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Secular humanists gather in Cambridge

Posted by Your Town  May 16, 2011 09:24 AM

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On Sunday afternoons, three flights up the narrow, white staircase at 12 Eliot Street in Cambridge, you’ll find a group that, upon first inspection, could look like any other religious group that celebrates the Sabbath on that day. But this is no religious group.

This is the meeting space for the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard, a group dedicated to the phrase “good without God.” In fact, the group’s chaplain, Greg Epstein, wrote a book with that phrase as its title.

The title refers not to the Humanist attitude that they don’t need God, but that people can do good things without relying on God or religious beliefs.

On this particular weekend, the group is hosting renowned British philosopher A.C. Grayling, who is promoting his new book, “The Good Book: A Humanist Bible.” The crowd size exceeds expectations, with over 50 people filling the room and flooding out into the stairway. The regular crowd size is about half of this week’s turnout.


Grayling spends a significant amount of time answering questions about why he used the word “Bible” in the title of his book. Some in the crowd question why Humanists need any kind of text to tell them what is good or bad. Others see it as a move to upset religious groups.

“This is not an attack on religion,” Grayling explains, citing the original Greek meaning of the word as just “the book.”

Epstein, 34, however, tells the crowd to look at it as an opportunity to conduct dialogues with other people who have the same questions and, in the process, promote Humanism.
“Humanism is undersold, as a word,” Epstein said.

Epstein, who was raised as a Reform Jew in Queens, N.Y., came to Humanism after exploring several religions, both Eastern and Western, and finding them all lacking. After a stint as a musician, Epstein discovered Humanism and began studying to become a Humanist Rabbi at the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism in Jerusalem.
“Humanism is a bold, resolute response to the fact that being a human being is lonely and frightening,” Epstein wrote in his book. “We Humanists take one look at a world in which the lives of thousands of innocent children are ripped away every year by hurricanes, earthquakes and other ’acts of God’…and we conclude that if the universe we live in does not have competent moral management, then…we must become the superintendents of our own lives.”

The Humanist Chaplaincy was founded in 1974 by former Catholic priest Tom Ferrick. Ferrick had left the Catholic Church in 1969, the final straw being the Church’s rejection of the use of birth control. Ferrick soon became the Humanist Chaplain at Harvard when the president of Harvard’s United Ministry, the religious and spiritual leaders at the university, asked him to create and apply for the position.

Epstein took over the Chaplaincy from Ferrick in 2005 after earning his master’s in theological studies at the Harvard Divinity School and serving under Ferrick as an assistant chaplain.

While the Chaplaincy is associated with and caters to Harvard students, their Sunday meetings are open to the public, and draw a diverse crowd. Members of all ages, races and backgrounds are represented at the meeting.

Group member John Hodges said that the diversity is one of the group’s biggest strengths.
“The discussions are stimulating and you get to find out other peoples’ points of view,” Hodges said.

Humanism and atheism are certainly related, but Humanism takes it a step further than atheism. As Epstein writes in his book, the “New Atheist” movement grounds itself solely in scientific facts. Humanists also focus on their own moral and ethical values.

As a sign in the Chaplaincy’s meeting space reads, “If you call yourself Atheist, Agnostic, Ignostic, Non-Religious, Freethinker, Rationalist, Secular, Spiritual, Skeptic, Deist, ‘Nothing,’ or any number of non-religious descriptives, you could probably count yourself a Humanist.”
So while most atheists are likely to be Humanists too, the reverse is not necessarily the case. Epstein himself has chastised atheist leaders such as Richard Dawkins for only being anti-religion.

The weekly meetings generally consist of three parts. The first hour and a half is a social gathering, where food and drinks are served and members are free to converse with each other, while live acoustic music is performed by local artists such as Nadia Swartz. Group members then begin their meeting, which centers around a specific topic or guest speaker each week. These meetings last for about two hours, and involve group discussion, often focused on how to strengthen the Humanist community.

Although Epstein is the chaplain, he said he sees himself as more of a moderator during these meetings.

After the meeting, people are invited to participate in a Humanist meditation group, which includes some light yoga, a 20-minute breathing meditation, and a period where participants can share their meditation experiences. A majority of group members don’t stay for meditation, but those who do, like Hodges, appreciate the chance to meditate quietly with other like-minded people.

The Chaplaincy’s meditation leader, Rick Heller, was even asked to lead a discussion on the use of meditation at the American Humanist Association’s Annual Conference earlier this month in Cambridge. With the national association’s decision to hold the conference in Cambridge this year, local Humanist groups, including the Chaplaincy at Harvard, were instrumental in organizing the conference.

Hodges, 60, said that he has been coming to the Sunday meetings for two and a half months, but has been an atheist since he was 20 years old.

“I don’t believe in ghosts, spirits, gods or supernatural creatures,” Hodges said. “Our focus should be on men, women and children. Human beings, not make believe.”

The Boston resident said he first heard about the Humanist Chaplaincy meetings at a Harvard event where famed atheist and author Sam Harris was speaking. A Chaplaincy volunteer handed Hodges a flyer and he has been a member ever since.

“This group devotes itself to each other as human beings,” Hodges said. “It promotes difference and individuality, as well as our common belief of Humanism.”

Even more important to Hodges, Humanism provides a positive environment that preaches more than just being anti-religion.

“It was just natural for me to want to find something positive to believe in besides just being against theism,” Hodges said.

Meditation is a somewhat controversial topic in Humanist circles, with some thinking that it borders on a kind of religious or spiritual practice. At Sunday’s meeting, Grayling disagreed.
“Religious groups have hijacked spirituality,” Grayling said.

Grayling and others who support Humanist meditation say that sitting quietly and focusing on a person’s own consciousness is not a celebration of spirituality in a religious sense, but of the human spirit.

With new members joining every week, the Chaplaincy continues to grow as word spreads to other college campuses about the Chaplaincy’s open door policy. And when statistics show the number of non-religious college students rising, the Chaplaincy may soon be looking for a larger meeting space.

This article is being published under an arrangement between the Boston Globe and Emerson College.

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