Humanist chaplain calls for godless congregations

Appearing on ABC news, Greg Epstein, Harvard’s humanist “chaplain” (is that an oxymoron?),  calls for the formation of atheist congregations.

Now Epstein has a lot of good things to say in this interview, and kudos to Harvard for hiring a nonreligious minister-equivalent, but really, do we atheists want to gather together once a week to celebrate our nonbelief? Once a year at an atheist convention, fine, but is common nonbelief a good basis for forming a community? It seems to me that that’s more like what Kurt Vonnegut calls a granfalloon.

(p.s. Epstein has been ordained as a “humanist rabbi.” Nice title!)



  1. Posted January 25, 2010 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

    Once a week would be way too much for most folks, even if there is a strong positive subject to discuss besides “nonbelief”. Even once a month can be too much. (I missed the last 2 meetings of our local astronomy club, for example).

    Once or twice a year it can be great fun to meet up for beers and conversation, though. We try to organise such things in London every so often for us atheists/nontheists & sceptics that otherwise commune on-line.

  2. Posted January 25, 2010 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

    I don’t know what Epstein has in mind, but our local Humanist group is trying to make itself into the kind of community where one can find social connections, help members in distress, adult role-models for children, etc. — basically, the kind of social support network provided many church congregations. The value of those things to church members is non-trivial.

    • JD
      Posted January 25, 2010 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

      I agree with this type of social support network. It promotes humanism and community for the sole reason that we are all human and share a community.

    • Barb
      Posted January 28, 2010 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

      Can you tell us a little about how your Humanist group is working toward creating this kind of community? I know our local Humanist group would like to grow in that direction also but is confused about how to get there. Do you meet regularly? What sort of programs do you have in place? Do you have your own space in which to meet (as churches do)?

      • Posted January 28, 2010 at 9:03 pm | Permalink

        See our website, blog and Meetup pages:

        Humanist Association of Ottawa

        Ottawa, ON
        429 Secular Humanists

        The Humanist Association of Ottawa (HAO) is a non-profit organization that promotes Secular Humanism in Canada’s National Capital.The HAO welcomes Humanists, Atheists, and Ag…

        Next Meetup

        PUB NITE

        Friday, Aug 29, 2014, 7:00 PM
        4 Attending

        Check out this Meetup Group →

        Centre For Inquiry – Ottawa

        Ottawa, ON
        580 free thinkers

        Are There Limits To Free Inquiry? Where Do Values And Ethics Come From? Does Science Have All The Answers? Should Multicultural Rights Trump Universal Human Rights? You’ve Got…

        Next Meetup

        CFI UOttawa Campus club preliminary meeting

        Thursday, Aug 21, 2014, 3:30 PM
        7 Attending

        Check out this Meetup Group →

        We do not currently own or permanently rent premises.

      • Posted January 29, 2010 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

        The Humanist Association of Ottawa has recently started getting serious about the idea of building community. Most of the responses have been positive, but I have been very surprised to see a few vehement objections to the idea that humanists should have any sort of community structure, basically saying that people should have their own networks of family and friends to rely on.

        We currently have monthly meetings with a speaker (40-60 people), with time for socializing after, as well as get-togethers in restaurants/pubs, and potluck dinners. One thing we are about to try is a weekly meeting at which we would have small group discussions of various ideas etc.

        [If Dr Coyne would be so gracious as to let us hijack his blog for a bit of networking]
        Barb (and anyone else who is interested): You would be most welcome to email me at to share ideas etc.

  3. Posted January 25, 2010 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

    I’m sure that once a week would be too much for most godless, but for some it might be just what they’re missing.

    The point of “godless congregations” would not be that all secular people would want to join, but that some would like to socialize that often, and perhaps have their kids become more grounded in science and empiricism. In some communities some children of the godless might feel left out, though others might just feel lucky not to have to go to “church.”

    Glen Davidson

    • Stephanie
      Posted January 25, 2010 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

      This is true. Just like a lot of Christians don’t go to church every week. I wouldn’t be opposed to a atheist type “church” where people can go to get an uplifting message without the supernatural twist. Plus support groups could be formed to help those who left their religions or are suffering from other ills. It could be a positive example to those who criticize atheists as being immoral and without meaning in their lives.

  4. Posted January 25, 2010 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

    No, it’s not an oxymoron, as a chaplain is tied to an organization or institution, not a particular religion, and is expected to provide services for all members of that community. In fact, humanists are probably the ideal chaplain. Universities and hospitals are some common chaplaincies.

    The US Armed Forces have chaplains from most faiths as well as Unitarian chaplains who are certainly capable of serving humanists/atheists, and some might be themselves. There is currently an effort to approve pagan/Wiccan chaplains in the military, but the lack of a sponsoring group, not the beliefs of the candidates, is holding it back.

    Common non-belief is not a reason for a community, but common humanity is. If people want to have a supportive community without requiring supernatural beliefs, check out an Unitarian Universalist church. They do have weekly worship, but it is certainly not about celebrating non-belief, just patting yourself on the back for being “right” (okay, some might do that a little). Rather, it is about figuring out your ideals of living individually and in community, and then acting out those ideals.

  5. AdamK
    Posted January 25, 2010 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

    I’d never join a congregation that would have me as a member.

  6. Occam
    Posted January 25, 2010 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

    Apart from a deep bow to Paul Dirac, of whom Wolfgang Pauli said “There is no God, and Dirac is His prophet”,
    may I humbly suggest Transcendental Humanist gatherings?

    To wit:
    In the absence of god(s), we must transcend the Holy Spirit.
    How better to transcend than by ingurgitating the Spirits of the World?
    Our motto: Fermentate, Distillate, Celebrate.

    If need be for a secular Pontiff, given the nature and Spirit of the gatherings, Christopher Hitchens would readily emerge as the ideal candidate.

    Added bonus: teetotalers would split off, so we’d have our own schism.
    There’s even an opening for Ecumenism: non-denominational binges with our credulous but bibulous brethren.

    • Posted January 25, 2010 at 5:14 pm | Permalink

      No thanks to the secular pontiff thing. Yet another male clergy; no thank you very much.

      • Occam
        Posted January 25, 2010 at 7:34 pm | Permalink

        Given the candidate’s occasional propension to pontify, I thought he might as well get the job to go with it…

        Seriously, regarding this “male clergy” thing: if the ‘atheist congregations’ proposal is followed through, it is bound to reproduce pre-existing social structures. A secular male clergy looks inevitable. Unless…
        Unless we realise the absolute necessity to ‘think different’, not just ‘think negative’. That’s why I tried to make light of the idea; apparently the irony flag was needed.
        ‘Humanist chaplains’, ‘humanist rabbis’: the intention is good, the concept is irretrievably flawed, because it is irremediably fraught: akin to filling the Holy Grail with the content of a granfalloon (q.v.).
        Time and again, efforts to improve the human condition are hampered by a signal failure to understand what is constant and what is variable in social structures, what can and what should be changed. The ‘selfish memes’ tend to perpetuate themselves.

  7. Posted January 25, 2010 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

    I’m all in favor of this. Having church-like communities of skeptical humanists would make it a lot easier to argue that religion is unnecessary.

    I find church sort of dull, but I could definitely see a weekly meeting of a community of other skeptical types.

    So, maybe instead of Humanist Church, we should have Atheist Pub?

  8. Tulse
    Posted January 25, 2010 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

    But I already get my quota of social support from other non-religious gatherings, such as gaming. Why would I want to get together with other non-stamp collectors to do stuff other that talk about non-stamp collecting? There is an artificial quality to these humanist gatherings that I find unattractive, as if atheists are desperately trying to recreate all the trappings of religion without the actual beliefs. I’m happy to discard both the beliefs and the trappings, and to find other organizations and social groups that offer the secular support that religion does.

  9. Matt
    Posted January 25, 2010 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

    As a member of the Free Thought Society of Greater Philadelphia, I got to see Greg speak a few months back. He was quite good, and I like the idea of non-religious folk getting together to do good. I concur with Richard H.: church sucks, and would be put off by a weekly “congregation” meeting; it’s too church-like. However, I really like the idea of an Atheist pub. Swilling ales and philosophizing is a favorite pastime of mine. It would be like college!

  10. MadScientist
    Posted January 25, 2010 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

    That should be great on campus – the young godless people can meet eachother. Once a week seems fine – friday lunch and drinks. But for the godless community in general – I can’t imagine anything.

  11. Posted January 25, 2010 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

    Sounds like a call to creat something like an American cultural equivalent to
    Humanistic Judaism. Seems like there’s definitely room for such a movement among secular individuals and family’s looking for a community of like-minded individuals?

  12. Marilyn
    Posted January 25, 2010 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

    atheist congregations? please….it is called tail gating

  13. stvs
    Posted January 25, 2010 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

    Epstein’s faitheist views are laid out in an interview with Terry Gross.

    Based on this, I’m thinking that a yearly sermon from Epstein is too much, to say nothing of a weekly one.

  14. Posted January 25, 2010 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

    I find Epstein to be incredibly irritating and frustrating, primarily because he starts with the assumption that atheism is in itself a negative/empty/dour thing that “needs” humanism and humanist organizations and that “needs” to mimic religious rituals and practices in order to make it positive and meaningful. And I don’t buy that for one second.

    • Screechy Monkey
      Posted January 25, 2010 at 5:05 pm | Permalink

      I agree with you that Epstein is irritating. I just tell myself that this is an inevitable byproduct of atheists speaking out more. Just as the faitheists have to “put up with” Richard Dawkins “speaking for them” (even though he’s claimed no such thing), I have to put up with Epstein’s irritating schtick.

  15. NewEnglandBob
    Posted January 25, 2010 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

    I belong to an atheist group that meets once a month in a Panera restaurant on a Sunday and once a month in a coffee shop on a Wednesday evening. Some people only come to the Panera meeting and some only to the coffee shop. It is not a congregation by any means. We discuss the latest goings-on about atheism, current books, etc. There is no leader or chaplain or rabbi, just a bunch of people drinking coffee and chatting for an hour or so.

    • Posted January 26, 2010 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

      How did you found your community?

      • Barb
        Posted January 26, 2010 at 10:37 pm | Permalink

        I can’t speak for NewEnglandBob’s group, but many of these groups can be found on I belong to several secular groups in my area (Denver CO) that organize events through Meetup.

  16. J.J.E.
    Posted January 25, 2010 at 9:00 pm | Permalink

    I think a humanist organization that promotes goals in a secular manner is quite a useful idea, as many people have argued in the comments. I think it shouldn’t have an authority driven organization structure, so no rabbis and no priests.

    I do think it should provide a forum for promotion of education and skeptical inquiry that is open to all. I also think it should be socially coherent enough to support some of the roles that the church fulfills:

    1) meeting friends and perhaps mates;
    2) social support for members in times of need;
    3) a framework for collective action, especially charity.

    I detest the connotation of “sermons” and “flock”, “faithful”, “followers”, “believers”, etc. If the word “congregation” weren’t owned so thoroughly by religions, I’d like that one. It has the right semantic meanings, as in a “gathering”.

    Anyway, terminology aside, I think it is quite useful to have a social gathering of people that value possession and promotion of skeptical inquiry. I mean, college was an awesome time in part because there were institutionalized social structures that catered to communal gatherings of like-minded people whether it be the astronomy club, the biology club, or the skeptics club.

    Once you leave college (or if you never attend, or you are a commuting student who also works) you don’t have that support structure. I see nothing wrong with having that sort of structure outside of college as well. And I’d much prefer if it were about skeptical inquiry and humanism than if it were similar to Campus Crusade for Christ.

  17. Tim H
    Posted January 26, 2010 at 10:25 am | Permalink

    Champaign-Urbana Freethinkers generally has 1 meeting followed by a bar meet-up, and 1 Skeptics at the Pub purely social event per month. That works for us. What’s the difference between a congregation and a club?

  18. Remiel Crow
    Posted January 27, 2010 at 11:36 am | Permalink

    Seems to me there’s plenty of room in the world for both secular atheists/agnostics/humanists and the non-theists who want something more akin to a church-experience. One “pro-life” stance is: “Against abortion? Then don’t have one.” Why can’t we do the same among non-theists? Don’t like the words “church” and “congregation”? Don’t use them. Don’t like Epstein? Don’t listen to him.

    Seems to me that secularists who are so adamant against the trappings of “religion” no matter what the application are really saying the same things that the religious are saying when they assume they’re speaking for everyone.

    Personally, I would love to experience the community,ritual,and uplifting content that I would expect at a church; I just don’t want to have to believe in supernatural entities while doing so, nor do I want to be lectured about them just to participate in the community.

  19. erika
    Posted January 5, 2011 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

    ahh, okay woody Allen.

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