The prestigious Harvard University, founded by Puritans and named after a pastor, decided this week to select an atheist to serve as its chief chaplain whose role is to “serve the spiritual needs of students,” the Daily Mail reported.
Greg Epstein, of Jewish origins who is a self-avowed atheist, was named this week as the new chief chaplain for the campus of Harvard University, founded by the Puritans in 1636 and named after pastor John Harvard.
Epstein, author of the book ‘Good without God, what a Billion Non-Religious People Believe’ said, “We don’t look to a god for answers. We are each other’s answers.”
“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 told the New York Times.
Beyond Epstein’s personal beliefs, the controversy revolves around the definition of chaplain, a Christian term whose mission at the university is described as “a professional community … representing many of the world’s religious, spiritual, and ethical traditions, who share a collective commitment to serving the spiritual needs of the students, faculty, and staff of Harvard University.”
Harvard University was founded by the Puritans—who colonized New England—to ensure that the clergy were well educated. For the first 70 years, all of its presidents were priests or religious people.
Some people took to social media to criticize the decision.
“It sounds like a grift. At the very least it shows that Harvard regards atheism as a more than suitable alternative to religious belief. No surprise there, but they have deprived the students of a legitimate chaplain,” wrote user Detective Panda.
“NOTHING could be more contradictory!!! NOTHING he could ever say could be trusted. And God has warned us that these deceptions we should be wary of,” wrote user Tom.
Epstein has a wealth of studies in different religions.
In 2005, he received ordination as a humanistic rabbi from the International Institute of Secular Humanistic Judaism. He holds a B.A. in Religion and Chinese, an M.A. in Judaic Studies from the University of Michigan, and an M.A. in Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School.
He completed a one-year post-graduate fellowship at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and served as national president of the Humanists for Biden/Harris organization last year.
‘Converting’ to atheism
According to the New York Times, some people with religious beliefs left their faith after participating in Epstein’s “humanist” group.
Adelle Goldenberg grew up in the Hasidic community in Brooklyn but was drawn to Epstein’s humanist group, which she described as akin to having a lay rabbi.
“When the pandemic hit I was like, ‘Greg, do you have time to talk about the meaning of life. He showed me that it’s possible to find community outside a traditional religious context, that you can have the value-add religion has provided for centuries, which is that it’s there when things seem chaotic,” Adelle said.
However, the university’s religious authorities argue that Epstein’s appointment as senior chaplain is in keeping with the campus atmosphere or cultural trend, which according to recent surveys, atheist or agnostic students have outnumbered believers.
“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?’ But in this environment it works,” said Margit Hammerstrom, chaplain of Christian Science at Harvard.
It is not the first time that the elite universities known as Ivy League made headlines for their controversial decisions or teaching extreme ideologies such as communism within “mainstream” education.
Last Aug. 10, Princeton University opened a workshop focused on the Marxist group Black Lives Matter. One of the books included in the course was “Freedom is a Constant Struggle” by Angela Davis, former leader of the Communist Party USA a member of the Black Panthers. Davis was imprisoned for being involved in the kidnapping and murder of a California judge.