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Harvard chaplains elect atheist as new president: ‘We don’t look to a god for answers'

Greg Epstein
Greg Epstein, 44, is Harvard University's new chief chaplain. |

Greg Epstein, an atheist and humanist chaplain at Harvard University who says he doesn’t look to God but people for answers, has been elected by his colleagues as the newest president of the Harvard Chaplains.

Esptein, 44, was elected to the presidency of the university’s organization of chaplains by more than 40 chaplains from some 20 different faith and spiritual traditions. He shared the news in an announcement on Twitter Thursday along with a profile of his election to the position by The New York Times

Margit Hammerstrom, the Christian Science chaplain at Harvard, told the publication that while Epstein’s election to such a role may have been problematic at a more conservative institution, the decision was unanimous at Harvard.

“Maybe in a more conservative university climate, there might be a question like, ‘What the heck are they doing at Harvard, having a humanist be the president of the chaplains?’ But in this environment, it works. Greg is known for wanting to keep lines of communication open between different faiths,” Hammerstrom said.

The new leader, who authoredGood Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe, is expected to coordinate activities for the corps of chaplains. He has served as a humanist chaplain at Harvard since 2005.

Recent survey data highlighted by the Harvard Crimson shows that a growing number of students enrolled at the Ivy League campus don’t identify with any particular faith.

In 2017, some 32.4% of incoming freshmen identified as either atheist or agnostic. By 2019, the share of incoming freshmen who identified as either atheist or agnostic increased to 37.9%.

“There is a rising group of people who no longer identify with any religious tradition but still experience a real need for conversation and support around what it means to be a good human and live an ethical life,” Epstein, who was raised in a Jewish household, told The New York Times.

“We don’t look to a god for answers,” he said. “We are each other’s answers.”

A study from the Pew Research Center published in late 2019 showed that only 65% of Americans identify as Christian, showing a 12% decline over a decade earlier. The number of Americans who identify as religiously unaffiliated also increased to 26%.

“The changes underway in the American religious landscape are broad-based. The Christian share of the population is down and religious ‘nones’ have grown across multiple demographic groups: white people, black people and Hispanics; men and women; in all regions of the country; and among college graduates and those with lower levels of educational attainment," Pew researchers reported.

"Religious ‘nones’ are growing faster among Democrats than Republicans, though their ranks are swelling in both partisan coalitions,” Pew added. “And although the religiously unaffiliated are on the rise among younger people and most groups of older adults, their growth is most pronounced among young adults.”

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