a place where they too can access the grounding life guidance church can offer, sans spirituality.
It also is a powerful message of support for the areligious. Make no mistake: Anti-atheist sentiment remains disturbingly strong in public life. Americans feel more negatively about atheists than about any other religious group except for Muslims. This discrimination against nonbelievers even pervades our politics. The religiously unaffiliated make up over a quarter of U.S. adults but compose just 0.2 percent of the current Congress. Seven states even bar atheists from holding public office.
The stubborn nature of anti-atheist hostility rests, at least in part, within the fact that many tend to associate belief in God with morality itself – and that, by default, irreligion implies immorality. Psychological studies have consistently found participants to be especially distrustful of atheists. Clearly, this is a muddied portrait wrongly ascribing menace to an identity marked only by a lack of belief in a higher power.
Now a figurehead in Harvard’s religious landscape, Epstein is well-poised to help fight the nagging perception that, without God, anything goes. Indeed, while humanists do not believe in a god, their central philosophy emphasizes the goodness of humanity. As the Harvard and MIT Humanist Chaplaincy website puts it, humanism “affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment, aspiring to humanity’s greater good.” Though godless, humanist chaplains like Epstein are clearly devoted to goodness. We hope and expect Epstein’s tenure will reflect his noble, secular beliefs.
The prominence of Epstein’s new position lends visibility and credibility to an underrepresented and stigmatized group. In that way, it's not all that different from the 2017 appointment of Khalil Abdur-Rashid, Harvard’s first full-time Muslim chaplain, and the 2021 appointment of Matthew Ichihashi Potts, Harvard’s first Asian American head minister of Memorial Chuch. Each move expanded who might feel comfortable seeking help from a Harvard chaplain.
At Harvard, an institution with the motto “For the glory of Christ” for most of its history, the progress Epstein’s appointment represents is both monumental and welcome. It is profoundly moving that his fellow chaplains chose to unanimously uplift him. In the coming years, we hope more can summon the goodwill to drop negative beliefs about nonbelievers.
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.
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