YouTuber Ken Smith seems ignorant of the fact that humanist chaplaincy programmes at the university were started in the 1970s by a gay ex-Catholic.

Images via YouTube and Concord Area Humanists

BOTH the religious and the secular press are having a field day reporting that Harvard has appointed Greg Epstein, above, to the post of chief humanist chaplain, without mentioning the fact that the university has had a decades-long tradition of having non-believers in the role, and that the first chaplaincy programme was created by a gay man – Tom Ferrick (inset) –  decades ago.

YouTuber Ken Smith, above, immediately posted a rant about the appointment, saying in a deep southern drawl that Harvard does not accept the “truth” of God’s existence –  and that Epstein is “on the highway to hell.”

Another Christian spitting tacks over the appointment of Epstein – author of Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe – is Jonathan Van Maren. Writing for far-right LifeSiteNews he blathered:

It’s worth noting that Harvard was founded in 1636 by John Harvard, a Puritan clergyman. Like other elite institutions, it was rooted solidly in the Christian faith. Now, it is rooted in nothing at all …

Epstein’s tasks will include leading over 40 chaplains from a wide range of religious backgrounds, including Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, and Christian. Epstein, believing in none of these traditions and rejecting the existence of God entirely, also says that he is a rabbi ‘through the Society for Humanistic Judaism,’ whatever that is.

Unfortunately, Greg Epstein does represent a growing portion of the American public: those who do not believe in God and reject Judeo-Christian values, but hold to a vague, consumer-style spirituality that allows them to cling to some semblance of transcendence while living like pagans.

An atheist chaplain is a farce, but then again, so is much of modern American life. Pregnant men. Muscular, bearded women. Butchered babies as ‘reproductive health care.’ Delusion is mainstream, and so a godless chaplain bleating to the goats is perhaps uniquely fitting for our historical moment. We lie to ourselves about everything, and so it makes sense that we’d want chaplains who lie to us, too.

Clearly the ignoramus has no idea either that Harvard has had a a long and honorable tradition of humanist chaplaincy, and believes this is a precedent.

After Tom Ferrick died in 2013, Epstein wrote in a tribute:

He was raised by the Catholic Church and worked as a diocesan Catholic priest for 12 years, including as a Catholic chaplain at Dartmouth, before ‘deconverting’ …

Tom was given the chance to be a pioneer because he asked the university for no money, and because it was assumed a the idea of a chaplain for atheists and agnostics would fail. Instead, Tom’s dedication to the reason and truth, and his willingness to live an ascetic life – a gay man, he never married, owned a home, or bought a car – allowed him to become a key figure in the history of both Harvard and Humanism.

At Harvard, he eventually rose to be President of the United Ministry, the university’s chaplain corps, and it was in large part his vision that made that body the 36-member group it is today, representing everyone from Atheists to Zoroastrians.

Tom was deeply admired, not just by Humanists, but also by the Evangelicals, Zoroastrians, Buddhists, Hindus, Korean Presbyterians, and others and others with whom fought to diversify the university’s religious life.

Many of these religious leaders credit Tom with recruiting them to Harvard, or at least they tell me he was the first of their peers to make them feel truly welcome on a campus that had for so long been a bit of an old-boys club. You might wonder: why a Humanist would go out of his way to build the most diverse group of religious chaplains in the world?

Part of it was baldly strategic. Tom believed that certain long-established religious communities should not be allowed to exist in a bubble of privilege, protected by ivy tower tradition from having to confront the true diversity of belief and doubt that exists in this world.

He believed that more exposure to diversity would bring more questioning, more skepticism, and perhaps even more Humanism.

But at the same time, part of Tom’s approach was simple generosity of spirit. He knew plenty of believers would stand firm in their faith despite increased exposure to diversity. In fact he understood that no matter how passionate he was about reason, critical thinking, and Humanism, plenty of religious people would remain equally passionate about their convictions.

Epstein, who created a video detailing Ferrick’s history, added:

In so many ways, Tom was ahead of his time. He bridged the chasm between religious and Humanist communities before most people even knew the latter existed. Now, a third of young Americans identify as nonreligious, and local communities for atheists are starting up like popcorn in the microwave, maybe even by the thousands, often calling themselves cheeky names like “Godless Congregations.”

He was a young man in the 1950’s when Godlessness was equated with un-Americanness, very purposefully and strategically, by Senator Joseph McCarthy and his minions. And of course he was a gay man, just discovering his sexuality, in a Catholic Church that taught him how to be quiet. Tom never forgot what it felt like to be in a small, surrounded minority.

Years later, Tom watched the movie Brokeback Mountain, and wept. He was amazed by the reception mainstream America could give to two handsome, masculine heroes who just happened to be gay and in love. The movie drove home for him that times really were changing and, he admitted with some bewilderment but equal excitement that this could mean bold new possibilities for Humanist communities, too.

Sadly, he was too sick to see the Governor of Massachusetts issue an unprecedented proclamation of ‘Humanist Community Day’ throughout the state last month, in honor of the opening of our new Harvard Humanist Center. And he just missed seeing my jaw drop when I was asked— the author of a book called Good Without God!— to give the ‘closing prayer’ at new Boston Mayor Martin Walsh’s interfaith inaugural celebration a few days ago. Tom would scarcely have believed either event were possible.

Ellery Schempp, in his tribute to Ferrick written for Concord Area Humanists, wrote:

Tom Ferrick defined the position of Humanist Chaplain. Every Humanist Chaplain who comes later will be in Tom’s footsteps. He will be remembered as bringing Humanism to equality and having a seat at the table with religionists; and in his non-confrontational way, winning respect for non-theistic viewpoints. He will also be remembered for grooming and most excellently selecting Greg Epstein to be his successor as Humanist Chaplain at Harvard.

Epstein has been Harvard’s humanist chaplain since 2005.

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