Harvard Hires Humanist… Chaplain?

Greg EpsteinAl Mohler has a good article about it called “Gen-X Humanism for the Passionately Confused? – A Chaplain for Unbelief at Harvard”. Here are a couple good thoughts from the end Mohler’s article:

Even in attempting a humanist and non-supernatural funeral service, Epstein draws upon the language of the Christian tradition.

Joseph Hoffman may call this “Gen-X humanism for the Passionately Confused,” but it sounds more like a humanism that knows it needs help — an anti-supernaturalism that craves the supernatural.

Atheism is the church of defiant unbelief, but many like Greg Epstein seem less defiant than confused. As a matter of fact, very little separates these unbelievers from the unbelievers in so many liberal churches who still claim a Christian identity but reject the truths central to Christianity. Like Rev. Epstein, they want the candles and liturgy — just leave out the truth stuff, please.

It is telling that the article in The Boston Globe begins and ends with a funeral service. As Sherwin Wine rightly observed, at a funeral all an atheist can do is “wait for answers that never seem to come.”

It’s interesting that the non-religious can hardly describe the world non-religiously, i.e., without meaning. Whatever the case, make no mistake, Christianity is headed toward increasing marginalization. Here’s the bio about Greg Epstein on the Harvard Humanist page.

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7 Responses

  1. Life is not meaningless for Humanists (or other atheists). They give it meaning by what they think and what they do. Their own values and purposes give their lives meaning.

    People have a great need for ritual and public or social gatherings at major life events. (Death, birth, marriage, etc.) This is a completely separate issue than whether or not supernatural beings exist. Traditionally it has been culturally wrapped up in the package of religion (as has morality and meaning), but there is no connection between the supernatural and such observances. It is great that those that have shrugged of the religious trappings are organizing secular events to mark these occasions.

    These are human events, not religious events.

  2. Good thoughts, Joe. Thanks for your response.

    I’ll grant you that they “give it (life) meaning by what they think and what they do.” Insofar as anyone feels any ‘sense of purpose or meaning’ based on what they choose as their system of values, sure, it’s meaning.

    But what I “mean” by meaning is that it’s a system of values that is defined as meaningful by an external (in this case, supernatural, source). Personally, I don’t particularly care about my life having meaning based on “my values” because I believe Scripture is God’s way of communicating eternal value and meaning. They are “my values” in that I have inculcated them as my own though they are from God (in that I believe He communicates to us through the Scriptures.)

    And… if there is a system of values inherent in being human, the distinction between human and religious events is not needed. It’s all religious. There is no distinction. So, whether these life events have been traditionally/culturally wrapped up in the package of religion may, in fact, speak to a connection between the supernatural and such observances. (If, again, there is a system of values and right/wrong inherent in what it means to be human.)

    I understand your point, but I just don’t agree. To claim there is no connection between the supernatural and such observances, when the sweeping testimony of human culture and history does indeed place these life events into religious language, mean the onus of proof may be on the atheist. (I.e., Language isn’t superimposed on the experience of human history. I assume here that language is a product of human culture that names human experience in a manner that truly means something. Words are not being imposed on life events to ‘make them’ religious. The history of humanity is that we name them religiously for a reason… I’m assuming that reason is a value system inherent in the world. We say it that way, religiously, because it accurately explains our experience.)

    I obviously don’t think it’s “great that those” who have shrugged off “religious trappings” are organizing such ways of marking life events. But, I don’t think it’s an accident that the Harvard guy is placed alongside chaplains who do indeed see supernatural workings in the world.

    As a Christian, sort of as an aside, I simply have experienced otherwise… and I have begun to intellectually structure my thinking (reasonably, rationally, and coherently so, BTW) in a manner that purports that, without God, life’s meaning is WAY less meaningful.

  3. “But what I “mean” by meaning is that it’s a system of values that is defined as meaningful by an external (in this case, supernatural, source). Personally, I don’t particularly care about my life having meaning based on “my values” because I believe Scripture is God’s way of communicating eternal value and meaning.”
    But if it were true that god didn’t exists then your values are just as personal as mine. I think it is dangerous to ascribe personal values to an external supernatural source, because that makes people less willing to accept change and holds back the advancement of society.

    “And… if there is a system of values inherent in being human, the distinction between human and religious events is not needed. It’s all religious.”
    Well certainly not. I hold many values in common with religious folks, but lacking a belief in anything supernatural is a significant difference. I want to celebrate birth and mourn death without the religious trappings that cheapen the experience for me.

    “To claim there is no connection between the supernatural and such observances, when the sweeping testimony of human culture and history does indeed place these life events into religious language, mean the onus of proof may be on the atheist.”
    Since I do not believe in the supernatural and yet still find value and meaning in such observances that is proof enough for me. I would hope for you the existence of nonreligious individuals wanting secular ritual would be sufficient to demonstrate that the two things need not be packaged. Do you believe that marking these life events are inherently meaningless to the nonreligious?

    “I obviously don’t think it’s “great that those” who have shrugged off “religious trappings” are organizing such ways of marking life events. But, I don’t think it’s an accident that the Harvard guy is placed alongside chaplains who do indeed see supernatural workings in the world.”
    Of course it is no accident. He is doing the same job in many cases with a nonreligious perspective. Why don’t you think that is great?

    “As a Christian, sort of as an aside, I simply have experienced otherwise… and I have begun to intellectually structure my thinking (reasonably, rationally, and coherently so, BTW) in a manner that purports that, without God, life’s meaning is WAY less meaningful.”
    I have found a lot of meaning in a life without god. It is not obvious and many new nonbelievers have a sense of loss, but others do not. It depends on the person and the social support that they have when they “deconvert”. The more they surrounded themselves with purely religious support structures when they believed the more they struggle with finding secular replacements. This is why I applaud the efforts to construct secular answers to the nonreligious services that are often provided by religions. They can keep the religious parts. 🙂

  4. Joe, thanks for your thoughts again. I’ll get to a response tomorrow. Got too much to do right now. But I’ll add your blog to my feeds and keep up with your site as I’m able.

  5. Thanks! 🙂

  6. Okay, Joe, “tomorrow” is today… 2 days later. Not a lot of time to respond, but here are a few brief ideas… Italics are Joe. Rest is me. (I.e., “quotes” and blockquotes… I think… If I’ve formatted it correctly.)

    But if it were true that god didn’t exists then your values are just as personal as mine. I think it is dangerous to ascribe personal values to an external supernatural source, because that makes people less willing to accept change and holds back the advancement of society.

    Indeed. If it’s true that God doesn’t exist, then they’re no less personal than anyone else’s. But, if you’re implying that anyone who claims external values is dangerous, a la militant fundamentalists, you’re just committing the same error many in our world are today. Now, were I claiming you must die because you don’t believe in God, sure, we have a problem. But it would be no less fundamentalistic for atheists to start a government and legislate against theists. (This has been done, of course, as recently as the last 100 years.) But, I think there is no such thing as entirely personal values. We are the sum total of the values we’ve acquired from culture, people, religion, etc. over the course of our lives. To claim that values are personal because I personally hold them is to be unaware of the manner in which we’ve acquired those values. I would say that almost any value we hold has an external source. The difference, of course, is the locus of that source. I claim God, through the mediating Word of Scripture and Christ, as my external source. In a sense, that’s more open and available for discussion than many who claim no source but their own.

    “And… if there is a system of values inherent in being human, the distinction between human and religious events is not needed. It’s all religious.” (Me.)

    Well certainly not. I hold many values in common with religious folks, but lacking a belief in anything supernatural is a significant difference. I want to celebrate birth and mourn death without the religious trappings that cheapen the experience for me.

    Again, I said, “if.” They’re religious in the sense that they’re morally true for all people, IF they’re inherent in being human. That’s part of the definition of religion. Now, of course you’re allowed to celebrate those things without what you call religious trappings, but, if there’s no moral fabric inherent in what it means to be human, my question is, “Why?” What’s at the heart of celebration or mourning that draws you to do those things?

    Since I do not believe in the supernatural and yet still find value and meaning in such observances that is proof enough for me. I would hope for you the existence of nonreligious individuals wanting secular ritual would be sufficient to demonstrate that the two things need not be packaged. Do you believe that marking these life events are inherently meaningless to the nonreligious?”

    I’m not sure what you mean by “the two things need not be packaged.” I’m not saying that “marking these life events” is meaningless, but I am saying that I believe (just as an atheist or humanist believes in a particular account of history, e.g.) the religious story of humanity is a stronger, more meaningful, closer to our history narrative than the nonreligious. I “don’t think it is great” insofar as I believe that the Christian account is correct, more correct, more meaningful, etc. That doesn’t mean I’m going to be vitriolic or dangerous. I think God’s account of humanity is correct and I call that “truth.”

    “As a Christian, sort of as an aside, I simply have experienced otherwise… and I have begun to intellectually structure my thinking (reasonably, rationally, and coherently so, BTW) in a manner that purports that, without God, life’s meaning is WAY less meaningful.” (Me.)

    I have found a lot of meaning in a life without god. It is not obvious and many new nonbelievers have a sense of loss, but others do not. It depends on the person and the social support that they have when they “deconvert”. The more they surrounded themselves with purely religious support structures when they believed the more they struggle with finding secular replacements. This is why I applaud the efforts to construct secular answers to the nonreligious services that are often provided by religions. They can keep the religious parts.”

    By meaning in life I do not simply mean to say “something that makes me happy or fulfilled” but that it gets at the very heart of why I exist. While secularized systems of thought may provide some meaning, they do not, to my judgment, adequately answer the question of why we exist. Not how. Why. They always run into that nagging deep-in-the-soul question of “Why am I here?” As the secularists say, “Being good without god” (small “g” theirs, not mine) doesn’t cut it. Being good for what? Toward what end?

    Why would we care about being good if there is no moral reason for existence?

  7. I never meant to imply that I felt your position was dangerous. That was a poor choice of words. What I was trying to get at was that it is much harder to change someone’s mind about something when they think they believe the “Truth” that was handed to them from the “One True God”. How could god be wrong and some random guy be right? I believe it is an inherently bad idea to believe anything without doubt or question. This is the case for many believers. (I know not all.)

    “I think God’s account of humanity is correct and I call that “truth.””
    I can’t take your evaluation as very objective after reading of your emotional attachment to the Christian view. Couldn’t it be more emotionally fulfilling but still be factually incorrect?

    “They always run into that nagging deep-in-the-soul question of “Why am I here?” As the secularists say, “Being good without god” (small “g” theirs, not mine) doesn’t cut it. Being good for what? Toward what end?”
    The atheist answer is you are here for no particular reason. I can see how this is somewhat deflating if one previously believed they were part of an epic universal divine plan, but what it really is is liberating. The atheists are free to choose their own purpose and form their own framework for their lives.

    “Why would we care about being good if there is no moral reason for existence?”
    We care about being good because of the natural consequences. It is better for me and the people around me for us to be good. We are a social animal. We value and maintain social relationships because we need each other to survive. We see other animals exhibiting the same “moral” behavior, yet we don’t prescribe a divine motive to their actions. Why would a bat share its meal with a strange bat who happened not to get a meal that night? They do it, and so would we. It is simply part of being human it is in our genes and how we our raised in our society that we have the drive and the methods for being helpful for one another.

    Life has what meaning you give it. Like music.

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