Story at a glance

  • The new chief chaplain at Harvard University, which was founded to instruct clergymen early in the colonial period, is an atheist.
  • And that’s fine with those who unanimously selected him for the role.
  • “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 said.

The new chief chaplain at Harvard University, which was founded to instruct clergymen early in the colonial period, is an atheist — and that’s fine by those who unanimously selected him for the role. 

Greg Epstein, the 44-year-old author of “Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe,” assumes his new position this week, The New York Times reported. He formerly served as the university’s humanist chaplain since 2005. 

“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 paper. 

Epstein’s colleagues and students alike told the paper the unanimous choice is not as odd as it may seem as there have been fundamental changes in the religiosity of young people at universities across the country. 


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“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?’” Margit Hammerstrom, the Christian Science chaplain at Harvard, told The Times. “But in this environment it works. Greg is known for wanting to keep lines of communication open between different faiths.”

The university’s Lutheran chaplain, Rev. Kathleen Reed, said Epstein was “the first choice” of a diverse committee consisting of individuals from a variety of faiths.

“We’re presenting to the university a vision of how the world could work when diverse traditions focus on how to be good humans and neighbors,” Reed told the Times. 

Charlotte Nickerson, a 20-year-old electrical engineering student, told the paper that Epstein’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,” Nickerson said. 

A Harvard Crimson survey of the class of 2019 found that more than 16 percent identify as atheists and slightly more than 21 percent as agnostic. 


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In his new position Epstein will coordinate the activities with 40 chaplains covering 20 religions. 

“I want to support students and the university community together around the fact that it’s been an extraordinarily trying time and almost anybody could be expected to have lost a little faith in humanity in recent years,” Epstein told The Guardian last week.

“We have a lot that divides us theologically but we have a tremendous amount in common when it comes to our shared desires … to support the human beings in our community as they try to live lives of meaning and purpose in a world that can sometimes threaten to rob us of [those senses], regardless of our beliefs,” he said.


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Published on Aug 30, 2021