It is increasingly hard to believe that when Harvard University began its operations in 1636 (as Harvard College), it was essentially (though not officially) Puritan in character, in student body, and in instruction — unsurprising, given the social milieu of its founding and founders. We’ve indeed come a long way since then. Recently, the chaplains of Harvard University, some 40 in number, elected Greg Epstein as their president. Epstein, the author of Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe, is the humanist chaplain of Harvard, which means, as NPR politely puts it, he “represents the fast-growing number of Americans who do not associate themselves with a religious group, sometimes referred to as nones, as in no affiliation, a group that now rivals white evangelicals and Catholics in size.”
For what it’s worth, Christian bodies at Harvard have downplayed the significance of this development, claiming that the role is merely administrative, representing the chaplains to the university president, and that he has a record of working with all denominations. At any rate, in his NPR interview, Epstein claims to be an atheist, and to reject conscious religious identification, though not cooperation. His vision for the role suggests he seeks a kind of collaboration between nonreligious and religious — of a certain type:
Non-Religious people like me – atheists, agnostics, humanists, secular people, however you want to call us – we are allies for and of progressive and moderate religious people in the United States and across the world. You know, people who consider themselves deeply religious but want to work to advance science, want to work for public health in an evidence-based manner, want to work for democracy and representation for all in equity and equality – those are my friends and allies, and I’ll fight with them to the death.
The way Epstein describes his position, it seems not so much that he’s rejected religion, but rather chosen political leftism as his new faith — which just so happens to be the dominant creed of Harvard and of many elite institutions. Perhaps Harvard has not changed so much over the past few centuries after all.