Credit: Arnfinn Pettersen

Bishop Barron: Election of Atheist as Harvard Chaplain President ‘Complete and Abject Surrender’

A leading Bishop has said that “If a professed atheist counts as a chaplain — which is to say, a leader of religious services in a chapel — then ‘religion’ has quite obviously come to mean nothing at all.”

Bishop Robert Barron was speaking in criticism of the recent appointment of an atheist as Harvard Chaplain President.  Bishop Barron, who is Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and founder of the popular Word on Fire Catholic Ministries, blasted the move on Tuesday 2nd September.

He said the election of an atheist as the president of the Chaplain’s association equalled a “complete and abject surrender”.

In an op-ed for the New York Post, Barron wrote, “What does bother me is the complete and abject surrender on the part of the presumably religious leaders at Harvard who chose this man.”

“If a professed atheist counts as a chaplain — which is to say, a leader of religious services in a chapel — then ‘religion’ has quite obviously come to mean nothing at all,” he continued.

On August 26th, the New York Post announced the surprising news, running with the headline, ‘Harvard’s new chaplain is an atheist — and ‘Good Without God’.
It was reported that despite his disbelief in God, Harvard chaplains felt Epstein — author of the book “Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe— was a good fit for the role due to an increasing lack of religiosity amongst young people.
“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,” Epstein, who grew up in a Jewish home, told the New York Times in an August interview.

“We don’t look to a god for answers… We are each other’s answers”, he added.

Harvard’s well-known liberal values and quest to prioritise student engagement over tradition make Epstein a great fit for the job, many insiders feel; indeed, his election was unanimous.

“Greg’s leadership isn’t about theology,” 20-year-old electrical engineering student Charlotte Nickerson told the New York Times . “It’s about cooperation between people of different faiths and bringing together people who wouldn’t normally consider themselves religious.”

While some students defended the decision, Bishop Barron was far from convinced.
In his widely circulated op-ed published on Tuesday, Bishop Barron urged Harvard religious chaplains who elected an atheist humanist to “[s]how a little self-respect”.

“My point is, that the relativizing of doctrine has led, by steady steps through two centuries, to the situation at Harvard today: Even that most elemental of doctrines — belief in God — doesn’t matter. One can still, evidently, be perfectly ‘religious’ without it”, he wrote.

He also said that the relativisation of doctrine was “so much nonsense” and continued, “As a Catholic churchman, I believe in an all-powerful, omniscient and loving God, who brought the entire universe into existence from nothing and who now sustains it and draws it to himself.

“…Say what you want about all of that. Affirm it, deny it, argue about it. Tell me I’m crazy for believing any of it. But by God, it’s a religion. Of course, different religions make varying doctrinal claims, but at the very least, they affirm the existence of God.”

Prior to his new role as president, Epstein served as the vice president of the university chaplains’ association. He has been the humanist chaplain at Harvard since 2005, and also fulfils the role of humanist chaplain at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Also significant is the fact that during the 2020 presidential election, he served as the national chair of Humanists for Biden on behalf of “humanists, atheists, agnostics, and others.”

“I’m sure Epstein is a nice fellow. I have nothing against him. But I do want to urge his presumably religious colleagues at Harvard who elected him: Show a little self-respect. Being a chaplain has something to do with the worship of God — and you shouldn’t be ashamed to say it,” Bishop Barron concluded the op-ed.

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