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Harvard's New Head Chaplain: Young People Are Looking For A Non-Religious Alternative


At Harvard University, more than 40 chaplains attend to the spiritual well-being of the university's students, faculty and staff. They have elected a new president. He is Greg Epstein, the humanist chaplain at Harvard. In other words, he serves the humanist, atheist, agnostic and non-religious at the university and larger community. He also represents the fast-growing number of Americans who do not associate themselves with a religious group, sometimes referred to as nones, as in no affiliation, a group that now rivals white evangelicals and Catholics in size.

As you might imagine, this election is getting some attention, so we thought this would be a good time to hear from Greg Epstein and also to talk more about this growing number of people who say they want to live a spiritual life without religion. And Greg Epstein is with us now. Welcome. Thank you so much for talking to us.

GREG EPSTEIN: Thank you so much, Michel. It's great to be with you.

MARTIN: So how do I address you correctly? You are ordained as a humanist rabbi. So is it rabbi? What's customary in your tradition?

EPSTEIN: Well, humanists aren't super-big on custom. Yes, I do hold the title of rabbi through the Society for Humanistic Judaism, but please call me Greg. You know, I'm also happy to be a chaplain serving those two institutions, but I'm really just a human being trying to be helpful to other human beings.

MARTIN: So - and how do you describe your tradition? I mean, there have been a number of pieces written about your election. The headlines have all said atheist elected president of Harvard chaplains. I take it that you prefer a humanist. So what does humanism mean? And is that different from atheism?

EPSTEIN: Well, humanism is the positive philosophy of life, positive life stance that I subscribe to, that - it's a way of defining myself by what I am, not just what I'm not. Yeah, I'm an atheist. I believe that the concept of a supernatural God is something that human beings created, not vice versa. But for me and I think for many, many non-religious people - probably millions or even hundreds of millions - it's more important to us that we're trying to live lives of meaning and purpose. We're trying to be good people and build a better world. We're trying to fight for justice. A word for that is humanism. It's good without God.

MARTIN: This is a growing number of people. A growing number of people choose not to identify with a religious group, as it's been traditionally defined. But it does vary widely. I mean, it varies by age, and it also varies regionally. I mean, according to the Pew Research Center, from a regional perspective, the northeast, compared to other areas of the country, has the lowest percentage of people who believe in God, who say they believe in God. That's at 55%, whereas in the South, it's 71%. And I'm just kind of wondering, you know, how do you see that? How do you see this movement, you know, overall? And how do you understand, say, a number like that?

EPSTEIN: Non-Religious people like me - atheists, agnostics, humanists, secular people, however you want to call us - we are allies for and of progressive and moderate religious people in the United States and across the world. You know, people who consider themselves deeply religious but want to work to advance science, want to work for public health in an evidence-based manner, want to work for democracy and representation for all in equity and equality - those are my friends and allies, and I'll fight with them to the death. And that's what you see in this kind of interfaith cooperation. And I hope that, you know, the South and other places can become a little bit more inclusive and a little bit more tolerant as we go. And maybe we can build better relationships there as humanists with religious folks based on this moment in history.

MARTIN: I'm wondering where you feel like this movement heads. I mean, the fact is that as we talked about, the Christian right holds a lot of power in American politics, even if the data shows that their numbers are decreasing. But even if their numbers are decreasing, their influence is not. And I wonder if that plays a factor as well, particularly, again, in the conversations you have with students. I mean, without sort of violating any of their privacy or confidence, I do wonder if that disconnect somehow plays into a sense of resistance to that influence.

EPSTEIN: Well, I would say certainly, for example, with a group that I've worked with in the past and currently, the Secular Student Alliance - it's a national group of humanist, atheist and agnostic students around the country - they'll tell you that their strongest chapters, their biggest presence is in the Deep South and the other most conservative religious areas of this country because there are enormous numbers of young people who are in those areas who feel oppressed by a lack of inclusion religiously, an overwhelming association between morality and religion, and they are looking for an alternative.

MARTIN: You know, we're living through trying times in this country. And I've just - we've talked about this before, sadly, in moments of crisis, like after the Boston Marathon bombing, for example, when you were a part of the community support system, a very visible part of the support for the community in recovering from that and healing from that event. But how do you go about thinking about living a spiritual life without God?

EPSTEIN: Humanism, non-religious spirituality, whatever you want to call it, it's about human relationships and human connection. We need the presence of other people in our lives in good times and in bad. And that's not trivial. That's not a trivial thing to say. We've all been so isolated this past year or two, and we've seen that when everything is mediated through technology and when we just kind of talk past each other politically without trying to really understand each other as humans, life gets very lonely, very isolating and often very dangerous.

And so, you know, I think about my son. When he was born a few years ago, I had this first experience that I'd ever had in my life of just unconditionally loving another person, where he was born, and his little pinky reached out - I mean, his hand reached out and grabbed my little pinky, and it was just this moment of realizing I would never care who you are or what you become or what you believe in or what you do. I just love you because you're another person and you deserve the love, you know? And I think that that's a message that honestly a lot of my Christian and Jewish and Buddhist and other friends - Muslim friends, et cetera - could agree on and, in some cases, help teach me, that we just need to offer each other a lot more unconditional love and respect and positive regard. And I think if we could do that - and that's hard work - we'd be a lot better off.

MARTIN: That was Greg Epstein, the newly elected president of chaplains at Harvard University. He's the author of "Good Without God." Greg Epstein, thank you so much for talking with us today.

EPSTEIN: My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.