One of the special interests listed in the profile of Harvard’s new Chief Chaplain is “meaning and purpose beyond religion.” A very striking deviation from the century-old tradition of religious guidance usually expected of a chaplain. 400-years in the making, Harvard, an institution whose original mission was to educate religious ministers, has elected its first openly atheist chapel minister.
Greg Epstein is the current, newly-elected Chief Chaplain at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA. He has served as a Humanist Chaplain for both Harvard and MIT and has served as the president of Harvard’s Chaplains. As president, Epstein oversaw and managed 40 chaplains from different religious and ethical backgrounds. At MIT, he is the Convener for Ethical Life under MIT’s Office of Religious, Spiritual, and Ethical Life.
Epstein grew up in a Jewish household in Flushing, Queens, New York, an area known to be very diverse in terms of the religious backgrounds of the residents. With his experience growing up in a religiously diverse neighborhood, Epstein was able to identify the growing number of students in Harvard “who no longer identify with any religious tradition but still experience a real need for conversation and support.” He has introduced everyone to the idea that an individual’s relationship can be centered on one another instead of a deity. His election as the Chief Chaplain was unanimous.
Margit Hammerstrom, the Chaplain for Christian Science, mused that other universities with a very traditional atmosphere might ask, “What the heck are they doing at Harvard?” She explained that Harvard’s environment is ready for having a humanist Chief Chaplain, explaining that “Greg is known for wanting to keep lines of communication open between different faiths.”
Hammerstrom was right; not only did her co-chaplains identify Epstein’s effectiveness but also students. An electrical engineer student, Charlotte Nickerson, describe Epstein’s approach not as a theology but as a “cooperation between people of different faiths,” and that it includes bringing people together, especially those “who wouldn’t normally consider themselves religious.”
Epstein also wrote for TechCrunch, one of the top online publications in Silicon Valley, where he explored the ethical aspects of technologies and their adaptations across different industries. Epstein also did not hold back in his dissection of the ethical practices of IT companies.
His book, Good without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe, published in 2010, continues to become a force of influence in the rising demographics of humanists and atheists. What made Epstein’s book influential is the option it offers to atheists, both young and old, an alternative to the well-established secular authors who have a critical approach towards religion and their promotion of anti-religion sentiments. As embodied in his book, Epstein's humanistic stance maintains a peaceful and positive approach towards tolerance, inviting the readers to embrace goodness as it is, with no guidance or punishment from a higher being.