Harvard Humanism: Beyond the Walls of the Secular Cathedral the Humanist Interview with Greg Epstein, Humanist Chaplain of Harvard
Niose, David, The Humanist
The Humanist: How long have you been humanist chaplain of Harvard?
Epstein: I took over the position in 2005. Most people have no idea Harvard has an endowed, permanent humanist chaplaincy--much less that we've been around for over thirty years now.
The Humanist: It's unusual for a humanist leader to work in an official position such as a chaplain at a university. And you work at not just any university, but at Harvard. How do see you the significance of your job?
Epstein: In his landmark book, The Good Society, sociologist Robert Bellah commented that the university is the secular cathedral. In the secular world, Bellah says, universities come closer than any other institution to having the prestige, the influence, and the power to inspire that cathedrals have in the religious world. It follows, for better or for worse, that Harvard has been seen as the ultimate secular cathedral. For example, the American Humanist Association's most prestigious award has been its Humanist of the Year Award. Of the fifty-plus individuals who have received that award since 1953, ten of the recipients have taught at Harvard. That's an astounding ratio.
The Humanist: It's true that many prominent humanists have taught at Harvard. But your position as humanist chaplain isn't exactly a teaching position, is it? How is the humanist chaplain different than a professor?
Epstein: That's right, the humanist chaplaincy at Harvard, rather than being a standard academic chair or institute, is dedicated to what we call "building, educating, and nurturing a diverse community of humanists, agnostics, atheists, and the non-religious at Harvard and beyond."
To give it some context, Harvard was founded in 1636 by hard-line Puritan Calvinist Christians. Eventually though, Harvard shifted to become a center for liberalizing Christianity and Unitarianism, and in the modern period it has been repeatedly accused of godlessness, though in fact it has slowly and fitfully adopted the ideology of religious pluralism.
The Humanist: How does this history relate to the humanist chaplaincy?
Epstein: Well, once universities began to include more than one religious point of view, it became clear that they needed clergy to serve the different communities. In the 1970s, when Tom Ferrick arrived at Harvard to found the humanist chaplaincy, Harvard had Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish chaplains. Tom raised the question of whether humanism could be considered enough of a mainstream and important philosophical tradition to be among those represented, especially given that Harvard never officially renounced its standing as a "religious" university, and therefore the school's chaplaincies represent, at least in theory, its ethical foundation. Tom was accepted and was even given an office in Memorial Church, the huge church that sits in the very heart of Harvard Yard and for many symbolizes the university as a whole.
The ultimate significance of the humanist chaplaincy is that a respectable "secular cathedral" for today must not only give lip service to pluralism but should actually make space for many communities and points of view. In fact, one of Tom's important accomplishments was helping to bring Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu, and even evangelical chaplaincies to campus. Humanism then is one among many given full inclusion.
The Humanist: Speaking of inclusion, I understand you'll soon be hosting one of the biggest events in the chaplaincy's history and that it will feature a multicultural lineup of speakers.
Epstein: Yes, we're very excited about it. In April Salman Rushdie, Amartya Sen, E. O. Wilson, the folk singer Dar Williams, and too many others to list will join us for a three-day event to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of the humanist chaplaincy at Harvard. We're investing a lot of time and energy into this because we feel the time has come for us to help humanism make an impact on the national and international level. …