Godless Church

Inside the Humanist chaplaincy

Memorial Church’s crisp white spire provides a landmark for students and tourists alike, reminding us every day of God whether we’re believers or not. Yet the recesses of the church are home to another sort of faith, one that millions of Americans subscribe to.

In a windowless basement office lined with books like “Who’s Who in Hell,” Gregory H. Epstein, Harvard’s Humanist Chaplain, presides over his own sort of ministry—one that doesn’t include the “G” word.

“As a humanist, I view God as maybe the world’s most influential and important literary character,” Epstein says. “Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life which sees human beings as a process of evolution, and sees them living in the only one true world, the natural world. The greatest goal for a humanist is the pursuit of dignity, and of ethical excellence.”

Although Epstein articulates tenets of Humanism with practiced aplomb, his path to the belief—not religion, please—was hardly linear. He was raised in the Reform Jewish tradition but studied Chinese and Religion at the University of Michigan, intending to become a Buddihist or Taoist monk. Then he discovered “Humanistic Judaism,” a movement which combines Jewish culture with Humanistic principles. After his ordainment as a Humanistic rabbi, Epstein arrived at Harvard to study at the Divinity School.

Epstein assumed his role as Humanist Chaplain in 2005 when Thomas Ferrick, founder of the chaplaincy and its chaplain since 1974, retired. Today, Epstein is a mentor for Harvardians who question their faith or simply don’t believe in God. As faculty advisor to the Harvard Secular Society (HSS), he advises and guides a burgeoning group of atheist, agnostic, and humanist undergraduates.

Losing Their Religion

The kids of the HSS are a closely-knit, opinionated bunch. Its weekly discussion meetings are open to the community, but most of its regulars identify as atheists, with a handful of humanists and agnostics thrown in.

Alex N. Harris ‘08, vice president of HSS, estimates that the group consists of “about 60% atheistic Jews and 40% Catholics who’ve changed their ways.” Harris, who falls into the former category, emphasizes that empirical truths—like the first law of thermodynamics—are the source of his atheism.

“Belief is not a matter of choice, it’s simply what one takes to be true,” he says. “[Atheism] allows you to choose your own values either from reason or from experience or from desire to maximize happiness either for yourself or some totality of individuals.”

The secretary of the HSS, Matthew T. Valente ’08, grew up in a Catholic household. Church was a weekly ritual, but in high school, as the story goes, he started challenging his beliefs. “I started really buying into the scientific method,” says Valente, appropriately enough a mechanical and material science and engineering concentrator. “I was agnostic for a while, and probably by the end of high school, I was an atheist or humanist.”

Valente laughs about the semantics involved in defining his beliefs—”you can keep throwing words in,” he says—but on the whole, he avoids labeling himself an atheist. “I’d much rather call myself a humanist than atheist, because there’s a certain stigma to that word.”

Leap of (non) faith

For Jose J. Rodriguez, a third year Harvard Law student, his conclusion that God did not exist was even more of a leap. “I was raised Catholic, but to say I was raised Catholic doesn’t really capture my beliefs,” he says. “I really did take on the spirituality, really wrestled with it, really promoted it.”

As an undergraduate at Brown, Rodriquez devoted himself to revitalizing the school’s Catholic community. After graduation he joined the Peace Corps, where he wrestled with his beliefs for the last time. “I slowly realized that [religion] wasn’t me, it wasn’t doing it for me,” he says. “It wasn’t an epiphany as much as opening my eyes a little in the moment to the process I’d just been in.”

The transition from faith was isolating at first. Leaving the church meant abandoning the way of relating that previously defined his existence. “It is a lot more difficult to find and cultivate the friendships I was used to.” Telling his family was hard, though they were supportive. “I definitely felt like I was ‘coming out.’”

Rodriguez says he feels it was worth it. “I definitely feel healthier and freer, more integrated as a person,” he says. Though Sunday School will not be his vehicle to change the world, his service continues. This summer he will work at Florida Legal Services, starting a project to help low-wage workers in Miami. It’s a job worthy of a missionary—or an atheist.

Parochial Paradox

Back in the basement of Memorial Church, Epstein embodies such contradictions. His position is paradoxical: he is a chaplain without a church, a Divinity student without a religion. His friend Rodriguez hesitates to define his beliefs. The HSS students avoid abstract terms in their discussions of atheism, preferring phrases like “empirical evidence” and “scientific method” to explain their views.

But “faith” is not a word Epstein avoids.

“I think Humanists are profound believers,” he says, “because it takes faith and it takes courage to decide that if there’s no overarching meaning to life that’s given to you by the universe, you have to decide that your life can be meaningful, and that life in general can be meaningful. I think that’s a brave choice, and I think that my job as the humanist chaplain is to support people who are making that choice in whatever way they can.”