What I learned from a Humanist chaplain

by Sarah Luna

Those of you who know what the words “Humanist” and “chaplain” mean should have done a double take at my title.

Secular humanism is the rejection of religious dogma as the basis of morality. It focuses on human reason and the pursuit of a fulfilling life. A chaplain is a member of the clergy of a specific religious group. Do we see the issue here?

Anyways, I attended a lecture by Rabbi Greg Epstein, humanist chaplain at Harvard University and author of Good Without God.

Life is a struggle…living life for self and others and for the good of the material world. What is a good world, and how do we build it? For people who have left God: what next?

Epstein defined humanism as being “good without God“. He described his life growing up in a diverse neighborhood in New York City and learning about the different religious backgrounds of his friends and neighbors. He himself grew up in the Jewish tradition and had a bar-mitzvah. He discovered that “people are people, for good or for bad.” That is, that their goodness didn’t depend on the church or temple or mosque or synagogue they attended or didn’t attend. He observed good people that were not religious and bad people who were.

He described how his father had studied various religions and ultimately rejected them all. “[My father] had given up community but was lonely for it.” Epstein himself went through a similar period of study and was enticed by the idea of humanism–the idea that people have no inherent purpose and therefore construct meaning for themselves. There is no ultimate authority.

It is better to live in a world where morals evolve than in a world in which morals are fixed.

Humanist morality centers on the golden rule.

I can’t live a meaningful life if I am not aware of your equal need to live a meaningful life.

He spoke of meeting with Rick Warren, author of Purpose Driven Life, and agreeing with him that people need purpose in their lives. Throughout his entire talk, he focused on what humanists affirmed. He believes that people should focus on the things they agree on rather than on how they differ. Recalling a conversation with the famed militant atheist Richard Dawkins who believes that it is important to mock religion, Epstein disagreed saying that Humanism is not mockery but the pursuit of a common humanity. Even though they are both atheists, they see themselves as having radically different missions.

Finally he addressed the concept of a Humanist community. How he was a Humanist “chaplain” for the nonreligious community. They eat together, have meetings and sing together (on Sunday, no less), and do charitable works together. In Epstein’s words, “We took the best of religion”.