April 30th, 2010 | Posted by: Chris Stedman
Interview with Greg Epstein
I first had the opportunity to meet Greg Epstein, the Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University, when I was working onInterfaith Youth Core‘s 2009 Conference, Leadership for a Religiously Diverse World. We exchanged several emails and had a great conversation at the event itself. We’ve since stayed in touch, and it is always great to hear him talk about his work at Harvard, so I was excited for the opportunity to do so at the Summit. Epstein discussed what he does as a Humanist Chaplain, which is working with students to achieve goals, build a sustainable community, teach and advise student research, and help provide resources for those outside the Harvard Community. He discussed his interpersonal work with students, including a conversation he frequently has with students about values: “Once you begin to think skeptically,” Epstein said, “where do you draw the line? Where do you reconstruct a set of beliefs that says we have all kinds of natural, relative, but still very important reasons for caring about ourselves, others, and the world?”
Epstein also reveled that when he started as Harvard’s Humanist Chaplain, the total budget was $28,000, which included his salary, money for programming — everything. He has since expanded it significantly. Epstein said that the small amount of funding for the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard represents the struggle our movement faces as a whole: “In this career field, and in this movement in general, you have to be willing to take a risk if you want to make any kind of advance. We are starting so much further behind anything that might reasonably be considered our competition.” As usual, it was a pleasure hearing Epstein talk. For more, check out a video of the session here (and, if you turn the volume up, you can hear me ask a question about collaborating with religious chaplains near the end of the video).
Bridging the Divide — Keys to Respectful Interaction and Cooperation with Religious Groups
This session, as well as the next two to follow, where those that most directly echoed the work that I do. I was so excited to see this workshop on the list of sessions, and it did not disappoint. Nate Mauger, Secular Student Alliance intern, described his experience when his Secular Student Alliance group partnered with an on campus Christian group to go to New Orleans for a service project. You can read about his service experience in his amazing NonProphet Status guest blog from earlier this week. In his presentation he highlighted some key beliefs on why it is important to collaborate with religious organizations (beliefs I obviously share), including that it is a “great opportunity to dispel common negative stereotypes aimed at the secular movement,” that engaging with people of differing viewpoints enhances the quality of conversation, and that one is able accomplish a lot more by combining resources. Mauger also offered advice on how to reach out to a religious group, and counseled that clear communication is key and disagreement is inevitable but that you should “take time to focus on issues on which you can find common ground.” All in all it was an excellent presentation and a helpful starting point for secular folks interested in getting involved in an interfaith project.
A Secular Humanist Invocation
Andrew Lovley, Founder and Chair of the Southern Maine Association of Secular Humanists (SMASH) and student at the University of Southern Maine, offered a reflection on the controversy that ensued after he was invited to deliver an invocation at the inauguration ceremony for new city officials in South Portland, Maine. Unsurprisingly, his invocation actually prompted less outcry from religious people than it did from those within the secular community, where he was criticized for doing something “religious.” Lovley asserted that he believes that “Secular Humanists should do invocations and other religious practices whenever they have they have the opportunity” and use them as opportunities to “unify and inspire, not protest [religion],” saying he believed such protests are counterproductive. As a Secular Humanist who has taken a preaching class in seminary and preached several secular sermons, I agree with him on this. As Kelly Bodwin said on the first day of the Summit, we can use religious forms and apply them to our secular values, modeling our communities off the good things about religion. Lovley’s call for secularists to expand their notions of what kinds of activities secular folks should engage in resonated very strongly with me a secular interfaith dialogue facilitator and I really enjoyed hearing him speak so eloquently about his experiences and beliefs. You can read his invocation here, read a blog he did about whether Humanist’s should deliver invocations here, and see a video of his SSA Leadership Summit workshop here.
Gaining Acceptance — Lessons Learned from the Front Line
Greg R. Langer, an attorney from Los Angeles and founding chairperson of Chrysalis, a non-profit serving the homeless in L.A., lead a workshop on how to advance the secular movement’s quest for wider societal acceptance. He echoed a lot of what I’ve said in my work — the idea that demanding we be recognized as legitimate is far less efficient than demonstrating we are (show and don’t tell), saying that “claiming Atheists are victims does not engender positive responses.” Langer asserted that we will often need to meet religious people more than halfway, advising secularists to “treat each person as an individual and not as a representative of [her or his] group, even when you are not treated that way.” He acknowledged that “Atheism has baggage — it is seen as hostile,” and that “non-theism, while not as problematic, still only says what you do not believe.” For those reasons, Langer said that he prefers to identify as a Secular Humanist — this is precisely what I’ve said on this blog many times over.
Langer continued by saying that, though it may be tempting, the secular inclination to tell religious people that they are deluded is never productive. He warned that when engaging with theists one should anticipate and be prepared to address negative assumptions about the non-religious, but also said that we must “check [ourselves] for prejudices too. We will only achieve acceptance if we really hear [the religious] and empathize.” Langer also condemned the common Atheist desire to serve as a de-conversion missionary, saying that “while it might be nice [to de-convert], it is not our priority.” This echoes the interfaith idea that, while we would all love to see others come to recognize our “truth,” we know it is not the most important issue at hand. Ultimately, he said, gaining wider acceptance is about engagement — and, more specifically, changing how secularists engage. “Disdain must be replaced with empathy,” Langer said,” just as we ask them to empathize with us.” I found Langer’s speech to be a very important articulation of the message that I advocate and really enjoyed the ways in which he broke it down into specific actions secularists can take to promote wider acceptance of secular perspectives.
Building a Relationship with the White House
As great as the sessions were, my favorite part was meeting with the other attendees of the Leadership Summit. There was a broad variety of perspectives present, but we all spoke our mind without fear of disagreeing and without criticizing one another. It gave me a lot of hope for greater unity in our movement, and I was glad for the opportunity to participate.
Now that my travels are done and I am back in Chicago, I’m turning to work on the final days of the Share Your Secular Story Contest. It closes in 15 DAYS so submit now!