The Humanist Interview with Greg Epstein

GREG M. EPSTEIN has been the humanist chaplain at Harvard since 2005, where he also serves on the executive committee of the thirty-five-member corps of Harvard chaplains. He serves as executive director of the Humanist Community at Harvard and its Humanist Hub, and he has helped establish humanist chaplaincies at Yale, Stanford, USC, and other academic institutions. He is the author of the New York Times bestselling book Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe, and this spring he joined the MIT Office of Religious Life.

Jennifer Bardi: Congratulations on your new role as humanist chaplain at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Will you now be going back and forth between the Harvard campus and MIT? (It’s something like a five-minute bike ride, right?)

Greg M. Epstein: Thank you! Yes, the campuses are so close that after a few years trying to help various constituents at MIT identify a humanist chaplain of their own, taking on this dual role of humanist chaplain at Harvard and MIT became an intriguing opportunity.

I haven’t tried it by bike yet though—maybe I’m still a New Yorker at heart because I think of it more like a ten-minute subway ride. The Red Line of Boston’s subway (the “T”) covers Harvard and MIT in just three stops, and if you add another two you reach Tufts University, where students are lucky to have an excellent humanist chaplain, Walker Bristol. This is why we were so excited back in 2009 to work with the United Coalition of Reason to put “Good Without God” ads on the Red Line; messages on that one train reach so many of the world’s future leaders.

Back then we got a huge response from our campaign, but we weren’t nearly as well developed an organization as we are today. I’m so excited for us to try out new partnerships and campaigns in this new era. We’re also in the initial stages of setting up a new office, with the dream of eventually buying a building to serve as a permanent humanist center in or around Kendall Square, which is both the heart of MIT and one of the most important technology hubs in the world.

Bardi: In addition to humanist chaplain, MIT has also conferred the title of “con­vener” upon you, which is a first for a humanist chaplain. What does that role entail?

Epstein: MIT, and in particular its Office of Religious Life, wants to do more to convene meaningful conversations within and across religious and secular traditions. The institute has around twenty-five volunteer chaplains, all of us serving diverse and often disparate communities under one official “chaplain to the institute” who serves as director of religious life. (Incidentally, this is the only chaplain fully paid by MIT to serve the entire campus.) The current chaplain to the institute is the Rev. Kirstin Boswell-Ford, who comes from a Baptist background and just came to MIT from Brown last year. Boswell-Ford has asked five or six of us to serve as conveners to become a bit more of a unifying force, to think about the interests of the entire campus and not just our own subcommunities. Boswell-Ford is a wonderful leader and I expect great things from us as a team. I also think we’ll see more humanists in roles like this going forward. In a pluralistic, interfaith environment with many different voices and agendas at the table, well-trained humanist professional leaders can be among the best prepared to find common ground without muting people’s deeply held theological or philosophical beliefs.

Incidentally, even after fourteen years serving as a volunteer chaplain at Harvard, people still don’t believe me when I say neither university pays me any money. They seem to think I’m kidding, like, “sure, they don’t pay you…except for the salary that they DO pay you, right?” Wrong. In Christianity, Judaism, Islam, etc. people within those communities understand they need to invest real dollars into developing young leaders on campus, because the universities won’t do it for them. Individual humanists need to do the same, because that’s largely how humanist chaplaincies like ours are funded. For example, the Humanist Hub’s entire budget comes from donations. But I digress!

Rev. Kristin C. Boswell-Ford (left), MIT’s Chaplain to the Institute and Director of the Office of Religious Life, recently recruited Greg Epstein to serve as MIT’s humanist chaplain.

Bardi: Recent Humanist Hub programs have included sessions on the enlightenment and scientific progress; on racial justice in the twenty-first century; on Islam and secularism; on sexuality, empowerment, and consent in the era of #MeToo; on healthy masculinity in a feminist context; and on “being an adult” in a world in which coming of age can seem more complex than ever. Are these meetings largely attended by Harvard students or is it more of a mix with area residents?

Epstein: These sorts of meetings have drawn hundreds of Harvard and now MIT students, but over the past few years especially there has been a tremendous demand for such programming among area residents. While the student groups we’ve been working with would meet once a week, activities for local professionals would take place nearly every single day.

In order to take on our new responsibilities at MIT, we’ve had to reorganize things a bit. Going forward, we’re going to put more intensive efforts into serving affiliates of the two campuses; that said, we’re also planning newly expanded but less frequent events for the general public. This fall and beyond, you can expect to see us put on high profile humanist public programs approximately monthly; the purpose of such meetings will be to inspire people to build humanist community and to (re)commit to humanist values in their own lives.

Bardi: The number of college-age people who don’t affiliate with any traditional religion is growing. In your role as humanist chaplain, how do you promote humanist ethics to students? Does building a community go hand in hand with those efforts?

Epstein: At Harvard College, nearly 40 percent of students now self-identify as either atheist or agnostic, which is more than all Christians combined, according to the Harvard Crimson. At MIT, a 2012 study indicated somewhere around half of all students may be atheists, agnostics, or nonreligious. These numbers really are as overwhelming as they seem; I could spend all day, every day talking to students and never even get to meet all of these people. And then there are the faculty members, administrators, and university staffers who often express strong interest in our work—we feel a responsibility to serve them too!

There is no single “right way” to reach all of these people and “make” them all into dedicated humanists. Any attempt to do so would be foolish at best and coercive at worst. That said, I’ve learned over the years that students often really want a caring, non-anxious presence to help them think through the practical decisions that come up in their own lives: which kind of career or job to strive for; how to achieve meaningful love in a hookup culture; or how to feel a sense of stability and security in a world that seems to be changing at a crazy pace, in fundamental and frightening ways. In our experience at the Humanist Hub, if you provide young people with a safe environment in which they can be vulnerable and connect with one another, they will often be extremely appreciative of the presence of organized humanism in their lives. With this kind of approach, big things can be accomplished; not only can the individual lives of extraordinary people be changed and large theaters be packed for humanist events, but I’ve seen governors, members of Congress, media stars, bestselling authors, CEOs, and more be moved by how much what I call a “vulnerable humanism” is able to do. Still, this approach is challenging and labor intensive. It takes tremendous investment up front.

Bardi: Promotional materials for the new MIT chaplaincy cite a “crisis of ethics in technology” as one of the drivers for the position. Do you think this crisis is unique to the tech world? Isn’t there also a crisis of ethics in the business world in general? In our hyper-capitalist society as a whole? (Surely there is in Trumpland.)

Epstein: Of course the ethical crisis we face in today’s culture isn’t unique to the tech world, but technology has become both ubiquitous in and symbolic of our modern world. There are really very few aspects of science, business, culture, or politics that are not heavily influenced by technology. So as our organization transitions to a focus on ethics in leadership, I want us to help students, faculty, and other developing leaders think through the nature of morality and meaning in all of those sectors of human life. Being at the crossroads of MIT and Harvard is the perfect place to do so.

Bardi: How does the Humanist Hub’s combined role as Harvard chaplaincy and a chapter of the American Humanist Association work? What advice can you offer to other humanist groups to grown their membership and diversify their programming?

Epstein: The Humanist Hub, since its original days under our former name, the “Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard,” has always been both a project at Harvard (meaning that Harvard—and now MIT—neither funds nor controls our work, but allows us to affiliate with the university and take advantage of its many connections) and an AHA chapter. We love the fact that our model is a little different, and it’s one that requires extraordinarily hard work by a dedicated core of professional and volunteer local leaders who are committed to building a recognizable, inclusive, and inspiring humanist institution. Sustaining our level of activity over a decade or more is not for the faint of heart.

That said, for groups who do want our advice, I would start not with a particular fundraising method or strategic plan but with a constant commitment to vulnerability and self-examination.

As Ijeoma Oluo recently said recently in accepting the Feminist Humanist Award at this year’s AHA conference, “I need for you to not always be looking for the harm others are doing, but look for the harm you are doing.” At the Humanist Hub, we’ve had to struggle with the fact that parts of modern American secularism are vulnerable to or even prop up systemic racism, sexism, and other unhelpful forms of privilege. As a staff we are constantly meeting to ask, how can we put on programs and create community opportunities in ways that are relevant to a broader range of people than might typically show up to a “default” humanist meeting? We still fail more often than we succeed, but I see such encouraging moments. And often the most encouraging moments come about because we’ve identified someone who expresses interest in humanism but might not usually think to join or get deeply involved, and we then go out of our way to try to be helpful, whether as listeners or in offering 
social support, connections, career support, or whatever. I want us to get to the point where humanist organizations are simply more useful than churches for vulnerable people with leadership potential. That’s where we’re headed, but we have so, so far to go.

I’ll also share that I feel a responsibility for this kind of intense self-examination to start with me. I’ve had to learn so much these past few years about my own inner life, about emotional awareness, and about my own privilege. It’s been really hard at times, but I’m grateful for the opportunity to grow. Becoming a father has really helped me put things in perspective—this is hard to share, but I don’t think I was able to fully allow myself to love and nurture another human being until my son was born. Now that I better understand that about myself, I don’t want loving connection to be just for me and my family. I want to help empower people who are less lucky than us to get the opportunities they deserve to live in a healthy way.

Bardi: Thank you for sharing that, Greg. I recently had a crisis of conscience over articles I published in the past that surfaced and were noted for the author’s racist argumentation. As white humanists we must contend with our privilege and reckon with past blindness in order to attract a more diverse movement—which also requires more diversity at the top. Do you agree that this is one of the most, if not the most, important challenges facing organized humanism today?

Epstein: Thank you for asking this question, Jennifer. I must admit I was concerned and saddened when I learned about the articles you mention. I wish they’d never appeared in the Humanist, but I also know you and your editorial team approach your work with great integrity and that you’re working hard to learn from this experience.

As far as organized humanism goes, I agree this challenge is huge—really it is an existential threat to our movement, and unfortunately I don’t know if we can afford to think of the problem in terms of “past” blindness, or in terms of diversity. I grew up in an incredibly diverse neighborhood in New York City and I’ve always loved that word, but in recent years I’ve come to the conclusion it can be part of the problem. As many important thinkers including the filmmaker Ava Duvernay have pointed out, to speak of “diversity” can often mean to give lip service to issues of racial injustice and inequity; to carve out some symbolic space for marginalized people while never really addressing the systemic bias and barriers those people face towards being fully equal and represented in our institutions. This can actually make things worse because now that we have our “diversity initiatives,” some of us white leaders get busy congratulating ourselves on a problem solved, while people of color can become more frustrated by the gap between our words and actions.

I believe our movement currently contains far too many individuals and ideas that give comfort if not outright support to hatred and prejudice. We’ve seen clearly this past year, for example, that prominent humanist and secular leaders have been guilty of a number of the issues raised by the very important #MeToo movement, and the problem goes even beyond that. In the summer of 2016, after learning more about the secular beliefs of alt-right leader Richard Spencer, I did a sort of deep dive of research into the alt-right movement, reading or watching dozens if not hundreds of alt-right articles, books, blog posts, and videos. What I took from this experience was that the alt-right is actively courting well-educated humanists and secularists, and especially with young men it may be doing so even more effectively than the “mainstream” of our movement. As I argued in a lecture for the Humanist Hub in April 2017, the strategy of prominent alt-right leaders is to wink and nod knowingly that while few embrace the most extreme planks of their “platform” such as the ethnic cleansing of America, their cause is strengthened when we continue to normalize their other seemingly less offensive core beliefs, such as the supposed biological basis of racism or sexism. Thus I have to say here that smart, talented, and important people like Sam Harris may be doing great damage in their continued support for the racially problematic (that’s putting it mildly) ideas of people like Charles Murray.

This isn’t fun for me to talk about, and I fear the Humanist Hub may even lose support, even financial support, because of it. But if we keep silent, we’ll lose in the long run anyway. Look, I don’t have any magical solutions and I haven’t, despite trying, been able to come up with ways to turn the Humanist Hub into a paradise of racial or gender equity. But the idea that established (read: white) leaders are supposed to sweep problems away through the sheer power of their solitary genius is itself part of the problem. We need to take collective responsibility for our movement, cede enough ground and empower enough new leaders that our movement may not be entirely recog­nizable to us, even though it’ll need to hold onto so many of the core principles and values for which past generations of humanists have rightly fought. This is the challenge. I hope we’re up to it.