As 2023 ends, I’m halfway through my 19th academic year as the humanist chaplain at Harvard. This whole time, I’ve been motivated by a passionate belief in the need for a campus-based institution like the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard & MIT, which is dedicated to supporting the ethical and communal lives of humanists, atheists, agnostics, and the nonreligious. But there’s never been a time in which I felt our organization – the first-ever humanist chaplaincy in North America, and the first at any college or university in the world – was more needed.
Many of you are so busy doing good in your communities, for your families, and hopefully taking care of yourselves. In that spirit here are some quick points if you only have a short time; otherwise I'd welcome the chance to walk with you a little longer with the longer update below.
ISRAEL AND PALESTINE: The Humanist Chaplaincy and I are doing as much as we can to help support students and our community to hear, grieve and to heal from the terrible recent events in Israel and Palestine.
THE ROLE OF HUMANISM: Humanism as an inclusive lifestance has so much to offer at this time, but it takes courage to step forward. My remarks as the closing speaker at Harvard’s recent Grieving Together program (below) reflect some of what I hope we will all do together.
HUMANIST FELLOWSHIP PROGRAM: We have been successful in launching our Humanist Fellows at both Harvard and MIT and demand has doubled in this our third year. More information below.
FINANCIAL SUPPORT: We would welcome your support at this end of the year, so we can increase the number of fellows, offer more sustainable student scholarships for participation, and have financial flexibility to improve and deepen the program through retreats and other reflection opportunities, as many diverse religious university chaplaincies tend to offer, especially during this difficult time.
WISHES AND THANKS: The chaplaincy board and I are deeply grateful for all who support our mission and work. We hope that you are well, and that you, your family, your friends and our entire human community can find peace, love, and togetherness at the end of this year, and the beginning of the year to come.
A Semester of Grieving – Together
I doubt you need me to tell you how tumultuous a semester it has been on campus at both Harvard and MIT (since 2018 I’ve served as the humanist chaplain at both universities). Since the outbreak of war in Israel and Palestine, one international headline after another has focused on intergroup tensions here in Cambridge, MA. And while I wouldn’t go so far as to say that humanist philosophy or community can solve this conflict any time soon, I am proud that our chaplaincy has been closely involved in supporting students, faculty, staff, and alumni from Israeli, Jewish, Palestinian, Muslim, and Arab backgrounds, among the many diverse identities we serve. To close this annual letter to our friends and supporters (which includes a request for your financial support if you are interested and able), I share the message I recently delivered as the last speaker at “Grieving Together,” an interfaith vigil held on the steps of Harvard Yard’s Memorial Church earlier this month.
You can also read about that unique event in the Harvard Gazette; and on my LinkedIn feed, I explain why it was one of the first things to give me a sense of hope amid what has been a seemingly intractable situation. You can also read an essay I wrote about the war for Religion News Service, back in October, called “My friend’s inspiring life was a reminder: We need to see each other’s humanity.” As I argued there, “it's natural to retreat into our own pain and fear, and to stay there. But then none of us gets the world we long for and deserve.”
In times when it can feel difficult to keep one’s spirit afloat, I am buoyed by my humanist lifestance – what some would call my secular, nonreligious “faith” in human potential to be able to overcome our many flaws. As I often need to remind myself, not to mention the students with whom I work, from a humanist perspective there are no guarantees that we can or will achieve peace or justice during this one and only life we have. But that only serves to emphasize how important and meaningful it is to work, in the here and now, toward a better world for all. Humanists may not be the largest or best-organized group in the world, but in times like these we have a tremendous responsibility – and indeed, thanks to our unique philosophy, a powerful opportunity – to remind people on all sides of divisive conflicts that we are all only human, and that we need each other.
A Community of Agnostics and Seekers, in the Religion of Technology?
The Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard & MIT has been very busy in general, throughout this past year. I’ve met with more students than ever, on two campuses: the demand for one-on-one humanist philosophical counseling sessions has never been higher. (Students and other current affiliates who want to meet with me in 2024 can email firstname.lastname@example.org to get a link to my Calendly). Or if you’re an alum of our humanist campus work and you want to catch up, send us an email sharing something you’d like to brag about and something you’re struggling with, and we’ll take it from there!). The growing group of students I serve is extraordinarily diverse in terms of race, gender, economic and cultural background; many are first-generation college students or the first in their families to attend prestigious institutions like Harvard or MIT. They ask the best questions in our meetings. Like, how to connect or manage relationships with parents or family members with drastically different beliefs? Or, now that they’ve figured out that they are no longer religious, how to determine what they DO believe in? Or, how to figure out what love and friendship should look like amid a campus life that features too much loneliness, isolation, and mental health struggle? Or, what to do about one’s rising sense of anxiety about the potential for climate and/or socio-political upheaval?
Life’s big questions have also been at the heart of the Harvard-MIT Humanist Student Fellowship program. The program, now in its third year, was originally led by busy alumni volunteers, but thanks to generous financial support I was able to take over as primary facilitator this September, and we’ve since more than doubled the number of student participants. In regular bi-monthly intensive sessions this semester, undergraduate and graduate students from Harvard and MIT explored what it means to be nonreligious, and what they understand as “good,” without God. They’ve grappled with fears about increasingly rapid climate and technological change, and enjoyed exploring how various kinds of popular art and storytelling (like horror movies, for example) can inspire secular people to connect with their community around humanistic values. Discussions have often been student-led, but I've benefited immensely as a facilitator from the work I've done these past few years on a new book called Tech Agnostic: How Technology Became the World's Most Powerful Religion, and Why it Desperately Needs a Reformation (due out in October 2024 from MIT Press via their distribution partnership with Penguin Random House). I won’t get into the book’s contents fully here now (though you can read a sneak preview that appeared in September’s ethics issue of MIT Technology Review magazine), but watch this space, and you can also follow me on LinkedIn for important announcements to come.
Welcoming our New President of the Board and Asking for your Support
As we transition to a new year, we are also transitioning leadership of the volunteer Board of Directors that oversees the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard and MIT. In November, the Board elected Dr. Narath Carlile as the next President of the Board. Narath is a physician, an entrepreneur, and a father with a deep commitment to Humanism and human wellness. We are delighted to have his leadership as we navigate these times that call for healing. We also thank A.J. Kumar, who has served as President for the past 2.5 years and remains on the Board. A.J. is a scientist, humanitarian, and family man who also served for multiple years as president of one of our student humanist groups, when he was a Harvard PhD student in applied physics. We are very fortunate to have the leadership and dedication of people like A.J. and Narath…which underscores that the Humanist Chaplaincy is a 501c3 non-profit that relies on the support of volunteers and donors to enable our work.
Years ago, the work of our humanist chaplaincy required constant fundraising. When we restructured in 2018-19, to focus mainly on campus counseling and to allow me to cut back to half-time so I could spend more time writing, I was profoundly relieved to no longer be responsible for raising money to support my own living or the organization as a whole. But I still do have the option of requesting your support when particularly worthwhile or important to do so. The work of our current fellowship program meets that standard.
If you might feel so inclined and able, we would appreciate your monetary support so we can increase the number of fellows, offer more sustainable student scholarships for participation, and have financial flexibility to improve and deepen the program through retreats and other reflection opportunities, as many diverse religious university chaplaincies tend to offer.
Here, again, is the link to give in support of our efforts:
With warm gratitude and deep appreciation,
Greg M. Epstein
Humanist Chaplain at Harvard and MIT
Convener for Ethical Life, MIT Office of Religious, Spiritual, and Ethical Life (ORSEL)
My Remarks at “Grieving Together”
Thank you to my inspiring colleagues, the Harvard administration, and to you for attending this powerful gathering where we have wrestled with our collective grief.
I don’t know what will happen next or where any of this is headed.
Sometimes the anxiety of not knowing the future is so strong, the only thing that soothes it is to tell myself that you don’t know either – none of us does. In our not knowing we are all alike, never alone.
But I do know a couple of relevant facts about the past.
I know that the past hundred years, indeed the past millennium, is often spoken of as a time of progress. But under the mantle of progress has flown a raging river of oppression, exploitation, violence, and hate born of fear.
And I know that over that time, Jews, Arabs, and Muslims are among those who have felt the most intense pain, born of injustice.
And now here we are. Only human.
It is only human to feel our own group’s agony and suffering and to scream out our legitimate and serious grievances.
And yet: to deepen what it means to be human in a future worth building, we will one day need to tend to the wounds of those with whom we do not so closely identify.
The future depends on feeling each other’s grief. The world needs us to grieve, together.