Did you hear the news a few weeks ago that Harvard University just named an atheist as the school’s head chaplain? Greg Epstein, who was raised Jewish, but now is an avowed atheist and identifies himself as a “humanist rabbi,” will be in charge of the more than 40 chaplains on campus.
Chaplain Epstein is the author of a book, “Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe.” Since 2005 he has been the “humanist chaplain” on campus. Regarding his new position at Harvard, Epstein explained, “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.”
Soon after Chaplain Epstein’s appointment was made, Catholic bishop Robert Barron wrote an opinion piece and pointed out that if an atheist can be appointed as a school chaplain, then the word “chaplain” has lost all meaning. If students have a need for “conversation and support” about being a good human, then they need a counselor, a faculty advisor, or someone with whom they can share a beer and talk. They don’t need an atheist chaplain, unless the word chaplain is now defined to mean “pal” or “buddy.”
In his essay, Bishop Barron spelled out the core doctrines of Christianity, such as belief in the Creator God, the physical Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and the possibility of eternal life in Heaven. Then he wrote, “Say what you want about all of that. Affirm it, deny it, argue about it. Tell me I’m crazy for believing any of it. But by God, it’s a religion.”
This story about the new head chaplain at Harvard supports a claim I’ve been making for decades: Secular Humanism is a religion. Many people will say that Secular Humanism is not a religion because humanists do not believe in God. But I maintain that everyone has a religion. Everyone has a set of beliefs about the nature of existence that shape their attitudes and guide their actions. With or without God, this is a person’s religion.
Now, you may say that I’m doing exactly what Harvard just did: giving an historic word a new and overly broad definition. Well, maybe. But if you look at Secular Humanism more closely, you’ll find it has a set of creeds and doctrines, just like any other traditional religion. Here are five of the most fundamental of these creeds, as published in a document called “The Humanist Manifesto”:
“We begin with humans not God, nature not deity.”
“We can discover no divine purpose for the human species.”
“We regard the universe as self-existing and not created.”
“Humanists believe that traditional [religion], especially faith in the prayer-hearing God, is an unproved and outmoded faith.”
“No deity will save us; we must save ourselves.”
That’s not exactly the Nicene Creed, but they are credal declarations that get to the heart of the most important questions humans need to answer: Who are we? How did we get here? What is our ultimate destiny?
Anyway, how about turning the tables for a change? We should point out that Secular Humanism is a genuine religion, and therefore, it’s doctrines should not be promoted in public schools, per the “separation of church and state” interpretation of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Science classes can no longer teach, “We regard the universe as self-existing and not created.” Social Studies classes can no longer teach, “We begin with humans not God, nature not deity.”
I’m just kidding. I know that would never happen, and personally, I don’t want that to happen. What would be nice, though, is for this story about the new Head Chaplain at Harvard to cause folks to realize that an absence of Judeo-Christian beliefs is not the same thing as an absence of organized religion. Instead, a different, modern, godless religion has assumed the prime position on campus.
We should do what Bishop Barron suggests: look at basic statements of faith about various religions — including Secular Humanism — and affirm them, deny them, or argue about them. The best way to seek the truth is honest and open debate. I suspect that’s an activity that is frowned upon these days at Harvard.