Harvard University’s chaplains have elected an atheist named Greg Epstein as their new chief chaplain. Epstein is the author of Good Without God, and will coordinate the university’s 40-plus other chaplains of various faith traditions as they prepare to help students with the spiritual lives over the coming school year.
While Epstein’s own background makes him an unconventional choice, his election was unanimous and his fans say he represents humanists who still experience questions about meaning and the moral universe. “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,” Epstein told the New York Times.
Harvard’s chaplains are very involved with the student body, hosting dinners with students, coordinating religious events and helping counsel students through spiritual struggles.
Margit Hammerstrom is Christian Science chaplain at Harvard, and she told the Times that Epstein’s generous spirit had made him popular with the other chaplains, even though they don’t share his humanist perspective. “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.”
The selection might be particularly salient at Harvard, where a recent survey found that members of the incoming freshman class were twice as likely to be atheist or agnostic as 18-year-old Americans in the general populace. Even so, non-religiosity is on the rise with younger generations, with four in ten Millennials identifying as what researchers call a “none” — which can mean atheist, agnostic or a spirituality that doesn’t easily fit into any institutional box.