Greg Epstein, Humanists Don’t Need Congregations We Need More Communities

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photo of Greg M. Epstein -Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University
Greg M. Epstein serves as the Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University

The other day a friend sent me a link to an announcement that Greg Epstein, who serves as the Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University, and James Croft, a Research and Education Fellow at the Humanist Community at Harvard, are writing a book titled “The Godless Congregation”. While it didn’t surprise me coming from Greg Epstein, the title and idea behind the book made me cringe. He and Croft plan on traveling the country to write about people who form godless churches and how “we” nones need such places. This isn’t the first time I disagreed with Epstein’s equivocations and his thinking there are no other godless communities outside his bubble.

I’m so excited! Today I finally get to announce a project long in the works: Greg Epstein (Humanist Chaplain at Harvard and New York Times Bestselling author of Good Without God) and I just signed a book deal with Simon and Schuster to write The Godless Congregation, a passionate call to those who do not believe in God to get together and organize. We’ll be working with editor Thomas LeBien, who has long experience of editing successful books and seems as excited about the book as we are! In the book we will argue that the congregation is a valuable form of social organization and that, despite its historic links to a deity, it can and will thrive without one.

The past few months have demonstrated that there is an increasing desire among religious “nones” for new forms of community which fulfill the human need for fellowship, support, civic engagement, ethical inspiration, and existential exploration.

Announcing “The Godless Congregation”

Look I don’t have a problem getting together and forming communities. I was lucky to find a Humanist community in my hometown and we need to work on forming more local Humanist communities where we can. My problem is with the idea of co-opting theistic terms for non-theistic activities and ideas.

As Croft notes in his announcement: congregation is a valuable form of social organization and that, despite its historic links to a deity, it can and will thrive without one. Maybe it can, but if you want to confuse potential members, using “congregation” is one way to do it. It is a bad term to use for a non-theistic community.



A group of people assembled for religious worship.
A group of people regularly attending a particular place of worship.

gathering – meeting – assembly

Why not call it a gathering, a meeting, assembly, or even what it really is, a community? A church without a Bible is still a church and all the baggage that brings with it. Creating an alternative to religion doesn’t mean just redefining religious terms to mean something secular. Words don’t work that way.

Even Epstein’s own group, The Humanist Community Project at Harvard, focuses on community:

The creators of this site believe we will only be able to build a movement representing the full power & potential of millions of nonreligious Americans when such a movement provides a meaningful alternative to traditional religion and the community it engenders. In short, we are convinced, based on history, sociological research & personal experience, that the success of the Humanist and secular movement depends almost entirely on our ability to build strong local communities.

About HCH

This isn’t the first time I’ve disagreed with Epstein and his need for equivocation. I have also not appreciated his attempts to throw atheists under the bus and that he keeps thinking Humanist communities don’t exist outside a church setting as he commented after the Newtown shootings:

“It is a failure of community, and that’s where the answer for the future has to lie,” said Greg M. Epstein, 35, the humanist chaplain at Harvard University and author of the book “Good Without God.” “What religion has to offer to people at moments like this — more than theology, more than divine presence — is community. And we need to provide an alternative form of community if we’re going to matter for the increasing number of people who say they are not believers.”

In a Crisis, Humanists Seem Absent

I also wasn’t pleased in the text of the recent petition, he promoted, to complain about Humanists being excluded from Boston bombing Interfaith service said we weren’t antireligious. I am antireligious because I am an atheist and Humanist. I don’t agree with religious people on matters of faith because I don’t believe in faith or in anything spiritual.

I like most of what Greg Epstein says and writes and he is a good promoter of Humanism but I get tired of the equivocation and his failure to acknowledge that Humanist communities don’t need to be in church (or whatever theistic term you want to co-opt) in order to exist or be of value.


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6 thoughts on “Greg Epstein, Humanists Don’t Need Congregations We Need More Communities

  1. James Croft

    Hi Doug,

    Thanks for taking the time to offer your thoughts! One of the reasons why we wanted to write a book on this topic – and one of the reasons we took the purposefully provocative title “The Godless Congregation” – was to spark conversations like this among those sympathetic and less sympathetic to our ideas.

    I recognize some of the concerns you raise here. The question of what precisely to term these communities is an interesting one, and I know many people who will have a problem with the term “congregation” (and many who will be attracted by it).

    Some of your post confuses me, though. For instance, you suggest Greg (and I suppose, by implication, I) believe that “there are no other godless communities outside his bubble.” Where do you get that idea? The very post you quote from mentions a number of communities “outside our bubble”, and we both travel frequently to such communities. We are very aware of their existence and spend considerable time supporting their efforts! So this seems an inaccurate criticism to me.

    Greg and I both recognize that Humanist communities exist and will exist in many forms, and we promote that tirelessly in our work. Please, engage in the discussion of our ideas – we want criticism and debate! – but don’t mischaracterize our views.

  2. Doug Post author

    Thanks for the comment James. My post wasn’t directed at you personally. I just used your post as the jumping off point for mine. I don’t have enough info to draw any conclusions about your views other than I like your blog in general.

    I have written about this issue before but Greg’s public comments like those after the Newton shooting made it sound like we Humanists are lacking in having communities or the ones we have don’t match his ideal and as I mention in my post he threw the “New Atheists” under the bus back in 2007.

    I’ve had personal experience of a local UU church who were not accepting of atheists even though their marketing said different.

    I’m not opposed to your book I just not a fan of the rehashed god talk like church and congregations.

  3. James Croft

    If Greg and I believe that existing Humanist communities are not exactly what we hope for, oo that there are too few of them, why is that a problematic view to you? It doesn’t imply that there are NO effective Humanist communities out there.

  4. Doug Post author

    It is a problem because it seems that people want to reinvent the wheel in the freethought community or think it needs to be reinvented. When it happens people ignore or dismiss what already exists. Reheated god talk doesn’t interest me.

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