Last week, Harvard University announced that its new chief chaplain is a nonbeliever—Greg Epstein, who received his quasi-rabbinic ordination, naturally, from the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism. While the news item invited much mockery, Samuel Goldman takes seriously both Epstein’s ideas, which he outlined in his book Good without God, and the aptness of a secular chaplain at an institution like Harvard:
Epstein argues that religious practices such as ritual, meditation, or textual study meet irreducible human needs that conventional atheists neglect. At Harvard and in his previous position as leader of the Humanist Community Project, Epstein organized interfaith dialogues, weekly services including sermons, musical performances, and other activities that resemble traditional worship without appealing to a personal deity. He also provides counseling to students facing personal or ethical problems. . . . It’s an intriguing proposal at a time when the unaffiliated are the fastest-growing religious group.
Yet the prospects for Epstein’s humanism are dimmer than he might admit. One reason is that it seems most appealing to people who were brought up in demanding religious communities but no longer accept all of their teachings or lifestyle prescriptions. . . . Individuals in this position may find genuine comfort in humanism, but will they pass on that disposition to their children, who will lack the same rigorous formation? Given the difficulty even conventionally devout parents have in transmitting their beliefs, they probably won’t be successful. Yet one of the central goals of organized humanism is creating communities that can be sustained across generations.
The implications of Epstein’s selection as head chaplain are also dubious. On the one hand, there’s nothing wrong with him occupying an administrative position for which he’s demonstrated ability over many years of service. On the other, the decision implies that there’s nothing special about theistic religion or appeals to transcendent authority that justify a distinctive status.
That may seem uncontroversial in the 21st century. But it raises uncomfortable questions about the very purpose of a university. . . . For Harvard’s founders, truth was worth pursuing because it set man in the right relationship with God. Harvard’s present leadership can only claim, like the administration of Faber College in [the film] Animal House, that “knowledge is good.”