Greg M. Epstein, humanist chaplain at Harvard, MIT, brings expertise to question of meaning-making beyond faith

Greg Epstein

Greg M. Epstein has been making the case for the Week Three Interfaith Lecture Series theme — “Ethics and Meaning-Making Beyond Faith” — his entire career.

Epstein, the humanist chaplain at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, will speak at 2 p.m. today in the Hall of Philosophy, talking about his two decades as one of the world’s most prominent humanist chaplains — professionally trained members of the clergy who support the ethical and communal lives of nonreligious people.

Epstein is the author of the New York Times bestseller Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe, published more than 10 years ago, and still influential; the book helped popularize the notion that the rapidly growing population of secular people can live lives of deep purpose, compassion, and connection.

At MIT, Epstein is the convener for ethical life in the Office of Religious, Spiritual, and Ethical Life. When he joined MIT, alongside his work at Harvard, he set off on an 18-month residency at TechCrunch, a leading Silicon Valley publication, exploring the ethics of technologies and companies shifting the definition of what it means to be human.

Epstein spoke as part of the Interfaith Lecture Series in 2017, part of a 10-lecture platform in partnership with the Chautauqua Lecture Series in a theme dedicated to “A Crisis of Faith?”

“To live good lives as non-religious people, we need positive responses to human problems like climate change and nuclear weapons and terrorism, as well as to personal struggles: love and death and searching for meaning in life and meaning in relationships and the vulnerability we all feel around these things,” Epstein said in 2017, in conversation with journalist Bill Moyers, “because at any moment, any one of us can get sick, we can die, we can lose a loved one, we can have our dreams and our plans shattered.”

Epstein’s 2017 conversation, titled “Good without God in the Era of the Alt-Right?,” came at a precarious moment; the administration at the time “does not care” about issues like climate change, he said then, and “we’re afraid not only of Islamic terrorism and North Korea, but also of homegrown, white-bread terrorism right here in the West. We no longer have confidence that our own government is not colluding with our chief global enemy.”

This crisis of faith, and crises in general, stems from what Epstein called the “direction of the lifeboat.”

“If you believe you’re paddling in the right direction, you may be thirsty, you may be tired, you may be Sisyphus himself, but you’re more likely to be resilient in the face of your fear because you have some agency and you’re doing what you can,” he said in 2017. “But if you have no idea where you’re headed, or how to get yourself pointed in the right direction, maybe you’re hoping you’ll be rescued, but if you’re not confident that’ll happen, your mentality is different. At that moment, you’re not just afraid, you’re in crisis.”

Humanists often feel as if they’re in a communal crisis, feeling like “outsiders or iconoclasts,” Epstein told his Hall of Philosophy audience in 2017, because the community — his community — is sometimes only defined by what they don’t believe, rather than what they do.

“In the face of this fast-changing world, I look around at the community that we’ve built — I’m so proud of it — but I wonder, is it enough?” Epstein asked in 2017. “Because in a world changing so quickly, where there’s so much to do, where there (are) so many policies and people to influence, it sometimes feels that building one local congregation is like bringing a water gun to a forest fire.”

Epstein’s latest book, Tech Agnostic: How Technology Became the World’s Most Powerful Religion, and Why it Desperately Needs a Reformation, will be published in October by MIT Press. He’s been described by The New York Times Magazine as “godfather” to the humanist movement, and was named of the top faith and moral leaders in America by Faithful Internet, a project coordinated by the United Church of Christ with assistance from the Stanford Law School Center for Internet and Society, for his efforts to bring together atheists, agnostics, and allies, as part of an ancient and ever-evolving ethical tradition that can be called humanism. 

Tags : chaplainEthics and Meaning-Making Beyond FaithGood Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do BelieveGreg M. EpsteinHarvard UniversityInterfaith Lecture Series PreviewMassachusetts Institute of TechnologyMITreligionTech Agnostic: How Technology Became the World’s Most Powerful Religion and Why it Desperately Needs a Reformation

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