Harvard, Not Heaven: The Not-So-Shocking Election of an Atheist Chaplain

The selection of an atheist “chaplain” empties the very idea of a chaplain of its meaning.

Harvard University
Harvard University (photo: David Mark / Pixabay/CC0)

Last month, Harvard University’s chaplains voted unanimously to elect Greg Epstein, a self-described atheist, as their new president. Their choice tells us less about Epstein than it does about the electors.

Epstein has been the chaplain for Harvard’s “humanists” since 2005. Epstein is reframing atheism from the angry, belligerent language of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens into what his colleague Steven Pinker describes as, “a wise and warm explanation of the humanist worldview.” 

He tries to focus not so much on the intellectual rejection of a Supreme Being as on the positive aspects of humanism. Epstein’s efforts have earned him the praise of many. Not only has he inspired students to build community, but he has grown the nation’s first ever university center for the non-religious from an annual budget of $28,000 to gifts exceeding $1.7 million in just 16 years.

Humanism is, according to Epstein, “The goal of maximizing human flourishing — life, health, happiness, freedom, knowledge, love, richness of experience.” The key, however, is a rejection of the supernatural: “We don’t look to a god for answers,” Epstein says, “We are each other’s answers.” 

While he strives to unite all humanity in his quest for a good life, Epstein clearly believes that this can only happen when those who are religious join him in, if not rejecting their gods, putting them so far from the conversation that no spiritual messiness will interrupt the good work of the humanists. God is not the answer. We are the answer.

Christian humanism, in contrast, insists that individual conscience, human freedom, and rational inquiry are compatible with and even fundamental to the practice of the Christian faith. In fact, humanism would not exist apart from the revelation that Jesus Christ is the savior not of “humanity,” but of each and every human person. Christianity opened up the possibility for human flourishing precisely because it opened up an eternal horizon by which every human action is judged. Every individual, by his own free will and to the best of his intellectual capacity, can and must choose to accept or reject Christ. Yes or no.

Epstein has to date chosen, by his own self-description, to say “no.” There is no problem with a man exercising his own freedom to reject the Prime Mover or First Cause.

The issue with an atheist “chaplain” is not the man, but that it empties the very idea of a chaplain of its meaning. A “chaplain,” in common speech, is one who provides spiritual care to his or her co-religionists in their “chapel.” He or she provides leadership and help for a community seeking the face of God. As Bishop Robert Barron stated in his response video, “If you don’t believe in God, you’re not a chaplain.”

For a pluralistic community, such as Harvard’s chaplain organization, the one thread binding them is the spiritual. Therefore, the leader tasked with unifying their efforts and acting as their representative ought to himself be religious. The election of Epstein flies in the face of common sense: The chaplains of Harvard as a group are themselves dubious of the value of any religion at all. They have abandoned their own identity.

A “chaplain” who rejects or “brackets” any spiritual reality is simply a false prophet and should be called instead a counselor or, if qualified, a therapist. 

As Harvard University leadership continues to castrate words, the role of tradition, and any reference to objective truth, the case of Epstein’s election is simply another confirmation that students headed to Harvard should not expect a meaningful education. They may earn a degree with an impressive name on it, but their faculty, peers, and even chaplains are — as a group — not striving for wisdom. 

At this point in human history, it is hardly a surprise that Harvard University leads the way in godless “chaplaincies.” The interest in this particular story is not in its shock value (which it utterly lacks), nor in the fact that Jewish, Catholic and Protestant chaplains all voted for Epstein’s election. 

The interesting part of this story hasn’t happened yet. The drama in Harvard’s collapse into mainstream culture’s incoherence and wokeism (which I wrote about here) will not play out in click-bait headlines. 

The surprising twists in this story will play out in the private lives of faculty, students and staff as they are confronted with the claim that we can be “good without God.”

What influence will the various “chaplains” who voted for Epstein still muster among students and faculty still trying to be faithful to their faith and praxis? 

What will an orthodox Jewish student say when Epstein, raised as an “indifferent Jew” in Queens, insists that whether or how a person observes the law makes no difference in his/her/their righteousness? 

How will the FOCUS missionaries at the Harvard Catholic Center handle ecumenical events or counsel confused young students?  

What will students and faculty who still maintain that we are not “good without God” do? 

Will they create a break-away community of “Religious Leaders at Harvard Who Practice Religion,” or do they, too, choose to bracket the question of God in order to “maximize human flourishing,” thus acting for all intents and purposes as atheistic humanists themselves? 

The answers to these questions will manifest over time, in small ways: in conversations late at night, at poorly-attended panel discussions, in classrooms and on social media. The small tragedies and triumphs playing out in individual lives will not be clickbait material, but there is no doubt that for many souls salvation is at stake. Faithful students of any religion (however few they are) at Harvard should not be directed by a man of the counterfeit faith of atheistic humanism, whose fruits have already proved rotten in the bloodbath of the 20th century. We are demonstrably not “good without God.” 

It’s time to either walk away from Harvard, or walk away from the sham chaplains and build something new.