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As many major news outlets have reported, Humanist Chaplain Greg M. Epstein was recently elected as the president of the Organization of Harvard University Chaplains. As a humanist, Epstein believes in the goodness of humanity rather than a higher divinity. As president of the chaplains, he now serves as the coordinator and intermediary between various religious groups on campus.
To be clear, this dissent is not to object to Epstein’s election as Harvard’s first atheist chaplain president. Rather, we object to its perceived newsworthiness. The nominating committee within the Harvard University Chaplains’ Organization did its job and elected a new president, as it has many times in the past. In the end, the process worked exactly as it’s supposed to: A qualified chaplain got promoted. What is there to report on by the national press?
While Epstein is the University’s first atheist chaplain president, we doubt that his election would have made the New York Times or any other national media publication had it been at almost any other school. Senior Catholic Chaplain William T. Kelly concurs that the coverage of Epstein’s election has been needlessly “sensational”: “You put the words ‘Harvard’ and ‘chaplain’ in the same sentence: it’s going to get people’s attention.”
Kelly’s statements reveal Harvard’s curious standing in the media: Any news pertaining to the University and its students is seen as indicative of larger cultural shifts in our nation. Harvard becomes a fishbowl, where the home of the "best and brightest" of the nation is constantly overanalyzed.
As Harvard students, we find it very disorienting to exist simultaneously as everyday college students and as the subject of such scrutiny. While our experiences as Harvard students and interactions with the University are, to us, just that, they take on incredibly outsized meaning outside of our community.
So while in our minds, Epstein’s election is merely a product of regular turnover of chaplains and other Harvard staff, we wake up to headlines morphing the new leadership of an organization into the latest wedge in our nation’s cultural war.
At its worst, this external media pressure insisting on a cultural war becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: In this case, it was the Harvard Catholic Center that took the bait, calling Epstein’s new role “purely administrative.” Sure, the president of the Harvard University chaplains has administrative duties, but they also represent the head of a full spectrum of religious and spiritual leaders at Harvard.
In attempting to combat the wave of articles claiming a turning tide in the Harvard religious landscape, the Harvard Catholic Center effectively slashed the excitement that atheist students might feel regarding the now-sensationalized “First Atheist Chaplain President.” This kind of behavior is not acceptable: Harvard University should intervene and keep a fabricated culture war from turning into real tensions on campus by making a statement rejecting the Catholic Center’s callous comments and reiterating its support for Epstein in all aspects — not just the administrative ones — of his presidency.
Epstein’s election might seem a move in the right direction for the representation of atheists in high positions of religious power. But what does representation mean to the underrepresented if it is treated like a footnote, trivialized as “purely administrative” in the aftermath of a media squabble over its significance? Agnostic, atheist, humanist, and other irreligious students cannot feel fully proud of the chaplains’ choice in Epstein as long as the press, staring into the fishbowl, dissects the decision while the University stays silent.
When it comes to matters of representation in higher-up positions, we need Harvard to be explicitly supportive of their atheist chaplain presidents and Black professors and ethnic studies scholars, instead of allowing unproductive debates to persist. When the University hedges attitudes or withholds its words to try to satisfy the media critics and the student body both, it implicitly privileges Harvard’s image at the expense of its students. We, the students — not media perceptions — should come first.
Christina M. Xiao ’24, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Eliot House. Ruby Huang ’24, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Leverett House.
Dissenting Opinions: Occasionally, The Crimson Editorial Board is divided about the opinion we express in a staff editorial. In these cases, dissenting board members have the opportunity to express their opposition to staff opinion.
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