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Chat transcript with Greg Epstein

Greg Epstein, humanist chaplain at Harvard University, chatted with readers about his idea for community-based activities for those who don't believe in God.

Greg_Epstein: Hello, and welcome, everyone. I want to thank the Boston Globe for allowing me this opportunity to chat with readers. And thanks to all those who've given such wonderful feedback to the Globe magazine story yesterday.

Greg_Epstein: We'll be ready to start the chat right at 1 pm.

MaryEllenSikes: Hello, Greg. Yesterday's article really emphasizes the perceived differences between hard-core atheists and what you're now calling the New Humanism. I'm curious where that leaves those of us who fall somewhere in the middle ...? For the individual who's lost interest in debates with believers... but also feels little affinity with religious props and language ... it feels a bit like searching for rocky road in a landscape of vanilla and chocolate.

Greg_Epstein: Thanks, Mary Ellen. Humanism is what I really want to promote and encourage people to get involved in. The New Humanism is a style, an approach to Humanism, where we Humanists make a special effort to value diversity and inclusiveness, and to be inspiring rather than denigrating. You don't have to feel affinity with "religious props and language" to get involved with Humanism.

Greg_Epstein: In fact with our Humanist community at Harvard, we are hoping to make community service one of the main activities we engage in together. I think it can be an alternative to "worship" in multiple senses:

Greg_Epstein: -As a central activity to organize the community

Greg_Epstein: -As a way of saying that we want to give to others as a way to imbue our lives with meaning, as opposed to ask a deity to grant us meaning.

horomones: Church for non-believers? What next, you wacky man, a bicycle for dogs!!!?!??!

Greg_Epstein: Nice... I'd say we're organizing a community for Humanists. It isn't a "church" because that would imply it is of Christian culture, and we want to welcome people of all cultural backgrounds.

Seeking: I practice meditation and am a naturalist. Would someone like me be welcome at your chapel?

Greg_Epstein: I think meditation *can be* a very appropriate way to express and participate in Humanism, though it isn't always.

Greg_Epstein: What I like about meditation is that it is a practice or discipline that can make us more aware of who we are and how we are living life. But meditative practices that invoke the name of a deity, or images of a divine realm are not of interest to me.

katelina1: I found the article very interesting as well. I'm agnostic, but a large part of this is because I don't believe in organized religion. What would you say to someone who doesn't believe in organized religion, as you're obviously trying to organize a pseudo-religion yourself?

Greg_Epstein: I would say we know, scientifically that human beings are social animals and we need community to live healthily. We don't need religion in the sense of someone telling us what to believe or what to do.

Greg_Epstein: That's not my role in Humanist community. I am a facilitator for a conversation-- my role is to help a group come together and understand what its common purpose can be.

selfishgene: I think humanists shouldn't reject "religion" but "superstition. I am as religious now as when I was a Christian. I just gave up the supernatural. What do you think?

Greg_Epstein: This debate about whether Humanism is a "religion" or not has gone on for decades now. It's a phenomenally uninteresting question in my opinion, but on the bright side you are not alone in asking!

Greg_Epstein: Practically speaking, Humanism is not a religion, because most people associate the word religion, in English, with a system that includes the divine/supernatural.

Greg_Epstein: However, sociologically speaking, Humanism is very similar to a religion in that it involves a common set of values, an organized community, and is essentially a way of life.

Greg_Epstein: I propose we adopt the European term "lifestance." Meaning more than a philosophy-- but not a divine or revealed religion

fibrowitch: I like the idea of a regular gathering place, a weekly gathering place. It allows people to connect, which is all religion is

Greg_Epstein: Yes, I think it is important to recognize that during 9-11, plenty of non-religious Americans were attending churches and synagogues, and after the Tsunami, arch-secular N/ Europeans were heading to Churches to mourn their lost relatives who were vacationing in Asia.

Greg_Epstein: The point is, it is natural and good to want a place, a physical space to gather and reflect on what is most meaningful to us in life.

Greg_Epstein: If dedicated spaces for Humanist & non-religious community activity sound too religious, just picture the Supreme Court ruling on a case from those little orange plastic chairs in a rented elementary school classroom.

nancyellen: I agree wioth you in many respects. I'm a humanist who has decided that it's great to develop faith in other human beings whereas i cannot develop faith in an unseen god. However, I wonder where you differ from Unitarian-Universalism. I am a devout U_U because within that community we respect the various beliefs and faiths of other members. We include Humanists, Christians, Pagans, atheists, agnostics, Jews, Quakers, and others. The sense of sharing and supportive community is something we work toward. Our covenant includes much of what you seem to believe and more. Our history is long and established, and i like the continuity and sense of connecting with like-minded people through history. I think you are onto something - definitions of words like religion, spirituality, etc. - they stand in the way of much mutuality

Greg_Epstein: A lot of UU's are Humanists, and a lot of Humanists are UU's. We had a strong participation from the UUA at our conference in April.

Greg_Epstein: However, it is important that UU is a non-creedal religion. I had the chance to study and experience this close up during my time at Harvard Divinity School. It means UU's can't designate a given Church or community to be exclusively Humanist. And their "worship" needs to be inclusive to all, including non-Humanists, by using god language and affirming some supernatural beliefs.

Greg_Epstein: Our goal is to build a community that explicitly affirms Humanism. I want to say exactly what I mean and mean exactly what I say.

RudyMitchell: Do you really think it is appropriate and proper, however, to use Memorial Chapel, a facility dedicated originally to the worship of God as a place of gathering to promote nontheistic / atheistic groups?

Greg_Epstein: This is something one would have to take up with Harvard in general. Memorial Church was built as a chapel for all Harvard students in the early 1930's, when we weren't sensitive to religious diversity as today...

Greg_Epstein: It still remains, in theory, that kind of universal symbol. But obviously it is odd to me and other Humanists to have to use such an obviously Christian space for our activities. Even Richard Dawkins read at a Church, his last visit to Harvard.

Greg_Epstein: This is why we want our OWN space-- A Harvard Humanist House that would provide supportive community specifically for Humanists, agnostics, atheists, and the non-religious of every background. All would be welcome, but it would be our community home.

Josh: Hi Greg, Josh here - I want to share my sorrow at the loss of a dear man, Rabbi Sherwin Wine, who has inspired many people around the world.

Greg_Epstein: Thanks, Josh. Rabbi Sherwin Wine, 2003 American Humanist of the Year, was a great teacher and mentor for me.

Greg_Epstein: For those interested in exploring what Humanist community can be like, let me encourage you to contact the Society for Humanistic Judaism (shj.org), the American Humanist Association, (americanhumanist.org)

Greg_Epstein: Or the Secular Student Alliance (secularstudents.org). Those are three wonderful national groups. Locally there is the Humanist Association of Massachusetts, the Workmen's Circle of Boston, and more.

bex: The article mentioned that you were trained as a 'humanist rabbi"... what, exactly, did this training entail?

Greg_Epstein: I trained for 5 very intense years, in Farmington Hills, MI and in Jerusalem, to be a Humanist rabbi. I have MA's from the University of Michigan and from Harvard but my rabbinic training was by far my most challenging degree yet. Check out iishj.org, the online home of the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism.

MK: Even the most ardent believers have periods where the doubt the existence of God -- Mother Teresa, for example. Do you, as a humanist, have moments where you doubt your beliefs and think that it might be possible there IS a God?

Greg_Epstein: I think the point is, we would change our minds if we saw any reliable evidence for an all powerful, all just god.

Greg_Epstein: But in the meantime, we have, and I have, a strong faith that Humanism is the best way to live in response to life's big questions. I don't believe I can ever know what lies beyond death, but I also am confident that no one can know. What we have is from birth to death, and we want to make the very best of it on human terms.

RudyMitchell: You could just consider humanism and atheism as a Worldview. I think your emphasis on the positive and community service is admirable, but philosophically I don't see how their can be any ultimate basis for ethical action or meaning in life without a belief in God. The Barna Research poll of last July showed that active atheists and agnostics are less likely than active Christians to describe themselves as "active in the community," personally help or serve the homeless or poor and less likely to be registered to vote.

Greg_Epstein: Humanism is more than a worldview because it involves more than just how we "view" the world, it involves what we do. It doesn't really matter so much whether we think god exists or not, it matters what we do about it.

Greg_Epstein: That's why the numbers you site from Barna are numbers I think need to be addressed.

Greg_Epstein: If we want to make a change in the world around us, we can and must make more of an effort to get involved in our communities, under the banner of Humanism.

MK: What will your class "Humanist Polity" at Harvard focus on exactly? And what are you hoping students take away from that?

Greg_Epstein: First of all, I want to say thanks to all those who are submitting questions. I'm getting way more than I can handle, but I'm doing my best.

Greg_Epstein: Harvard Divinity School has a course on 'Denominational Polity' for students interested in the ministry, and in leadership roles, in various denominations represented at the school. Their mission as a school in the 21st century is to be pluralistic and inclusive.

Greg_Epstein: See where I'm going with this? I want a class that can educate the student body about Humanism, atheism, and skepticism as an historical movement, and as one they can get actively involved with now.

Greg_Epstein: I've had a number of students come to me and express interest in a career in the Humanist movement, whether as a chaplain or in another type of role, and this class could help them prepare for that work. But it would also be a good learning experience for those who want to understand HUmanism from the inside. All Harvard students would be welcome if/when we get the course approved.

magrinha1: I can understand getting rid of these notions of the divine and the supernatural. But let's admit there are these mysteries about life that cause people to question, to "soul search" etc and maybe that is what inspires adherence to some religion?

Greg_Epstein: Being a human being can be lonely and frightening. Religious systems have been the answers, historically, to these problems.

Greg_Epstein: What I'm proposing, ultimately, is that Humanism is and ought to be, in the present time, our collective best answer to the fact that it is not easy to live a good life.

Greg_Epstein: Some people say they don't need community. And I understand a lot of time they're responding to having been wounded by another community that was perhaps abusive, dogmatic, bullying, peer-pressuring, etc.

Greg_Epstein: These things are all real problems that come up in religious communities. And I'm not even saying that a Humanist community would be able to be 100% free of all of it-- what human institution could possibly be 100% perfect?

Greg_Epstein: But the solution is not to shun all forms of community and go it alone. I like Stephanie Koontz's recent book on how we actually place too much pressure on our marital ties and dating relationships at this point in Western history.

Greg_Epstein: I think it's because in our desire to leave religion behind, we've come too close to throwing the baby out with the bath water. Get rid of the supernatural language and reliance, yes, but let's build something together.

Josh: Thanks Greg - and for others. I want to mention that there is a Humanistic Jewish community in the Boston area, Kahal B'raira or Community of Choice, where we met and where people are welcome to participate. I am very supportive of your efforts and hope we can achieve greater understanding of Humanism for people who are interested.

Greg_Epstein: Yes, Kahalbraira is another one of the great Humanistic community options in Boston.

Seeking: I'm an Iraq war veteran and having some issues getting past the violence I was a part of. How can humanists help me? Thanks.

Greg_Epstein: I don't have all the answers to this powerful question, Seeking. My training is specifically as a University chaplain and I wouldn't want to say that I am an authority on how to deal with the profound feelings you may be having. What I will say:

Greg_Epstein: We humanists would acknowledge your pain, as a veteran. If you've had to take life, or seen others lives taken, we'd say that this truly is a tragedy, and that we wouldn't want to try to justify it by saying that they are with god now or some such thing. It is real and we must find a way to cope with that.

Greg_Epstein: However, we are not alone, and you are not alone.

Greg_Epstein: The best Humanistic response, I'd say, would be to offer you caring and sympathy for what you've been through, and to help and encourage you to connect to others, possibly including those who've had similar experiences. Check out the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, one of the partner members of the Secular Coalition...and all the very best wishes to you...

Michelle: Hi Greg, do you have a public service I could attend to learn more about your work? I read your article in yesterday's paper and i found it fascinating.

Greg_Epstein: Speaking of the Secular Coalition for America (secular.org) and with this question about public events, let's turn to our big event with Rep. Pete Stark (D-CA) on Sept. 20.

Greg_Epstein: The Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard (harvardhumanist.org) is holding its first major event of the year this Thursday night, 9/20, in Emerson Hall, Harvard Yard, room 105. 7:30 pm.

Greg_Epstein: We'll be hosting Congressman Pete Stark, who will give the first public speech in US history where a sitting congressman will discuss openly discuss his Humanism and nontheism.

MK: You talked earlier about humanist gatherings. For the uninitiated, could you talk a little more about some of the things you and others do and discuss at those gatherings? Is it focused on how you can get more involved in the community? Do people share their personal stories? Is there something like a sermon?

Greg_Epstein: So, the above is one type of Humanist gathering. We love to discuss the big questions of the day (such as this issue of Humanism in US Govenment, and how we can get to the point where more Humanists can be elected to Congress, etc.).

Greg_Epstein: But Humanist gatherings to me have to be about more than just lectures and debates.

Greg_Epstein: People say sometimes that what we're doing with Humanism goes against what some atheists would approve of. Well, atheists have always organized themselves into communities, it's just that those communities have not often done anything other than speaking and debating.

Greg_Epstein: I like to say that we Humanists need to continue to speak and debate effectively about our values and beliefs. But, we also have got to sing and to build. Literally and metaphorically.

Greg_Epstein: So does every Humanist or atheist have to LIKE the idea of getting together to sing or listen to music? Am I saying dogmatically that you have to LOVE the concept that we would have our own building in which to do community service such as run a homeless shelter, etc.? Of course not.

Greg_Epstein: But many of the tens of millions of non-religious Americans would like and be well served by such things, and so we intend to move forward in organizing more and more of them.

MaryEllenSikes: Greg, will there be a way to tune into the speech online, either during or after the event?

Greg_Epstein: Oops, left out this detail. Sorry to double back, but for those who can't attend the event with Pete Stark, look for it on our website, harvardhumanist.org!, soon thereafter-- maybe a couple of days afterwards.

Greg_Epstein: And for those who want more specific info about our farther upcoming community events, do sign up for our mailing list at harvardhumanist.org!

cdn: from CDN..guest: I enjoyed reading the Globe article. Is there a book you'd reccomend for me to read as an introduction to this subject?

Greg_Epstein: Thanks for this question. I am working on a book that will help introduce readers to Humanism and encourage the 1.1 billion non-religious people in the world to get involved in Humanist community.

Greg_Epstein: In the meanwhile, I would say there are wonderful online resources for you to read. For example check out the think tank, The Institute for Humanist Studies (humaniststudies.org) and their excellent (and FREE) online courses about Humanism, at humanisteducation.com.

Greg_Epstein: Okay, almost done and out of time now...the editors have cut off questions as we're past time, but let me do very quick answers to any other questions that can be answered quickly...

RudyMitchell: I wonder in what sense one could be a true follower of Judaism and an atheist since Judaism would seem to be monotheisitic by definitiion?

Greg_Epstein: Judaism is a culture, not just a religion. Check out shj.org for more info, Rudy.

Mozzer: Why does ethics or "meaning in life" have to have anything to do with "God" or any higher power?

Greg_Epstein: It doesn't, and that is precisely the point of Humanism. Humanism is the passionate pursuit, without any supernaturalism, of a meaningful life for ourselves, our loved ones, our communities, and for all people.

Greg_Epstein: These things are all real problems that come up in religious communities. And I'm not even saying that a Humanist community would be able to be 100% free of all of it-- what human institution could possibly be 100% perfect? This almost sounds as if only something non human could be perfect?

Greg_Epstein: Nothing is perfect, Moxie. Certainly I wasn't implying there is any non-human perfection out there. The point is that we live on earth, among human beings. That's who/what we have to be concerned about-- good lives here on Earth. Imperfect, but good lives. They can't be lived alone, and they shouldn't be lived while focusing exclusively on who we're angry at. We've got to focus on what we do believe in (& again, that that isn't God, or the supernatural) and what we can contribute to the lives of the people around us.

Greg_Epstein: Ah yes, I did say brief, didn't I. Oops.

Greg_Epstein: 2 more questions...

goddamn: Have you had the full support of Harvard University ?

Greg_Epstein: I am one of Harvard's chaplains, and Harvard has certainly been supportive to me in that role. But they don't pay my salary. The Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard is a 501c3 non-profit affiliated with harvard in the same way that harvard Hillel is. Except, of course, that Hillel has a $2.5 million annual budget raised primarily from alumni, and we have...much less. Much, much less. We'd like to change that though-- I do think Humanist organizations across the board need to do better at raising funds and building successful organizations. If you're out there and enthusiastic, we need your help, whether it be financial or, even better, your involvement and commitment. Please join us in building a movement that can make real positive change.

moxie: Sing and to Build. Literally and metaphorically. Hell, I'll pray for that, lol.

Greg_Epstein: Hi Moxie, I saw you just asked about Mary Ellen Sikes. Yes, I think she either works or has almost certainly worked for the Humanist Institute, an organization with which the Humanist Chaplaincy has had some affiliation and cooperation. They even provided us a grant in 2007 to help us develop our course, mentioned above. I'm not sure how disclosing these things is supposed to work on a chat but certainly thanks for your reminder to err on the side of caution. That said, Mary Ellen asked one of the first few questions, around 20 minutes before the chat started, and it was just the closest question to the kind of note I wanted to start on.

Greg_Epstein: But I just started with the first question that I got which I felt allowed me to share what I was hoping to share, and I've barely been paying attention throughout to the askers, just the content of the questions. Which have been excellent! Thank you all so much, and I'm sorry I can't stay any beyond this extra 30 minutes for what was originally set to be an hour chat. What a wonderful experience...

Greg_Epstein: And yes, to sing and to build indeed. Hope to see you soon for our Pete Stark event on Sept. 20 or at harvardhumanist.org!. Thanks again!

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