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(THE CONVERSATION) At the end of August 2021, the Harvard University Chaplains Organization unanimously elected Greg Epstein president. Epstein – the atheist and humanist author of “Bon sans Dieu” – will be responsible for coordinating the school’s more than 40 chaplains, who represent a wide range of religious backgrounds.
His election garnered media attention, sparking articles in several outlets such as NPR, The New Yorker, the Daily Mail and the Jewish Exponent. Some have described the idea of an atheist chaplain as one more battle in culture wars.
But the trends reflected in Epstein’s stance are not new. Non-religious Americans, sometimes referred to as “nones,” have grown from 7% of the population in 1970 to over 25% today. 35% of millennials say they are not affiliated with a particular religion.
They are part of a diverse group who are changing ideas about what it means to be non-religious.
As sociologists of religions, we have studied these transitions and their implications. A recent study with colleagues at the University of Minnesota shows that while Americans are increasingly comfortable with alternative forms of spirituality, they are less comfortable with those they see as entirely. secular.
We argue that Epstein’s election represents a change that shows the growing visibility and acceptance of non-religious Americans. At the same time, the turmoil around his position shows the lingering moral unease many Americans have with atheism.
Epstein seems to understand this cultural dilemma and emphasizes his commitments to social justice and humanism, a philosophy that rejects supernatural beliefs and seeks to promote the common good. In doing so, he becomes the spokesperson for something new in the American context: an atheism that explicitly emphasizes its morality.
Join the ranks
Atheism has long generated conflict in the United States, dating back to colonial times. But the “golden age” of free thought at the end of the 19th century brought the first widespread public expressions of skepticism towards religion. Lawyer and public speaker Robert Ingersoll angered religious leaders as he lectured on agnosticism to packed halls across the country.
In the 1920s, Scopes’ “Trial of the Apes” on Teaching Darwin’s Theory of Evolution in Public Schools highlighted struggles for religious authority in American laws and institutions. Meanwhile, black religious skeptics, often overlooked by academics, influenced artists like Zora Neal Hurston and, later, James Baldwin. Many Americans know Madalyn Murray O’Hair, who successfully challenged Christian prayer and required Bible readings in public schools in the 1960s and founded the organization that became American Atheists.
More recently, a growing number of atheist and humanist organizations have promoted the separation of church and state, fought discrimination, supported pro-science policies, and encouraged public figures to “turn out” to be atheists.
Black atheists, not always feeling welcome in organizations run by white people, formed their own, often centered on social justice.
No God, no trust?
Despite this growing organization and visibility, a large percentage of Americans do not trust atheists to be good neighbors and citizens. A national survey in 2014 found that 42% of Americans said atheists did not share their “view of American society” and 44% would not want their child to marry an atheist. These percentages were virtually unchanged in a 2019 follow-up.
These attitudes affect young people like those to whom Epstein ministered. A third of atheists under 25 report being discriminated against at school, and over 40% say they sometimes hide their non-religious identity for fear of stigma.
As a chaplain, Epstein’s job is to provide spiritual guidance and moral counseling to students, with particular emphasis on those who do not identify with a religious tradition. He identifies himself as an atheist, but also as a humanist.
In American society, humanism is increasingly accepted as a positive and moral belief system, to which some respond more favorably than atheism, which is seen as a rejection of religion. And a handful of American college campuses now have humanist chaplains.
But atheism remains more controversial in the United States, and an atheist chaplain is harder to sell. Efforts to include atheist chaplains in the military, for example, have not been successful.
Change of tone
Epstein, a strong proponent of humanism, appears to push back Americans’ lingering moral concerns about atheism identified in University of Minnesota research.
His book openly challenges these views by asserting that atheism is a morally embedded identity for people around the world. He speaks at length about how humanism can motivate concern for racial justice and called on political leaders on the left to embrace non-religious as an important, value-driven constituency.
This marks a different take on more militant high-level atheists, especially the Brights movement and so-called new atheist intellectuals like Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens. Epstein does not stand “against religion” but seeks to cooperate with religious leaders on matters of common moral concern.
It is too early to say whether Epstein’s strategy of linking atheism with humanism, justice and morality will succeed in changing attitudes towards atheists. He is, however, likely to keep it in the public eye, a symbol of the transition in the way Americans relate to organized religion.
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