I first met Greg Epstein, as it happens, at a fantastic conference pulled together by Eboo Patel's Interfaith Youth Core in Chicago. This was an energetic gathering of high school and college students and young adults in every conceivable form of religious dress, heading out into every profession in our culture. They were joined by a shared passion for their religious identities and practices as vital assets to a pluralistic world. As part of that mix, Greg Epstein led a seminar on including atheists and humanists in social justice and other interfaith work. Epstein, who once trained as a secular rabbi, also offered a humanist benediction.
Bookstores have now filled with a spate of religious books refuting or denouncing last year's spate of anti-religious books. At risk of sounding like a broken record — not that many of the young leaders I met in Chicago know what a broken record is — I'm more interested in a phenomenon I've kept following between the poles of argument, denunciation, and debate.
From the first, we've had many listeners of Speaking of Faith describe themselves as non-religious. From Greg Epstein I gain some new vocabulary to describe this constellation of identities in American life, which is as diverse perhaps as the world of religious denomination — including atheist, agnostic, humanist, secularist, freethinker, and bright.
Most importantly, these are worlds of positive self-definition. In this program, we briefly revisit the Cold War equation of atheism with evil and danger. This may linger behind Americans' insistence in other polls that they would be less likely to vote for an atheist for president than people of varied religions. Epstein himself worries that the most popular atheist voices of recent years have cemented an idea of atheism that defines itself by what it is against. But that is not the picture that emerges from this conversation.
Epstein says that he considers himself a "believer" — in the long tradition of humanism — and that he is a part of the interfaith movement. He and his community, he says, have a stake and want a voice in our culture's moral discernment and approaches to resolving ethical crises — from human relationship to global violence to ecological danger.
Whether Greg Epstein's "new humanism" is or will become a cohesive movement remains to be seen. And certainly all of the 14 percent of Americans who called themselves "nothing in particular" in the Pew poll are not definitively areligious. The point is, their spiritual and ethical bearings can be taken seriously even if they cannot be classified.
We've surrounded this interview with Greg Epstein with other voices from this universe. I'll give the last word here to one of them, the cell biologist and self-described "religious naturalist" Ursula Goodenough (from The Sacred Depths of Nature):
"So we arrive here at what is, for many, the heart of it all. If there is a major tension between an approach like religious naturalism and the monotheistic traditions, it centers on the question of whether or not one believes in a personal god. Most people raised in the context of theistic traditions would probably say that 'being religious' means 'believing in God.' Indeed, when reminded that personal gods are not inherent in such systems as Buddhism or Taoism, they would likely question whether these traditions are really religions and not something else, like philosophies.
"For me, and probably for all of us, the concept of a personal, interested god can be appealing, often deeply so. In times of sorrow or despair, I often wonder what it would be like to be able to pray to God or Allah or Jehovah or Mary and believe that I was heard, believe that my petition might be answered. When I sing the hymns of faith in Jesus' love, I am drawn by their intimacy, their allure, their poetry. But in the end, such faith is simply not available to me. I can't do it. I lack the resources to render my capacity for love and my need to be loved to supernatural Beings. And so I have no choice but to pour these capacities and needs into earthly relationships, fragile and mortal and difficult as they often are.
"Theism versus Non-Theism. The choice has been presented to us as saved versus damned, holy versus heathen. But when I talk to thoughtful theists, I encounter not a polarity but a spectrum. Belief and faith in supernatural Being(s), when deeply wrought, are as intensely personal and individual and dynamic as our earthly relationships. They add another dimension, another opportunity for relationship, to be sure. But those of us incapable of embracing that dimension remain flooded with opportunities to open ourselves to human relationship and hence to fill our lives with the religious experience of love."