Over at Harvard, Humanist chaplain Greg Epstein has been hosting a series of Sunday gatherings featuring talks and discussions:
At a recent meeting, Epstein and his acolytes — they included students and people whose college years were far behind them — shared plastic chairs in the chaplain’s modest office suite. There was a guest speaker, a young man with a buzz cut. Jason Torpy, a former Army captain, had asked the military to instate a humanist chaplain of its own.
“They said, ‘Listen, we’re not interested,’’’ Torpy, president of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, told the group. “Then they clammed up and sent me on my way.’’
If this had been a church, Torpy might have raised his voice in righteous indignation, pounding the pulpit. Instead, he asked for questions. Hands shot up.
I spoke at one of these gatherings last year and I hope to go back again soon. It was one of the best experiences I’ve had giving a talk. Actually, it isn’t even fair to say I “spoke” there. I said a few words, split the crowd into groups, and each group (led by a moderator) discussed scenarios atheists have to deal with on a regular basis. It made for great conversations and it couldn’t have happened without the type of community they’ve built there.
It’s not exclusive to Harvard, either. Any campus or local group, with the right leadership, could do the same things.
Greg’s hoping to spread what he’s doing at Harvard to other schools:
Epstein wants to create something more permanent with a carefully thought out infrastructure.
Everything the Harvard chapter does will be carefully documented, spread to sister groups by social media, and eventually written up as a book that will be more how-to manual than Bible.
The groups will also engage in community service.
Recently, Epstein’s flock gave out energy-efficient light bulbs in low-income neighborhoods — the sort of project any church might engage in, though the group gave it some cheeky humanist flair. It called the event “green without God.”
Of course, we need someone to complain about all of this…
“I’m kind of ‘meh’ on the whole idea — I’d rather see us break away from the old reliance on empty ritual and move on to more useful ways to spend our time,’’ said P. Z. Myers, a prominent atheist writer and biologist at the University of Minnesota, Morris.
On the other hand, he added, “Some people seem to want [groups like Epstein’s], and I’m not going to stand in their way.’’
Right… who wants to bond with other people, perform community service, have fruitful discussions, find a secular way to celebrate rites of passage, and have someone they can talk to when they’re going through rough times who isn’t going to spit religion in their face?
PZ says he has an issue with the language:
… freethinkers ought not to be shackled by rote and rites. And they especially should not be led by “chaplains” or whatever the hell they’re going to call them. No gods, no masters, no dogma, and no goddamned priests…not even atheist priests.
Except no one is demanding that all Humanists participate (or give a mandatory tithe). It’s just nice to have the option to participate in a like-minded community and I know a lot of atheists would be glad to join such a group if one formed in their area.
No matter what it may resemble, though, it’s not “religion.” (Even if a random headline writer calls it a “Church for the Churchless.”)
If Greg and company happen to take some pointers from churches along the way, so be it. There’s a reason those damned things are so successful. Except we can do it without the lies and guilt. We can keep the good stuff, keep it secular, and do it better. Don’t want to join in on the secular “meditation” because it’s too touchy-feely for you? No problem.
It’s just one way to do things. And it’s clearly working.
Ian Bushfield at Canadian Atheist echoes the sentiment:
Perhaps I’m missing something, but Myers’ entire objection seems to be semantics. He despises the idea that atheists could go to church to hear a chaplain give a sermon, but has no trouble giving a lecture to the same atheists at a conference. While semantics can be important, in this place they simply get in the way. No one is calling it atheist church (except PZ) and there is nothing compulsory.
It sounds like PZ is complaining just for the sake of being a contrarian. He’s not going to stand in the way, but since it’s not his thing, he can’t let it go without trashing it along the way. It’s unnecessary.