According to their website, The Harvard Chaplains “are a professional community of more than thirty chaplains, 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. “
In August of 2021, it was reported that this organization elected a Humanist as their ‘Chief Chaplain’. As one may expect, such a generated media attention and is seen by some as a kind of controversy.
Greg Epstein, the subject of that controversy is one of the organization’s chaplains. Again, according to the organization’s website: Greg M. Epstein serves as the Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University, as well as the president of the Harvard Chaplains, Harvard University’s corps of over forty chaplains from more than 20 different religious, spiritual, and ethical traditions. Greg also serves the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) as humanist chaplain and as Convener for Ethical Life at the MIT Office of Religious, Spiritual, and Ethical Life. For nearly two decades, he has built a unique career as one of the world’s most prominent humanist chaplains — professionally trained members of the clergy who support the ethical and communal lives of nonreligious people.
Described as a “godfather to the [humanist] movement” by The New York Times Magazine, Epstein was also named “one of the top faith and moral leaders in the United States” by Faithful Internet, a project coordinated by the United Church of Christ with assistance from the Stanford Law School Center for Internet and Society, for his efforts to bring together atheists, agnostics, and allies, as part of an ancient and ever-evolving ethical tradition that can be called humanism. As Greg believes deeply: in a changing world where faith in humankind has become more difficult to maintain, it is more important than ever to fight for our common humanity, and for each other.
As an author, Greg’s New York Times bestselling book, “Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe,” continues to be influential years after its initial publication helped popularize the notion that the rapidly growing population of secular people can live lives of deep purpose, compassion, and connection. More recently,Greg’s 2018 move to join MIT, in addition to his work at Harvard, inspired an 18-month residency at the leading Silicon Valley publication TechCrunch, in which he published nearly 40 in-depth pieces exploring the ethics of technologies and companies that are shifting our definition of what it means to be human, often in troubling ways. Greg is currently writing a book on technology, religion, and humanism, based in part on this initial research. His writing on topics such as humanism, ethics, technology, and politics, has also appeared in The Boston Globe, CNN.com, The Washington Post, Newsweek, Salon, Critical Inquiry, and The Humanist.
In 2005, Greg received ordination as a Humanist Rabbi from the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism. He holds a B.A. (Religion and Chinese) and an M.A. (Judaic Studies) from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and a Masters of Theological Studies from the Harvard Divinity School, and he completed a year-long graduate fellowship at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
That Epstein’s appointment is a controversy is not really any great surprise. Whenever religion and organization politics (regardless of that organization’s nature) combine, controversy seems to be an automatic outcome. The real question here, is whether the controversy is about the right questions(s). In 2021, there are still a great many people who seem to feel it is perfectly acceptable to deride a person’s election to some form of public office based on whether they personally believe in a God.
The Harvard Chaplains unanimously elected Epstein. To those who are interested to object and cause snide, disrespectful and deriding headlines and commentary, is seems reasonable to ask two questions.
The first question is, “Since he was unanimously elected by his peaers, What’s the problem?” That question can easily be turned-into a two-or- even-three-parter, with a variety of follow-ups. But let’s leave that one as it is.
The second, and the more considerable question is, “Why do you think it’s OK to discriminate against someone who is merely living the best life that they can within their freedom not to believe what you happen to?”
It certainly seems that a world which continues to move toward allowing religious freedom and the freedom of belief must still be encouraged to recognize that these freedoms include, most fundamentally, the freedom not to believe. There’s the real controversy.
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