12 May 2013

NPR's Michel Martin Interviews Harvard's Humanist Chaplain Greg Epstein

Last week I heard an interview on NPR that left me gritting my teeth. On the occasion of the National Day of Prayer, Michel Martin interviewed Greg Epstein, the Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University. The premise of the interview seemed flaky but in the hands of a skilled interviewer with a commitment to intelligent journalism, there was hope.

The hope was not fulfilled. In fact, it fell so far short of fulfillment that a week later I am losing sleep (it's 3:30 a.m.) to listen again and annotate the transcript. Click HERE if you want to hear the interview in its entirety. The abbreviated transcript appears below with comments as footnotes.

Humanists On Surviving Crisis Without A Prayer
May 03, 201312:00 PM

Thursday was the National Day of Prayer, and the president called on people of all faiths to remember the victims of recent national tragedies. But what about the growing number of Americans who don't pray? Host Michel Martin speaks with Greg Epstein, the Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University, about where people without faith turn for comfort.

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… it's time for Faith Matters. That's the part of our program where we talk about matters of faith [A1] and spirituality and today is a good day for this conversation because the National Day of Prayer[A2] was observed yesterday. It was created in 1952 by Congress and signed into law by President Truman[A3] and the day is meant to convey the importance of prayer[A4] and to encourage prayer[A5] , and all this probably comes at a welcome time for many Americans as we continue to recover from recent tragedies like the Boston Marathon bombing and that fertilizer plant fire in Texas.

But that got us to thinking. What about people who do not pray? According to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, those who say they do not belong to any religion or worship any deity are the fastest growing faith group[A6] , if we can call it that, in this country. We wanted to talk more about this, so we've called upon Greg Epstein. He is the humanist chaplain at Harvard University and he's the author of the book, "Good Without God: A Billion Non-Religious People Do Believe."

Welcome to the program. Welcome back, I should say. You've been with us before.[A7] Thanks for joining us once again.

GREG EPSTEIN: Thanks very much for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: So, Greg Epstein, just starting with the National Day of Prayer, which was observed yesterday, I'm sure that there were events around the country or people, clergy people referred to it or had certain kinds of events. What do you do on a day like that?[A8]

EPSTEIN: Well, first of all, I don't have any problem with the idea that people are getting together to pray and even to pray in large groups or large communities around the country. I think that that, for people who are of sincere religious faith[A9] , can be a wonderful activity and it doesn't affect me in any negative way[A10] . I do have concerns when it is associated with violations of the separation of church and state.[A11]

But, beyond that, we in the humanist secular, atheist, non-religious community have made this also into ...a Day of Reason ... what's really important to keep in mind on a day like this or around these kinds of celebrations is just that we're talking about American values, so prayer and religion is one American value[A12] . It's not the only one. We're also talking about the values of being reasonable, using our human intelligence to solve problems, being compassionate, caring about other people, working to connect with people and include people and value people in all sorts of ways[A13] . ...

MARTIN: What about in times of personal or national crisis ... It's become common to have some kind of a prayer service, an interfaith service in order to acknowledge the pain...

 ...and the grief that people feel. And, often, ...people ...when they don't have any other tangible way to respond to a tragedy[A14] , they'll say, well, I'll pray for you. Well, what do you do in times like this?

EPSTEIN: Well, ... when these kinds of crises affect humanist communities like the ones that I work with - and the Boston Marathon very much directly affected my own community - we act like any other community or congregation ...as soon as the marathon bombings took place, we were on the phone with one another, calling all night and all the next day, ... Everybody trying to figure out - is everybody else in the community OK? Who was hurt? Who was affected? Who needs anything? Who's feeling traumatized? How can we reach out to others beyond our community? How can we help?[A15]

Because, at a moment of crisis, what people are really traumatized by is that we feel so helpless and, for humanists, the number one way to overcome feeling helpless is to reach out and help other people. ...

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with Greg Epstein. He is the humanist chaplain at Harvard. We're talking about how humanists, atheists, agnostics handle a spiritual crisis[A16] . ...

One other thing, I wanted to ask you about that. You know, on a related note, there was an interfaith service in Boston...

held after the bombing. There was also one in Texas, ...after that fertilizer...

: ...plant exploded. But I noted that people from the humanist community explicitly wanted to have a specific role in that service and that did not happen and I understand that there were people, including yourself, who were upset about that, but I also understand that there are a lot of people who ...would wonder why you felt that you should have been there, given that you explicitly don't believe in what these people believe in, which is faith.[A17]

EPSTEIN: ...these are all really important questions, ...and the thing that I think we need to keep in mind is what is really at the center of our response to these tragedies? Is it our religious beliefs, which differ tremendously between groups, among all these different groups and among individuals, or is it our human need to turn to one another and to seek inspiration and comfort alongside one another?

And, you know, I would argue that it's the latter ...

Really, what we were hoping for was just some form of inclusion ...and I think that that's - ...what we're looking for going forward in future memorials ... I have nothing against the values of religious Americans, but as President Obama did in his famous first inaugural address, ...where he said, "and non-believers". Right? And the non-religious. These are very quick and easy things that politicians can say to indicate that they understand that inclusion is for everyone, ...

MARTIN: But I want to ask you about that, ...the inauguration is explicitly an event of state. It is one that recognizes the body politic as a matter of state.

...An interfaith service is a voluntary event and he may go as a citizen and as a representative of the people in solidarity with other people, but he is a believer, so I think...


MARTIN: ...this is the part where I think many people are confused. I mean, I think...


MARTIN: ...they'd be confused by - you would not feel, as a Christian, that you would need to be invited to a bar mitzvah - right - or some other Jewish tradition, so why would you feel, as a believer...

EPSTEIN: Well, I would - you know, if I was...

MARTIN: I mean, you could be. It would be nice if somebody was your friend.

EPSTEIN: If somebody in my workplace...


EPSTEIN: I mean, if one of my best friends who was of a different religion than I was having a big family function, you know, and we had been really close for years, it wouldn't matter to me that we had different beliefs. I'd still want to attend[A18] . ... These huge national events are huge national family functions and I just look forward to a time in which it's normal in this country to say that all good people in this country - ... good people of religious and non-religious backgrounds - are included in what we're doing ...

MARTIN: What would you have said had you been invited to participate?

EPSTEIN: Well, I helped organize the interfaith vigil at Harvard after the Boston Marathon bombings and I said, ... on a day like today, ...many of us feel that we are torn between two worlds that, on the one hand, when I'm trying to deal with a crisis, I reach out for my own community, for that which makes me feel like I'm in the company of people who see this the way I do, who treat it the way I do, who are like me. And I reach out with one hand towards those people, but on the other hand, I really want to reach out with the other hand to all of my community, to all of America, to all of my city, to all of the world.

And I feel like, in those moments, we can hold on with both hands and we can make our society better together, ...

MARTIN: You know, faith groups often have a way of greeting or saying goodbye to each other that can be very comforting in a time of crisis[A19] . Do you have something like that?

EPSTEIN: I like to part with people with a hug. When I'm with somebody that I care about, whether it's a member of my community or not, I like to give them a hug and just show them physically, I care about you.

MARTIN: Well, you're too far away for that, so thank you for that, but we can't do - I can't manage that right now.

EPSTEIN: Oh, well, you talking about us?

MARTIN: But I'm talking about us. So, in future, I hope we'll speak again and I hope it'll be under happier circumstances.

EPSTEIN: Me, too.

MARTIN: With that, I'll say take care.

EPSTEIN: All right.

MARTIN: ...Greg, thank you so much for speaking with us.

EPSTEIN: Thank you so much, Michel. It's a pleasure.


[A1]I think Michel means “religious faith” given the tone of the interview. The definition of faith, however, is much broader. She would have better served her listeners – and complied more closely with NPR’s Mission Statement – if she’d specified “religious faith”.

[A2]One might ask, why is there a need for a national day of prayer? Don’t people who pray do so every day or, at least, whenever they are moved to pray? One might ask, and the answer is contained in the sentence that follows.

[A3]Can you say “separation of church and state”?

[A4]“The importance of prayer” to who? If we allow that not everyone in the nation prays, and if we allow that at least some of the non-prayers know what prayer is and have made a conscious choice that is is NOT important to them, what is this day about?

[A5]Encouraging who to pray? Those who do not want to? Why?

[A6]Again, I think she means “religious faith.” I think she means to say the number of people who do not belong to any religion or worship a deity are the fasting growing segment of the American population. And, if this what she means, I need to hear more about this data, where and how it was collected, etc.

[A7]This statement came back to haunt me at the end of the interview when Michel was so perplexed about how to end the interview. She was in conversation with someone she knew and she was nonplussed about how to say goodbye…

[A8]Aargh! And what to Japanese Americans do during Black History Month? And what do diabetics do on National Chocolate Day? And… Ridiculous question!

[A9]Notice the adjective…

[A10]He’s being gracious. He has been asked a ridiculous question and he is responding without a hint of cynicism or sarcasm.

[A11]And herein lies the idea that would have made for a much more interesting and useful interview.

[A12]Well said. American values. What are those? Which ones do we commemorate with a National Day?

[A13]I dream a world where some of these might be turned into National Days, by Congress no less and signed into law.

[A14]Prayer is not tangible. Doesn’t she know that? Or maybe she doesn’t because she doesn't pray either...

[A15]Comes much closer to “tangible” comfort than prayer.

[A16]I would have loved for her to expand here and talk about why she calls the Boston tragedy a “spiritual crisis”. Are all tragedies spiritual crises? Are tragedies also religious crises? If not, why are we using the “tragedies” as the basis for an interview with a non-religious person?

[A17]At no point has he said he does not “believe in faith.”

[A18]Perhaps a mind-blowing concept for Michel and others: that people can stand together without all believing the same thing.

[A19]Very stupid question. Additionally, she is not in crisis. She is ending an interview. Or was the interview a tragedy?