I usually do not write about religion other than possible violations of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause by various local, state and federal government agencies, but this is one that the mainstream, liberal and conservative media seem to have given minor coverage.
The New York Times and Boston Globe reported that Harvard University has named Gregory Epstein as the president of chaplains of the university, overseeing over 40 chaplains representing more than 20 religions.
What makes this so remarkable is that Epstein was ordained as a Humanist Rabbi by the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism and is an inveterate atheist.
Here are some facts concerning religion in the United States. The Pew Forum did a survey on religion in America in 2019. It found that 25.4% of our population identify as Evangelical Christians. Second on the list with 22.8% are those unaffiliated with any religion, the “Nones,” which includes agnostics and atheists.
In Missouri, 36% of our citizens state that they are Evangelicals. Again, second on the list with 20% are the “Nones.”
The Harvard Crimson reported that 40.5% of the 2020 freshmen at Harvard claimed to be atheists or agnostics. Although MU makes great strides in accommodating students of every religion, there are no immediate statistics as to the religious makeup of the campus.
Epstein is the author of New York Times bestseller “Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe” (2010) and has been affiliated with Harvard since 2005 and as a Humanist chaplain since 2018 with his focus on religious ethics.
Epstein was born to a reform, non-practicing Jewish family in Flushing, Queens, New York, one of the most religiously diverse communities in the U.S.
In addition to Judaism, he studied Taoism and Buddhism as a young man and spent one year in Japan studying Zen Buddhism. Discovering that the world religions brought him no closer to the “truth,” he turned to Humanism, valuing the human spirit, diversity and dignity, and eventually to atheism.
His education credentials are impressive. A bachelor’s degree in religion and Chinese and a master’s degree in Judaic Studies from the University of Michigan, and a master’s degree in theology from Harvard Divinity School. He also spent a one-year fellowship at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
It is understandable that Harvard would pick an atheist as the lead chaplain of the university. Epstein is a devout atheist who wants to serve fellow atheists, agnostics and “Nones,” as well those who believe in their personal God or gods. Epstein may be more in tune with world religions than other religious leaders.
In another 2019 survey of over 11,000 Americans, Pew Forum found that Jews, atheists and agnostics, ranking first, second and third respectively, are more knowledgeable about world religions, far outpacing those who identify as Christians, Muslims and Hindus.
Now why is this so important?
It is not like the combined Christian sects will disappear from our society anytime soon, but they have lost a sizable number of parishioners since 2007, falling from 78% of the American population to about 65% today, while the “Nones” have gained ground from 16% to over 26%. The non-Christian Western faiths of Judaism and Islam, have held steady at 7% to 5%.
In a possible peek into the future, a Pew study in 2020 showed that almost one-third of American teenagers describe themselves as atheist, agonistic or non-affiliated, the new “Nones.” Seventeen percent believe that there is little or no truth to religious dogma. Forty percent have a “deep sense of wonder of the universe.” Many of those who do go to religious services do so because they believe it pleases their parents, not necessarily for their own religious affirmation.
Epstein is the new “tip of the iceberg,” bringing atheism, agnosticism and those unaffiliated in America to the forefront of recognition.
With Epstein as the president of chaplains at Harvard, with the growing number of “Nones” who are politically active and with the increasing disillusionment of religion by younger Americans, we need to recognize that a growing segment of our nation is being under-represented. Atheists, agnostics and the non-affiliated are becoming an important voice in our communities.
It is confusing to me why more newspapers, magazines and online services have not run with this story, even if it would be a reworking of The New York Times and Boston Globe articles. This is a milestone in American and Harvard University religious history. It is time that we embrace this growing segment of our society.
David Rosman is an award-winning writer, editor and professional speaker. He is also the Missouri State Director for American Atheists.