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Perhaps lost in the controversy over Greg Epstein's attempt to frame his dispute as "humanism vs. atheist fundamentalism" is that Epstein mischaracterizes the former half of that conflict as well. Not all humanists would stand with Epstein against Sam Harris...

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April 03, 2007

Greg Epstein ≠ humanism

Perhaps lost in the controversy over Greg Epstein's attempt to frame his dispute as "humanism vs. atheist fundamentalism" is that Epstein mischaracterizes the former half of that conflict as well. Not all humanists would stand with Epstein against Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins (certainly not the humanist who writes this blog), and in fact possibly most humanists would find what Epstein is doing a bit smelly (this one does).

I am reminded of this part of the issue by a very informative email this morning from Jesus Project chairman and Center for Inquiry bigwig R. Joseph Hoffman. (CFI, of course, is the institution behind the Council for Secular Humanism.)

He writes:


You hit the nail on the head regarding Epstein. But there’s another nail. Epstein was hired as the humanist “chaplain” at Harvard a little over a year ago, an inconspicuous sinecure under the post’s previous occupant, Tom Ferrick, in whose name this gala is allegedly being staged. There are chaplains at Harvard for virtually every denomination under the sun—for all I know some that worship the sun as god. What makes Epstein special is his determination to turn his role into that of World Leader of the New Humanism, using the Harvard name as a whip to bring recalcitrant or struggling humanist groups into his new order. Alas, some struggling groups have fallen prey to his use of the prestige-card.

And that’s the other nail. As far as I know, Epstein is an ordinary graduate student and sometime secular “rabbi” who has never published a book and never held a faculty position. Anywhere. If I were pigeonholing him (and why not?) he belongs to a class of overzealous seekers—the guys I wrote about in an uncomplimentary piece called “Spiritual Libertarians” (Free Inquiry, September 2006). Not really atheists, unless they’re in the mood, or agnostics, or freethinkers—not even really humanists, but not “religious” either. If the word spiritual works, they wear it; but if they need to spin things in a secular direction to win friends and influence people, they spin away like sodden spiders. This is Gen-X humanism for the Passionately Confused, and owes almost nothing to philosophy, intellectual commitment, or serious political involvement. It’s about bringing people to the table because eating together is always nice. Family-time, yes?

But Epstein is also doing something he needs to be called on. He is using Harvard as a “brand” for the New Humanism and as a shortcut to the legitimacy he craves. He may or may not understand what he’s doing as inappropriate or intellectually coercive (I have an opinion, of course), but whether he does or not is irrelevant. There is no such thing as Harvard humanism. No faculty authorized its sale or the use of it as a label. Harvard Divinity School would be scandalized—as an HDS graduate I am scandalized—at the cynical misappropriation of the University’s national reputation as a way of bottling humanism. By its nature, humanism has resisted the legitimacy that comes from institutional constraints, and the Epsteins of this world are only able to thrive because many younger humanists simply don’t know this.

I am (pretty) sure the University is not aware of Rabbi Epstein’s exploits, or more exactly, his methods. But let the Catholic chaplain try selling the Harvard Catholic Renaissance or the Unitarians the New Harvard Unitarian Revolution—or the Mormon Chaplain the Harvard Latter Day Saints Restoration Movement, there would be trouble on the Charles—lots of it. Epstein sees himself installed in a bully pulpit. But the pulpit is being abused. He needs to be outed and the whistle blown on his operation. He’s a coalition-builder who pretends to have the favor and support of an institution with no clue that a lowly part-time employee who lives in the basement of Memorial Church is passing himself off as an official agent of the world’s richest and most prestigious university. If you ask me, he should stop missing classes and get back to counseling the six students at Harvard who officially call themselves humanists.

Please feel free to quote me. And thanks for your pieces.


R. Joseph Hoffmann, PhD
Senior Vice President
(Education and Academic Programs)
Center for Inquiry Transnational