Faith Matters
9:49 am
Fri May 3, 2013

Humanists On Surviving Crisis Without A Prayer

Transcript

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Coming up, we often talk about people with mad skills in tough competitions, so in just a few minutes, we are going to meet two teenagers who are making their mark in chess. That's later.

First, though, it's time for Faith Matters. That's the part of our program where we talk about matters of faith and spirituality and today is a good day for this conversation because the National Day of Prayer was observed yesterday. It was created in 1952 by Congress and signed into law by President Truman and the day is meant to convey the importance of prayer and to encourage prayer, 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, 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. 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, clergypeople referred to it or had certain kinds of events. What do you do on a day like that?

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, can be a wonderful activity and it doesn't affect me in any negative way. I do have concerns when it is associated with violations of the separation of church and state.

But, beyond that, we in the humanist secular, atheist, non-religious community have made this also into what we've called a Day of Reason for ourselves. But, for me, I think that 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. 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. And that's what I'm reflecting on every year when the Day of Prayer and the Day of Reason comes around.

MARTIN: What about in times of personal or national crisis and, you know, I mentioned two of the more traumatic ones that have occurred recently. It's become common to have some kind of a prayer service, an interfaith service in order to acknowledge the pain...

EPSTEIN: Yeah.

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

EPSTEIN: Well, when people are saying, I'll pray for you, I might say, I'm thinking of you, but more importantly than that, 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 in many ways in the sense that, as soon as the marathon bombings took place, we were on the phone with one another, calling all night and all the next day, really to the point of exhaustion. 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?

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. It's part of what human beings need to do is we need to connect with one another and we need to work on behalf of something bigger than just ourselves or even our individual families.

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. Obviously, we're talking about this in the wake of the recent tragedies that have called upon faith communities to respond.

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

EPSTEIN: Sure.

MARTIN: ...held after the bombing. There was also one in Texas, I need to say, after that fertilizer...

EPSTEIN: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...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 are puzzled by that. They 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.

EPSTEIN: So, I mean, these are all really important questions, obviously, 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 and, therefore, I think, when we have these memorials - and I've been working with humanist communities since before 9/11 because our community grieves and bleeds just like anyone else's - and I want to work alongside all other communities to be of help and service at those moments.

Really, what we were hoping for was just some form of inclusion whatsoever and I think that that's - more importantly, that's what we're looking for going forward in future memorials and future conventions and future inaugural settings. I have nothing against the values of religious Americans, but as President Obama did in his famous first inaugural address, the famous moment 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, and that would have been enough.

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

EPSTEIN: Yeah.

MARTIN: 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...

EPSTEIN: Sure.

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

EPSTEIN: Sure.

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...

MARTIN: Yeah.

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. You know, think about it this way. 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 - and there are good people of religious and non-religious backgrounds - are included in what we're doing here and we can mention that briefly and we can celebrate together.

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, look, on a day like today, on a moment like this, 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, truly together, and it was really a nice moment when I said that part about the two - the holding on with both hands. I had Nuri the Muslim chaplain and Jonah the Jewish chaplain on both sides of me and I put my arms around them and we stood there with our candles and in the darkness and in silence and it felt like real unity to me and it didn't matter about religious or non-religious. It was all about human values and human community.

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. 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: All right. Greg Epstein is the humanist chaplain at Harvard University. He was kind enough to join us from the studios there in Cambridge. Greg, thank you so much for speaking with us.

EPSTEIN: Thank you so much, Michel. It's a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.