Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The Nonbelievers

Rosy-cheeked angels smile from stained-glass windows, and crucifixes hang on the granite walls. The vaulting stone arches lend voices a holy echo. A chandelier-illuminated red carpet leads to the large casket, which is covered with white roses. When the balding man walks into the 165-year-old Gothic chapel, he greets mourners warmly, solemnly, with reverent words and tender handshakes, like a rabbi or a priest. But the well-wisher in a pin-striped suit is no man of the cloth. He doesn’t wear flowing robes or a skullcap, and instead of a Bible or other sacred text, he carries a book titled Funerals Without God.

"This is Reverend Epstein," says a friend of the deceased, a physician who considered religion a pernicious fiction.

Epstein interrupts: "It’s chaplain. . . . It’s OK. A lot of people aren’t sure what to call me."

Over the past two years, Greg Epstein, 30, has become a kind of ministerial paradox, a member of the local clergy who disavows God, preaches to atheists and agnostics, and seeks to build the equivalent of a church for nonbelievers and others skeptical of or alienated by religion. A former lead singer of a rock band, he now serves as the humanist chaplain at Harvard University, one of a small but growing number of such chaplains for nonbelievers on college campuses. In his position, which is endowed, he has helped marry and bury fellow atheists. He has presided over baby-naming ceremonies and organized a "coming out" ceremony for a congressman, Representative Pete Stark of California, one of the few public officials to acknowledge he doesn’t believe in God. He also counsels students and approximates evangelizing by handing out pamphlets with the question: "Are you a humanist?"

From the pulpit at Bigelow Chapel in Watertown (located in Mount Auburn Cemetery), speaking with the slow cadence of a clergyman delivering a sermon, Epstein tells those gathered not to expect a traditional service. "We intend, of course, no disrespect to those who have religious beliefs. . . . We hope and believe you will find the occasion dignified and acceptable."

He continues: "A religious funeral is a celebration of a particular faith, giving homage to God. A humanist funeral is a celebration of the individual human life and his contribution to humanity."

Later, after delivering a homily that might have been heard on a Sunday morning, he explains the contradictions of his role. "I have a religious personality, without a scintilla of religious belief," he says. "If it’s an oxymoron to believe that people who have ceased to believe in God still need caring and community, then I’m proud to be a walking oxymoron."

In a world where zealots crash planes into buildings in the name of God and politicians use the Bible to craft public policy, Epstein sees himself as in the vanguard of an emerging movement fueled by the rise of skepticism, advances in science and technology, and a spreading aversion toward radical religious ideologies and traditions. He and other humanists, who also call themselves atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, secularists, or brights, point to a survey published in January by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, which found that 20 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 25 say they have no religious affiliation or consider themselves atheists or agnostics – nearly double those who said that in a similar survey 20 years ago. Another Pew survey in March concluded the nation is witnessing a "reversal of increased religiosity observed in the mid-1990s." Today, 12 percent of Americans surveyed age 20 and older describe themselves as not religious, up from 8 percent in 1987. "This change," the survey’s authors wrote, "appears to be generational in nature, with each new generation displaying lower levels of religious commitment than the preceding one.

Epstein, a Jew from New York City who trained as a "humanist rabbi" after becoming disillusioned by the music industry during a year and a half crooning for a band called Sugar Pill, embodies that generational shift. He calls himself a humanist, because he sees it as a more embracing term than atheist. "Atheism is what I don’t believe in; humanism is what I do believe in," he says. He defines it as a "philosophy of life without supernaturalism that affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment aspiring to the greater good of humanity."

His deepening involvement in humanism has mirrored a rising interest in nonbelief throughout the country. Books about atheism have become a publishing phenomenon in the past few years, with five of the most popular combined accounting for more than a million copies in print. Some have spent weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, such as Sam Harris’s 2004 The End of Faith. The publisher of Christopher Hitchens’s God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything had printed some 300,000 copies less than two months after it went on sale this year. Other popular titles include evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion, of which there are more than a half million hardcover copies in print; Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon by Tufts University philosophy professor Daniel Dennett; and God: The Failed Hypothesis by Victor J. Stenger.

The spike in interest in atheism can be attributed to a backlash against militant Islam and a response to the faith-based initiatives and religiosity of the Bush administration, says Steven Pinker, the cognitive scientist at Harvard whom the American Humanist Association last year named its Humanist of the Year. But he says interest in the new literature also reflects how science is increasingly displacing religion as a way people understand the world. "Aside from fundamentalists, most people [outside the United States] have given up on creationism and seeing the Earth as the center of the universe," he says. "More and more of what used to be the domain of religion has been ceded to science. It’s the trend of modernity. I think this is a tide. We’ve seen it happen everywhere else in the developed world. This is the direction of history."

Students on college campuses and others have begun to organize nonbelievers. The number of campus groups affiliated with the Secular Student Alliance, for example, has increased by more than 50 percent in the past two years, to more than 80 groups, says August E. Brunsman IV, executive director of the Albany, New York-based alliance. Since January, the Center for Inquiry in Amherst, New York, a science-promoting umbrella group, has sponsored or helped organize more than 50 atheist outfits on campuses from the University of Georgia Law School to the University of Texas at Austin to Kent State University in Ohio, says D.J. Grothe, the center’s vice president of outreach. The MySpace atheist and agnostic group has grown by about 10,000 members a year since it began in 2004 and now is about one third the size of MySpace’s largest Christian group, says Bryan J. Pesta, an assistant professor of management at Cleveland State University, who moderates the group."To be Continued...

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