Harvard's new chaplain is an atheist. Is that a contradiction?

Greg Epstein.
Greg Epstein. Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock

The motto of Harvard University, which might as well be tattooed on aspirants to the American upper class, is "veritas." For those who never learned the Latin that was once part of the standard curriculum, that means "truth." It seems like an obvious fit for the nation's most prominent institution of higher learning. Isn't pursuing truth what a university is all about?

But the motto's history isn't so simple. Although it appeared in several versions following Harvard's establishment in 1643, most stressed the theological character of the truth to which the college was devoted. "Veritas Christo et Ecclesiae" — truth for Christ and Church — read one version. "In Christam Gloriam" — to the glory of Christ — went another. The one word version was adopted in the late 19th century, partly at the urging of poet Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.

A surprising announcement on Thursday revived tensions between Harvard's original mission and its more recent secular orientation. The association of more than 30 Harvard chaplains representing a wide range of religious communities elected Greg Epstein as their new leader. The surprise isn't that Epstein is not a Christian, an element of Harvard's heritage that the university hasn't stressed for decades. It's that he doesn't believe in God at all.

An atheist chaplain seems like a contradiction in terms. Epstein's life work is to convince people that it's not. An ordained "humanist rabbi," Epstein doesn't oppose religious texts, ideas, or practices. But he argues that people who doubt the existence of supernatural forces need their own ways of inculcating virtues, exploring the meaning of life, and sustaining communities that can extend through generations.

In his 2009 book Good Without God, Epstein contrasts this approach to two rival forms of non-belief. One is "antagonistic atheism" associated with figures like Marx, Nietzsche, and the so-called New Atheists of the early 2000s. The antagonistic project tries to expose religious teachings as primitive myths at best and, at worst, intentional lies used to justify exploitation. Its goal is the liberation of humanity from superstition.

One problem with this approach is that it hasn't delivered on the promise to replace ignorance with truth. Modern natural science undermined, or at least complicated, many traditional religious beliefs. Yet it doesn't answer questions about the origin of the material world, the basis of human consciousness, or the meaning of "uncanny" experiences that gave rise to those beliefs in the first place.

Another issue is that antagonistic atheism can be counterproductive. Rather than persuading believers, polemics against religion are most effective in polarizing the whole subject. In the 19th century, antagonistic atheism helped legitimize the public expression of non-belief. But it also encouraged fundamentalist reactions that was more hostile to ideals of reason and freedom than the orthodoxies that the skeptics attacked.

Finally, antagonistic atheists have a way of swapping one dogma for another. The most dramatic example is Marxism, which rejected any appeal to divine redemption while promulgating a philosophy of history leading to the ultimate triumph of justice on earth. Scholars dispute whether such movements are properly described as "political religions," a term coined in the 1930s by the German political theorist Eric Voegelin, but there is at least an analogy between religious movements and modern ideologies.

For these reasons, antagonistic atheism is probably a dead end. The main alternative is more subtle. What Epstein calls "reconstructionism" doesn't try to refute religion. Rather, it seeks to reinterpret religious sources and doctrines in ways that dispense with appeals to miraculous events or supernatural beings.

Epstein has some respect for reconstructionism, which can be traced back to ancient philosophy. Yet he sees it as dishonest, at least in recent versions. Unlike antagonistic atheists, religious reconstructionists continue to talk about God and may even identify with traditional creeds and communities. What they mean by God, though, is so different from the personal deity of Biblical monotheism that it's a kind of pious fraud to suggest they're the same thing.

Epstein's humanism avoids this deception. As the book's title proclaims, he wants to be good without God. Even as he rejects theology, though, Epstein argues that religious practices such as ritual, meditation, or textual study meet irreducible human needs that conventional atheists neglect. At Harvard and in his previous position as leader of the Humanist Community Project, Epstein organized interfaith dialogues, weekly services including sermons, musical performances and other activities that resemble traditional worship without appealing to a personal deity. He also provides counseling to students facing personal or ethical problems, much like a rabbi, minister, or imam.

It's an intriguing proposal at a time when the unaffiliated are the fastest growing religious group. The trend is even more pronounced among the highly educated. At Harvard, nearly 50 percent of the class of 2019 described themselves as "atheist," "agnostic," or "other." In 2005, Epstein was hired as the university's first chaplain devoted specifically to this group. By all reports, he's had some success, both as a mentor to other humanists and as a participant in Harvard's broader religious community.

Yet the prospects for Epstein's humanism are dimmer than he might admit. One reason is that it seems most appealing to people who were brought up in demanding religious communities but no longer accept all of their teachings or lifestyle prescriptions. The New York Times reports that many of the students who seek Epstein's counsel are such "religious refugees."

Individuals in this position may find genuine comfort in humanism, but will they pass on that disposition to their children, who will lack the same rigorous formation? Given the difficulty even conventionally devout parents have in transmitting their beliefs, they probably won't be successful. Yet one of the central goals of organized humanism is creating communities that can be sustained across generations.

The implications of Epstein's selection as head chaplain are also dubious. On the one hand, there's nothing wrong with him occupying an administrative position for which he's demonstrated ability over many years of service. On the other, the decision implies that there's nothing special about theistic religion or appeals to transcendent authority that justify a distinctive status.

That may seem uncontroversial in the 21st century. But it raises uncomfortable questions about the very purpose of a university. Harvard's motto presumes that truth is important and worth pursuing. Yet its shortened modern version makes no argument about why that's the case. For Harvard's founders, truth was worth pursuing because it set man in the right relationship with God. Harvard's present leadership can only claim, like the administration of Faber College in Animal House, that "knowledge is good."

As with humanist practice, the absence of justification isn't a problem on the individual level. Some people are inclined toward inquiry and debate as a matter of temperament. They'll pursue the truth as they understand it without further encouragement. But it is a problem for justifying institutions. Why should students, their families, and taxpayers devote billions of dollars to what is, in essence, an unusual hobby? Too often, the answer is simply to acquire advantages in the scramble for social and economic advantage.

Epstein and humanism aren't to blame for the challenges of secularization in originally religious institutions. But they aren't the solution, either. Despite their apparent opposition, Harvard's Puritan founders and antagonistic atheists agreed that the truth will set you free. We can't replace that faith with a good-natured shrug.

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