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Can an atheist chaplain glorify God?

Courtesy of Jim Miesner
Courtesy of Jim Miesner

Recently, Harvard elected an atheist humanist to be the president of the Harvard chaplains, and many Christians have been understandably upset about this. After all, in the past, someone who held the title of a chaplain has been someone who worships God and supports and counsels others to make moral decisions in alignment with God's will. However, to call a humanist or an atheist a chaplain seems like a clear subversion of that.

It feels like we are twisting the language of what a chaplain is. If you can be an atheist chaplain, can you also be the president of an atheist organization that believes that Christ is the son of God? That seems nonsensical, but nonsense isn't anything new at Harvard. Greg Epstein has been a humanist chaplain at Harvard since 2005, and he took over for another humanist chaplain that started the position in 1974.

Most people can probably brush that off, but what is most troubling is the fact that Epstein was unanimously elected to the position of president of chaplains at Harvard. Ultimately it's not about the position but what this says about our understanding of what a chaplain is. It says that being a chaplain isn't about seeking God and leading others in that spiritual pursuit. It's simply about supporting other people to be better people

Epstein's own words back this up. He told The New York Times, "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." Essentially he is saying his job is to support others and counsel them in ethical ways to live. Which is pretty much the definition of a counselor, isn't it?

Ultimately, there are many ways we could react to this story. We could be angry about it, as many are, but we could also look at this in another way. Does it actually matter if some school recognizes no difference between a religious chaplain and a humanist counselor? Does it matter that it unanimously elected an atheist as the president of chaplains? Yes, but not in the way you might think. There is a silver lining.

Where? Well, we can look at it as another encroachment by secularists into the domain held by those who are traditionally religious or spiritual. We could see it as losing ground in a spiritual battle or fight, or we can see it as a foolish advance that leaves a flank open on the battlefield. Because really, that's precisely what is happening here. It's not about what this says about Christianity or religion or even God but what it says about atheism.

For if we take God out of the equation and admit that a chaplain doesn't need to be religious or spiritual, then what is the only difference between a counselor and a chaplain? It's worship. It's all about worship. This is a fundamental admission that humanism and atheism are a form of worship at their core. For so long, atheists have tried to claim the rights of being a religion but denying they are one. This is just another blaring contradiction and one we need to shine a spotlight on. So instead of being angry about this story, let's be thankful for it because it highlights the truth that humanism and atheism are forms of worship.

Greg Epstein wants to spark conversations, and in fact, he is. Hopefully, this will spark some deep and meaningful discussions about humanism and atheism. Dialogues that don't just focus on atheism and humanism, however, but also consider all the other things we worship in this world.

False idols surround us. Let this be an opportunity to discuss them. Let us examine where we each put our faith and trust and the eternal implications of where that faith and trust are placed, for we all put our faith and trust somewhere. By talking about these things, we can help others discover a clear road to the truth.

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We can point to a higher eternal beauty than any graven image or false theology that we can ever construct with our own two hands. In this, more glory can be brought to God than we can ever imagine, and it's all thanks to an atheist chaplain at Harvard.

Jim Miesner is an author and ghostwriter of several books. He currently lives in Rochester, NY, with his wife and two kids. You can find more of his musings on

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