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TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

In the new book �Good Without God,� my guest Greg Epstein writes that the fastest growing religious preference in America is non-religious. In his job as Harvard University's Humanist chaplain, Epstein works with non-religious students. He describes the Humanist community as a place for family, memory, ethical values and the uplifting of the human spirit can come together with intellectual honesty and without a god. Today is a Humanist holiday called Human Light, a secular alternative to the religious holidays of the season.

It was created in 2001. Greg Epstein is a Humanist rabbi. He has his M.A. in theological studies from the Harvard Divinity School. He wrote his new book in response to people who ask, how can you be good without God?

Greg Epstein, welcome to FRESH AIR. So today is a Humanist holiday, December 23rd, called Human Light. Are you celebrating that? Do you recognized that holiday?

Mr. GREG EPSTEIN (Chaplain): Yes, I recognize human light as one of the holidays that Humanists celebrate at this time of year. I've written about it in the book. But I also think that there are many ways to celebrate this time of year, including celebrating the traditionally religious holidays from a cultural point of view. So in other words, I think most Humanists and atheists that are of a Christian cultural background like to celebrate Christmas from a Christian cultural point of view. Most Humanists and atheists of a Jewish cultural background enjoy something about Hanukkah and about that tradition, but from a cultural point of view instead viewing it as something about God and religion.

GROSS: And can we mention that probably a lot of Jews give Christmas gifts too?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. EPSTEIN: Yeah, because I think that, you know, the - America is a profoundly culturally Christian country in a way that it is not religiously Christian. And so it's not such a terrible thing or something that we need to run away from that our calendar and a lot of our national consciousness follows the rhythm of the traditionally Christian calendar.

The positive part of that for me is that a lot of customs that have come from one or another aspect of Christianity have really been made very cultural and very secular, and even very Humanist in recent generations.

And so to me, you know, the idea of Christmas, of giving gifts, really has very, very, very little to do, other than that little story about Jesus and him and receiving gifts, it really has very little to do with the theology of Jesus Christ or even a theology about a God. What it has to with to me is this idea that this is the time of year when it's darkest, this is the time of year for us here in North America when it's coldest, and seasonal affective disorder, SAD, is real. And we do, we get a little sadder, we get a little more depressed at this time of year if we're not careful and so we give gifts to one another to warm each other up, and I think that that's a wonderful thing to do and a very secular thing to do.

GROSS: Let's talk a little bit about what you mean when you describe yourself as a Humanist. In your book you say Humanism is a bold, resolute response to the fact that being a human being is lonely and frightening. And Humanism means taking charge of the often lousy world around us and working to shape it into a better place, though we know we can not ever finish the task.

Can you talk a little bit more about what Humanism means to you?

Mr. EPSTEIN: Well, Humanism to me, I mean it's been formally defined by the American Humanist Association, and the short definition that I think is helpful: a progressive life stance or a progressive philosophy of life that without supernaturalism, without anything magical or supernatural affirms our ability and our responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment, aspiring to the greater good of humanity.

But in short, I would say that Humanism is good without God. It is that struggle, that process of trying to live the best life that we possibly can for ourselves and for all of human being and for the sake of the natural world that surrounds us and that sustains us and that we've put in danger - that's good without God. That's Humanism. But I guess I would also add to that that the emphasis for me of Humanism is not on the without God. It's not on what we disbelieve in. Everybody has something that they disbelieve in.

You know, Christians disbelieve in Islam. Muslims disbelieve in Christianity. But to me the emphasis of Humanism is really on what we do believe. It's on the good and our pursuit of the good and our determination to be good with others and for others.

GROSS: Let's talk about how you became a Humanist, because you were really on your way to becoming more of a religion scholar, I think it's fair to say, but I'll ask you specifically about that a little later. But let's start with the fact that you grew up in New York, in Flushing, Queens. You describe you parents as secular disinterested Jews.

Mr. EPSTEIN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Did they observe the High Holy Days? Because there's a lot of like secular Jews who on Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah will observe.

Mr. EPSTEIN: We did. We went to out local synagogue for those particular days because I think that like other families we were looking for some way to connect with what was clearly our heritage, what was clearly our culture, and it seemed that these, perhaps, these were the days that were well known to be the most important days on the calendar, and so it was the sense that, well, at least we should go these days, everybody's going these days. And nobody, quite frankly, or at least very few people, would go any other days besides those. So we would show up in synagogue on those particular days and not really knowing what to do. And when I would get there, I would observe the people around me and they'd be cracking open these sort of musty older prayer books and they would be reciting at the very best words that just seemed to be recited by rote. You know - (Hebrew spoken) - you know, blessed are you, oh Lord our God, but it didn't really seem to me to be a group of people truly interested in blessing the Lord their God. It seemed to me that if that was what these people really believed, their behavior would be different.

GROSS: So when you discovered Humanistic Judaism, did you - is that when you went back and got your Masters in Judaic Studies?

Mr. EPSTEIN: So I did. I enrolled in the rabbinic program. Sherman Wine was somebody who came from being a reformed rabbi in the 1960s. He was a brilliant young reform rabbi who was leading a congregation, and like many rabbis he'd gone to rabbinical school with the open understanding between him and his faculty that he was a Humanist. He said I'm not religious, but I like working with communities, I like my culture, I like my heritage so I want to work at doing this job. And they said, sure, fine, no problem, half of our students are. And this is Hebrew Union College, the - still the largest rabbinical seminary in the country.

But after several years of doing this, he decided that he just didn't want any more to say prayers that he didn't believe. He didn't want to get up in front of his congregation and have it be about a performance. He really wanted to speak more honestly to them. And so he created a movement where one could celebrate one's cultural background, in his case Judaism, while combining that with a totally honest, raw, brave form of Humanism that was uncompromising intellectually.

GROSS: The word dignity is very important to your mentor Sherwin Wine. What did dignity mean to him?

Mr. EPSTEIN: I think that Sherwin was interested in pursuing, and I in turn am really passionate about pursuing, a sense of purpose, a sense of meaning in life that is not bound by or determined by a belief in a higher power that assigns us. We acknowledge as Humanists that there is no one single overarching purpose or meaning to our lives that's given to us, that's handed to us by the universe.

But Sherwin was very much aware, in the tradition of Camus and many others, that we therefore have not just the freedom but also the responsibility to choose a meaning for our own lives and to struggle to pursue it. And you know, he certainly asked these questions - well, what is the meaning of our life? What is the purpose of our life if not, you know, avoiding divine punishment or achieving divine reward? And he called it dignity.

It's this idea that we're never going to be happy all the time. I mean the writer Tony Kushner once said that he's never met anyone who's perfectly happy all the time. The best you can do is happy-ish. But Sherwin and I would probably argue as well that happy-ish can be pretty good if combined with a sense of dignity, a sense that one is - and in this I would use again a saying that comes from religion but that has nothing to do with God, that one is for one's self because if we're not for ourselves, who will be for us?

But we are also for others because if we're only for ourselves, what are we? And if not now, when? That's dignity to me, that sense that we build our lives and the meaning of our lives based on the relationships, the connections that we have with other people in the here and now.

GROSS: So getting back to the idea of Humanistic Judaism, you say you've preserved some of the aspects of Judaism.

Mr. EPSTEIN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: So do you do anything on Yom Kippur, which is one of the High Holy Days? It's a day of like atonement and fasting.

Mr. EPSTEIN: Sure. Yes. For me personally, I did fast for 24 hours, 25, 26 hours this past Yom Kippur as a way of reflecting on the meaning of my own life and on what kind of person I'd been in the year that had passed. I think that to me, again, it's this idea that religion had its good ideas and its bad ideas. And they've all evolved naturally. And one of the ideas that I think is helpful is to take some time throughout the year, throughout our lives, on a regular basis to check in with ourselves and say - how are we doing, how am I doing, how am I living, how am I handling my relationships with the people that I care most about, how am I handling my relationship with this Earth that I live on that I can't do without?

And you know, these are ideas that don't come from religion. You don't need religion to have them, but religion is the thing in today's society that seems to embody or provide a structure for some of these things, because that's just - that's the way that they evolved. They came to us through religious traditions because everything about human society used to be religious when we didn't have better answers for some of religion's questions.

GROSS: My guest is Greg Epstein, Harvard University's Humanist chaplain. His new book is called "Good Without God."

We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Greg Epstein, Harvard University's Humanist Chaplain. He's also a Humanist rabbi. He's the author of the new book "Good Without God."

Your Humanist mentor, Sherwin Wine, said that the mistake of the Jewish reform movement was to translate the prayers - the Hebrew prayers - from Hebrew to English. And he said once modern people could actually understand what they were supposed to be saying, big mistake. And so I want to talk with you a little bit about the mourner's prayer for the dead, the Kaddish. It's called Kaddish.

Mr. EPSTEIN: Sure.

GROSS: I think it's - I don't speak Hebrew, so I can't translate it word for word, but just listening to the sounds of the words in Hebrew...

Mr. EPSTEIN: Yeah.

GROSS: ...and the way that those sounds are chanted, I think it's one of the most beautiful prayers I've ever heard, and it is one of the most rhythmic prayers...

Mr. EPSTEIN: Yes.

GROSS: ... that I know. And (unintelligible) really contemporary in its rhythm too and the musicality of that rhythm.

Mr. EPSTEIN: Timeless, in fact.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. And I always wonder, well - what is it saying? What does it mean?

Mr. EPSTEIN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Because you kind of give it your own meaning when you don't really know the literal translation.

Mr. EPSTEIN: Sure.

GROSS: So I thought I'd read a translation. Unless you can translate it? Could you just translate...

Mr. EPSTEIN: Well, I would say that Yitgaddal veyitqaddash shmeh rabba - may it be magnified and sanctified his great name - God's great name. And that's exactly what the mourner's Kaddish is about. It's such a beautiful composition, and based on my study of the Hebrew liturgy, and I had a chance in my studies to study many different forms of religious liturgy, that this prayer became so central not because of anything that it has to do with. The subject matter is simply that God is great. But it's so beautifully written from a poetic perspective that it became very meaningful in rituals.

And that's what I'm arguing, is that, you know, there is a beauty, an atheistic beauty, there's a sense of identity that people get from religion, and then there's its literal message. And the literal message for those of us who are interested in such things can often disappoint.

GROSS: Now, one thing I'll say about the Kaddish that even, you know, if you're secular, if you see prayer as a chant as opposed to a literal message...

Mr. EPSTEIN: Yeah.

GROSS: ...that even though the chant of the mourner's prayer - Kaddish - is just praising God.

Mr. EPSTEIN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: The chant aspect of it is so really profound and beautiful.

Mr. EPSTEIN: Yeah.

GROSS: So maybe it was always meant to be that way. Maybe it was never meant to be, you know, okay, this is the literal message you're taking away. Maybe it was more of a chant in the way that chants and meditations can have meaning that is above and beyond the actual meaning of the words.

Mr. EPSTEIN: Well, I definitely agree that chanting and doing a number of different kinds of things like mediation can be wonderfully powerful and important for people in sort of getting outside of themselves, getting outside of their normal routine and really experiencing their emotions, experiencing some - in the case of mourning, their grief, and experiencing life more fully. And so in the book, I talk about a number of ways in which, again, secularists, Humanists, the non-religious can use some of these same techniques that emerged to be associated with religion, but really speak more to just broader human experience because I agree, you know, to have that experience can be incredibly powerful. But I would just - I would suggest that we can do better than simply rely only on the traditional sources that have this message that we no longer believe in.

GROSS: One of the kind of standard questions that people turn to religion for is why do we die? Why did my loved one die?

Mr. EPSTEIN: Hmm.

GROSS: Why are there massacres and genocides and the Holocaust, like what - why is that?

Mr. EPSTEIN: Yeah.

GROSS: And, you know, different religions and different people within religions have come up with their answers, I mean, one of the answers is God works in mysterious ways and�

Mr. EPSTEIN: Right.

GROSS: �we will never understand that.

Mr. EPSTEIN: Right.

GROSS: And, you know, and everybody has heard many answers from, you know, religious authorities about ways of addressing those questions. Obviously, the answers you heard�

Mr. EPSTEIN: Right.

GROSS: �from rabbis or maybe from priests as well and�

Mr. EPSTEIN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: �Buddhist monks as well didn't satisfy you. So, I'd like you to explain a little bit why you felt unsatisfied by the answers you were getting to the really be questions from the worlds of religion.

Mr. EPSTEIN: Sure, and I talk in the book about a number of liberal religious thinkers who have a lot of intelligent things to say about so many important contemporary issues. And some of them will say things like, God is love, or God is the universe, or God is mystery. And if you think God is love, or God is the universe, then most likely you and I are going to agree on a lot of political issues and we're going to be able to work together. But why do we need to use the word God when we have the perfectly good word love or the universe, you know? I simply want to try to be as honest as I can be about what I'm talking about.

And if you think God is mystery, well mystery is not a great source of comfort in the face of death. You know, at least I didn't find the mystery to be all that comforting when my father died or when I lost other loved one and what I was really wanting was not, you know, the presence of a mystery but the presence of people to love me and care for me. And that's what I try to offer in the face of death to the members of my own community, is the sense that, look, there is no justification for the tragedies that happen. There is no good reason that we could ever come up with for why the Holocaust happened, for why innocent children are ripped away from us every single day, every minute.

There's nothing that one could say that would say, oh, this makes it better. Or there - you'll be rewarded in haven. No, it's not sufficient. And what, to me, the only thing that we can say is that we care, we love, we acknowledge. Death is real. It's final. It takes tremendous, tremendous courage to cope with. And we have to love one another because that's what we get. We get this world, this one shot.

GROSS: So, maybe this is the wrong question to end an interview with a Humanist chaplain and rabbi, but what are you doing on Christmas Day?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. EPSTEIN: I'll be getting together with my family. I've always enjoyed that day. You know, when I grew up with this idea of Santa Claus. And I think that Santa Claus by the way is a great exercise for Humanists to take their kids through because it presents us with this idea of a mythological being who has very important powers and cares if you're naughty or you're nice. And, you know, and you have to be - you have to engage with that idea as a child. And then children are encouraged to question that idea over time and ask, is there really a Santa Claus? Does that - is that really true? And, you know, that time of year really spoke to me as a child and that's why I still feel a connection to it as a culturally Christian, culturally American holiday.

I don't think there's anything wrong with celebrating the fact that we have this culture and this history in common as Americans and as people of the world. The question is what do we believe about it and how do we believe, you know, we should go about trying to be good people. And that's the discretion that we have to have, but I think we can celebrate in many ways together.

GROSS: Greg Epstein, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. EPSTEIN: Oh, Terry, it's a pleasure.

GROSS: Greg Epstein is the Humanist chaplain at Harvard University. His new book is called, "Good Without God."

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