What Harvard Humanist Chaplain Shows About Atheism in America | Kiowa County Press


People attend a conference at the National Convention of American Atheists in 2014. Many Americans remain suspicious of atheists, polls show. AP Photo / Rick Bowmer

Penny edgell, University of Minnesota and Wendy cade, Brandeis University

At the end of August 2021, the organization of chaplains at Harvard University unanimously elected Greg Epstein as president. Epstein – the atheist and humanist author of “Good without God“- will be responsible for coordinating the activities of the school more than 40 chaplains, who represent a wide range of religious backgrounds.

His election garnered media attention, prompting articles in several media such as NPR, The New Yorker, the Daily mail and the Jewish exhibitor . Some have described the idea of ​​an atheist chaplain as one more battle in the culture wars.

But the trends reflected in Epstein’s stance are not new. Nonreligious Americans, sometimes referred to as “nones,” have gone from 7% of the population in 1970 To more than 25% today. Fully 35% of millennials say they are not affiliated with a particular religion.

They are part of a diverse group it changes ideas about what it means to be non-religious.

As sociologists of religions, We studied these transitions and their implications. A recent study with colleagues at the University of Minnesota shows that while Americans are increasingly comfortable with alternative forms of spirituality, they are less comfortable with those they see as entirely secular.

We argue that Epstein’s election represents a change that shows the growing visibility and acceptance of non-religious Americans. At the same time, the turmoil around his position shows that many Americans are lingering moral malaise on atheism.

Epstein seems to understand this cultural dilemma and emphasizes his commitments to social justice and humanism, a philosophy who rejects supernatural beliefs and seeks to promote the greater good. In doing so, he becomes the spokesperson for something new in the American context: an atheism that explicitly emphasizes its morality.

Join the ranks

Atheism has long generated conflicts in the United States, back to colonial times. But the end of the 19th century “Golden Age “of Free Thought brought the first widespread public expressions of skepticism towards religion. Lawyer and public speaker Robert ingersoll drew the ire of religious leaders as he lectured on agnosticism in sold-out rooms across the country.

In the 1920s, the Litters “Monkey Trial“on teaching Darwin’s theory of evolution in public schools highlighted the struggles for religious authority in American laws and institutions. Meanwhile, black skeptics of religion often neglected by scholars, influenced by artists like Zora Neal Hurston after that, James baldwin. Many Americans know Madalyn Murray O’Hair, who successfully challenged Christian prayer and compulsory Bible readings in public schools in the 1960s and founded the organization that became American atheists.

More recently, a growing number of atheist and humanist organizations have promoted the separation of church and state, fought discrimination, supported pro-science policies and encouraged public figures to “”go out“as an atheist.

black atheists, not always welcome in organizations led by white people, formed their own, often centered on social justice.

Humanist chaplain Bart Campolo walks past the United University Church of the University of Southern California in 2015.
Humanist chaplain Bart Campolo walks past the United University Church of the University of Southern California in 2015. A handful of campuses, including Harvard, now have humanist chaplains. AP Photo / Jae C. Hong

No God, no trust?

Despite this increase organization and visibility, a large percentage of Americans do not trust atheists to be good neighbors and citizens. A national survey in 2014, found that 42% of Americans said atheists did not share their “view of American society,” and 44% would not want their child to marry an atheist. These percentages were virtually unchanged in one 2019 follow-up.

These attitudes affect young people like those for whom Epstein ministered. A third of atheists under 25 report being discriminated against at school, and over 40% say they sometimes hide their non-religious identity for fear of stigma.

As a chaplain, Epstein’s job is to provide spiritual guidance and moral advice to students, with particular emphasis on those who do not identify with a religious tradition. He identifies himself as an atheist, but also as a humanist.

In American society, humanism is increasingly accepted as a positive and moral belief system, to which some respond more favorably than to atheism, which is perceived as a rejection of religion. And a handful of American college campuses now have humanist chaplains.

But atheism remains more controversial in the United States, and an atheist chaplain is harder to sell. Efforts to include atheist chaplains in the military, for example, have not completed.

Change of tone

Epstein, a strong advocate of humanism, appears to push back Americans’ persistence moral concerns on atheism identified in University of Minnesota research.

His book openly challenges these views arguing that atheism is a morally ingrained identity for people around the world. He speaks at length about how humanism can motivate concern for racial justice and called on the political leaders of the left embrace the non-religious as an important and values-driven constituency.

This marks a different approach to more militant high level atheists, especially the Luminous movement and the so-called New atheist intellectuals like Richard dawkins Where Christophe Hitchen. Epstein does not take a stand “against religion” but seeks to cooperate with religious leaders on matters of common moral concern.

It is too early to say whether Epstein’s strategy of linking atheism to humanism, Justice and morality will succeed in changing attitudes towards atheists. He is, however, likely to keep it in the public eye, a symbol of the transition in the way Americans relate to organized religion.

[3 media outlets, 1 religion newsletter. Get stories from The Conversation, AP and RNS.]

The conversation

Penny edgell, professor of sociology, University of Minnesota and Wendy cade, professor of sociology and studies on women, gender and sexuality, Brandeis University

This article is republished from The conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read it original article.


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