New Harvard chief chaplain is an atheist and ordained ‘humanist rabbi’


Harvard University has chosen a devout atheist and ‘humanist chaplain’ to lead the  Ivy League school founded by Puritans to educate their clergy with the motto ‘Truth for Christ and the Church.’ 

Greg Epstein, 44, who was raised in a reformed Jewish household in Queens, New York, was named president of the chaplains for the religious community at the school after serving as Harvard’s ‘humanist chaplain’ since 2005.

He is a self-avowed devout atheist who wants to serve fellow nonreligious believers as well as agnostics and humanists at the Cambridge, Massachusetts, school. 

That’s a far departure for a school founded by Puritans in 1636 and named for pastor John Harvard. The university did not even have a president who wasn’t a clergyman for its first 70 years. 

Greg Epstein will become the head of representatives of the religious community at the Ivy League School

And a reformed Jew shall lead them: Epstein’s road from Queens to Harvard 

Epstein, 44, was raised in Flushing, Queens, as a self-described ‘assimilated and disinterested reform Jew’ in the nation’s most diverse borough.

In 2005, Epstein received ordination as a Humanist Rabbi from the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism. 

He holds a B.A. (Religion and Chinese) and an M.A. (Judaic Studies) from the University of Michigan and a Masters of Theological Studies from the Harvard Divinity School

He completed a year-long graduate fellowship at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. 

Authored a book in 2010 called Good Without God: What A Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe 

He said that being a humanist rabbi means ‘I combine Jewish culture with the belief that this world is all we have.’

Epstein has raised over $1.7 million in gifts to the humanist chaplains since joining in 2005. 

He’s written columns for CNN, Newsweek and The Washington Post and served as the ‘ethicist’ for the website TechCrunch in 2019. 

He was the National Chair for the organization ‘Humanists for Biden/Harris’ last year and served on Boston Mayor Marty Walsh’s Interfaith Advisory Council. 

But Epstein said his elevation to the position is meant to be inclusive of larger and larger numbers of Americans and especially progressive Harvard students who identify as spiritual but not religious. 

 ‘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,’ he told the New York Times.

The Harvard Crimson did a survey of the school’s class of 2019 and found that there are indeed increasing numbers of students without a designated faith. 

The survey showed 21% of the class as agnostic and 17% were atheists. This compared to 17% Catholics, 10% Jewish and 3% of Hindus and Muslims. 

This isn’t just a trend at Harvard: a Pew Research Center poll found 20% of Americans identify as atheist, agnostic or non-religious.

That same poll found two thirds of surveyed freshmen identified as ‘somewhat or very liberal’; only 12% of the class said they were at least ‘somewhat conservative.’

Epstein himself served as the national chair of the organization ‘Humanists for Biden/Harris’ during the 2020 election.  

The university is known for often taken progressive views on social issues and outrage at more conservative faculty.

Recently, a professor faced serious backlash for refusing to use the term ‘pregnant people’  and insisting on using the terms male and female.

The university also removed Donald Trump-supporter US Rep Elise Stefanik from a panel for perpetuating claims of voter fraud

Students have also filed a petition to ban Trump administration alums from speaking or teaching at the school. 

The position of chaplain is not necessarily tied to one particular religion, although it has origins in the Christian tradition. 

The Harvard Chaplains describe themselves as: ‘a professional community of more than 30 chaplains, representing many of the world’s religious, spiritual, and ethical traditions, who share a collective commitment to serving the spiritual needs of the students, faculty, and staff of Harvard University. 

These chaplains cover every mainstream faith that you can think of: everyone from Catholics, Jews and Muslims to Hindus, Buddhists, Zoroastrians, Mormons and Sikhs. 

Epstein has served as the 'humanist chaplain' at Harvard since 2005 and now also serves at MIT.

Epstein has served as the ‘humanist chaplain’ at Harvard since 2005 and now also serves at MIT.

Epstein was the unanimous choice as chief chaplain by a nominating committee that includes members who are Lutheran, Christian Scientist, evangelical Christian and Bahá’í.

Margit Hammerstrom, the Christian Science chaplain at Harvard, said that Epstein’s elevation displays how people of different faiths can communicate together and serve at a progressive university. 

‘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?’ she said. ‘But in this environment it works. Greg is known for wanting to keep lines of communication open between different faiths.’

From Puritans to Atheists, who are the Harvard chaplains? 

Though it may be known as a bastion of the Ivy League elite today, Harvard University and it’s chaplains have a distinctly Puritan origin. 

The Puritans who colonized New England in the 1630s wanted to be sure that their clergy were well-educated, which is what led to the founding of Harvard. 

The Cambridge school was initially founded to educate the ministry. Their original motto was ‘Truth for Christ and the Church.’ 

The school was named after the pastor John Harvard and did not have a president who was not a clergyman for over 70 years after its founding.   

Nearly four centuries later, Harvard’s organization of chaplains has elected as its next president an atheist named Greg Epstein, who takes on the job this week. Epstein has served the chaplains since 2005. 

The first ‘humanist’ chaplain, who served atheists and agnostics at Harvard, came to the school in 1974. Thomas Ferrick is believed to be America’s first Atheist chaplain, according to Epstein.

The Harvard Chaplains are a professional community of over 30 chaplains, who they say represent many of the world’s religious, spiritual, and ethical traditions, who share a collective commitment to serving the spiritual needs of the school’s students, faculty, and staff. 

'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?' one chaplain said. 'But in this environment it works. Greg is known for wanting to keep lines of communication open between different faiths.'

‘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?’ one chaplain said. ‘But in this environment it works. Greg is known for wanting to keep lines of communication open between different faiths.’

Epstein’s biography describes himself as a ‘professionally trained member of the clergy who supports the ethical and communal lives of nonreligious people.’ 

Epstein previously held a congregation of humanists and atheists in the Boston area who met in Harvard Square for weekly services. He also serves as a chaplain at MIT. 

What does his work involve? According to the Times, he ‘frequently meets individually with students who are struggling with issues both personal and theological, counseling them on managing anxiety about summer jobs, family feuds, the pressures of social media and the turbulence endemic to college life.’ 

Epstein authored a book in 2010 called Good Without God: What A Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe

Epstein authored a book in 2010 called Good Without God: What A Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe

Epstein has been a speaker and organizer for universities, community and state colleges, urban public and expensive private high schools, at the Democratic National Convention, the United States Congress and Senate, megachurches, synagogues and Islamic centers, hospitals and prisons, and interfaith and civic institutions of many other kinds. 

He also authored a book in 2010 called Good Without God: What A Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe.  

In 2005, Epstein received ordination as a Humanist Rabbi from the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism. He holds a B.A. (Religion and Chinese) and an M.A. (Judaic Studies) from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and a Masters of Theological Studies from the Harvard Divinity School, and he completed a year-long graduate fellowship at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. 



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