MIT welcomes its first-ever humanist chaplain

Greg Epstein, author of ‘Good Without God,’ encourages discussions about ‘why’

MIT’s Office of Religious Life is welcoming Greg Epstein as its first-ever humanist chaplain at the Institute. The other chaplains are enthusiastic about the new hiring, since they recognize that there is a large group of secular and nonreligious people at MIT, Epstein said in an interview with The Tech.

Meetings with faculty, deans, and administrators have been positive, and the MIT community overall has been pleasantly surprised with the addition, Epstein said. Epstein hopes to begin meeting with students soon, as the fall semester is underway.

When asked to explain humanism, Epstein quoted the title of his book: “good without God.” He explained humanism as a secular way of living an ethical and meaningful life. A humanist outlook stresses the importance of thinking about the why of one’s life and holds that the answer lies in human connections. According to Epstein, humans are social, and so they should create ethical, respectful, and meaningful relationships with each other that eventually benefit society.

Epstein views his role as humanist chaplain to be that of a supporter, listener, and discussion facilitation leader for the students and the MIT community. “I really want students to make big decisions as thoughtfully as they can,” Epstein said.

Epstein said that at MIT, students are working hard to succeed in classes, plan startups, and land internships and jobs at the companies of their dreams, but students should put an equal amount of energy into figuring out why they want to succeed. He said he “knew people who worked so hard for money that they gave up chances to be with family, [and] make a difference in the world.”

Epstein believes it is essential to have the “why” discussion now, when students are young, rather than later in life. Most importantly, Epstein wants to facilitate conversations between students, specifically conversations about supporting one another, accepting vulnerabilities, and finding personal purpose in life.

One specific way that Epstein is getting involved with student campus life is through a new weekly discussion-based event. Epstein has partnered with Student Minister Nina Lytton SM ’84 to offer a discussion group, where any MIT student can come and discuss topics related to how to live a meaningful, ethical, and community oriented life.

Epstein wants to be able to help people start understanding the impacts of technological change on our basic ideas of community and relationships. MIT, to him, is the best place to start to understand these impacts because the Institute is at the forefront of technological innovation, Epstein said.

Before coming to MIT, Epstein served as humanist chaplain at Harvard for 13 years, starting in 2005, and continues to serve in this role. He is also the author of Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe, and is frequently cited as one of the leaders of the national humanist movement.

Epstein is also one of five MIT chaplains that serve as “conveners,” people who work to convene meaningful conversations at the Institute, especially between people of different beliefs.