My favorite part of 9/11 (pause) was the Muslim terrorists, when they went to Muslim heaven, which we all know isn’t true. They can’t be in Muslim heaven because they’re in Christian hell. Unless they go back and forth, which you can do because they’re both pretend.
~Comedian Dana Gould/”Anything Can Be Funny”
As is so often the case, the theme of today’s post was triggered by the convergence of the following unrelated events.
- An August 26 New York Times report by Emma Goldberg titled, “The New Chief Chaplain at Harvard? An Atheist.”
- Reports, upon the departure of last U.S. military from Harmid Kharzi Airport, of Taliban soldiers shooting their weapons in the air, chanting, “Allah Akbar” (“God is most great.”)
I became aware of the Harvard University story when a friend and colleague, who also happens to be an ordained minister, emailed it to me and sought my opinion. My response, as any regular reader of this blog might suspect, “I find this somewhat refreshing.” A perspective affirmed as I read Greg Epstein’s justification for his appointment to his new post, one in which he is expected “to coordinate the activities of more than 40 university chaplains, who lead the Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist and other religious communities on campus.”
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.
There it was, a focus on universal spirituality rather than membership in any religious movement. More relevant today than ever. When the Taliban believe they were commanded by their God to twice rid Afghanistan of foreign invaders. Or American religious leaders who declare certain candidates for public office are part of God’s plan. The irony, in this latter instance, being the white evangelical community preferring the least Christian-like option in 2020 over a practicing Catholic who continually draws on his faith.
Please do not take the above as a denunciation of all religion. If participation in a religious community helps one find the path to spirituality, no argument here. After all, a religious leader in the Jewish tradition is called “rabbi,” which literally means “teacher.” But the role of educator and mentor is not reserved for any single denomination. The same can be true of any priest, pastor, minister or imam. The question associated with Harvard’s choice of Epstein as chief chaplain is whether he can serve that same function without the trappings of a church, synagogue or mosque.
To answer that question, look at a principle of religious faith which transcends one’s choice of religious affiliation, belief in something greater than oneself. For many that “something” is belief in a divine presence. For the atheist or agnostic, that “something” needs to be more tangible. One’s community. Human rights. A mission with an external purpose. Something other than one’s own well-being or acquiring power. There is no dearth of available alternatives.
However, as a devout agnostic, my personal spiritual journey must also be one of continuing questioning and discovery. In that vein, I often find atheists as frustrating as those who are convinced their religious testament–old or new–is the literal word of God. Especially since so many before them watched (assuming there is an afterlife) their absolute religious tenets become literature (Bulfinch’s Mythology) or their deities displayed as mere works of art relegated to museums.
In Genesis, Abraham is portrayed as the father of monotheism. As the story goes, he refused to accept the fact an idol, easily destroyed by humans, had divine power. How is that any different from questioning whether an omnipotent, compassionate God would tolerate genocide, innocent children dying from cancer or a global pandemic? In 1988, on a flight from Dallas to Honolulu, I sat next to Victor Stenger, a physicist and author of Not By Design: Origins of the Universe. Stenger, who died in 2014, continued to pursue this theme in later books such as God: The Failed Hypothesis (2007) and God and the Folly of Faith (2012).
As Stenger explained to me, the existence of humanity on earth without divine intervention was not only possible, it was mathematically probable considering the infinite number of galaxies, stars and planets. However, it also explained both the biological and sociological shortcomings of mankind. The probability of a perfect world with no disease, where everyone gets along with each other, though possible, is exponentially less likely. As I recall our conversation, I realize why I could never fully embrace his atheist views. In a universe with so many possibilities, there still remains that slight possibility there is a divine presence that is responsible for creation though not quite the way it is described in the first chapter of the Old Testament. As Neil deGrasse Tyson admits, “I know HOW the big bang happened. I just don’t know WHY.”
Maybe this explains Harvard’s counterintuitive choice of Epstein as chief chaplain and why a institution of higher learner is the right place for this “experiment.” If I were Epstein, I would begin my first conversation with the other religious leaders on campus as follows.
To paraphrase Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld at the beginning of the second Iraq war, “You go to life with the world you have, not the world you might want or wish to have.” It is why a university has two roles as it trains generation after generation to address the reality of an imperfect society. We of the spiritual community can help these adults in training find purpose. The academics train them to be doctors, scientists, politicians, historians and artists, giving them the tools to eliminate, or at a minimum ameliorate, the negative consequences of the imperfect world in which they were born.
In closing you might wonder if Epstein’s appointment is one more example of elite “woke” liberalism of a university president or board of trustees. It is not. Epstein, who has served as humanist chaplain at Harvard since 2005, was the unanimous choice of his peers. It suggests students who are seeking a different form of spirituality are not the only ones having second thoughts about their religious upbringing and training.
For what it’s worth.