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Michael Swartz / September 1, 2021

Harvard Breaks Free of Its Roots

The historically Christian university now employs its first atheist chaplain.

Founded by the Puritans nearly 400 years ago as an institution to ensure that the clergy serving the nascent Massachusetts Colony would be literate and trained properly, there’s no question that Harvard University’s eventual ascension to become a household name among colleges — a rise that’s built the massive financial endowment it’s been blessed with — would eventually lead it down a path its founders may have decried as far too worldly.

Case in point is the curious but unanimous selection to lead the college’s 40-plus chaplains. It’s a group the school describes as a “professional community … representing many of the world’s religious, spiritual, and ethical traditions, who share a collective commitment to serving the spiritual needs of the students, faculty, and staff of Harvard University.” And it will now be led by Greg Epstein, an atheist who authored a book called Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe.

As The New York Times describes it, though, Epstein was a representative choice. One student described Epstein as a leader who “wasn’t about theology,” but instead brought people together who weren’t necessarily religious. Echoing that sentiment, Epstein told the Times: “We don’t look to a god for answers. We are each other’s answers.” What could go wrong?

Epstein also provides answers for students at MIT, where he fills similar roles. And while he professes to be an atheist, Epstein is ordained as a “Humanist Rabbi,” as designated from the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism. (Nor should it be a surprise that he also served as the national chair of “Humanists for Biden/Harris.”)

While most reading this would dismiss Epstein’s selection as just another sign of the fall of a once-venerable institution that now is more valuable as a cachet than as a truly educational institution, the noteworthy aspect about this story is the acceptance of this selection by the Harvard community with nary a peep of protest, save from outside outlets like ours. Based on mainstream media coverage of Epstein’s selection, people in the Harvard community are just hunky-dory with the choice.

One possible reason for this is revealed in an interview Epstein did with NPR after being chosen. Said Epstein: “A group that I’ve worked with in the past and currently [is] the Secular Student Alliance — it’s a national group of humanist, atheist, and agnostic students around the country. They’ll tell you that their strongest chapters, their biggest presence, is in the Deep South and the other most conservative religious areas of this country because there are enormous numbers of young people who are in those areas who feel oppressed by a lack of inclusion religiously, an overwhelming association between morality and religion, and they are looking for an alternative.”

“Oppressed by a lack of inclusion.” That’s an interesting choice of words for a man who works at a school where nearly four out of 10 incoming students are agnostic or atheist, and barely a third identify as Catholic or Protestant. That trend fairly reflects the balance of the country among that age group. If anyone should be oppressed by a lack of inclusion at Harvard, it would be the conservative Christian student. (Well, them and Asians, but we digress.) Knowing the school’s recent reputation, how many Christians dare apply? And how many of those would be accepted? The choice of Epstein as head chaplain reflects the information silo that Harvard and other Ivy League schools have become.

Kids have bristled at authority for generations, enough so that rebellious teens have been a constant theme of comedy and tragedy for centuries. Recent generations, though, haven’t mastered the concept of growing out of that rebellious stage like most mature people do. Secular humanism is, to a great extent, the logical extension of “turn on, tune in, drop out,” where we believe we are the masters of ourselves. Or, to borrow Barack Obama’s phrasing, the ones we have been waiting for.

As founded, Harvard’s motto was “Truth for Christ and the Church.” Once the institution unmoored itself from biblical truth, however, that motto became obsolete. An atheist chaplain at a formerly Puritan university is just more proof of that.

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