Greg Epstein, atheist superstar 


Once an intellectual taboo, atheism has become one of the great growth industries of the third millennium. Combative atheist titles like Christopher Hitchens' God Is Not Great, Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion, and Sam Harris' The End of Faith become New York Times best-sellers; faith-bashing films like Bill Maher's documentary Religulous and Ricky Gervais' comedy The Invention of Lying perform respectably at the box office; a Trinity College study predicts that nonreligious Americans (including atheists and milder skeptics such as agnostics) will comprise 25 percent of the populace by 2029. Factor in President Barack Obama's inaugural nod to "nonbelievers," which followed earlier shout-outs from aformer president George W. Bush (!), and suddenly atheism looks like an improbable cultural juggernaut.

But might the aggressive stylings of Hitchens and Co. — dubbed the "New Atheists" by friends and foes alike — undercut their own efforts to spread the gospel of nonbelief? Hitchens, for example, has stated that religion "should be treated with ridicule, hatred and contempt." And last July, atheist blogger PZ Myers — inspired by an old anti-Semitic smear — drove a rusty nail through a communion wafer (considered the body of Jesus by Catholics when blessed), tossed both items in the trash, threw in a banana peel and some coffee grounds for good measure and wrote about it gleefully in a post titled "The Great Desecration." (In a final flourish, Myers re-nailed the wafer to pages ripped from the Koran and The God Delusion.)

Among nonbelievers who see atheism as a movement, not just a private choice, there's some concern that these extreme tactics could backfire. When the Amherst, N.Y.—based Center for Inquiry goadingly launched "Blasphemy Day" earlier this fall, for example, Paul Kurtz — the center's founder and emeritus chair — accused participants of "go`ing` beyond the bounds of civilized discourse in a pluralistic society" and compared their output to Nazi-era caricatures of Jews. This burgeoning disagreement is nasty enough that some participants and observers are using the S-word — schism — to describe it. Which, when you think about it, kind of defeats the atheist point.

Enter Greg Epstein, Humanist chaplain at Harvard University and author of the just-published Good Without God: What a Million Nonreligious People Do Believe (William Morrow). Depending on your perspective, Epstein -— a youthful ex-rocker from Flushing, Queens, who boasts graduate degrees from both the University of Michigan and Harvard Divinity School — is either a combatant in this brewing civil war or a peacemaker who could save atheism from itself.

Tonally, Epstein's divergence from the New Atheists is sharp: He dreams not of decisively crushing faith, but of a future in which the godless and godly cozily coexist, respecting each other's convictions and even making common cause on issues of mutual concern. Two years ago, this difference caused something of a crisis for Epstein when, prior to a conference celebrating the 30th anniversary of Harvard's Humanist chaplaincy, he distributed a press release labeling Hitchens et al. "atheist ‘fundamentalists,'" a term which, with its dual charge of mindlessness and hypocrisy, is about the most incendiary term one nonbeliever can throw at another. An ugly row ensued, with Epstein claiming the phrase was misinterpreted and others rejecting that explanation. ("There really seems to be only one appropriate response," wrote atheist blogger and Epstein critic Brian Flemming. "Fuck you.")

But today — chastened, perhaps, by the brouhaha of 2007 — the 32-year-old Epstein seems to be taking a more conciliatory stance. "I admire today's ‘new atheists' because they seek to right the very real and very many religious wrongs of our time," he writes soothingly in Good Without God. "And I especially appreciate Messrs. Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens when they liberate young people to feel good and be open about their lack of belief in God at a time when many still live in communities that shun those who will not produce at least an outward display of allegiance to the old values."

Epstein's bigger point, though, is that simply criticizing religion isn't enough: Rather than polemicizing against faith (or each other), nonbelievers everywhere should focus on formulating a positive conception of life that can inspire and guide the godless — faith without faith, if you will.

It's an enticing pitch. And for several reasons (including the ever-powerful Harvard brand) Epstein is an attractive, prolific messenger: He blogs for the Washington Post; has been referenced by (among others) New York magazine, the Daily Beast, NPR and the BBC, and is slated for upcoming appearances on NPR's Fresh Air and ABC's World News With Charles Gibson. But given the internal tensions roiling atheism today, does Epstein have a prayer?

Smooth operator

The problem with the world's billion or so nonreligious men and women, Epstein contends in Good Without God, is that they've allowed themselves to become defined by what they don't think, not what they do — a problem implicit in the term "atheist" itself, which connotes a rejection of God, but not the embrace of any other source of meaning. The solution for "Humanists," as Epstein calls them — by which he means those who don't believe in God, or aren't sure, or don't care, but seek a cohesive, secular philosophy of life — is to strive for a condition he calls "dignity":

"`T`here is a state in which you're aware of your own humanity, and you're also aware of others' humanity, and you're aware that all human beings are human. There's a state in which you're aware of your own vulnerability and mortality, and that awareness allows you to connect with others from a place of strength and empowerment. There's a state in which you don't have too much clingy connection or too much lonely disconnection, but where you combine self and other. Being in this state feels good in both the short term and long term — good enough to motivate us strongly. And so our goal is to get there and try to stay there."

If you reject the idea of a Big Guy Upstairs, but still crave a thoughtful, demanding framework for existence, that's a pretty attractive formulation. But selling it to Epstein's intended audience — which includes not just those billion humanists-in-waiting, but progressive religious believers, as well — could be tricky. Atheists animated primarily by their opposition to organized religion may see Epstein's ideal as worrisomely religious itself. And even broad-minded believers might decide that Epstein's arguments aren't that different, in their core premises or long-term implications, from the New Atheism's harsher polemics.

Still, Epstein just might be diplomatically savvy enough to pull it off. During a recent conversation in his office, situated in the basement of Harvard's Memorial Church, I try to bait him into talking about (and picking a fight with) religious critics who see his existence as an affront. But Epstein doesn't bite. Instead, he segues smoothly into a come-hither call to religious progressives.

"What I'm more concerned about," says Epstein, "are religious people who'd be fine with humanism, and interested in working as equals with me, but have never heard of it. When we meet those people, we have to explain: ‘We're not here to erase you, we're here to embrace you.'"

Corny? Most definitely. But as Epstein tries to reconfigure the relationship between the faithful and faithless — and to transform the nonreligious community's understanding of itself — this knack for supplanting conflict with warm, fuzzy affirmation will come in handy.

So, too, will Epstein's skill at packaging complex ideas for maximum intellectual digestibility. Good Without God is largely a synthetic work, with bite-size treatments of humanism-friendly individuals (Epicurus, Spinoza, Freud), books (Jennifer Michael Hecht's Doubt: A History, lots of Albert Camus' The Plague) and academic specialties (game theory, evolutionary biology). So wide-ranging is Epstein's rhetorical net, and so agreeable its entanglements, that readers of all stripes will be hard-pressed not to join the chorus by the book's close: Atheist-bashing is shameful! Humanists and believers can get along! Religion can teach atheism a thing or two!

And Epstein has other assets. With his youth, pleasantly angular visage and standard-issue hipster physique, he looks the part of an intellectual liaison specializing in bookstores, college campuses and assorted national-media outlets. He's also got a serious pop-culture fetish: Despite its heavy subject matter, Good Without God manages to reference the Miss Universe pageant, Planet of the Apes, the Beatles, Jay-Z's "Money, Cash, Hoes," Nelly's "Ride With Me," The Sopranos and Iron Chef.

Lest all this makes Epstein sound glib, it's worth noting that he arrived at his current humanist ideal after a protracted, painful personal search. As a kid growing up in Queens, Epstein says, he was an instinctive pluralist: The ethnic and religious diversity around him made it hard to buy the idea that any one religion had a sole claim on truth.

After his half-brother was bar mitzvah'd, Epstein decided to follow suit. Almost immediately, though, he fell away from Reform Judaism because the faith he saw struck him — in practice — as lethargic and insincere. Later, he identified Buddhism as a possible source of the genuine meaning that eluded him in Judaism, and he majored in religious studies and Chinese at the University of Michigan, determined to read the sacred texts of Taoism and Zen Buddhism in the original.

That didn't work out, either. Upon traveling to Taiwan and China, Epstein recalls, he quickly realized that the believers he'd met there were just as superficial in their commitment as the Jews of his youth. Epstein then sought meaning in music, singing for Sugar Pill, an Ann Arbor rock band. Again: disappointment. ("I found that most people in the music world were really looking for a big party," says Epstein. "Not to take that away from them, but that wasn't what I was there for.")

Epstein's luck finally changed when, in the early aughts, he had a chance encounter with a former teaching fellow who was training as a practitioner of humanistic Judaism, which grounds Jewish identity in culture and history, rather than belief in God. Epstein subsequently followed suit, and ended up studying with the late Rabbi Sherwin Wine, the godfather of the Humanistic Judaism movement, whom he identifies as his greatest intellectual influence. Given how far Epstein had fallen, existentially speaking, it was a fortuitous turn of events.

"Although I couldn't really believe in the God of the Western canon, or the Abrahamic religions," says Epstein, "I'd been looking for a sense that the universe cared about me. When I first began to grapple with the fact that this was most likely not the case" — here he laughs, bleakly — "that was a very difficult time for me. I would liken it to coming down off a drug. I had some sleepless nights, some days where I had trouble getting out of bed, all that. And I was scared. I felt very lonely and very much in pain."

All together now

This memory of isolation may explain why, for Epstein, Humanism can't just be an intellectual stance embraced by isolated individuals. Instead, it needs to happen in communities that share the basic trappings — congregations, meeting spaces, clergy, rituals — of traditional faiths. These accouterments, Epstein argues, "don't exist because God said so; they evolved because people needed them. Even if we're honest about religion, we're still going to need those human inventions."

Will we, though? Or does Epstein's determination to wed nonbelief to traditional religious forms suggest a fundamental failure of nerve? That's the explanation favored by Myers, the aforementioned Great Desecrator.

"I think it is very, very nice of Greg Epstein to want to ape religion, and maybe there will even be some people who find his ideas appealing," Myers says via e-mail. "However, I'd remind him that just as we can be good without God, we can also be good without rituals, good without sacraments, `and` good without priests and chaplains. … I can appreciate that he's offering a small step away from the old superstitions, but we can go so much further."

Myers isn't the only nonbeliever with reservations about Epstein's vision of atheism's future. Tom Flynn, editor of the Center for Inquiry's Free Inquiry magazine, seems genuinely impressed by Epstein's energy and media savvy. He balks, though, at Epstein's assiduous courtship of organized religion, his suggestion that humanism can be a sort of faith itself and his eagerness to build new, nonbelieving communities along congregational lines.

The problem, Flynn contends, is that humanism today is actually divided into two camps with radically different priorities, and Epstein only speaks to one of them. (Flynn speaks of "religious humanists" and "secular humanists," and situates Epstein in the former group; in Good Without God, Epstein makes no such distinction.)

"Greg lays a strong emphasis on denominational life, but a lot of folks on the other side of the tracks are strong individualists," Flynn explains. "They moved out of traditional religious backgrounds to move away from supernatural belief, but also as a way of emancipating themselves from a web of tight community control, and they're not eager to step back into a local community."

For Epstein to help keep atheism's internecine feud from boiling over, though, he doesn't have to convince every nonreligious man, woman and child that his vision is the right one. It would be enough, instead, to disrupt the vicious circle of charge and counter-charge that's currently ensnaring both the New Atheists and their milder-mannered compatriots. After all, if Epstein's vision takes hold, the latter can throw themselves into building his still-hypothetical Vast Humanist Community. The former, in turn, can go back to bashing God and the godly, rather than their fellow nonbelievers. And voilà! For the atheists, at least, it's peace on Earth, good will to men.

A version of this story appeared originally in the Boston Phoenix.

Help from on high

As he hawks his new book, Epstein is the beneficiary of some high-profile cross-promotion on the part of the United Coalition of Reason, a new Washington, D.C.—based group that aspires to organize (and found) atheistic groups around the country, and which decided to promote itself in tandem with Epstein's book release. The text of the ad campaign, with a cheery backdrop of blue sky and puffy white clouds, is plastered on billboards, buses and subways around the country: "Are you good without God? Millions are" (or some variation thereof).

"In the first half of this year, we were using billboards which say, ‘Don't believe in God? You are not alone,'" explains United CoR spokesman Fred Edwords. "But some groups said they'd like a more positive message, one that says what we advocate rather than what we don't believe. And we thought that was a good idea. … When we learned Greg was writing this book, we thought we could probably generate more media interest if we hitched our wagon to his star."

It's not clear, though, where the money for this bit of synergistic PR is coming from. United CoR's primary funder, Edwords says, is a "businessman who makes computer parts," and who's keeping his identity secret, not because he's ashamed of his beliefs, but because he doesn't want more people hitting him up for cash.

A.R.

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