Because of Course: Harvard's New Head Chaplain Is an Atheist

(AP Photo/Charles Krupa, File)

If you’re at Harvard and looking for spiritual guidance, a chapel might not be a bad idea.

Set your sights higher, and find a chaplain.

Really, there’s no reason not to aim for the top.


Head chaplain Greg Epstein can offer advice, plus a distinct perspective not often found in men of the cloth: He doesn’t believe in God.

As reported by The Boston Globe, over 40 religious leaders from more than 20 different faiths recently voted on who might preside over the bunch.

The count was unanimous.

And now, a 44-year-old, longtime leader of Harvard’s humanist chaplaincy is spiritual man #1.

According to Greg, the vote signifies a victory in an arena that’s all the rage:

“It’s a milestone of inclusion.”

Greg also hailed something of which we certainly do need more — agreeing to disagree:

“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.”

The man’s both an atheist and a humanist.

And if you’re wondering what that means, here’s the Globe:

[H]e 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.

It lends itself to a curious series of events: You’re in the community, you feel something’s missing, you go to the chaplain.

He sends you back to the community.


Part cleric, part goalie.

It seems the point of his position is to tell people his position is pointless.

Greg’s the author of New York Times bestseller Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe.

Per the Globe, “[H]e is quick to emphasize the ‘good’ of irreligion, rather than the fact that it is ‘without God.’”

Greg became a school chaplain in 2004, serving under the first Harvard humanist chaplain, Thomas Ferrick.

Now that he’s been appointed point man, he’ll promote interfaith collaboration.

But why would those of faith elect a representative without it?

Perhaps it’s so atheists can relate.

Greg put it thusly to the New York Times:

“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.”

To be clear, he wasn’t always godless — Greg grew up Jewish.

Eventually, he realized “we are each other’s answers.”

Therefore, we needn’t “look to a god.”

Christian Science Chaplain Margit Hammerstron told the Times Greg as director may not be a traditional choice, but it works:

“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. Greg is known for wanting to keep lines of communication open between different faiths.”


As relayed by the Times, some students believe an atheist might unite everyone.

Engineering major Charlotte Nickerson explained as follows:

“Greg’s leadership isn’t about theology. It’s about cooperation between people of different faiths and bringing together people who wouldn’t normally consider themselves religious.”

We are living in strange times.

In various ways, we’re being told things that used to mean one idea now mean another.

Sometimes, they even mean the opposite.

Given the climate, I see little reason why the least spiritual person shouldn’t be elected as the topmost spiritual person.

And not only is Greg a chaplain, he’s also invested in social justice.

From his 2015 interview with CNN:

“If it’s hard to be an atheist in the U.S., then it’s even harder for people who aren’t white males, who therefore already have less privilege in this society.

“We’ve also got to be relevant to the lives of women and people of color. There are tens of millions of people in this country who are truly suffering, who need us to fight for them. I’m concerned we make ourselves less relevant to their lives when we spend too much of our energy focusing on how downtrodden we atheists are.

“When we get involved in community building, tons of women show up. And at (nonreligious community connection group) the Humanist Hub, we’re focusing on anti-racism training and social justice work to help us diversify.”


Well, whether he’s a person of faith, he does indeed sound devoted.



See more pieces from me:

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