An Atheist Rabbi May Make a Good University Chaplain, but His Secular Humanist Vision Is Unlikely to Be Sustainable

Sept. 2 2021

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.”

Read more at The Week

More about: Academia, American Religion, Atheism, Harvard, Humanism

In the Aftermath of a Deadly Attack, President Sisi Should Visit Israel

On June 3, an Egyptian policeman crossed the border into Israel and killed three soldiers. Jonathan Schanzer and Natalie Ecanow urge President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to respond by visiting the Jewish state as a show of goodwill:

Such a dramatic gesture is not without precedent: in 1997, a Jordanian soldier opened fire on a group of Israeli schoolgirls visiting the “Isle of Peace,” a parcel of farmland previously under Israeli jurisdiction that Jordan leased back to Israel as part of the Oslo peace process. In a remarkable display of humanity, King Hussein of Jordan, who had only three years earlier signed a peace agreement with Israel, traveled to the Jewish state to mourn with the families of the seven girls who died in the massacre.

That massacre unfolded as a diplomatic cold front descended on Jerusalem and Amman. . . . Yet a week later, Hussein flipped the script. “I feel as if I have lost a child of my own,” Hussein lamented. He told the parents of one of the victims that the tragedy “affects us all as members of one family.”

While security cooperation [between Cairo and Jerusalem] remains strong, the bilateral relationship is still rather frosty outside the military domain. True normalization between the two nations is elusive. A survey in 2021 found that only 8 percent of Egyptians support “business or sports contacts” with Israel. With a visit to Israel, Sisi can move beyond the cold pragmatism that largely defines Egyptian-Israeli relations and recast himself as a world figure ready to embrace his diplomatic partners as human beings. At a personal level, the Egyptian leader can win international acclaim for such a move rather than criticism for his country’s poor human-rights record.

Read more at Washington Examiner

More about: General Sisi, Israeli Security, Jordan