What is humanism? What do humanists believe?
There are many possible definitions of humanism. The International Humanist and Ethical Union, an umbrella organization representing humanists worldwide, offers the following “minimum statement:”
“Humanism is a democratic and ethical life stance that affirms that human beings have the right and responsibility to give meaning and shape to their own lives. Humanism stands for the building of a more humane society through an ethics based on human and other natural values in a spirit of reason and free inquiry through human capabilities. Humanism is not theistic, and it does not accept supernatural views of reality.”
In his 2018 book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, Harvard Professor and Humanist Hub Advisor Steven Pinker explains:
“The goal of maximizing human flourishing—life, health, happiness, freedom, knowledge, love, richness of experience—may be called humanism…There is a growing movement called Humanism, which promotes a non-supernatural basis for meaning and ethics: good without God. Its aims have been stated in a trio of manifestoes starting in 1933.” The most recent of these documents is “Humanism and its Aspirations,” a brief definition of humanism created in 2003. It states:
“Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without supernaturalism, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity.
The lifestance of Humanism—guided by reason, inspired by compassion, and informed by experience—encourages us to live life well and fully. It evolved through the ages and continues to develop through the efforts of thoughtful people who recognize that values and ideals, however carefully wrought, are subject to change as our knowledge and understandings advance.”
At the Humanist Hub, we see humanism as the sum total of the positive beliefs and values of “atheists, agnostics, and allies.” For more possible definitions, see these examples from the American Humanist Association; these from the British Humanist Association; a wonderful series of videos about humanism produced for the British Humanist Association by the Humanist Hub’s 2010 Lifetime Achievement Awardee Stephen Fry; and the book Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe, by our Executive Director and chaplain, Greg Epstein.
What is a humanist chaplain?
A humanist chaplain is a humanist who holds advanced training as a member of the clergy or the equivalent, and who has been called by an institution — typically a university, hospital, or military unit — to serve as a chaplain. Humanist chaplains first emerged in the 1960’s in the Dutch armed forces, and currently represent more than ⅓ of the chaplains in Holland’s military, and have served in Iraq, Afghanistan, and many other parts of the world.
The first humanist chaplain in North America, and the first to serve a college or university, was Tom Ferrick, founder of the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard (now the Humanist Hub). Tom founded our organization in 1974-75, and was succeeded in 2005 by Greg Epstein, the current Humanist Chaplain at Harvard and Executive Director of the Humanist Hub. Additionally, there are now humanist chaplains at many universities across North America and in Europe, as well as an increasing number of humanist chaplains in healthcare settings.
Listen to this recent national public radio show, “Interfaith Voices,” profiling Greg Epstein and his work as a humanist chaplain, as part of a 7-part series on chaplaincy in America today, supported by the Association for Clinical Pastoral Education. Interfaith Voices also spoke with other humanist chaplains on their work in healthcare and other settings.
Why are humanist chaplains necessary to universities?
One of the best descriptions of why humanist chaplains are needed appeared in the essay, Extraordinary? What if Our Current State of Affairs is Actually ‘Normal’?, in the New York Times Magazine in fall 2017. In the words of Nitush Abebe:
“The unease is partly emotional. A core experience of becoming an adult is the gradual realization that there is no stable force in charge of things and no natural progression by which the unimpressive young people who have always surrounded you, eating paste and binge drinking and struggling at math, will be magically transmuted into credible authority figures. The responsibility for maintaining the world falls to you and your peers. That is why your elders pressured you to learn things; they were aware that they would die and someone would be need to design power plants and do open heart surgery. As with international law, we might enjoy the thought that there is some coherent structure holding everything together, but in the end the structure is only as stable as we’re prepared to step forward and make it.”
What is the Humanist Hub’s mission and vision?
The Humanist Hub’s mission is to build an inclusive community of atheists, agnostics and allies, creating a new model for how humanists celebrate life, promote reason and compassion, and better the world for all.
Our vision is to offer every nonreligious student at Harvard or MIT an opportunity to become a humanist leader; to help empower every atheist, agnostic and ally in Greater Boston to build community based on humanist principles; and to provide an example of humanist values so strong that people in every city and on every campus will be inspired to build a humanist community of their own.
How was the Humanist Hub founded?
For most of our history, this organization was known legally and publicly as the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard (HCH), and we primarily served humanist, atheist, and agnostic students at Harvard University. (Our founding chaplain and Executive Director, Tom Ferrick, also founded a sister organization, now the Greater Boston Humanists, to serve others.) Ferrick worked for decades out of a small, windowless office in the basement of Harvard’s Memorial Church. In 2007, after Ferrick’s retirement, we held a large 30th anniversary conference, The New Humanism: Diverse, Inclusive, Inspiring, to celebrate our past and articulate a new vision.
In the following years, HCH began to organize events and programs for the general public in addition to Harvard students; as these programs grew in popularity, including several sold-out events in Memorial Church, we raised funds to lease space for a small community center in Harvard Square. We outgrew several such spaces and eventually in late 2013 we leased our current larger space, at 30 JFK Street. At this point, we moved to change our name from HCH to the Humanist Hub, to indicate that all are welcome to attend the majority of our current programs.
What are the values and expectations shared by Humanist Hub members?
Not every humanist sees eye to eye, and there’s no “test of humanity” required to join.
That said, we do have a list of shared values we aspire to embody. These include: reason; compassion; creativity; justice; integrity; awareness; enthusiasm; feminism; equality; science; skepticism; dialogue; diversity; progress; equity; service; mindfulness; personal growth; love; and intersectionality.
We also try to cultivate norms or common assumptions about interpersonal interaction that can help guide us as we strive to build a meaningful community. We strive to speak and listen from the heart, engaging our emotional awareness and compassion in addition to our reason. We work to create a space safe enough to show up as your whole, vulnerable self. We assume good will. We work diligently and proactively to be an inclusive community, welcoming all regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, socioeconomic status, or religious or cultural background. We are all imperfectly human and so, perhaps most importantly, we are willing to learn and grow.
We have both student and non-student members. We serve students at Harvard and MIT (and occasionally at Tufts, Northeastern, Boston University and other area schools), without any expectation of payment or donation. The Humanist Hub is supported by non-student members who donate their time and money to help us grow our community. There is no required donation for anyone; we want and need your support in whatever form you can offer, including volunteering, helping to spread the word, or simply offering others a friendly face and a listening ear at our programs and gatherings. Of course, none of this is possible without the generous financial support of people like you, so if this feels like your community, whether you are local or far away, please do consider donating as generously as you can. You can quickly and easily sign up to be a member, here!
But I thought you were funded by Harvard (or MIT)?
No. We are an independent 501(c)3 charitable organization, incorporated under Massachussets law. We raise all of our funds on our own. You can find our most recent financial records here.
But… Harvard (or MIT) at least pays Greg Epstein’s salary, right?
No! Despite a popular misconception, Harvard University does not pay any of Greg Epstein’s salary or benefits as the Humanist Chaplain at Harvard, nor does it cover the Hub staff or any our organization’s other expenses. Greg holds the same status as the other approximately 35 Harvard Chaplains, only one of whom is currently paid by Harvard as a “university chaplain.” This unpaid “volunteer” status has long been the way that, for example, the rabbis of Harvard Hillel or the priests at the Harvard Catholic Student Center function on campus. All but one of MIT’s 25 chaplains also serve as volunteers: we receive no funding of any kind from MIT, either.
Fortunately, in the 1990’s, John L. Loeb, Sr., an alumnus of Harvard College, included the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard as a very small part of a large gift to Harvard to ensure there would always be a Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard. We currently receive approximately $40,000 annually as revenue from this gift; however, this is only a small fraction of our annual budget. Everything else must be raised from our members and supporters!
We are also currently a chapter of the American Humanist Association (AHA), a national umbrella organization; this means our organization can receive donations at the “American Humanist Association in Cambridge, MA,” but we are independent from the AHA and receive no funding from it.
Is the Humanist Hub a nonprofit organization?
Yes! We are an independent 501(c)3 non-profit organization.
Is the Humanist Hub an “atheist Church”?
The Hub can be described as a “congregation” in that we do draw on some of the structures and best practices of religious communities. You can also just call us a “community,” if you prefer, since we are entirely secular. We don’t refer to ourselves as a “church,” however, because that word would imply we are informed only or primarily by Christian culture and practices. We serve people of Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and many other religious and nonreligious backgrounds.
Where is the Humanist Hub located?
We are located in the heart of Harvard Square, steps from the Harvard Square MBTA station. Our address is 30 JFK Street Cambridge, 4th Floor, Cambridge Massachusetts, 02138. Click here for a map.
Is your location handicap-accessible?
Currently, the Hub is in a fourth floor space reachable via elevator. Unfortunately, our restrooms are not handicap-accessible.
How can I get involved?
New ways to get involved are always emerging! If you live in the Boston area, just show up for (or ask us about) our programs. We have events open to everyone on Sunday and on several evenings during the week. There are also wonderful committees and small groups you can join after you’ve attended some of our public programs. Please visit www.humanisthub.org for further details. If you live further away, you can view our livestreamed and recorded Sunday programs, and there is a private Facebook group for members who have donated any amount of money (ask us about it after you’ve donated!). In either case please join our mailing list for the latest updates on how you can be a part of our work: there are plans for more online opportunities to engage with our work in the future.
What if I don’t live in the Boston area, but I still want to be involved somehow?
Again, we livestream our Sunday at 1:30pm programs, which can be viewed at https://www.facebook.com/pg/harvardhumanist/videos, and stay tuned via our mailing list as from time to time there are exciting opportunities to get involved, from wherever you are.
Do I need to be affiliated with Harvard or MIT to attend Hub programs?
No. (We do host and support private groups of Harvard and MIT students, however: ask us about those!)
Will you be serving other universities in the future?
Over our history, we have served tens of thousands of local attendees and members; thousands of students on more than a dozen colleges or universities; and dozens of individuals who have gone from participating in our programs to becoming humanist chaplains, professional leaders, celebrants, or community leaders elsewhere. Many community organizations, in the United States and Canada, have already drawn inspiration from our model to build and grow like-minded institutions of their own. While we are currently busy and “at capacity” in working to serve the thousands of humanist/atheist/agnostic students at Harvard and MIT as well as a large community beyond those institutions, we could potentially expand in the future; the biggest challenge is having enough well-trained, professional staff members to help manage all the activity effectively.
Is humanism “speciesist”?
No. The word “humanism” is intended to indicate an inclusive attitude embracing all humanity, but our concerns do not end at the species boundary. The rights of animals are a subject of concern to humanists. Humanism recognizes the special place of the planet earth, and all its interdependent systems, as humanity’s home in the vastness of the universe. That’s why the Humanist Hub’s logo is the pale blue dot.
What if I believe there may be a god, but I’m not very religious? Am I welcome?
We welcome allies, i.e. individuals who may not be humanists themselves but are supportive of humanists and of our mission.
Not everybody who uses “god language” actually believes in a supernatural figure controlling the universe. Some people think of “god” as a word that describes what they think of as the highest and best way to be or to do. If you think of “good” or “love” when you hear the word “god,” you may well find yourself at home here at the Humanist Hub. We don’t pray in a traditional way, but you are welcome to join us as we invoke, affirm, and act on our good.
How can I become a humanist chaplain?
We really do get this question a lot. Unfortunately, it’s not easy to answer! The profession is maturing and growing– we’ve gone from one or two humanist chaplains nationwide when Greg Epstein became the Humanist Chaplain at Harvard back in 2005, to dozens today. There is still no easy formula, however. University humanist chaplains tend to be people who have earned graduate degrees and gained some professional experience as clergy or the equivalent, in addition to having worked to gain some significant knowledge of humanism; hospital and health care chaplaincy requires a rigorous accreditation process. Hospital chaplaincy positions for humanists, while still extremely rare, can be applied for, by qualified and accredited candidates, through traditional hospital chaplaincy channels. University humanist chaplaincy may not require board certification and may currently have a higher public profile than other types of humanist chaplaincy positions, but these positions too are currently extremely difficult to come by and harder still to maintain. There is no single formula or “right way” to become a university humanist chaplain. If you are already highly qualified for such a position, you might start by identifying which university or college you might be interested in serving. You should then learn as much as you can about how that institution does and does not certify chaplains to work on its campus– ultimately, every school has a unique policy so we can’t tell you what to expect, here. If a review of the school’s policies, practices and relevant leadership indicates the possibility that a humanist chaplain might be accepted or welcomed, then you might look into an application process. Bear in mind, however, that in almost every case, you will be expected to work entirely as a VOLUNTEER– i.e. you will not be paid ANY money at all by the college or university. You will be expected to raise ANY/ALL salary and benefits on your own, so you need to be every bit as much a resilient and creative entrepreneur as you are a deep-thinking humanist clergy leader. We can’t tell you the formula for raising money: if you are the kind of person who can’t independently imagine how to create, and effectively execute a fundraising or other kind of financing campaign to support your efforts, you might not be a good fit for this type of position at this time. Unless you don’t need to earn money! Or by all means “check back” in several years– hopefully the field will continue to grow as it has been over the past decade, and by then more funded or partially funded jobs may have become available.
In most cases, we can only recommend that you first get involved with the humanist movement and learn about it– perhaps first through the American Humanist Association, the Humanist Society or the Humanist Institute. If you are local to the Boston area and gain admission to an accredited divinity school such as Harvard Divinity School or Meadville Lombard Theological School, we may be able to work with you more closely and help you get trained! If you are thinking of applying to one of these schools: before asking to meet with Greg Epstein or another member of our staff, we recommend coming to one or more of our programs to see our community in practice. Say hi to us afterwards and we can start the conversation!
PS: in a handful of very rare cases, the Humanist Hub has agreed to consult with an individual or group seeking to establish a humanist chaplaincy at an educational institution. In most of these cases, the individual or group has been able to offer a significant grant to the Humanist Hub in exchange for our time, advice and in some cases our active help in moving this process forward. If you’d like to inquire about such a possibility, be in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.