Greg Epstein Presents Humanist View in Kaleidoscope Conclusion of Religion Sector

Greg Epstein, Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University, offered students a lens into humanism this past Wednesday, presenting an alternative perspective to the argument for embracing organized religion provided by Ross Douthat, conservative columnist for “The New York Times,” at last week’s All-School Meeting (ASM). Epstein is the concluding speaker in the Kaleidoscope series on religion. The Kaleidoscope Program aims to bring two speakers with opposing views on a controversial matter to help inform campus discussions.

Humanism, is “good without God,” said Epstein. “The emphasis in that phrase is on the good, on what it means to do good in this world, to lead a meaningful existence, in a world in which, from this perspective, there is no one purpose or meaning that is overarching, that is given to us by the universe that surrounds us.”

Epstein divided humanism into four basic principles, including a dissatisfaction with lack of scientific evidence, secularism, existentialism and the impossibility of a perfect world. Epstein first noted that humanism criticizes the lack of scientific evidence of a higher power. “Humanists are evidence-based empiricists,” said Epstein.

Rather than focusing on the question, “do you believe in God?” Epstein chose to engage the audience to reflect on questions like, “what do you mean by the idea of God and what do you believe in?”

He said, “God, to me, is the most influential literary or mythological character that human beings ever created. People started out by not knowing what created the universe they were living in, and so we told one another stories.”

Epstein’s argument contrasted Douthat’s claim that a supernatural power necesarily existed. Epstein argued that individuals should strive to live a good life, rather than a life defined by God.

Epstein referred to a quote from Thomas Jefferson in his speech. “[One has] the freedom to believe or not to believe in whatever one chooses,” said Jefferson.

Epstein’s third point emphasized that existentialism is the essence of humanist philosophy. He also quoted Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight,” stating, “It’s not who I am inside that defines me, it’s what I do.”

Lastly, he said that humanism defies the “Humpty Dumpty mentality.”

“[The Humpty Dumpty mentality] states that things were once perfect and round and shiny, like a bright, golden egg until [the egg] fell. And now it’s our job to reassemble all the pieces. The problem with this mentality is that there was no one perfect world or one perfect way you need to be,” Epstein said.

Epstein also discussed how he developed his humanist world view, a winding path that brought him from studying Eastern religions in Asia to being officiated as a humanist rabbi. Epstein became interested in Buddhist “zen” after his father was diagnosed with cancer.

Following the first complete Kaleidoscope pair performance, students had varied responses to the speakers and Kaleidoscope program as a whole.

Camerin Stoldt ’12 said, “He had a lot of good ideas, but he never expanded on any of them. I think we just scratched the surface that some people already knew.”

Mark Sullivan ’14 said, “Today’s ASM felt more controversial, since it presented the idea of the absence of a god. It also gave an alternative to atheism by explaining about humanism.”

Some students expressed that Epstein’s presentation was hard to follow.

Sophia Lloyd-Thomas ’14 said, “He was dynamic and exciting, but his rambling lacked central point.”

Students had mixed reactions to the Kaleidoscope Program.

Harry Cohen ’14 said, “I thought it was a good idea that they tried to have two viewpoints on a religion. However, it was poorly executed, because the ideas weren’t directly contrasting.”

Sullivan said, “These two ASM’s showed us all aspects of the world.”