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Harvard’s Atheist-Chaplain Controversy

The selection of Greg Epstein, a humanist rabbi, as the president of Harvard’s chaplains led to a small uproar among the school’s other religious leaders. Will it inspire a come-to-Jesus moment of the secular variety?

By Nick Paumgarten | 11 September 2021

THE NEW YORKER — At the end of August, the Times ran a story about a Harvard chaplain named Greg Epstein, an avowed atheist and “humanist rabbi,” who had been selected by his fellow-chaplains at the university (there are more than thirty of them, of diverse faiths) to serve as their president. Here was an ivory-tower man-bites-dog tale that elicited some context about the ascendancy of secularism, both at a particular institution (one founded, almost four centuries ago, essentially as a seminary) and in the culture at large. “We don’t look to a god for answers,” Epstein told the paper. “We are each other’s answers.”

In response to this relatively mild provocation, readers aligned themselves according to their own cosmologies. In the comments online, nonbelievers, generally, expressed versions of “Right on!,” while believers tended toward “How could they?” For the former, it was good to encounter an affirmation that a godless earthling could pursue spiritual and pastoral paths. To the latter, it seemed absurd to apply the word “chaplain” to a nonreligious, chapel-less counsellor, and to elevate such a figure to a position of authority over people of faith; would the College of Cardinals elect a nihilist Pope?

Other outlets, including the Boston Globe and NPR, took up the story. Some suggested, erroneously, that Epstein had been tapped to head the divinity school, while the Daily Mail seemed to imply that Harvard had empowered Epstein to lead the entire university. Religious leaders took offense. Of the Times piece, the Harvard Christian Alumni Society stated, “It seems written in a way to prompt secular triumphalism and to provoke Christian outrage.” An “auxiliary” Catholic bishop in Los Angeles, in a column in the Post, lamented “the complete and abject surrender on the part of the presumably religious leaders at Harvard who chose this man.” All predictable enough, in year whatever of the culture wars. […]

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