Sam Smith – News that Harvard has selected an atheist as its lead chaplain brought real joy to my life because I have long considered myself an existentialist – including not opposing the good causes of religion but rather its general tendency to put faith ahead of them. Harvard’s Greg Epstein described it well in the title of his book, Good Without God. And it matched with my own apparent contradiction of favoring existentialism – e.g. individual action and choice over faith – along with gratitude for having gone to a Quaker high school.
Faith was rarely discussed at that school, while what one did out of fairness and decency often was. It was run by a Quaker meeting that had come out against slavery in 1677.
Even a Christian Science chaplain at Harvard praised Epstein: “Greg is known for wanting to keep lines of communication open between different faiths.” If you define religion primarily by faith, others are typically judged by that standard. But for an existential Jew like Epstein, working with others remains essential. And others notice.
The NY Times quoted Epstein: “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.”
Conventional religion in this land is fading and if we don’t find something to replace it, we will also find fewer places to discuss and act on the values that it has offered. This may seem strange for someone who calls himself a Seventh Day Agnostic but as I wrote some time ago:
“My own sloppy view of such matters stems in part from having been an anthropology major. Anthropology teaches you, among other things, the power and significance of mythology even as one is examining rationally the culture that embraces it. Myth is universal and exists even if what it claims doesn’t. Myth can either strengthen a culture or weaken it, but it doesn’t go away.
“Or as I sometimes put it, I don’t give a shit what you believe; just what you do about it,
“This mushy approach towards religion has stood me in good stead. During the 1960s, for example, I had quite a few good friends who were priests or ministers in part because we had too many activist things to do together to even bother talking about the possible theology behind it all.
“The fact that we aim to pursue reality does not mean that we shouldn’t have read Winnie the Pooh when we were growing up, sung hymns on Sunday, or prayed for a friend in need. We still need some magic; we just need to know when to call upon it and when to call 911 instead.”