In an effort to try and unite members of Harvard's diverse faith communities, the university's chaplains have unanimously elected an atheist as their leader.
Harvard has long been a place where people and ideas come together, where beliefs, world views, and traditions are valued and debated. The university, founded by English Puritans in the 1600's, is now cohabited by adherents to numerous faiths, and even those without faith.
The Harvard Chaplains are the centre of religious and spiritual life on campus. According to their website, they are "a professional community of more than thirty chaplains, represent many of the world’s religious, spiritual, and ethical traditions, and share a collective commitment to serving the spiritual needs of the students, faculty, and staff of Harvard University."
All major religions and sects are represented, as well as less common faiths such as Baha'i and Zoroastrians. There is even a "Humanist Chaplain" for humanist, agnostic, and atheist students. His name is Greg Epstein.
This week, Mr. Epstein will take over as Chief Chaplain after being unanimously elected by his fellow faith leaders, according to The New York Times. The 44-year-old self-professed atheist has been a long-time member of the Harvard Chaplains, and has grown to be respected by colleagues and students alike. As leader, Epstein will be responsible for coordinating the activities of all the other chaplains on campus.
Epstein, author of the book Good Without God, has served as Harvard's Humanist Chaplain since 2005. As the Times reports, he teaches students to center their relationships "with one another instead of with God," and urges everyone to ask the tough questions such as "Does God exist?" and "What is the meaning of life?"
"There is a rising group of people who no longer identify with any religious tradition," Epstein said, "but still experience a real need for conversation and support around what it means to be a good human and live an ethical life."
As the Times explains, many students are finding it hard these days to place themselves within a particular box, religiously speaking. There are some who claim to be deists, while not interested in adhering to a particular dogma, others who feel spiritual but not religious, and then there are those who have no belief in the supernatural whatsoever.
Epstein's chaplaincy has provided a welcoming home for all of the aforementioned groups, as well as those who fall into more mainstream categories who want to expand their circles and engage with members of other religions.