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The Nonbelievers

An increasing number of young people in America - and adults around the world - don't believe in God. Greg Epstein, who advises fellow atheists and agnostics at Harvard University, wants to create a kind of church for those who reject religion. But he's encountering resistance from some of the very people he wants to unite.

(Photo by Tanit Sakakini)

Rosy-cheeked angels smile from stained-glass windows, and crucifixes hang on the granite walls. The vaulting stone arches lend voices a holy echo. A chandelier-illuminated red carpet leads to the large casket, which is covered with white roses. When the balding man walks into the 165-year-old Gothic chapel, he greets mourners warmly, solemnly, with reverent words and tender handshakes, like a rabbi or a priest. But the well-wisher in a pin-striped suit is no man of the cloth. He doesn’t wear flowing robes or a skullcap, and instead of a Bible or other sacred text, he carries a book titled Funerals Without God.

"This is Reverend Epstein," says a friend of the deceased, a physician who considered religion a pernicious fiction.

Epstein interrupts: "It’s chaplain. . . . It’s OK. A lot of people aren’t sure what to call me."

Over the past two years, Greg Epstein, 30, has become a kind of ministerial paradox, a member of the local clergy who disavows God, preaches to atheists and agnostics, and seeks to build the equivalent of a church for nonbelievers and others skeptical of or alienated by religion. A former lead singer of a rock band, he now serves as the humanist chaplain at Harvard University, one of a small but growing number of such chaplains for nonbelievers on college campuses. In his position, which is endowed, he has helped marry and bury fellow atheists. He has presided over baby-naming ceremonies and organized a "coming out" ceremony for a congressman, Representative Pete Stark of California, one of the few public officials to acknowledge he doesn’t believe in God. He also counsels students and approximates evangelizing by handing out pamphlets with the question: "Are you a humanist?"

From the pulpit at Bigelow Chapel in Watertown (located in Mount Auburn Cemetery), speaking with the slow cadence of a clergyman delivering a sermon, Epstein tells those gathered not to expect a traditional service. "We intend, of course, no disrespect to those who have religious beliefs. . . . We hope and believe you will find the occasion dignified and acceptable."

He continues: "A religious funeral is a celebration of a particular faith, giving homage to God. A humanist funeral is a celebration of the individual human life and his contribution to humanity."

Later, after delivering a homily that might have been heard on a Sunday morning, he explains the contradictions of his role. "I have a religious personality, without a scintilla of religious belief," he says. "If it’s an oxymoron to believe that people who have ceased to believe in God still need caring and community, then I’m proud to be a walking oxymoron."

In a world where zealots crash planes into buildings in the name of God and politicians use the Bible to craft public policy, Epstein sees himself as in the vanguard of an emerging movement fueled by the rise of skepticism, advances in science and technology, and a spreading aversion toward radical religious ideologies and traditions. He and other humanists, who also call themselves atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, secularists, or brights, point to a survey published in January by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, which found that 20 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 25 say they have no religious affiliation or consider themselves atheists or agnostics – nearly double those who said that in a similar survey 20 years ago. Another Pew survey in March concluded the nation is witnessing a "reversal of increased religiosity observed in the mid-1990s." Today, 12 percent of Americans surveyed age 20 and older describe themselves as not religious, up from 8 percent in 1987. "This change," the survey’s authors wrote, "appears to be generational in nature, with each new generation displaying lower levels of religious commitment than the preceding one."

Epstein, a Jew from New York City who trained as a "humanist rabbi" after becoming disillusioned by the music industry during a year and a half crooning for a band called Sugar Pill, embodies that generational shift. He calls himself a humanist, because he sees it as a more embracing term than atheist. "Atheism is what I don’t believe in; humanism is what I do believe in," he says. He defines it as a "philosophy of life without supernaturalism that affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment aspiring to the greater good of humanity."

His deepening involvement in humanism has mirrored a rising interest in nonbelief throughout the country. Books about atheism have become a publishing phenomenon in the past few years, with five of the most popular combined accounting for more than a million copies in print. Some have spent weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, such as Sam Harris’s 2004 The End of Faith. The publisher of Christopher Hitchens’s God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything had printed some 300,000 copies less than two months after it went on sale this year. Other popular titles include evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion, of which there are more than a half million hardcover copies in print; Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon by Tufts University philosophy professor Daniel Dennett; and God: The Failed Hypothesis by Victor J. Stenger.

The spike in interest in atheism can be attributed to a backlash against militant Islam and a response to the faith-based initiatives and religiosity of the Bush administration, says Steven Pinker, the cognitive scientist at Harvard whom the American Humanist Association last year named its Humanist of the Year. But he says interest in the new literature also reflects how science is increasingly displacing religion as a way people understand the world. "Aside from fundamentalists, most people [outside the United States] have given up on creationism and seeing the Earth as the center of the universe," he says. "More and more of what used to be the domain of religion has been ceded to science. It’s the trend of modernity. I think this is a tide. We’ve seen it happen everywhere else in the developed world. This is the direction of history."

Students on college campuses and others have begun to organize nonbelievers. The number of campus groups affiliated with the Secular Student Alliance, for example, has increased by more than 50 percent in the past two years, to more than 80 groups, says August E. Brunsman IV, executive director of the Albany, New York-based alliance. Since January, the Center for Inquiry in Amherst, New York, a science-promoting umbrella group, has sponsored or helped organize more than 50 atheist outfits on campuses from the University of Georgia Law School to the University of Texas at Austin to Kent State University in Ohio, says D.J. Grothe, the center’s vice president of outreach. The MySpace atheist and agnostic group has grown by about 10,000 members a year since it began in 2004 and now is about one third the size of MySpace’s largest Christian group, says Bryan J. Pesta, an assistant professor of management at Cleveland State University, who moderates the group.

"We need to get visible and let people know that we’re much more like [believers] than different from them," Brunsman says. "By banding together under the umbrella of nontheism, we can show the country that we are a sizable part of the population, and we can show closeted nontheists that they are not alone."

Five years ago, to try to change the low opinion many Americans have of atheists (a national Gallup poll this year found more than half of those surveyed would not vote for an atheist for president), a group of four organizations started the Secular Coalition for America. Now, the coalition employs a full-time lobbyist in Washington, regularly issues press releases about everything from stem cell research to religious language used by politicians, and represents eight national organizations with more than 25,000 members, more than a third from the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Lori Lipman Brown, the coalition’s director, acknowledges they have a long way to go in a country where, polls show, two-thirds of the population still believes in God. But the venom she used to hear has faded.

"When I’m on right-wing radio or Christian radio, I no longer hear people say as much that I’m immoral or liable to commit murder," she says. "Now, it seems, they acknowledge it’s possible that I could be a good person."

Humanists trace their roots to the ancient Greeks, among them philosopher Diagoras, who burned images of the era’s gods. Their apostate forebears include the philosophers David Hume, who promoted skepticism and logical reasoning during the Enlightenment; Karl Marx, who likened religion to opium; Friedrich Nietzsche, who gained infamy by declaring God dead; and novelist Ayn Rand, who argued that reason is our only guide to action. Even Mother Teresa doubted the existence of God, according to a new book that unveils her private journals and letters. Humanists align themselves with more recent proponents of ridding society of God, including the author Dawkins, the popular astronomer Carl Sagan, and the novelist Kurt Vonnegut, who in 1980 asked a Unitarian congregation in Cambridge: "How on earth can religious people believe in so much arbitrary, clearly invented balderdash?"

Today, Americans appear to be following a larger trend of people around the world abandoning organized religion, particularly those in wealthier, more educated countries. In the 2007 Cambridge Companion to Atheism, Phil Zuckerman, a sociologist at Pitzer College in Claremont, California, studied religion surveys in some 50 countries. Over the past 50 years, according to a 2004 survey he cites, the percentage of people believing in God has plunged in Sweden, where as many as 85 percent of the population now say they don’t believe in God; Australia, where about 25 percent are nonbelievers; Canada, where as many as 30 percent don’t believe in God; and Japan, where about 65 percent are now nonbelievers.

Overall, according to 2007 World Almanac, there are nearly 1 billion nonbelievers in the world, which would make them the world’s third-largest persuasion, after Christianity and Islam.

While the ranks of nonbelievers are increasing, they likely account for a decreasing percentage of the world’s population, as religious nations tend to have higher birth rates, Zuckerman notes. In India, for example, he cites surveys that show between 3 percent and 6 percent of the population say they don’t believe in God. In the Middle East, where Islam – the world’s fastest-growing religion with about 1.3 billion adherents (about 800 million fewer than Christianity) – thrives, Zuckerman cites surveys showing that fewer than 1 percent of those in countries including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq, and Syria say they don’t believe in God. "Making definite predictions of the future growth or decline of atheism [is] difficult," Zuckerman writes. "What is clear is that while most people continue to maintain a firm belief in deities . . . in certain societies, nonbelief in God is definitely increasing."

Here in the United States, where atheism remains a relatively weak current against the tides of religion, the rising interest in Godlessness is most visible on college campuses and among recent graduates. Many of them regard religion as the perpetuation of superstitions and mythology and see the world’s largest faiths as sowing division and enmity more than the peace they profess.

Nina Lee, president of the Tufts Freethought Society, says a university survey of the Class of 2009 showed nearly one-third of her fellow students cited no religious affiliation – equal to those identifying themselves as Christian. Many of those who listed a religion, she says, are not actually religious. "I don’t think people are taking religious beliefs as seriously as they used to, but they still go through the habit of using religion as a way to meet people and as a social space," says Lee, 22, a senior majoring in psychology who was raised by Chinese Buddhists but who embraces humanism today. Lee studied religion but says she found no evidence to support it – her prayers to Jesus and Buddhist deities went unanswered, she says – and faults religion for standing in the way of science.

"I oppose any ideology that motivates people to ignore or deny scientific evidence, especially when that evidence is crucial for improving people’s lives," she says.

David Rand went to Hebrew school until he was a senior in high school. But the 25-year-old graduate student at Harvard never really believed in God and was excited to find like-minded students when he left home. "I don’t think religion is the source of all evil, but I think it can be a source of division in a world that does not need division," says Rand, who studies biology. "I don’t find the answers offered by religion satisfactory. Trying to find answers rationally is much more satisfying. . . . I think there’s also pleasure and beauty in natural explanations."

Zach Bos, 25, who works at Boston University and serves as director of the group Boston Atheists, grew up going to Sunday Mass, was active in his church’s youth group, and was confirmed as a Catholic. But now, he says, "my atheism is sustained by the continual absence of evidence for a single supernatural event. You might as well ask if my belief in gravity is sustained; it is only insofar as I haven’t seen any apples falling up off the tree today."

Still, for Bos and the others, there’s something missing, and it’s a void Greg Epstein wants to fill.

From his office in Harvard Yard, where the shelves are crammed with hundreds of books including Who’s Who in Hell, Politics at God’s Funeral, and Losing Faith in Faith, Epstein can’t escape the religious. He works in the bowels of the Memorial Church, where prayers literally seep through his walls and an organ groans from above. Crucifixes abound, and the surrounding offices are filled with Harvard’s faith-oriented chaplains. But unlike other humanists, many of whom argue that acceptance of even moderate views about religion legitimizes religious extremists, Epstein is more ecumenical in his atheism. He has even sparked controversy by criticizing more militant, religion-bashing atheists – in a press release promoting a conference on humanism last spring, his office referred to that group as "fundamentalists." His goal is to prod nonbelievers to go beyond denouncing religion and denying the existence of God; he wants them to focus on what they value, what unites such a disparate array of people and views. "Life can be lonely, challenging, and we need community," he says. "We do want to be part of something bigger than ourselves."

In the office of his chaplaincy, which has an endowment worth more than $2 million and pays him a salary of $20,000, Epstein keeps a stack of cards printed with a summary of the American Humanist Association’s Humanist Manifesto III, a successor to a draft from 1933. The foldout card lists maxims such as "Knowledge of the world is derived by observation, experimentation, and rational analysis"; "Ethical values are derived from human need and interest as tested by experience"; and "Working to benefit society maximizes individual happiness."

Epstein wants those bullet points to be more than bromides. Ironically, he would like humanism to share some of the accouterments and traditions of religion, sans notions of heaven and hell, of course. He envisions common songs, rites for weddings and funerals, and common spaces that might substitute for churches. "We have this critical mass of people that need more," he says, adding that nonbelievers need to build humanism so that it’s thought of as beautiful and inspiring. "You should be able to get out and say, ‘I did humanism.’ "

But Epstein’s vision and criticism of fellow atheists has angered some of the very people he wants to unite. R. Joseph Hoffmann, a senior vice president at the Center for Inquiry , argues that Epstein has "abused" his links to Harvard "as a shortcut to the legitimacy he craves."

In a letter that has made rounds in the blogosphere since last spring, Hoffmann wrote: "If the word spiritual works, they wear it; but if they need to spin things in a secular direction to win friends and influence people, they spin away like sodden spiders. This is Gen-X humanism for the Passionately Confused, and owes almost nothing to philosophy, intellectual commitment, or serious political involvement. It’s about bringing people to the table because eating together is always nice. Family-time, yes?"

The letter added: "What makes Epstein special is his determination to turn his role into that of World Leader of the New Humanism, using the Harvard name as a whip to bring recalcitrant or struggling humanist groups into his new order."

In one posting on his popular atheism blog, Brian Flemming, the director of the film The God Who Wasn’t There, called Epstein a "train wreck" who "seems determined to take the worst possible approach in his response to the controversy he started" when he used the "fundamentalists" label, which atheists consider a religious epithet.

"The accusation that blunt but reasoning atheists . . . are equivalent to the dogmatic fundamentalists on the other side is false, quite dumb, and constantly deployed by their enemies to derail useful conversation," Flemming wrote. "And that is not something of which you want to be part."

In response to his critics, Epstein – who speaks softly and has a gentle, rabbinical way about him – says the "fundamentalist" label was misinterpreted but that he has no intention of curtailing his efforts to promote a more communal humanism. "I’m proud to say I want and need to be part of a supportive community. Sadly, this can stir up the emotions of a few atheists who have been wounded by religion and want to distance themselves from it. . . . It’s true that religion has done some terrible, irrational things, but the key question for a humanist isn’t ‘Who am I angry at?’ It’s ‘How can I make this world a better place?’ "

On his blog at Harvard, Epstein wrote that he hopes atheists avoid vilifying believers as they have disparaged atheists. "I don’t even have a problem with all the people who are blogging about me right now and slamming me as some kind of representative of ‘appeasement,’ " he wrote. "We want to be treated as equals? Let’s raise hell about it, fine, but perhaps think twice about slamming me so hard as some kind of Uncle Tom (I definitely heard that one on a few blogs) if I want to speak for myself, and for the millions of atheists and Humanists out there who actually *like* and care deeply about a lot of religious people and don’t feel the need to hurt their feelings in addition to disagreeing with them."

The rift occurred as Epstein was about to assume a much larger mantle. After months of planning – arranging satellite links, choreographing schedules, and securing speakers such as the novelist Salman Rushdie, the Pulitzer Prize-winning scientist E.O. Wilson, and Nobel laureate and economist Amartya Sen – Epstein used his perch at Harvard to host more than a thousand nonbelievers at the humanism conference in Cambridge in April.

As a jab at his critics and to draw a distinction between their views, he titled the gathering "The New Humanism."

The conference, which featured speakers including Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz and a performance by the folk singer Dar Williams, was so packed that organizers had to turn people away. The panel discussions, stamped with Epstein’s agenda, had titles like "Toward an Abrahamic Humanism" and "Dialogue Among Religions, Cultures, and Civilizations." There was even an invocation read for the dead.

The most attended event was at Memorial Church, beneath a large crucifix, where Rushdie received an award. As the author of The Satanic Verses spoke amid the surrounding emblems of religion, he joked: "Thank you all for coming to this little Black Sabbath." Rushdie talked about growing up without religion and said his family celebrated holidays from many religions. But he later wondered: "Where’s the one for the unbelievers? Where is the Kwanzaa for the atheists? Surely we could make one of those up, [like] Atheismas."

The allusions to religion upset some atheists, a few of whom described events at the conference as "religious humanism." Rebecca Watson, the editor of Skepchick magazine who spoke at a panel presentation titled "The Next Generation of Humanism," says she supports the building of a support network for humanists. But on her blog, she wrote about the conference’s "disturbing trend of kowtowing to religion." She cited a teleconference Epstein organized with the Southern Baptist Convention and his dubbing the earth "The Creation," which Epstein later explained was a reference to the title of E.O. Wilson’s latest book.

"A number of the talks were sermons," she wrote. "I mean, they were really, really sermons, just without the god. The syntax, the tone, and some of the message (such as pleas for money) made many in the audience noticeably uncomfortable."

A few weeks later, while working on a book about what he calls "cultural humanism" and planning a class at Harvard Divinity School he has titled "Humanist Polity: Building a Community for Atheists, Agnostics, and the Non-Religious," Epstein learned of the death of 66-year-old physician Don Burke. He had attended the conference and helped support the humanist chaplaincy, which was founded in 1974 by Catholic priest turned atheist Thomas Ferrick and endowed in 1995 as part of a $100 million gift to Harvard by the philanthropist John L. Loeb.

Leading the service for Burke was a chance to act on his vision, to begin filling the emptiness inherent in atheism. So Epstein, who succeeded Ferrick as humanist chaplain two years ago, began perusing Funerals Without God to prepare for this day, his first humanist funeral. Standing at the pulpit of the ornate chapel in Watertown, Epstein delivers a eulogy that could be appropriate in any tradition. He reads a poem, Wendell Berry’s "The Peace of Wild Things," about the beauty of nature, asks those gathered to stand in honor of the man, and provides time for silent prayers (or reflection).

Epstein relays a story Burke told him of how he came to identify as a humanist after growing up in Ireland, where some people believed in ghosts. He "could not believe in such unseen things and was outraged by the way such beliefs terrified people into living their whole lives in unnecessary fear," Epstein says. "And so from his early boyhood he sought a more rational, scientific way of life."

Then he addresses death by quoting Sherwin Wine, a humanist Epstein considered a mentor. "It is so overwhelmingly final that it fills our lives with dread and anxious fear," Epstein says. "We cry out at the injustice of destiny and wait for answers that never seem to come."

To cope with it, he says, humanists need a certain courage. "Courage is loving life, even in the face of death. It is sharing our strength with others, even when we feel weak. It is embracing our family and friends, even when we fear to lose them. It is opening ourselves to love."

Before closing with a meditation on the precariousness of life, Epstein offers lines adapted from a familiar Christian burial rite.

"His body we commit to be burned and returned to the cycles of nature," he says. "Earth to earth, dust to dust, ashes to ashes."

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