On Being with Krista Tippett

Greg Epstein

Exploring a New Humanism

Last Updated

March 17, 2008

Original Air Date

March 27, 2008

In a recent Pew poll, 16 percent of Americans identified themselves as “unaffiliated” — atheist, agnostic, or most prominently “nothing in particular.” Greg Epstein, a Humanist chaplain at Harvard, described himself that way until he discovered the tradition of humanism. He is passionate about articulating an atheist identity that is not driven by a stance against religion but by positive ethical beliefs and actions.


Image of Greg Epstein

Greg Epstein is the Humanist chaplain at Harvard University.


March 27, 2008

MS. KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: I’m Krista Tippett. This hour, we explore the ethics of atheism with the Humanist chaplain of Harvard. Greg Epstein is an emerging leader in a movement he calls “the New Humanism,” and his story illuminates an aspect of U.S. culture that may be obscured by the “faith debates.” We’ll also hear other voices of atheism and humanism from the past and the present.

MR. GREG EPSTEIN: We are working so passionately, so many of us. I see this in the humanist and atheist and agnostic community, working just as hard as anyone else to build a world that is as good as it can be for ourselves and for our loved ones and for all of humanity, and for the sake of the natural world, too, that surrounds us and sustains us.

MS. TIPPETT: This is Speaking of Faith. Stay with us.


MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett. In a recent, much-publicized Pew poll on the American religious landscape, 16 percent of Americans identified themselves as unaffiliated, atheist, agnostic, or, most prominently, nothing in particular. My guest this hour described himself that way until he discovered the tradition of humanism. Today he’s the Humanist Chaplain of Harvard.

Greg Epstein’s story illuminates an aspect of U.S. culture that may be obscured by the “faith debates.” He is passionate about articulating an atheist identity that is not driven by a stance against religion, but by positive ethical beliefs and actions. We’ll also explore other voices of atheism and humanism this hour from the past and the present.

From American Public Media, this is Speaking of Faith, public radio’s conversation about religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas. Today, exploring “A New Humanism.”

[Sound bite of music]

MS. TIPPETT: Harvard University has had an endowed Humanist Chaplaincy since 1974. And when Greg Epstein organized a 30th-anniversary conference in 2007, he gathered the likes of the novelist Salman Rushdie, the economist Amartya Sen, sociobiologist E.O. Wilson, experimental psychologist Steven Pinker, and the folk singer Dar Williams.

This kind of gathering, like Greg Epstein’s work in general, speaks to and for a constellation of identities as diverse, perhaps, as the world of religious denomination, among them the broad categories of humanist, atheist, agnostic, secularist, free-thinker, and bright. And unlike some of the Americans described in the Pew poll, Greg Epstein came to atheism not by disaffection but by inheritance.

MR. EPSTEIN: On one hand, I come from a great, very entrenched tradition because I am someone of Jewish background who happens to be an atheist and a humanist, and so was my mother. My mother was also of a Jewish background and an atheist and a humanist, and so was her father and most likely so was his father before him.

MS. TIPPETT: Greg Epstein has been quoted widely in recent months as various commentators have explored the religiously unaffiliated demographic of U.S. culture and the new atheism represented by voices like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens. The Boston Globe has called Epstein a “ministerial paradox,” a member of that city’s local clergy who quote, “disavows God, preaches to atheists and agnostics, and seeks to build the equivalent of a church for nonbelievers and others skeptical of and alienated by religion.” That is to say, Epstein, like other chaplains, marries and buries and performs baby-naming ceremonies.

I wanted to know more about him and the world in which he’s an emerging leader. Now 31 years old, Greg Epstein grew up in a crucible of urban diversity, and he was raised by two parents who in very different ways formed him at once as a spiritually curious yet nonreligious person.

MR. EPSTEIN: I grew up in a little area in New York City called Flushing, Queens, where we had people from every background. My friends came from every possible ethnic, religious, linguistic background. You know, we would go over to each other’s houses on holidays and birthdays and we would be served different foods and our parents would be speaking different languages and they’d be wearing different costumes on the holidays. And I absolutely loved this. And my mother was a refugee from Cuba.


MR. EPSTEIN: She had come over to this country —

MS. TIPPETT: A Jewish refugee from Cuba.


MS. TIPPETT: Uh-huh.

MR. EPSTEIN: A Jewish refugee from Cuba fleeing from communism.


MR. EPSTEIN: Fleeing from the idea that we all had to be — to have sort of sameness imposed upon us by an authoritarian government. And so she was a refugee from that, came here to this country at age 13 with nothing, and I think began to really profoundly question religion at that point because, you know, it didn’t save her from this really very scary fate that she experienced. And she learned not from any church or synagogue but from the ethos of the ’60s and the ’70s and the hippies to sort of reinvent herself and to learn, even though she’d had this very difficult childhood, to enjoy life, and to celebrate life, and to love music and the arts, and to love people. And this is what I was raised with. So my mother was this refugee from Cuba.

My father was probably a refugee from the Bronx. I mean, he was born into this Eastern European Jewish family. You know, if you go back far enough on my father’s side you’ve got Hassidic rabbis in black hats. And then they come to New York City the way that so many, so many thousands of Jews and others did at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century. And they’re living there in enclaves, and they begin to move away from their traditions.


MR. EPSTEIN: And so my father’s family was quite secularized, and my father ended up studying and teaching Buddhism and meditation. And when my father died when I was 18 years old, what he left me as his inheritance were all of his books on religion. Our house, our little apartment, was surrounded by these books and so I would look around me and there would be Jewish mysticism on the one hand, Christian mysticism on the other hand, Muslim mysticism, Hindu, Buddhist. There would be the books on comparative religion and spirituality. And I would sort of look around, and I could see that this had been my father’s passion all of his life until I was born. He was 41 when I was born. And I as a young person never saw him open any of these books. And it was — it was baffling to me. Why did he spend all of this time assembling all these books and never open them?

MS. TIPPETT: Did you ever solve that mystery?

MR. EPSTEIN: Yeah, I did. I did, only after he died after talking to his friends and reading his things and sort of doing a little research on him. I learned that what it was is that my father, probably like me, had a very religious personality, but ultimately ended up with not a scintilla of religious belief — that he studied all these traditions, because he was fascinated by the world’s peoples and by the different ways that we all try to discover a meaning in life. But the funny thing is that my father, as far as I can tell, in all the searching, never came across the word “humanism.”


MR. EPSTEIN: He never opened or found his way to a book about — on the subject of humanism.

MS. TIPPETT: Knowing your father as you did, do you feel that if he had heard that word that he would have found what he’d been looking for?

MR. EPSTEIN: That’s it. That’s exactly it, is that humanism to me, when I look at it academically, I see one of the most underappreciated and poorly known traditions in the history of intellectual communities and spiritual communities. It’s something that almost nobody has heard of and yet it really ultimately is based on the values that so many people, people like my father, hold and have held.

And so a lot of the work that I do now, you know, talking to people about humanism, even working with the media, is the sense that I really don’t want other people to have to go through what my father went through, which is, that they’re on a religious or spiritual quest their whole lives and they die without ever having heard of humanism.

[Sound bite of music]

MS. TIPPETT: The term “humanism” has its roots in the Renaissance, in that era’s rediscovery of classical literature, poetry, and moral philosophy after the European Dark Ages. It was later used to emphasize the merits of a classical education, hence, the modern term “the humanities.” All of this derived from the Latin word humanitas, for which the Encyclopedia Britannica offers an eloquent and intriguing definition. Humanitas meant the development of human virtue in all its forms to the fullest extent. The term thus implied not only such qualities as are associated with the modern word “humanity” — understanding, benevolence, compassion, and mercy — but also such more aggressive characteristics as fortitude, judgment, prudence, eloquence, and even love of honor.

Beyond the Renaissance period this humanist impulse has been embraced by religious as well as nonreligious figures. It has spanned the Christian humanism of Erasmus, the pragmatist philosophy of Ferdinand Schiller, the humanist political realism of Niccolò Machiavelli, and the Marxist humanism of a Jean Paul Sartre.

On his way to what he’s calling “the new humanism of the modern era,” my guest, Greg Epstein, sang in a rock band, studied Jewish theology, and dabbled in Buddhist meditation.

[Sound bite of music]

MR. EPSTEIN: For me, meditation is more about making music and it’s about making art and it’s about talking to people and helping other people. I get the feeling that some people say that they get it during meditation. I get that feeling when I’m singing —

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

MR. EPSTEIN: — or when I’m doing community service; I get this really wonderful feeling, I think. You know, it’s funny, even Sam Harris, my colleague who’s written about atheism, one of the things he does that I admire is he organizes a retreat for scientists where they do Buddhist meditation techniques.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. He is a mediator, isn’t he, Sam Harris?


MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

MR. EPSTEIN: So, I mean, you know, it’s not my personal thing but I think that it can be helpful for people, you know, depending on how they do it and whether it’s right for them.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

MR. EPSTEIN: What I really wanted was a community.


MR. EPSTEIN: But, I mean, what kind of community do you — can you have when you’ve explored Buddhism and you don’t like that, and you’ve explored Judaism and you don’t like that, and Christianity and Islam and rock music — there seems to be nothing left at that point for most people. And so a lot of us, I was one of them, just sort of say, ‘Well, I guess I’m nothing, then.’ And luckily for me, that’s the point at which I discovered humanism.

MS. TIPPETT: And in what form did you discover it then?

MR. EPSTEIN: Well, at that point, you know, I had tried all these different things and I was so fascinated by it, by this idea of pursuing the most meaningful life possible, that I wanted a career in one of these fields. But given that I felt like there — there must not be any career that exists, I was getting ready to take the LSATs and go to law school, and at that point I ran across a young man who had been a teaching fellow of mine in a course on religion that I’d love in college and he asked me, ‘So what are you going to do with your life?’ And that question at that point for me was like somebody had asked me, ‘So what would you like for your last meal?’


MR. EPSTEIN: And, you know, and I —

MS. TIPPETT: It was an existential question, not a career question.

MR. EPSTEIN: Yeah. I mean, I just didn’t want to even — like, ‘Please, ask me anything but that.’


MR. EPSTEIN: And so really didn’t know what to say and so I turned around and I asked him, ‘So what are you doing with your life?’ And he said, ‘Well, I’m actually studying towards ordination as a humanist chaplain and rabbi.’ And I had never heard of anything like that before, and I said, ‘Really? Well, what’s that?’ And he said, well, he explained it a little bit to me but he said, ‘The best thing I can do is invite you to come study with me.’ And he did and I discovered the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism, where I ultimately studied five years and was ordained after five very intense years. And I discovered the teacher who ended up becoming in many ways my greatest teacher, whose name was Rabbi Sherwin Wine.

MS. TIPPETT: Yes. I’ve seen some of what you’ve written about him.


MS. TIPPETT: Was he also a humanist rabbi?

MR. EPSTEIN: That’s right he — Sherwin Wine is someone who grew up in a Jewish community in the suburbs of Detroit, Michigan, and became a rabbi, knowing that he was an atheist, because he loved the idea of community. And he loved the idea of serving the community of his cultural background, which is Judaism. And back then there was no option to do that from a nonreligious or nontheistic perspective. And, actually, when he applied to rabbinical school back in the ’50s, to the Hebrew Union College, which was and still is the largest rabbinical colleges in the United States, they said, ‘Oh, don’t worry. Probably half of our students are humanists. We just don’t make a big deal out of it.’

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm. So, I mean, when you studied to be a secular rabbi, so at rabbinical school traditionally I’m sure you would spend lots of time immersed in sacred text and, you know, tradition like the Talmud. I mean, were you studying all of those fundaments of Judaism as a religion?

MR. EPSTEIN: Well, we do study the sacred texts of Judaism, and of other religions, but primarily of Judaism, the Talmud, the Torah or the Hebrew Bible, et cetera, but we study them as literature.


MR. EPSTEIN: And so, for example, the synagogue that Sherwin Wine created, that I was trained in — I’ll give you a sense of it, there is sort of a decorated ornate Torah scroll as I’m sure you’ve seen many times, but it’s not located in the front of the congregation. It’s put in the library, because it’s literature.

MS. TIPPETT: Oh, I see.

MR. EPSTEIN: And so we studied these texts as literature, and we also studied a great deal of Jewish history and other forms of Jewish literature. You know, the thing about it is that I don’t in any way deny that the sacred literature of my own cultural people and of other peoples is important. I mean, the Bible is an important document, the Torah, the Talmud, the Bhagavad Gita, the different Buddhist scriptures, these are all important literary documents to me. However, one of the things that I do say is that I’m more interested in many ways in modern literature. I mean, I think we give sometimes short shrift to the fact that it’s modern people, people in the last hundred or 200 years that have been creating stories and poems and plays that give us so much insight into what it is to be a human being. And so we spend a lot of time in my studies studying modern literature, studying psychology.

You know, we do a lot of psychology when we talk about how do you counsel someone in a situation where they’re grieving or even when they’re getting married? And you don’t want to tell them at this point, you know, oh, you know, ‘Your loved one is with God now,’ or ‘God is going to, you know, bless your marriage,’ because you don’t honestly believe this, I don’t, and the people involved in these moments of their lives don’t believe this, you know. So we try to be informed by psychology in these situations.

MS. TIPPETT: I think, you know, one thing, though, that distinguishes sacred text of all kind is the fact that it has endured and meant so much to so many human beings —


MS. TIPPETT: — cumulatively across time. And, you know, I think of Talmud as kind of an ancient conversation that has continued across generations and there’s, you know, there’s gravitas and value in that, that you just —


MS. TIPPETT: — you can have, I mean, perhaps something has been written in the 20th century that will — that will endure like that but we can’t, you know, we can’t know it and there you have that deep tradition.

MR. EPSTEIN: Well, I mean, I very much enjoyed studying the Talmud, and I actually studied for a year in the Talmud Department of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. And so for a young New York City kid like me who had grown up without speaking any Hebrew, I had to study the Aramaic Talmudic text, taking the classes in Hebrew. So you don’t get to do that unless you appreciate the Talmud, and I do, but I value it because I can study it in the context of modern commentaries on it and of modern literature — anybody from an Arthur Miller to Yehuda Amichai, which is a great secular and humanist Israeli poet, I mean, I can read modern people. And that’s what I love about ancient literature: that it informs my reading of the modern text.

[Sound bite of music]

MS. TIPPETT: Harvard Humanist Chaplain Greg Epstein. At speakingoffaith.org view author Sam Harris’s discussion with journalism students about his practice of meditation and his approach to changing consciousness. And here’s a reading from the Israeli poet Greg Epstein mentioned, Yehuda Amichai. Amichai wrote in colloquial Hebrew and is credited with helping create modern Israeli poetry. When he died in 2000, the speaker of the Knesset eulogized him as “the secular Israeli Jew closest to God.”

READER: A man doesn’t have time in his life / to have time for everything. / He doesn’t have seasons enough to have / a season for every purpose. Ecclesiastes / Was wrong about that. / A man needs to love and to hate at the same moment, / to laugh and cry with the same eyes, / with the same hands to throw stones and to gather them, / to make love in war and war in love. / And to hate and forgive and remember and forget, / to arrange and confuse, to eat and to digest / what history / takes years and years to do. / A man doesn’t have time. / When he loses he seeks, when he finds / he forgets, when he forgets he loves, when he loves / he begins to forget. / And his soul is seasoned, his soul / is very professional. / Only his body remains forever / an amateur. It tries and it misses, / gets muddled, doesn’t learn a thing, / drunk and blind in its pleasures / and its pains. / He will die as figs die in autumn, / Shriveled and full of himself and sweet, / the leaves growing dry on the ground, / the bare branches pointing to the place / where there’s time for everything.

[Sound bite of music]

MS. TIPPETT: “A Man in His Life” by Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai. I’m Krista Tippett and this is Speaking of Faith from American Public Media, today exploring “A New Humanism.”

[Sound bite of music]

MS. TIPPETT: So, you know, one thing that I have experienced in these years of conversation I’ve been having mostly with religious people but not exclusively with religious people, I mean, I’ve had plenty of people on the program, people who are not religious but doing work, often scientific work, that is very much at that intersection of scientific inquiry and great existential and philosophical questions. And, you know, one thing that I’ve felt and also actually nonreligious people have said this to me, is that the terms that came out of the 20th century, you know, the word “atheist” in fact is as much a narrowing box as some religious labels felt. That it seems to imply that they have no spiritual life, that they have no sense of mystery in life. And, I mean, do you experience yourself to have something that defies perhaps a narrow imagination that’s in our culture?

MR. EPSTEIN: Well, Krista, the most important thing that I can say about this issue is that I am in fact a believer, but I’m not a believer in the traditional sense. Humanists, we don’t believe in God. I’m an atheist; that’s what I don’t believe in, and humanism is what I do believe in.


MR. EPSTEIN: And it’s simply that to me what’s much more important is what I do believe in. And —

MS. TIPPETT: Right. I guess what I’m saying is you wouldn’t define yourself in terms of what you don’t believe in.

MR. EPSTEIN: Sure. No. But, I mean, I also — one thing, though, is that, you know, for some people, and I think one of the reasons why we run into problems around this subject is that for a long time in this country the word “atheism” has been treated as some kind of dirty word.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

MR. EPSTEIN: And that, you know, it’s really, to me, it’s not morally acceptable that more people than any other group, you know, say that they wouldn’t vote for an atheist — a qualified atheist who was running for president, that this is not morally good or acceptable that people say that. And I think that we need people of all sides of the religious, of all parts of the religious spectrum, to speak out against that and to say, ‘Listen, you know, we in this country don’t have religious tests for public office and we don’t have religious tests for who’s a good person.’ And I’m not interested in talking about this sort of old canard that you can’t be good without God. That’s an issue of prejudice if you feel that way. But what I am interested in talking about is what does it mean to be good without God? And that’s — that to me is what humanism is all about. That’s why I define myself primarily as a humanist.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. And, you know, I have to say that that was a recent study and that surprises me as well, those numbers of people who say that they would least be likely to vote for someone who defined themselves as atheist. And I wonder, though, again, if it has to do with the fact that what atheism connotes is what one doesn’t believe in and it tells, as a label, it doesn’t tell someone else anything about what they do stand for.

MR. EPSTEIN: Well, I think that, that it’s true that we as nonreligious people, whether we call ourselves atheists, agnostics, nonreligious, et cetera, need to do more to think about what we do stand for and to talk about what we do stand for. And I’m very proud to be part of a movement of people that’s doing that, and that’s the humanist movement.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

MR. EPSTEIN: And, I mean, this to me is a very exciting time for humanism, because people are asking us as humanists, ‘What do you believe in?’ And once we get the chance to explain that, I’m very, very pleased with the feedback that we get from people in this country. But I would say this also. Part of the problem is that what God means, what this word God means and what belief in God means has changed over time. And so, you know, if you just look at what people believe in my part of the country, for example, because I know this part really well, you know, that the people who founded my university, that founded Harvard, were in many ways Protestant fundamentalists. I mean, and that view began to liberalize in this part of the country in the 1700s and the 1800s and, you know, now, because you have so much more cultural diversity in this country, so much religious diversity, saying you believe in God doesn’t really mean much of anything without sort of saying more about what you mean by that. I mean, in many ways the word God has come for so many people to be kind of a general word for what’s good. And we are working so passionately, so many of us, I see this in the humanist and atheist and agnostic community, we are so many of us working just as hard as anyone else to build a world that is as good as it can be for ourselves and for our loved ones and for all of humanity and for the sake of the natural world, too, that surrounds us and sustains us.

[Sound bite of music]

MS. TIPPETT: Harvard’s Humanist Chaplain Greg Epstein.

[Sound bite of music]

MS. TIPPETT: Here’s a reading from The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality by André Comte-Sponville, one of France’s great contemporary philosophers.

READER: Where knowledge is concerned, the loss of faith changes nothing. Where morals are concerned, the loss of faith changes nothing or next to nothing. That you have lost your faith does not mean that you will suddenly decide to betray your friends or indulge in robbery, rape, assassination, and torture. “If God does not exist,” says Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov, “everything is allowed,” not at all, for the simple reason that I will not allow myself everything.

As Kant demonstrated, either morals are autonomous or they do not exist at all. If a person refrains from murdering his neighbor only out of fear of Divine Retribution his behavior is dictated not by moral values, but by caution, fear of the Holy Policemen, egoism. And if a person does good only with an eye to salvation, she is not doing good since her behavior is dictated by self-interest rather than by duty or by love and will thus not be saved. This is Kant, the enlightenment, and humanity at their best.

Alain puts it beautifully in his Letters to Sergio Solmi on the Philosophy of Kant: “Ethics means knowing that we are spirit and thus have certain obligations for noblesse oblige. Ethics is neither more nor less than a sense of dignity. There is no need to believe in God. One need believe only in one’s parents and mentors, one’s friends, provided they are well chosen, and one’s conscience.”

[Sound bite of music]

MS. TIPPETT: From André Comte-Sponville’s The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality. This is Speaking of Faith. After a short break, recalling the Cold War equation of atheism with evil in U.S. culture and why Greg Epstein sees nonreligious people to be a vital part of the interfaith movement.

[Sound bite of Phil Ochs’ song “When I’m Gone”]

PHIL OCHS: [singing] There’s no place in this world where I’ll belong when I’m gone / And I won’t know the right from the wrong when I’m gone / And you won’t find me singin’ on this song when I’m gone / So I guess I’ll have to do it while I’m here.

MS. TIPPETT: We realize your hectic schedule doesn’t always allow you to listen to the full hour of each week’s program. That’s why we make all of our programs available for free through our Web site, podcast, and e-mail newsletter. And on our blog, SOF Observed, we tell you about topics we’re pursuing and our response to current events in the world. Look for links to SOF Observed and much more at speakingoffaith.org. I’m Krista Tippett. Stay with us. Speaking of Faith comes to you from American Public Media.

[Sound bite of Phil Ochs’ song “When I’m Gone”]

PHIL OCHS: [singing] …worry ’bout my cares when I’m gone / Won’t be asked to do my share when I’m gone / So I guess I’ll have to do it while I’m here / And I won’t be running from the rain when I’m gone / And I can’t even suffer from the pain when I’m gone / Can’t say who’s to praise and who’s to blame when I’m gone / So I guess I’ll have to do it while I’m here / Won’t see the golden of the sun when I’m gone / And the evenings and the mornings will be one when I’m gone / Can’t be singing louder than the guns when I’m gone…

[ Announcements ]

MS. TIPPETT: Welcome back to Speaking of Faith, public radio’s conversation about religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas. I’m Krista Tippett, today exploring “A New Humanism.” I’m speaking with the Humanist chaplain of Harvard University, Greg Epstein. He’s an emerging leader in a movement he calls “the New Humanism”, an umbrella term for a nonreligious approach to life defined positively by ethical, spiritual, and even liturgical content.

Greg Epstein speculates that negative attitudes towards atheists that turn up in U.S. opinion polls are rooted in and still influenced by 20th-century Cold War equations of atheism with communism, the enemy of Christianity and a source of evil and danger in the world. This had its apex in the anti-communist frenzy of Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s, but its remnants can also be heard in this speech of President Ronald Reagan, his famous “Evil Empire” speech of 1983.

PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: I, a number of years ago, I heard a young father, a very prominent young man in the entertainment world, addressing a tremendous gathering in California. It was during the time of the Cold War and communism and our own way of life were very much on people’s minds and he was speaking to that subject. And suddenly, though, I heard him saying, “I love my little girls more than anything,” and I said to myself, “Oh, no. Don’t. You can’t. Don’t say that.” But I had underestimated him. He went on, “I would rather see my little girls die now still believing in God than have them grow up under communism and one day die no longer believing in God.”

MS. TIPPETT: In part, because of the cultural fallout of such ideas, Greg Epstein and others say atheists and agnostics have felt wounded and excluded in U.S. public life where religious language and identities are so central. In the past few years, of course, a new generation of successful atheist writers have also made their mark on American culture. In the heterogeneous circles in which Greg Epstein moves and works there is both appreciation for and debate about the new atheism of, for example, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris. Some have dubbed them “the unholy trinity.”

Greg Epstein himself has been a somewhat controversial figure inside the movement he would like to pull together more cohesively. He’s expressed concern about the spirit of the new atheism, that it has modeled the same kind of lack of respect for the religious that atheists have regretted in the way they’ve been treated.

MR. EPSTEIN: Well, Godless communism was a canard that was exploited, I mean, to divide Americans and it’s carried over again, because one of the things that I’ve seen is that with this sort of resurgence of popular expressions of atheism, there’s this conflict that has been stirred up between let’s say progressive humanists and atheists and progressive people of other faiths, Christianity, Judaism, et cetera. Right, so that some atheist authors have done a lot to sort of say, you know, ‘If you are a progressive believer in God —’


MR. EPSTEIN: ‘— you’re the enemy.’ But most nonreligious people are not anti-religious and this is a key. Most nonreligious people are not anti-religious. All we ask is that we be treated just like anyone else and that our views be taken just as seriously in society and in culture as anyone else and in politics as well in that it’s when we feel that this is not the case, that we’re still living, in terms of the treatment of atheists in this country, the way that we were living back in the times of McCarthyism and, you know, McCarthy parading around and insulting Godless communists as a way of sort of rallying support to his cause. It’s that point at which we say, you know, many of us are angry.

However, I want to keep the focus, though, on the positive fact that there are most likely around a billion nonreligious people in the world, depending on how you count, between 30 and 40 or 50 million nonreligious people in this country. And the statistic is probably one in five young people in America, 18- to 25-year-olds, one in five of them in America is nonreligious. And what we’re saying is that we want to build the best possible world for all human beings and that the only thing that can make this world a better place is human effort, human caring, compassion, creativity, and human reason.

People don’t realize that there’s an organization like the Secular Student Alliance, which puts together groups of humanist and secular and atheist and agnostic students around the country and sponsors and supports them in doing community service, you know, in doing all kinds of wonderful activities. And so —


MR. EPSTEIN: — these are some of the voices that I think we need to hear from now. You know, religion doesn’t poison everything, and not everyone who believes in God is some kind of deluded fool.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

MR. EPSTEIN: You know, but at the same time we have a big community. We have a community that’s committed to doing good. It’s time that the culture and the country recognize that.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. I mean, ethical culture is also just, I think, a fascinating movement.

MR. EPSTEIN: It’s a wonderful movement, you know, where —

MS. TIPPETT: And absolutely committed to same kinds of social justice.

MR. EPSTEIN: Sure. And there are so many humanists and atheists within the Unitarian Universalist movement.


MR. EPSTEIN: Which is a powerful movement that has a great history in this country. And so, again, you know, I think that there needs to be more conversation about the fact that I’m a humanist. I don’t believe in any God; I believe in humanism. But if you disagree with me on that, let’s work on what we do have in common, and it’s so much. All we ask is that we are treated the same way everybody else is and that we’re given the chance to air our views without prejudice.

MS. TIPPETT: When you look at the history of action, the history of ideas, you know, where do you trace your legacy as a modern humanist, believing what you do, caring about what you do? You know, who are some role models for you? You mentioned Rabbi Sherwin Wine.

MR. EPSTEIN: I see myself as part of a great historical tradition that traces back thousands of years. It’s ironic but, you know, I know a lot of religious people can say that for themselves and I can say that for myself as a humanist too. If you go back 3,000 years to ancient India, there were movements called the “Charvaka” and the “Lokayata” movement, that the Nobel Prize-winning philosopher-economist Amartya Sen here at Harvard has said about which that there was more atheist and agnostic philosophy in ancient Sanskrit than in any other ancient language. And so I trace my roots back to the ancient East.

But I also trace them back to ancient Greece, for example. In a few hundred years before Christ lived to have His divinity doubted, there was a philosopher in ancient Greece named Epicurus who said —


MR. EPSTEIN: — “There’s nothing to fear in God. There’s nothing to feel in death. Good can be achieved and evil can be endured.” So that’s humanist philosophy in ancient Greece. And then, you know, these kinds of movements are in many ways pushed underground when the imperial monotheisms come on the scene, Christianity, Islam, traditions that say, you know, ‘You must believe in this one God,’ are even less tolerant than other sort of polytheistic traditions — of traditions like mine that say there doesn’t happen to be a God. And so, you know, my tradition was kind of pushed underground for much of pre-modern history, you know, much of the monotheistic period, until we get to this modern period in the last 200, 300 years where people start to question everything. It’s the Industrial Revolution, it’s the Scientific Revolution, where people, you know, learn to say that the way that we’re going to figure out what exists and what doesn’t exist, what’s real and what isn’t, is through the scientific method. You know, then you have the 20th century in which people start to ask this question of, ‘How can I have a community? How can I have a supportive group of people around me that affirms my beliefs as someone who, you know, believes that there’s only one world, who doesn’t believe in the supernatural.’


MR. EPSTEIN: And so a humanist movement in the 20th century emerges. And it emerges in the United States, and it emerges around the world. And I’m part of that sort of movement that has emerged that people — most people just have never heard of. They don’t know that it exists.

[Sound bite of music]

MS. TIPPETT: Harvard’s Humanist Chaplain Greg Epstein. Here’s a passage from Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen’s book The Argumentative Indian.

READER: The powerful presence of religious skepticism goes — or at least may appear to go — against a standard characterization of Indian culture, which is exceedingly common, that takes the form of focusing particularly on religion in interpreting Indian traditions. The religious connection is certainly there. … However, these grand explorations of every possible religious belief coexist with deeply skeptical arguments that are also elaborately explored (sometimes within the religious texts themselves), going back all the way to the middle of the second millennium B.C.E. The so-called “song of creation” (or the “creation hymn,” as it is sometimes called) in the authoritative Vedas ends with the following radical doubts: “Who really knows? Who will here proclaim it? Whence was it produce? Whence is this creation? The gods came afterwards with the creation of this universe; who then knows whence it has arisen?”

There are, in addition, a great many controversies between defenders of religiosity on one side and advocates of general skepticism on the other. The doubts sometimes take the form of agnosticism, sometimes that of atheism. But there is also the Gautama Buddha’s special strategy of combining his theoretical skepticism about God with a practical subversion of the significance of the question by making the choice of good behavior completely independent of any God — real or imagined.

MS. TIPPETT: From Amartya Sen’s The Argumentative Indian. I’m Krista Tippett and this is Speaking of Faith from American Public Media, today exploring “A New Humanism.”

[Sound bite of music]

MS. TIPPETT: And would you say — is there for you a strong philosophical component to the way you think about humanism, the way humanists interact with each other? I mean, you know, these great existential questions that I think lie behind religion, you know, where did we come from, what does it mean to live a worthy life?


MS. TIPPETT: Where are we going, you know, what really matters?

MR. EPSTEIN: Right. Yeah. I mean, we have to address these philosophical questions in order to be decent human beings no matter — no matter what tradition you come from. And I think that it’s important to acknowledge that there are many religious people out there who are able to address these questions in their own way and live wonderfully meaningful purposeful good lives. So for me, you know, humanism is, again, an answer to these philosophical questions of where do I get the hope, where do I get the strength and the courage that I need in life. But it’s a philosophy that is informed by the best knowledge that we have and can have about the world around us. And so, you know, we have to be informed by evolutionary theory. We have to be informed by the facts that we have in front of us which say that the world came most likely from what we know as the Big Bang billions of years ago and that it evolved over those billions of years and in a process of unguided evolution. And that —

MS. TIPPETT: You know, and there are plenty of deeply religious people also who take those ideas —

MR. EPSTEIN: No, no —

MS. TIPPETT: — seriously —

MR. EPSTEIN: — no, no. This is very true. And there’s so many Christians and Jews and Muslims and others who agree with us on that issue.


MR. EPSTEIN: I’m just saying that my philosophy of life, which is informed by, you know, existentialists like Camus and it’s informed by, you know, a whole range of philosophical traditions dating back, again, to the Charvakas in ancient India and Epicurus in ancient Greece. That it has to be informed by science. It has to be informed by evolution. And that we as humanists just take the very seriously.

MS. TIPPETT: You know, we have been touching on this all along and, in fact, you and I met at an interfaith youth conference where there were people from every conceivable tradition as far as I could tell. And you were there presenting with one of your colleagues from the Humanist Chaplain’s office. What’s fascinating to me, and I really do think this is also a new development and this is something I have experienced, is that people who are nonreligious, not traditionally religious, or not religious at all actually, you know, are not just finding all kinds of ways as you’re describing of filling that with meaning, of articulating that, but want to be part of the faith discussion. And want to be partners with people of faith, I find, in, you know, as you say, in many kinds of activities to build up our communities and to combat human crises.

MR. EPSTEIN: Right. I mean, I consider myself a proud member of and supporter of this other movement that we know exists in the country and around the world, which is the interfaith movement.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

MR. EPSTEIN: And, I mean, I’m so proud to work alongside people of different backgrounds. I was at that conference —


MR. EPSTEIN: — the Interfaith Youth Core conference.

MS. TIPPETT: Eboo Patel’s.

MR. EPSTEIN: Eboo Patel’s conference.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

MR. EPSTEIN: Yeah. And, I mean, I was standing in line for dinner and I was standing behind two young high school girls who go to a Muslim high school in the Chicago area. And they were both wearing hijab and they just turned around very friendly and they said to me, ‘So who are you?’ And I said, ‘I am a chaplain at Harvard for atheists and agnostics and the nonreligious.’ And they turned to themselves, you know, to each other and they said, ‘Oh, you know, we were just having this conversation about how, you know, atheists aren’t bad people; it’s just that there are extreme people and extreme views with every community.’


MR. EPSTEIN: And, so, you know, it’s interesting. I mean, the first thing is really wonderful that they reached out to me and they said, ‘Oh, we’re in many ways just like you.’ But on the other hand, it’s also interesting that they had to be having that conversation about, ‘Oh, are atheists bad people or not?’ Right?

MS. TIPPETT: Right. That’s interesting.

MR. EPSTEIN: Because we have these misunderstandings of one another. I mean, I do have to say, I mean, I think there is a need sometimes for people at atheist conferences to turn to one another and say, ‘Oh, you know, Muslims aren’t bad people. There are just extremists within every tradition.’


MR. EPSTEIN: I mean, there’s a real need for that on both sides.

MS. TIPPETT: Goes both directions. Yeah.

MR. EPSTEIN: And it happens on both sides, by the way. That’s another thing that I’m really delighted that, you know, it’s not just sniping back and forth. There’s so much more than this seeming war of words between religion and atheism, that, in fact, really, we have a tremendous amount in common.

MS. TIPPETT: Let me also just ask you this. I supposed because of the, especially because of the Dawkins and Hitchens and Harris books, there’s just been a lot more talk and energy around the idea of atheism in American culture —

MR. EPSTEIN: Mm-hmm.

MS. TIPPETT: — in the last year. Tell me what has surprised you in all of that? Is there anything that really, really threw you, that you didn’t see coming? Something that’s grown out of it that surprises you.

MR. EPSTEIN: I guess what I’m pleasantly surprised by is that the new media has allowed for this idea that there is a new atheism out there. And therefore then we had our conference we called “The New Humanism.”


MR. EPSTEIN: Because really, you know, the atheism that you’re seeing in the public square right now, it’s not that new. There have been prominent articulate individuals, intellectuals who have challenged religion in the past, you know, a previous unholy trinity was Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche.


MR. EPSTEIN: There were philosophers like Bertrand Russell and so many others. But what makes this atheism new today is that minority voices are more and more important in this world because we have the Internet and we have alternative television shows and more and more people are literate and they’re consuming and they’re reading and they’re discussing, and it’s wonderful. And so that’s why I think you’ve seen this growth in atheism is because atheism is a minority voice in our world that has always been out there and always will be. But now people are sort of forced to acknowledge and take it seriously because we are so much more connected than we ever were before. And so what surprises me, I guess, is to see just how powerful the new media are in that sense and then just say, ‘Aha. Well, if you can call this not-so-new atheism a new atheism, then you’d better call our humanism a new humanism too because we are going to be new in the sense that we are going to make a really big impact on the world stage in the years to come.’

[Sound bite of music]

MS. TIPPETT: Greg Epstein in the Humanist chaplain at Harvard University. And here in closing some writing of the cell biologist Ursula Goodenough. She describes herself as “a religious naturalist,” which is to say that she takes her sense of the sacred and of transcendent connection directly from her knowledge of the natural world.

READER: So we arrive here at what is, for many, the heart of it all. If there is a major tension between an approach like religious naturalism and the monotheistic traditions, it centers on the question of whether or not one believes in a personal god. Most people raised in the context of theistic traditions would probably say that “being religious” means “believing in God.” Indeed, when reminded that personal gods are not inherent in such systems as Buddhism or Taoism, they would likely question whether these traditions are really religions and not something else, like philosophies.

For me, and probably for all of us, the concept of a personal, interested god can be appealing, often deeply so. In times of sorrow or despair, I often wonder what it would be like to be able to pray to God or Allah or Jehovah or Mary and believe that I was heard, believe that my petition might be answered. When I sing the hymns of faith in Jesus’ love, I am drawn by their intimacy, their allure, their poetry. But in the end such faith is simply not available to me. I can’t do it. I lack the resources to render my capacity for love and my need to be loved to supernatural Beings. And so I have no choice but to pour these capacities and needs into earthly relationships, fragile and mortal and difficult as they often are.

Theism versus Non-Theism. The choice has been presented to us as saved versus damned, holy versus heathen. But when I talk to thoughtful theists, I encounter not a polarity, but a spectrum. Belief and faith in supernatural Being(s), when deeply wrought, are as intensely personal and individual and dynamic as our earthly relationships. They add another dimension, another opportunity for relationship, to be sure. But those of us incapable of embracing that dimension remain flooded with opportunities to open ourselves to human relationship and hence to fill our lives with the religious experience of love.

MS. TIPPETT: From Ursula Goodenough’s The Sacred Depths of Nature.

[Sound bite of song: Pete Seeger, “Die Gedanken Sind Frei”]

PETE SEEGER: Die gedanken sind frei / My thoughts freely flower / Die gedanken sind frei / My thoughts give me power / No scholar can map them / No hunter can trap them / No man can deny / Die gedanken sind frei / No man can deny / Die gedanken sind frei…

MS. TIPPETT: Pete Seeger’s recording of probably the best-known humanist song, “Die Gedanken Sind Fri,” or “My Thoughts are Free.”

PETE SEEGER: [singing] My conscience decrees / This right I must treasure / My thoughts will not cater / To duke or dictator…

MS. TIPPETT: We’d love to hear your reflections about this program. Contact us at speakingoffaith.org. And looking ahead to Pope Benedict XVI’s first U.S. visit in April, we’re taking an opportunity to start a broad-ranging conversation about the vast tradition or Roman Catholicism. If you are Catholic, we’d like to hear your perspectives on what anchors and unsettles you in the face of current headlines and beyond them. What hopes, questions, and concerns are on your mind as you ponder the state of the Catholic Church and its future? Look for the “Tell Us Your Story” link on our homepage, speakingoffaith.org.

PETE SEEGER: [singing] And free men will cry / Die gedanken sind frei.

MS. TIPPETT: The senior producer of Speaking of Faith is Mitch Hanley, with producers Colleen Scheck, Shiraz Janjua, and Rob McGinley Myers, and with help from Alda Balthrop-Lewis. Our online editor is Trent Gilliss, with Web producer Andrew Dayton. Kate Moos is the managing producer of Speaking of Faith. And I’m Krista Tippett.


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