20 The humanisT | march - april 2007
Beyond the Walls
of the Secular Cathedral
PHOTO BY TOm AdAms
march - april 2007 | The humanisT
The Humanist: How long have you been humanist chap-
lain of Harvard?
Epstein: I took over the position in 2005. Most people
have no idea Harvard has an endowed, permanent human-
ist chaplaincy—much less that we’ve been around for over
thirty years now.
The Humanist: It’s unusual for a humanist leader to work
in an official position such as a chaplain at a university. And
you work at not just any university, but at Harvard. How do
see you the significance of your job?
Epstein: In his landmark book, The Good Society, sociol-
ogist Robert Bellah commented that the university is the
secular cathedral. In the secular world, Bellah says, univer-
sities come closer than any other institution to having the
prestige, the influence, and the power to inspire that cathe-
drals have in the religious world. It follows, for better or for
worse, that Harvard has been seen as the ultimate secular
cathedral. For example, the American Humanist Associa-
tion’s most prestigious award has been its Humanist of the
Year Award. Of the fifty-plus individuals who have received
that award since 1953, ten of the recipients have taught at
Harvard. That’s an astounding ratio.
The Humanist: It’s true that many prominent humanists
have taught at Harvard. But your position as humanist
chaplain isn’t exactly a teaching position, is it? How is the
humanist chaplain different than a professor?
Epstein: That’s right, the humanist chaplaincy at Harvard,
rather than being a standard academic chair or institute, is
dedicated to what we call “building, educating, and nurtur-
ing a diverse community of humanists, agnostics, atheists,
and the non-religious at Harvard and beyond.”
To give it some context, Harvard was founded in 1636 by
hard-line Puritan Calvinist Christians. Eventually though,
The Humanist Interview with Greg Epstein,