Recent moves by Harvard, Yale, and Cornell have got to make you wonder if some cannabis is growing among all the ivy, and whether leaders at those universities are smoking some of it.
In this episode of “Ivy League Insanity,” it’s Harvard’s turn.
If you speak English, you know that “atheist chaplain” is comparable to “true fiction” in the realm of contradictions in terms.
So, I’m wondering what language they speak at Harvard, which, according to U.S. News and World Report, has an English program that’s rated third-best in the nation.
However, language aside, did Harvard do the right thing?
What’s the fuss about?
The oldest university in the U.S. just named Greg Epstein, an atheist, as its chief chaplain.
In other words, someone who does not believe in God will oversee all activities of religious communities on the Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology campuses.
To hammer the point over the head: Someone who does not believe in God will govern the activities of those who do.
Paging George Orwell.
And, if you've felt any recent seismic activity in the Boston area, it was likely centered at Boston’s Phipps Street Burying Ground. John Harvard, the pastor who founded Harvard to educate clergymen, has been turning over repeatedly in his grave.
Before we get any deeper into the discussion, let’s be clear: All major dictionaries define “chaplain” as a member of the “clergy,” which is defined as the official or sacerdotal class of a “religion,” which in turn is defined as “the service and worship of God or the supernatural.”
Put simply: You can’t have a chaplain without God.
Since 2005, Epstein has headed Harvard and MIT’s “Humanist Chaplaincy,” which is “dedicated to building an inclusive community of atheists, agnostics, and allies.”
So, his job was to build a community of people who don’t believe in God.
Now, Epstein, 44, will coordinate the activities of more than 40 university chaplains, who lead communities at the universities comprised of people who do believe in a divinity.
Sorry to keep dumbing this down, but think about that incongruity: A person dedicated to building a community of non-religious people is now in charge of religious communities.
But, Isn’t Greg Epstein a Good Guy?
The Harvard Chaplains elected Epstein unanimously, indicating he’s a strong and popular leader. News reports show broad praise for Epstein and his ability to bring people together.
So, by all accounts, he’s a great guy who may well be the best person for the job of heading whatever you want to call Harvard’s amorphous and wide-ranging group of people who are looking for a community based not only on religion but on ethics and humanism.
So, What’s the Problem?
Just don’t call him a chaplain.
Don’t make language meaningless.
Don’t manipulate words to fulfill a political agenda.
There's an easy partial solution: Change the language you use to define the role.
Epstein’s election has triggered a tizzy of semantic acrobatics and spinning that political flaks would envy.
Check out the twists and turns of the linguistic pretzel created by Nico Quesada, the marketing and media director at the Harvard Catholic Center, as quoted by the Catholic New Agency: “[Epstein’s] role is not as the chief chaplain. It is actually as the president of the Harvard Chaplains.”
Let’s page George Orwell again.
Harvard itself calls Epstein its “Humanist Chaplain” as well as “the president of Harvard Chaplains.”
Honestly, do people at Harvard think the rest of us are stupid?
The Culture War and the Terrible Burden of Harvard Students (Just-in-Case Note: That’s Sarcasm)
The Harvard Crimson editorial board bitterly complained about the press coverage of Epstein’s appointment, saying it “sensationalized the choice, highlighting the apparent irony of an atheist holding a traditionally religious position.”
Clearly, the student journalists at the Crimson are as confused by the English language as their university.
According to the Oxford Languages dictionary, irony is “the expression of one's meaning by using language that normally signifies the opposite.”
There’s nothing “apparent” (in the meaning intended) about the irony in “atheist chaplain.”
Another op-ed piece in the Crimson went as far as to argue that Epstein’s election wasn’t even newsworthy, saying nothing unusual had happened. The Crimson editors who wrote the piece insisted nobody would care were Harvard not involved.
No doubt, Harvard is Harvard, and will always get extra attention. But take it from this longtime journalist, journalism professor, and Harvard Law alum: The naming of an atheist as the head of chaplains at any major university would be highly newsworthy and would make national news.
That editorial then becomes a “woe-is-me” story about how hard and “disorienting” it is to be a Harvard student when news about the university takes on outsized importance.
Guys, if it’s so tough to be at Harvard, I promise you that a millions of students would be thrilled to take your places.
The authors also slam what they call a “fabricated culture war.” Culture war, yes, but what exactly is fabricated about it? Do I need to define fabricated as well?
Conservative Culture Warriors Are Wrong Too
The Babylon Bee, a conservative and satirical Christian magazine, reacted with this headline: “Harvard Hires Satan As New Head Chaplain.”
Conservative website Townhall also ridiculed the decision: “Even The Babylon Bee Couldn't Make Up Who Harvard Just Chose for Its Chief Chaplain.”
Funny, if you like that kind of humor.
Do conservatives have the right to criticize Epstein’s appointment as a triumph of the secular? Of course they do, because it is.
However, they are missing a crucial point made by Epstein to the New York Times: “There is a rising group of people who no longer identify with any religious tradition but still experience a real need for conversation and support around what it means to be a good human and live an ethical life.”
Like it or not folks, he’s right. The number of Americans who are “non-religious” is growing rapidly.
A 2019 Pew Research survey found that Americans who describe themselves as atheist, agnostic, or “nothing in particular” are now 26% of the population, up from 17% in 2009.
Nonbelievers have an even larger presence at Harvard. The Crimson reports that “a plurality of this year’s newest students at Harvard identify as either atheist or agnostic.”
In fact, according to a survey of incoming freshmen in 2019, 21.3% identified themselves as agnostic and 16.6% as atheist.
Those students deserve guidance and attention.
That's also true nationally. The community of the areligious deserve respect instead of discrimination.
A hidden benefit to Epstein’s appointment is that it highlights the problem of widespread anti-atheist sentiment. Americans have negative feelings against atheists that are only comparable to those they have against Muslims.
Both sides of this debate have valid points. In the end, though, I return to language.
How can we express any truth when words are degraded to the point where they lose their significance?
Confucius said: “When words lose their meaning, people lose their freedom.
Orwell would agree.
You can find the first in my series on Ivy League Insanity here: https://aviewfromthecenter.bulletin.com/447678552972606. Part 3 is coming up. It will address Cornell cozying up to China.
Let me know what you think, here or on my Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/antoniomoraTV1/). Please subscribe (it's free) and share the link: https://aviewfromthecenter.bulletin.com/subscribe.
Cover photo: Statue of John Harvard, founder of Harvard University, in Harvard Yard, Cambridge, Massachusetts. (Photo by Brooks Kraft LLC/Corbis via Getty Images)