Why Harvard’s Atheist Chaplain Matters Less, and More, than You Think

John Lomperis on September 1, 2021

National and even international news has been all in a tizzy over outspoken atheist Greg Epstein becoming the new president of Harvard University’s chaplains.

Does this mean that Epstein has just been hired for a new job as Harvard’s atheist chaplain? Has he become Harvard’s “chief chaplain”? Does this mean that he now “leads” and is “in charge of” Harvard’s other chaplains? Did these other chaplains decide that they “couldn’t think of anyone better” for spiritual chaplaincy at the university? Is this a big, new change for campus ministry at Harvard?

Contrary to what you may have heard elsewhere, the answer to all of these questions is “No.”

Christians who seek to follow the One who said He IS the truth should be a lot more careful to be accurate than several rushing to comment have been.

As someone who was very involved in Harvard campus ministry while earning my three-year master’s degree there not that long ago, I’d like to clarify some realities that some headlines and hot takes, from Christians as well as others, miss.

First of all, Harvard is not a Christian school.

We at IRD have raised concerns about one United Methodist university hiring a Muslim chaplain, and another United Methodist university hiring a Unitarian Universalist to be its dean of spiritual and religious life.

This is categorically different. Harvard makes no claim to be a Christian institution.

Yes, many commenting on this announcement correctly note the university’s founding by devout Puritans in the 1600s. But such commentaries too often jump right from there to the present day, skipping over such major developments as Harvard’s deep ties with the Unitarian movement, beginning even before the university started its graduate-level Divinity School in 1816. Denying the divinity of Jesus Christ is obviously a huge break from biblical Christianity.

Epstein’s election, by the consensus of his fellow chaplains, does not represent a dramatic new shift and is unlikely to be terribly consequential for Harvard.

Secondly, the overall campus ministry environment at Harvard is multi-faith. This certainly does not mean that Christian and other chaplains there affirm the truth claims of each other’s religions. But as a secular university, if the administration is going to let evangelical Christian ministries operate on campus, it will offer the same level of access to various non-Christian religious ministries.

I would much rather see my alma mater continue its “open” stance of letting us minister on campus alongside everyone else, in a free marketplace of ideas, rather than take a “closed” stance of kicking out all campus ministries.

Harvard’s 43 currently listed chaplains include many evangelical Protestants, but these are less than one third of the total. Other traditions represented include everything from Baha’i to Zoroastrianism.

Thirdly, Harvard having an atheist chaplain is not a remotely new thing. I realize “atheist chaplain” may sound as oxymoronic as “vegetarian butcher” or “pacifist soldier.”

But the reality is that there are a number of essentially humanist congregations in America where atheists have sought to approximate functions religious congregations provide in terms of social community, support through life crises, regular gatherings for interesting lectures and lively discussions, and community-service volunteering—all while trying to keep God out of it. A number of humanist campus ministries seek to similarly offer godless alternatives to traditional student ministries.

I personally do not think that this can ultimately work as well without God. But that does not change the fact that such communities exist.

Epstein has already been a chaplain of the Harvard Community of Humanists, Atheists, and Agnostics (HCHAA) Harvard for years. In 2005 he was ordained “as a Humanist Rabbi from the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism.” And Harvard’s humanist chaplaincy began decades before that, way back in 1974.

Epstein is not the first non-Christian to hold the largely honorary title of president of the chaplains. He is unlikely to be the last. After a humanist student ministry has been established for nearly half a century, is it really that big a deal for the humanist chaplain, rather than the chaplain of another non-Christian campus ministry, to take a brief turn with the title “president”?

And let’s be honest: in terms of values, lifestyle, and the most consequential parts of their effective worldviews, there is often not that much difference between very liberal Protestants, Unitarian Universalists, and liberal atheists/humanists.

I have previously written about how much of the liberal movement in my own United Methodist Church has been effectively an attempt to make our historically Protestant denomination become more like the Unitarian Universalist Association, sometimes rather explicitly.

I have also written about how the line between liberal Protestant and liberal atheist can get increasingly thin, as seen in the gradual de-conversion story of former Sojourners board member Bart Campolo. Over time, he abandoned one biblical Christian doctrine after another, until he finally had the integrity to stop claiming to be a Christian of any sort. He went on to serve as humanist chaplain at the University of Southern California.

During a campus event I attended while at Harvard, I recall Epstein getting challenged about the broadness of declaring that no God can exist, given the range of ways different people may define “God.” In response, Epstein pivoted a bit to denying that there could be “a god who is relevant.” God does not seem terribly relevant when he is redefined by liberal Protestants, such as those with some prominence in the United Methodist Church, as having not actually performed the miracles Scripture connects with Jesus Christ, or as more broadly not being “a God of supernatural intervention.”

In a recent tweet, Epstein touted his strong support as a chaplain for the Democratic Party and quipped that “my true religion” is “US politics.” Here is another major overlap he has with many liberal mainline Protestant clergy.

Fourthly, being named president of the Harvard Chaplains is not really that big of a deal.

While Harvard’s chaplains do not “support” each other’s religions, they do seek to maintain good relations. I am told reliably that Epstein is no exception to that. After he was selected, he tweeted an affirming, collegial shout-out to the other Harvard chaplains, singling out both a Unitarian Universalist chaplain and one affiliated with the evangelical, Pentecostal “Foursquare” denomination.

As part of these collegial relations, the chaplains rotate the largely honorific position of president between themselves and their various constituencies. This latest rotation was not a matter of Epstein and atheism triumphing over any of the other chaplaincies. It was simply his turn.

And Epstein was only elected for a one-year term!

Yes, this term is potentially renewable. But given the tradition of taking turns, Epstein is unlikely to remain president much longer.

And even if Epstein wanted to shut down other campus ministries, he has no power to do so.

The chaplains’ presidency involves such administrative work as convening meetings and serving as a liaison between the chaplains and the university administration, for which the president now receives a very nominal stipend from the university.

But this does not amount to being Harvard’s “chief chaplain,” as the New York Times headline declared. No such role exists. He is not the boss of the Christian or other chaplains there. Neither was Epstein’s Jewish predecessor. Nor was the solidly evangelical Christian I know and trust who held the title a few years before that.

I expect that Harvard’s Christian and other campus ministries will all continue much as they did before, without Epstein bringing major disruptions.

Harvard chaplains, including Epstein, generally raise their own salaries through the different religious communities they represent, rather than getting paid directly by Harvard University. As I recall from my time there, some were focused on their full-time jobs as pastors of nearby churches, and the extent of their work as “Harvard chaplains” was limited.

In light of these realities, the atheist Greg Epstein beginning a brief term as president of Harvard’s chaplains does not matter all that much. It does not bring any major, new, consequential change.

Harvard is not Moody Bible Institute. Only a minority of its students or faculty are devout, practicing, Bible-believing Christians.

When I was there, one very theologically conservative, inerrantist, complementarian Harvard chaplain memorably lamented how we evangelical Christians sometimes spend too much energy getting angry at seeing non-Christians acting like… non-Christians.

But on the other hand, Epstein’s prominence as Harvard’s atheist chaplain is significant, in that it reflects wider realities which American Christians ignore at our peril.

The wide attention recently given to Epstein’s role is an important reminder to American Christians that whatever we may want to argue about the supposedly “good old days,” biblical Christian faith is a lot more marginal in American culture today than we sometimes want to admit. Our faith must compete in a wide arena of different religious and non-religious worldviews. Beyond the church, various centers of cultural power that may have previously reinforced many of our values have decidedly become indifferent or openly hostile.

This is not limited to Ivy League campuses. Recent surveys show majorities of all Americans deny basic Christian doctrines about the Trinity, and strong majorities reject important biblical Christian moral values.

All of this has major implications for how we seek to make disciples and positively influence society.

Among other things, within the past decade, our country has seen an alarming rise in hostility to the basic principle of religious liberty. This has prompted many Christians to ask why our neighbors cannot simply take an attitude of “I strongly disagree with your Christian belief in this matter, but I will defend your right to believe it, declare it, and live your life according to it!”

But such protests are much less likely to be persuasive if we do not clearly, strongly, and sincerely also defend the freedom of conscience of our non-Christian neighbors to promote and live according to religions with whose beliefs we strongly disagree.

This is not a matter of us supporting any non-Christian religion. It is a basic matter of Christ’s Golden Rule of treating others as we want to be treated, by defending the same freedom of conscience for others that we want respected for ourselves. Such matters have become urgent in an increasingly pluralistic, post-Christian, and often hostile culture. None of this in any way diminishes our obligation to also share the Gospel in hope that others will come to know the only One who can save them.

If you are a brother or sister in Christ concerned or upset by the news of Harvard’s atheist chaplain, I respectfully challenge you to channel that energy in a constructive direction, by supporting evangelical chaplains who are on the front lines of witnessing for the truth of the Gospel, discipling new believers, and faithfully navigating rapid cultural shifts in the often-challenging environments of secular college campuses?

InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (whose evangelical statement of faith you can read here) has been doing a great job of such ministry for decades.

You can click here to give a generalized donation to IVCF’s ministry in the Boston Metro North Area, which includes Harvard, M.I.T., and other schools in the area.

Or you can click here to give an unrestricted donation to under-funded IVCF staff across the country.

Or you can use the search bar at https://donate.intervarsity.org to find and donate to the campus ministry of any particular school or IVCF staffer whose name you know.

Whichever you prefer, might I challenge you to prayerfully consider a donation today?

  1. Comment by Tom on September 2, 2021 at 5:42 pm

    It’s been quite a bit longer since I was a graduate student at Harvard (early 70s), but Harvard was dead as a doornail back then; and it appears that nothing has changed.

    Of course, Yale has a Catholic woman as their head chaplain, and (tongue in cheek) Harvard cannot afford to be outdone in avant gardiness by Yale, of all places.

  2. Comment by Mark on September 2, 2021 at 11:34 pm

    You make many good points in your article—e.g. why should we get upset at Christians for acting like non-Christians—but when these folks claim Christianity then there is a certain amount of dishonesty or ignorance than can evoke justified outrage…when left-wing zealots claiming to be Christians have a “faith” that so, the larger issue for me is the disingenuous manipulation of language in order to gain some degree of legitimacy or advantage, or to mislead others in order to get a desired result.

    Historically a “chaplain,” regardless of religious affiliation, was a spiritual guide or advisor. In other words, as you correctly point out, in the minds of most logically thinking people an “atheist chaplain” makes as much sense as as a “married bachelor.”

    We should not take this calculated manipulation of language lightly—it is more consequential than it may appear at first blush. Just look at how politically active leftists have redefined such terms as “marriage,” “gender,” etc.

    He who controls the language controls the culture. Orwell gave us what should be an enduring lesson about that.

  3. Comment by Robert on September 3, 2021 at 3:29 pm

    “I personally do not think that this can ultimately work as well without God. ”

    A sliiiiiight understatement I hope? Or is there sarcasm implied? If you only think that the church with God works a bit better than without God, then you understand absolutely nothing about having a new life in Christ.

  4. Comment by Donald Link on September 6, 2021 at 2:19 pm

    Even were I to grant all the author’s points, I would be no more upset or concerned over Harvard’s actions than I would any other institution’s foolishness that had no effect on me personally. In fact, their nonsense seems quite in keeping with the times in which reality seems determined by ones predilections rather than the reverse. Mar is quite correct and mores the pity.

  5. Comment by Daniel Snyder on September 12, 2021 at 6:53 am

    When you are looting the Egyptians you need to know who’s looting whom. As long as evangelicals persist in admiring the university system by spending tuition there, they will be contributing to the idea (and vocabulary) of a secular world. One may say ‘ignoring it won’t make it go away’, or perhaps allude to the Hebrew’s sojourn in Babylon, but for the moment we live in an intellectually free democracy. You are there because you chose to be. When we persist in allying ourselves with the satraps, preferring the fleshpots, reminiscing about our promiscuous ‘alma mater’, and inexplicably touting shamanistic practices as merely spiritual, it becomes hard to distinguish between the chalk and cheese. Why would a ‘chaplain’ even attend one of these ‘ecumenical’ meetings? Perhaps some anthropology experiment?

  6. Comment by William Pike on September 23, 2021 at 12:41 pm

    Thank you so much for this article, which battles the clickbait “fake news” that this news story really is. Having been an active Christian undergraduate student on Harvard’s campus in the 1990s, I know first hand how truly unremarkable this news story is. May I also add that, liberal as it is and was, I found Harvard to be a surprisingly religious place. Practicing Catholics and Jews, along with a core of committed Protestants, were everywhere just a generation ago. Ironically, I recently worked at a United Methodist-affiliated college in the Midwest and found it to be a far less religious campus than Harvard. The school’s Methodist heritage was seen as an embarrassment, and believers of any types were shut out in a secular and materialist campus culture. How sad, yet not surprising.

The work of IRD is made possible by your generous contributions.

Receive expert analysis in your inbox.