Visiting author discusses spiritual path, humanistic Judaism

Greg Epstein


Greg Epstein, Humanist chaplain at Harvard University and author of “Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe” will be speaking at the Lee Institute on Monday. The Institute, which is supported by an endowment from the Lee Foundation and by Ladue Chapel, tries to encourage spiritual and religious growth through speakers and educational seminars.

As an ordained Humanist rabbi, Epstein contributes to The Washington Post, Tikkun and “On Faith,” an online forum on religion produced by Newsweek. He has been featured on National Public Radio, BBC Radio, US News and World Report and USA Today.


Tell me a little about your job?

Primarily, I serve the community at Harvard that describe themselves as humanist, atheist, agnostic or non-religious. We find that to be a pretty big slice of campus. According to a couple of recent surveys, it can be anywhere from one in every four or five young Americans. Here at Harvard, it’s at least that much if not more. The way I break it down is that I’m involved in building, educating and nurturing a diverse community. I’m a community organizer. I help people find a place here on campus that would be equivalent to a religious community, a supportive group of likeminded people but without the traditional religious beliefs.

What do you talk to students about?

I also do what is called philosophical guidance and counseling, meaning that I have students come in and talk about issues that come up with their family, with health, with love and relationships, whatever it might be that relates broadly to humanism. A student might just want to talk about the meaning of their life. I have those conversations all the time. I also do weddings, baby namings, those sorts of things.

Do some people consider “humanist chaplain” or “humanist rabbi” a contradiction in terms?

Of course. Some people have never heard of this before. I love to say if it’s an oxymoron to believe that people who don’t believe in God can still want a caring community, then I’m proud to be a walking oxymoron.

What will you speak about at the Lee Institute?

I’ll be talking about some of the ideas that are in my book “Good Without God.” Essentially it’s an introduction to humanism. There are now a billion people who define themselves as non-religious in one sense or another. I’m not claiming that every single one is a humanist, an atheist or an agnostic but I am saying that it seems to me that the great majority of them do have something profound in common. We should look at them as a tradition and as a group at least as much as we look at Jews, Christians or Muslims, all of whom are extraordinarily diverse groups.

What is humanism?

It’s not often understood but what these non-religious people stand for and what they tend to believe in is what I call humanism. We are focused on what is good in life and bringing that about, whether it’s doing good for ourselves or for our loved ones or for all human beings. We now have to recognize that when we talk about religion in society and the role it plays, you can’t leave out the role of the non-religious. It’s not just against religion. It’s for something very powerful and very profound. That’s humanism.

Do you consider yourself Jewish?

I came to humanism through a movement called Humanistic Judaism. I’m ordained as a humanist rabbi. What that means is that I grew up with two Jewish parents in a culturally Jewish household but neither of my parents were religious. Somewhere around 49 to 51 percent of Jews in America describe themselves as secular or not religious. My parents were definitely in that demographic. Most likely, so were most of my grandparents and some of my great-grandparents. I grew up with a Jewish identity based around the Holocaust and the idea of “Never again.” I was bar mitzvahed but it wasn’t a particularly interesting experience. I found the secular world and the world of religious and cultural diversity more interesting.

You studied many religions. How did you eventually take a Jewish path?

I decided that if I wanted to get involved in any religion I didn’t want to run away from my culture and my heritage but I also didn’t want to pretend that I believed things I didn’t believe. The religious aspect of Judaism just didn’t make any sense to me. I didn’t believe in the Chosen People. I still don’t. I believe the Bible, the Torah, the Talmud, the prayer books are literature created by human beings. I don’t see divine inspiration or any form of inspiration that wasn’t available to Shakespeare or Homer or Dante or James Joyce in our Jewish texts but that doesn’t mean that they are not important.

What’s the future look like for humanistic Judaism?

Both with Humanistic Judaism and humanism, I think people are becoming much more aware of it. I think people are acknowledging that in this diverse world there is a place for people to have a culture and a community without religion or belief in a God. We can have secular rituals and a sense of meaning and purpose that comes from one another and not from the divine.

What are the challenges?

There have been so many people who have subscribed to this view I’m describing but there has been so little leadership. What would happen if in all the churches and synagogues in the country we took away the rabbis, the ministers and the buildings and just expected people to fend for themselves and create their own movement? Judaism and Christianity would be much less powerful and organized. It’s leadership and structure that have empowered them. What we’re doing now is creating more professional leadership. I’m training young leaders at Harvard and working with others around the country that are training young leaders and very intentionally and purposefully growing a movement and a structure.

What does that look like?

It’s not a top-down structure. I’m not the pope and I’ll never be the chief rabbi of this movement. We don’t believe in such things. There is no one person with perfect authority to dictate how humanism should be and there can’t be. That doesn’t mean that we can’t have structure and training to have a more humanistic presence in the world.

Any concluding thoughts?

I think it’s important to recognize that you can be good with or without God. What we need is not to convince one another to be humanist or not humanist, Jewish or not Jewish or to be any particular thing. What we need is to find ways to support one another in our common humanity.


Greg Epstein 

WHEN: 7 p.m. Monday, Oct. 25

WHERE: Ladue Chapel Presbyterian Church,

9450 Clayton Road


MORE INFO: 314-993-4771 or