Removing Religion from Holidays a Tall Order

A growing number of young people now identify themselves as non-believers, and some colleges have responded by adding so-called "atheist chaplains" to their staff. Harvard now has an atheist chaplain, who helps students celebrate the holidays without violating their core (non)-beliefs.

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The late filmmaker Luis Bunuel summed up his religious views when he proclaimed, thank God, I'm an atheist. This can be a difficult season for even the most self-assured of nonbelievers, and more and more young people identify themselves as atheists. That trend has given rise to so-called atheist chaplains at some colleges and universities.

NPR's Tovia Smith visited with one such chaplain at Harvard and she has this report.

TOVIA SMITH: Every year, as the holidays approach, the issues for atheists begin to bubble up.

Ms. AMANDA SHAPIRO (President, Harvard Humanist Society, Harvard University) You know, is there a way that we could have a holiday party but not celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, I don't know.

SMITH: Amanda Shapiro, president of the Harvard Humanist Society, leads about a dozen fellow students into a virtual minefield where even sugar cookies and "Jingle Bells" ignite controversy. They are the nostalgic types like sophomore Dan Robinson(ph)…

Mr. DAN ROBINSON (Sophomore, Harvard University): It's one of the best buttons. I said, you know, if God rescued Mary, a gentleman fell at night, you know, these are explicitly religious but I don't see why if we're not fearing sort of blasphemy in the church of atheism, why we can't set a reference to it in a song. I mean, why don't we take back Christmas from the Christians, I would say.

SMITH: But others cringe at the very notion. Humanist philosophy focuses on the abilities and responsibilities of humanity and rejects the existence of a supernatural god.

Freshman Lewis Ward(ph) says Christmas carols would at the very least need a major edit to reflect that.

Mr. LEWIS WARD (Freshman, Harvard University): We always write our own versions just keep the tunes of the old one.

Mr. ROBINSON: But why do they have to? I mean, like, you can listen to "My Sharona" without believing in the existence of Sharona. It's a song.

SMITH: A freshman in the back, Kelly Badwin(ph) nods in agreement.

Ms. KELLY BALDWIN (Freshman, Harvard University): I think they're saying I'm not going to listen to "Silent Night" because it's a religious song. It's the equivalent of saying like, I'm not going to honor my father and mother because it's the commandment, right?

Mr. WARD: Greg, you, as our resident humanist, expert.

Mr. GREG EPSTEIN (Humanist Chaplain, Harvard University): Well, I would say, you know, I like…

SMITH: All eyes turned to Harvard's humanist chaplain Greg Epstein, a gentle, bald man with a distinctly rabbinical manner of offering guidance.

Mr. EPSTEIN: And so, you know, the desire to hear a haunting beautiful melody that I associate with all kinds of wonderful things, may be something that I need at this time.

SMITH: And that's okay, Epstein says, even for an atheist. He points to his menorah and explains how even he likes Hanukkah candles and chants humanist versions of the blessings.

Mr. EPSTEIN: Religion doesn't own singing, and religion certainly doesn't own candles and trees and presents. I mean, you know, give me a break. That's throwing the baby out with the bath water.

SMITH: It's a tension simmering in the broader atheist community as well. On one side is what Epstein calls the unholy trinity of popular atheist writers like Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins who take a hard-line stance against religion and all things religious. On the other side, is what some has flammed(ph) as Epstein's softer, more ecumenical brand of humanism.

Mr. R. JOSEPH HOFFMAN (Vice President, Center of Inquiry): It's in a sense Gen-X humanism for the passionately confused.

SMITH: R. Joseph Hoffman is with the Center for Inquiry, which organizes atheist campus groups. He says holiday symbols and ceremonies send a mixed message that hurts the humanist's cause.

Mr. HOFFMAN: When you find people who think they can have it all and sacrifice nothing or take it all in, irrespective of its origin, its history, its religious associations and still think that you've got something called humanism on your hands, is naive.

SMITH: Still, even Hoffman acknowledges Epstein's appeal. Hundreds of students show up for his events. Epstein says that's because he offers the kind of fellowship and community they might otherwise get from a church or synagogue.

Mr. EPSTEIN: You know, it's not enough to just tear down and destroy religion. You know, there's still a void. You know, there's still a sense that we need something and humanism is that something.

SMITH: Epstein dreams of a day when humanist congregations will have their own church equivalents, offering their own brand of services and Sunday school and their own songs and liturgy for everything from funerals to birth.

Mr. EPSTEIN: So good afternoon everyone.

Unidentified Group: Good afternoon.

Mr. EPSTEIN: Yeah. I'm Greg Epstein. I've been invited here today for this…

SMITH: For now, Epstein improvises, like at this baby naming and tree-planting ceremony.

Mr. EPSTEIN: May the days of your life be rich and full. May you radiate with the power of human possibility.

SMITH: It doesn't work for everyone. As one atheist put it, it sounds like religion and smells like religion. But as Epstein sees it, if humanism is starting to look like religion, it's because religion is changing not because humanism is.

Mr. EPSTEIN: Two hundred years ago, rabbis and ministers preached about the next world and about the resurrection of the dead. And now, in most congregations in this country, if you start giving a sermon about the resurrection of the dead, you get fired because people want something that's more humanistic these days. So it's not that I'm going to them. It's a lot of ways that they've come to me.

SMITH: But as tensions increase between Epstein's brand of humanism and what's been called a more Orthodox stance, the irony is not lost on Epstein that it's all beginning to feel a lot like religious denominations of atheism.

Tovia Smith, NPR News, Boston.

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