Humanist Hub Blog

The Meaning of Human Existence

Image courtesy of the E. O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation

“After many close calls, extraordinary suffering … we staggered onto the stage to the grief of most of the rest of life.”

Last Sunday the Humanist HUB had to turn people away. And for good reason. The center was at capacity with people eagerly awaiting the afternoon’s speaker: famed evolutionary biologist Edward O. Wilson. Winner of two Pulitzers and ‘personal hero’ to at least a couple HUB members, Wilson has been dubbed “Darwin II” by writer Tom Wolfe, is the man who coined the terms “biodiversity” and “biogeography,” and is considered the world’s leading authority on ants.

The title of the talk, “The Meaning of Human Existence,” was almost as much of a hook as the name of speaker. No one particularly expected Wilson to answer that question—which would have been tantamount to answering, once and for all, what algebraic “x” really was. Instead, the focus of the talk was on something related, and of similar importance. Namely: why do we, the altruistic, cooperative, enlightened homo sapiens, seem to be so royally “fu[dg]ing” up the Earth?

The appearance of homo sapiens, according to Wilson, runs something like this: “After many close calls, extraordinary suffering, [and nearly reaching extinction on the African savannah], we staggered onto the stage to the grief of most of the rest of life.”

Since then, one Promethean achievement after another has brought us basic machines, mathematics, AC and DC currents, Fords, PCs, iPhones, increasing our power and our numbers. But while our computers run ever more advanced operating systems, Wilson says we continue to run on “Paleolithic emotions” while our society runs on “medieval institutions.” And although we like to think of ourselves as the dominant species on the planet, Wilson makes the argument that if we count “dominance” in terms of numbers, global biomass, and our odds of survival as a species, ants may have us beat.

Our dominance on Earth, and maybe even our mere survival, may depend less on our technological achievements than on whether altruism of selfishness wins out in our species.

Altruism is not God-given but a development of natural selection.

Wilson argues, as Darwin himself first proposed, that altruism is not God-given but a development of natural selection. There are various examples—upwards of twenty different evolutionary lines, says Wilson—of biological altruism that have been identified in the natural world, defined by an organism acting to the benefit of other organisms at a cost to itself.

Examples include vampire bats who regurgitate blood so those bats who failed to feed that night won’t starve; ‘helper’ birds that will aid in raising the young of other mating pairs; Vervet monkeys that will raise alarm calls when predators approach, even though they attract attention to themselves; and social insects like ants that rely on countless sterile workers who sacrifice their lives and reproductive potential for the survival of the colony.

Among evolutionary biologists, the idea that altruistic tendencies are derived by natural selection is not controversial. But exactly how biological altruism developed is a subject of ongoing debate.* Wilson’s stance on the issue, put simply, is that altruism develops when there are different groups within a species—different tribes for example—that are in competition with one another. If there are selfish individuals within a group, even a single selfish member, then the selfish members will always win out over the altruists. However, groups of altruists will theoretically always out-perform groups of selfish individuals because altruism insures the group as a whole is more likely to survive.

However, whether biological altruism can be extrapolated as a direct cause of human altruism is still a subject of debate. For one thing, biological altruism and what’s commonly meant by human altruism are not identical, since the latter requires conscious intent and the former does not. Furthermore, human behavior—more than any other animal’s—depends on culture, which is itself environmentally dependent. We’ve managed to spread across the globe, surviving in drastically different climates and on vastly different diets, not by rapidly evolving our anatomy (our genetic differences are superficial) but by endlessly adapting our culture. Humanity’s specific brand of altruism may be a unique product of cultural evolution.

By and large our altruism does resemble that of other animals. For example, we are far more altruistic towards our kin then towards strangers. And like birds, humans will help raise others’ young, or even adopt children who have no biological ties to themselves. But human altruism doesn’t always fall neatly in accordance to patterns of biological altruism. For example, humans often collaborate with and even give their lives for non-genetically related families and even “other tribes.” Stranger still: we act altruistically for the sake of other, non-symbiotic species.

But given our unique altruistic capacities why does it seem we’ve become so bad for the Earth? Why, as Wilson asked, are we screwing things up?

Let’s admit it: we’re not exactly a blessing, but we’re also not a plague.

It’s tempting to fall into existential guilt or think of ourselves as some kind of perverse aberration inherently destructive to life on planet Earth. But we shouldn’t be so hard on ourselves. As answer for our behavior seems to lie in the very basic mechanisms of life.

We have been raised by Earth’s own code of conduct. Like other creatures, what’s first and foremost on our minds is an old and basic formula: survive and reproduce. Food and shelter, sex and kids. Much of what we and other animals do are focused on these basics ends and we strive for them as best we can.

Consider the rabbit or the starling. These species are not inherently evil, but when they’re placed in ecosystems with no natural predators and seemingly limitless resources, they do what life does best: consume and reproduce, ad infinitum, to the detriment—and sometimes extinction—of plants and animals around them. As a species we have come to a similar sort of place.

Let’s admit it: we’re not exactly a blessing, but we’re also not a plague. We’re a decidedly mixed bag. Our cultural adaptability has allowed us to stumble into, survive in, and disrupt ecosystems the world over, but somehow we’ve also developed the capacity for one of the highest form of altruistic action: altruism towards other species. Once in a while a person like Wilson comes along to remind us just how strange, how tribal, how animal, how stomach-driven, sex-driven, and Paleolithically myopic we are. But at the same time—by simply existing at all—people like Wilson also manage to make a case for precisely the contrary.

*For those who want to enter into the fray see the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry on biological altruism.


Love E. O. Wilson? The Humanist HUB is auctioning off a signed poster of E. O. Wilson on eBay. Bid for the poster and help support the HUB!
Daniel Lev Shkolnik – writer, thinker, Humanist.
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The Thousand Year Floods

Hurricane Harvey captured from the International Space Station, Courtesy of NASA

Circa 8 CE Ovid wrote about an ancient flood the gods of Olympus unleashed upon the earth, leaving only the pious couple Deucalion and Pyrrha looking over the side of their small boat to see fields and villages underwater—dolphins brushing the trees.

A pre-colonial Aztec myth says that during the era of the fourth sun, a devout couple hid in the hollowed trunk of a large tree with two ears of corn as divine storms drown the wicked of the land.

About 2000 BCE it’s said the Great Flood of Gun-Yu inundated large parts of China. According to myth, it continued for at least two generations causing people to leave their homes to live on the high hills and mounts or nest on the trees.

Great floods have been part of the human mythos of human apocalyptic destruction and punishment for millennia. Today, they are just as relevant to the human narrative as ever.

On August 25th, 2017, Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Texas.

Two members of the Humanist HUB, Dan Richards and Jesse Wallace, are from Texas and have friends and family there. Dan’s parents weathered the storm in Galveston, TX while his cousins were in West Houston. Jesse’s extended family, spread out from Corpus Christi to Baton Rouge, had their homes flooded, their cars totaled. Watching it all happen from 1600 miles away, both men wanted desperately to be of use.

A “wild flash” hit Dan. He had a strong impulse to get in his car, race down to Texas, pick up an inflatable dinghy on the way, and start riding around the waterways of Houston trying to save people. But in the end he stopped himself.

“I wanted to help,” says Dan, “But I didn’t want to center myself. … Taking my ego out of it was my number one priority.”

He had no rescue training, he reflected, no equipment or experience. If he had gone and gotten himself hurt or stranded, someone would have to come out and get him. Or worse, in an attempt to help an injured or stranded person he could potentially cause them harm for lack of medical or rescue training, simply aggravating the problem.

Instead, both Dan and Jesse stuck to their phones and tried to coordinate flow of information over social media. Dan showed me an S.O.S. he saw on Facebook about a group of nine adults, two children, six toddlers, two infants, three cats, and three dogs stranded in a house on the brink of flooding. 911 was not responding to their distress calls. He forwarded the message to a high school friend who, after losing his home, was riding around with his brother picking up stranded. He could only hope they’d be able to reach the stranded.

The civilian response was overwhelming, and combined with social media channels, people picked up the slack where governmental rescue agencies were over-extended. The Cajun Navy, an ad-hoc volunteer group of private boaters from Louisiana formed in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, arrived to Texas en masse. There were guys who rolled through the flood waters in their monster trucks. Groups of citizens who made chains of people to get to those who were stranded in floodwaters.

If he was there, Jesse reflected, he probably would have been with his uncle in a boat pulling people out of houses. But from afar, he focused on the next step after immediately surviving the flood: helping people survive the next month.

In the aftermath of Katrina, Jesse did volunteer electrical work in New Orleans and from his experience knew that it wasn’t middle-class people like his family that would need most financial support but people with fewer resources. He donated installments to several GoFundMe campaigns aimed at helping specific families below his socioeconomic status weather the upcoming months as well as to low-income school districts whose supplies had been completely flushed away.

As Humanists, we don’t have a God or divine hierarchy to look up at and pray to. Dan saw a lot of people posting, “Thoughts and prayers,” on social media during the hurricane. “I don’t see that as misguided,” he says. “There’s some utility in prayer.” He feels it focuses people on the task that needs doing. If we were silent, what use is that?

Jesse saw the same flurry of reflexive thanks-to-God messages after they’d been rescued. “No!” Jesse says. They shouldn’t be thanking God. “Thank the [guy] who just gave you the help and recognize his humanity is amazing.”

Jesse recounted a different kind of “rescue” story about a friend living in Houston, hated by his neighbors for being a Black Lives Matter activist. During the storm, both he and his family and the family of a neighborhood man who hung a Confederate flag on his truck were huddled together in the same shelter for some 40 hours. The conservative man thought BLM was a terrorist organization, or at least a hate group bent on assaulting white people. A conversation began between the two men.

After the clouds passed, the BLM activist and the conservative man worked side-by-side to help others in the neighborhood get their houses back together. Last Jesse heard, a kind of friendship seems to have formed between him and some of his staunchly conservative neighbors.

“I find it a bit ironic how impressive humanity can be and not even know it. … I just wish it didn’t take a catastrophe [to bring it out of people.]”

This is the first time in recorded history that two Atlantic category 4 hurricanes have made landfall in a single year. And the 33 trillion gallons of water Harvey dumped on the U.S. “This is something that hasn’t happened in our modern era of observations [about 100 years]” said University of Wisconsin-Madison researcher Dr. Shane Hubbard speaking to the Washington Post.

The future may potentially bring the biggest flooding the human race has ever seen. It won’t just last two generations as the Great Flood of Gun-Yu purportedly did, it may last far, far longer.

The old flood myths often represented a cleansing of wickedness from the world. A time when humanity had gone a wrong way and needed to be radically, violently redirected. The great floods of the future—just like those of the past—will also be a consequence of human “wickedness,” so to speak. The difference is that we won’t see them as God-sent but human-made. And our redemption too will not be divine but gruelingly, honestly, heroically Humanistic.

Daniel Lev Shkolnik – writer, thinker, Humanist.

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A Call For New Myths

I am a white man who’s been raised on violence.

That’s not the takeaway I’d expected when I arrived for my first visit to the Humanist HUB last Sunday. Not in the least.

The afternoon’s speaker, Colin Stokes, was slated to talk about movies in pop culture. Bright shafts of sun lit the heads of almost a hundred people waiting for the talk to start. There was a rendition of “Superman’s Song” by Crash Test Dummies and a recitation of Shel Silversteen’s poem “Masks.” Then after a gregarious introduction by Greg Epstein, the Humanist HUB’s Executive Director, Colin rose to the front of the cream-colored room and began to speak.

As humanists, he pointed out, we don’t just accept our myths as God-given, we have the immense freedom to choose which texts we hold as sacred—by which texts we live our lives. But with that freedom comes a responsibility to scrutinize our texts and challenge the basis of the lessons they teach us.

Myth-making didn’t stop with the Romans, it’s a living genre, so to speak, tied to a multi-billion-dollar movie industry. “Maybe your pantheon is Ariel and Simba,” Colin said. “Maybe you know Harry Potter’s genealogy better than King Arthur’s.” The point is: the nature of myth has changed. No one goes to the local amphitheater to hear the bard sing the war deeds of our forefathers. We go to the movie theater and watch Dunkirk. Children don’t often learn from folktales anymore—they learn from Lilo & Stitch. Not Aesop, but Disney.

Colin took aim at one kind of narrative that lies at the heart of many of the movies he—and many Americans—hold dear: the hero’s journey. It’s the backbone of many a Hollywood blockbuster, depicting a hero’s call to adventure, his journey from the known into the unknown, shifting the balance of a broken world to one of good and justice. Think of Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Lord of The Rings, Batman, Superman, and most all the superhero movies that have been coming out in recent years.

But the heroes in popular movies, Colin says, have often been white, the journeys have often been violent, and the prizes have often been women.

In the old Star Wars movies, a total of two women speak over the course of six hours of film. Of the IMDb 100 best movies of all time, only a handful of them have people of color in lead roles. According to a recent study of movie scripts found highly gendered verbiage throughout: men are far more likely to “kill” while women “squeal.” Men “laugh,” women “giggle.”

Things have been getting better, Colin pointed out. A third of movies in the past year have had female protagonists. About a third had minorities in star roles. After building its success on films, predominantly starring male characters, Pixar has started dabbling with female protagonists like Merida in Brave and Joy in Inside Out. Films like Get Out and Hidden Figures have been giving more limelight to people of color, and Moonlight may have been the only Academy Award winning film without a single white actor.

But the problem goes deeper than what movies we watch or what books we read. Colin points out that our national narrative of our country is laced with the same kinds of mythology as our movies.

On a trip to the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, Colin got a thrill from the way the United States was portrayed: a heroic experiment that, by the genius of its founding documents, was able to defy the odds and emerge a long-standing beacon of liberty and justice in the world.

It was only when he sat down with his fellow museum-goers—all of whom were either minorities or queer—that he was told how much history had been left out, how many unmentioned heroes had to work against the social order behind the United States Constitution in order to achieve the egalitarianism it seemed to innately promise.

“It was as if the Empire [in Star Wars] were to put up a museum to congratulate themselves on the achievements of the Rebel Alliance,” Colin said.

Calling America’s founding stories “myths” isn’t calling them false per se, but they are untrue. They are untrue to the full complexity of the way history unfolds. As the founding fathers signed their names under the words “all men are created equal,” many of them had slaves waiting on them at home. Later, many Americans would give their lives to keep slavery alive.

Colin calls for new myths, featuring an array of heroes on non-militant journeys. Already, there are examples that these kinds of films are every bit as enthralling, and profitable. Zootopia features an ableist cityscape and violence-denying female protagonist. Wonder Woman’s heroine and female director, Patty Jenkins, raked-in record profits for DC Comics. LEGO Batman, says Colin, was his vote for the year’s best portrayal of male conversion away from toxic masculinity.

Growing up, my heroes were often armed, white men. A swordsman. A bounty hunter. A gunslinger. A military pilot. They were in the comic books I read, the video games I played, the animation and movies I watched. It has left a lasting affinity for violent power both in me and many of the men I know.

I know that guns cause more damage than they prevent. But when I was handed a pistol in rural Vermont, I took it and unloaded the clip at a target in the woods. After that I tried the rifle—and liked it.

As we were walking along the Hudson River in Manhattan recently, one of the most good-natured guys I know told me he’s often wondered what it would be like to take a person’s life.

I have to accept it. I and my friends are white men who’ve been raised on violence. That will not change. Of course, it’s not that white men were my heroes just because they were violent, white, and male. They were also honorable, they were loyal, they protected the weak, they bore their losses with dignity and didn’t hold grudges, they could laugh at the world as well as at themselves.

While the question of equal opportunity for races and genders are obvious in my mind, there are many other questions that are still unanswered about the place of power and violence in the world.

Can violence be justified? Does force of arms cause more peace than harm? Is there really “a time for everything under the sun?” “A time to kill and a time to heal?” “A time for war and a time for peace?” Or is that just another old myth written in an old book?

Daniel Lev Shkolnik – writer, thinker, Humanist.


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Town Hall Updates 3/12/17

The Town Hall generated a lot of feedback and we’re still digesting it. There were six major themes from the discussion: our ethos, transparency, communicating with the community, safe spaces, potential new committees, member involvement & volunteering.  Here’s what we’ve done so far.

  • Regarding transparency,
    • Sarah has added a section for the board members on the website, and will continue to add members as they send her information.
    • We’re developing committee-based decision making process. For example, going forward, new small groups will be approved by the Hub Ambassador’s committee. There is an online google form which people can fill out to propose a new small group.
  • Speaking of new groups,
    • Jennifer Lin has started a new mental health small group which is meeting after this discussion (3/12) at 3:30.
    • Rocky has started the a new small group called Life and Loss Cafe (two occurred in Spring, next one to be held in Summer).
    • Rob has proposed a new moderated, public but closed facebook group for the hub community. He will create it in the next couple of weeks. Anyone who has attended an event at the hub is welcome to join. The norms for the group will be posted in the description of the group.
    • Paul Dio will be starting a new career development group. Look out for announcements in future weeks.
  • Regarding member involvement & volunteering,
    • We’ve created 4 roles for Sunday mornings: greeter, monitor, food server, and clean-up crew. We are in the process of locating a coordinator for each role. Jesse Wallace has agreed to be the coordinator for the monitors. Thanks Jesse!
      • But we need your help with this. Please sign up for a role! You don’t need to be here every Sunday,
    • Joel Thoman & Jason Arnold will be the 2017 AIDS Walk captains & Tom Norris will be one of the Pride Co-Marshals.

As I said we are still working our way through all of the notes & related action items. We thank you for your patience and we will continue to update you all on our progress.

  • Transparency:

Website: put individual bios of board members on the web; describe their responsibilities; include annual report and other financial statements; include job descriptions of the staff; archive the newsletters; describe the different committees. Sarah will work on these things. Other volunteers to help with website content: Steve, Andrea, Traci, Veronica.

Strategic Planning Committee: on pause at the moment; it includes Ben Datema, Nina Lytton, and some board members; working on a five-year plan, kids’ program, a possible move to a new location. This committee deals with more details than the Board.

Decision-making process: Previously, Greg made all the decisions and Sarah implemented them. Now we are moving to a committee-based decision-making process. We are still figuring out the process.

Write a constitution: describe how the board interacts with committees; include bylaws; create a process to choose people for committees.

  • Safe Spaces:

Welcoming environment: Regular topic for Hub Ambassadors: How can we make the community more welcoming? How can we create safe spaces? Make sure we welcome allies; make sure we say, “We don’t all have to agree.”

Training: How to train community in Hub norms? The Monday Night Discussion Group leaders (Veronica, Dan Richards, Sandy Heierbacher, Emon Sharier, Michelle Carter, Alice, and Valerie) have already been trained by Rob and Greg. Train more leaders of small groups? Train in Hub norms when getting together outside of the Hub.

Racial diversity: Recognize that we are not very racially diverse; we operate “like a white church” not a black or Latino church. How can we move the needle racially?

Small group opportunities: how to engage members who are beyond just attenders?

Political diversity: Recognize that we have political diversity. How to hold discussions on politics in a healthy way? Give workshop on how to talk about politics. Perhaps Sandy could lead it. Veronica and Rob will talk to her. In the past, a nonviolent communication workshop led by Xander.

  • Communicating within the community:

Website, facebook, newsletter. Put more information on the website. Archive the newsletter on the website (Sarah has done this). Possibly create a public facebook group for members—Rob will look into. Blog? Encourage people to sign up for the newsletter.

  • Encourage members to take the next step to get involved:

We’ve created 4 roles for Sunday mornings: greeter, monitor, food server, clean-up crew. Elka has created 4 sign-up sheets (Google docs), and we are in the process of locating a leader (who recruits and trains people) and coordinator (who schedules and reminds people) for each role. The priority is to get a monitor in place each week to take care of setting up extra chairs. Stephen will coordinate the monitors. Elka will coordinate the greeters; greeters will also say goodbye to people. Sarah and Andrea will coordinate the food servers. We need a coordinator for clean-up crew. Gene Gorter was suggested. Stephen will contact him to describe this role and ask him if he’d like to take it on. The goal is to get people scheduled and involved in running Sunday meetings.

  • What is humanism and what do we stand for?

How best to communicate/teach the Hub’s values and mission? Possibly a Sunday morning History of Humanism class, an adult education class taught by Greg.

  • Other potential committees that can be created:

Outreach committee—engaging with broader community and other organizations

Community service committee—meal-packing, etc., might roll into ARC

Children and family committee

RELEASE: First Atheist NFL Star Speaks at Harvard

February 28, 2017
For Release: Immediately Upon Receipt
Contact: Greg M. Epstein, Humanist Chaplain at Harvard

RELEASE: First Atheist NFL Star Speaks at Harvard
Boston’s “Godless Congregation” Hosts 4 Time All Pro

CAMBRIDGE, MA: The first ever major American sports star to be an “Openly Secular” atheist and humanist will be honored at Harvard University, in April.

The Humanist Hub, in partnership with the Harvard Community of Humanists, Atheists, and Agnostics (HCHAA), will present recently retired 4-time NFL All-Pro player Arian Foster with their 11th Annual Outstanding Lifetime Achievement Award in Cultural Humanism, as part of a ceremony held on Harvard’s campus on Sunday April 23 at 1:30pm.

This award, created in 2007, honors an individual whose life and contributions to popular culture and society exemplify the values of Humanism, a nonreligious philosophy of life based on reason, compassion, integrity, and justice.

Foster, a former running back who holds Houston Texans franchise records for rushing yards and touchdowns, and who led the National Football League in rushing yards and touchdowns in 2010, publicly announced his atheism in a 2015 feature in ESPN Magazine.

In a 2011 cover story, The Sporting News called Foster “The Most Interesting Man in the NFL.”

First through ESPN and in subsequent activism for the “Openly Secular” campaign, an awareness-building effort of the organized humanist movement in the US, Foster acknowledged bias against atheism, but is embracing the award and its message.

“It’s an honor to be invited to talk about my values at a place with some of the brightest minds in the world,” Foster said.

“I want to help make a wider audience aware of the need for human progress.”

With countless millions of fans and sky high ratings, NFL Football provides a wide audience for athletes who use its platform to speak out about social issues.

“Talking about the ethics of football is more important than ever,“ said Greg Epstein, Humanist Chaplain at Harvard and the Humanist Hub’s Executive Director.

“The humanist community cares deeply that sports, as a part of our popular culture, are responsive to social justice and public health. Our students have held several high profile conversations on this topic in the past, and with the football community’s first-ever open humanist set to visit, the dialogue is sure to grow.”

“Faith isn’t enough for me,” Foster told ESPN in 2015. “For people who are struggling with that, they’re nervous about telling their families or afraid of the backlash … man, don’t be afraid to be you. I was, for years.”

The Humanist Hub, the US’s first “Center for Humanist Life” serving atheists and agnostics on and around a campus, has hosted similar award ceremonies with actress Carrie Fisher (2016) comedian Eddie Izzard (2013) author Mary Roach (2012) Seth MacFarlane (Fall 2011) Stephen Fry (Spring 2011) Discovery Chanel’s MythBusters Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman (2010) director Joss Whedon (2009) Bad Religion’s Greg Graffin (2008) and Sir Salman Rushdie (2007).

To learn more, visit Tickets available on Eventbrite.

Carrie Fisher

All of us at the Humanist Hub and the Humanist Community at Harvard are shocked and saddened to hear of Carrie Fisher’s death today. She was an amazing author, actress and human being who made a positive impact on so many, including our own community. In April, the Humanist Hub and the Harvard College Community of Humanists, Atheists and Agnostics (HCHAA) presented her with our 10th annual Lifetime Achievement Award in Cultural Humanism, at Harvard’s Memorial Church.

The ceremony was, like so much of Carrie’s life and work, poignant, passionate, and very funny. Here is a statement from our Program Director Sarah Chandonnet, who nominated Ms. Fisher for our award (which has been accepted, in previous years, by novelist Sir Salman Rushdie, filmmaker Joss Whedon, comedian and author Stephen Fry, among other humanist cultural icons) and who had the opportunity to connect personally with her in organizing our event:


When I heard about Carrie Fisher’s death I felt anger– it doesn’t feel fair for her to die just as she’d come so far. It was no secret that Carrie had many struggles as a young actress, such as addiction and mental illness. But in recent years, she found many ways to transform those struggles into a story that could reach others facing similar problems. She became a model for overcoming life’s most difficult challenges, and doing so with grace. For her to have that taken away is a reminder for all of us that life can be incredibly absurd and unjust.

I admired Carrie – the actress – from afar for many years, but I came to love her once I got to know her – the person – through working on our wonderful event with her in April, where the Humanist Hub and the Humanist Community at Harvard presented her with our 10th annual Lifetime Achievement Award in Cultural Humanism, at Harvard’s Memorial Church.

I, like so many of you, have always had a special place in my heart for Star Wars — but I learned more about Carrie when I watched The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive — a BBC award-winning documentary made by Stephen Fry, another friend of the Humanist Hub. To me, Carrie had always been the indestructible Princess Leia (and she will always be). But in that documentary — and later in Wishful Drinking — I learned that she’s so, so much more than Princess Leia. She’s a compassionate, funny, deeply flawed, deeply brave, slightly inappropriate, generous, bipolar woman – someone who took the celebrity generated by one of the biggest institutions of our popular culture and used it to do tremendous good.

Here’s some of what our nomination letter said:

“We admire you for your most iconic role in the Star Wars films. But moreover, we admire the myriad ways you’ve used your celebrity to uphold values around which we center our organization’s mission: The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive works to destigmatize mental illness; Wishful Drinking takes an honest (and humorous) approach to humanizing popular culture, facing the challenges of fame, and helping your readers find comedy in life’s ups and downs. Your forthright activism and outspokenness about addiction, mental illness, religion, and agnosticism have furthered public discourse about these issues with honesty and empathy.”

Indeed, we hope our community and our humanist cause can be just one of the many reasons Carrie will be remembered as an effective activist and advocate– in other words, as someone who made the world around her a better place. She was so generous with the people and causes she cared about, donating her time to be with us in Cambridge for an event in her honor, even humoring us by taking photos with storm troopers, as the Harvard band played the Princess Leia theme music from the balcony. After hours of travel, and talking, it was Carrie who thanked us.

On the trophy for Carrie’s award, we inscribed this quote from Wishful Drinking:

“Let’s say something happens and from a certain slant maybe it’s tragic, even a little bit shocking. Then time passes and you go to the funny slant, and now that very same thing can no longer do you any harm.”

Carrie’s death is tragic, and it hits the hearts of millions of people. But I do hope that someday we will be able to look back at our time with her – at her work, and her wit, and her words – and laugh. I think that’s what she would have wanted.

Meanwhile, on behalf of all of us at the Humanist Hub and in the broader humanist community, then, we offer our heartfelt condolences to Ms. Fisher’s family and friends, and to her fans. At this sad time let us remember the words of the late humanist rabbi Sherwin T. Wine, who wrote:

Death needs courage. It is so overwhelmingly final that it fills our lives with dread and anxious fear. Sometimes it arrives at the end of a long life when we are waiting for it. But sometimes when it comes too soon, interrupting young lives and wasting hopes and dreams, it adds anger to our fear. We cry out at the injustice of destiny and wait for answers that never seem to come. Courage is loving life, even in the face of death. It is sharing our strength with others even when we feel weak. It is embracing our family and friends even when we fear to lose them. It is opening ourselves to love, even for the last time.

Love offers the gift of many blessings. None is more precious that the love of family and friends. In the strength and compassion of parents, in the mutual devotion of husband and wife, brother and sister, we find the security of love. For the landscape of our years is peopled by the presence of open hearts that exact no price for the gift of themselves. When a family member or an intimate friend dies, sadness and despair are normal responses. Two people cannot share the best and worst of life in mutual experience and find that absence is trivial. The tribute of love is the pain of separation.


Living in a Land of Loss

Living in a Land of Loss
Greg M. Epstein, Humanist Chaplain at Harvard

How do you live in a land of loss?

That is the question to which tens of millions of Americans awoke the morning after the 2016 election.

Many of us woke up feeling that our country was no longer familiar to us: that it was not the place we’d long thought it was. How do you live in a virtual reality of exile, where you fear you can no longer trust the place in which you live?

My grandparents, Irene and Max, were beautiful young adults with modern hopes and expectations when they fled the Nazi invasion of Poland. They and their families were lucky enough to flee to Cuba in the 1920’s and 30’s as things worsened. Because in the desperate year of 1939, 908 members of their generation piled their hopes onto a luxurious boat called the St. Louis, destined for the brighter shores of America. Both the United States and Cuba refused that ship safe passage, for fear of needy outsiders. Many of the St. Louis’s passengers perished. So Irene and Max were grateful to have been able to meet and fall in love in Cuba, an Island paradise where they set up a shop selling porcelain dolls in a small town called Matanzas. There they raised my mother, who learned Spanish as her native tongue and felt comfortably Cuban in her Catholic school uniform.

Then Castro took power and Irene and Max had to send my mother away, one of 14,000 unaccompanied minors who fled Cuba on a mission called Operation Peter Pan. With just days’ notice, my mother flew to the United States in January 1961 with nothing but three silk dresses that held no value for a 13 year-old refugee girl in her new country. Irene and Max finally arrived here as middle aged strangers in this land, and attempted to resettle their now fractured family in the city of St. Louis. Soon after they arrived, President Kennedy was shot and their new land set ablaze for over a decade.

My grandparents had to learn how to live in a world of constant loss. Their fondest hope, as far as I could tell or imagine, was that my generation and I would experience someplace better. Today, instead, it feels like we have joined them.

So let us do as they did: look around and see the land of loss for what it is, because life depends on understanding with sobriety. This is not a fairy tale kingdom where we never grow old. Let us learn its new language, and make sense of its customs.

In a land of loss people grieve, and that is normal, okay. You don’t try to talk each other out of it. You embrace and softly remind one another that one can work and love and save up and plan for a better future, even while suffering. Some days, the best pain relief is laughter at the absurdity of it all.

Loss makes people feel vulnerable. In a land of loss people walk the streets eyeing groups of people who look differently, because difference means fear, because fear can mean violence. You walk faster, just to get out of harm’s way. But slowly you remember the way to live is to look out for others along the road, to care for them, even if they don’t look like you or come from your demographic. This gets better through love. We get to safety through love. Please remember that.

In a land of loss, even the victors will lose. You might think religion will reign supreme,  particularly Christianity. But don’t be surprised when the coming years bring a continued decline in the kind of conservative, muscular Christianity that was victorious in this election. It’s not just that resurrection is in short supply these days. It’s that loss breeds skepticism. The good news is it can be a surprisingly healthy skepticism that motivates action in the here and now. Elie Wiesel wrote that God died at Auschwitz, and indeed many of the Holocaust survivor generation became atheists and freethinkers. Realism prepared them to rebuild, and they rebuilt with extraordinary zest.

What they and especially their children and grandchildren did not build enough of, however, was community. Too many of the institutions of the last land of loss were based on isolation. We were alone in our houses and cars, TV and radio voices helping us to ignore the threat of nuclear war in the absent-minded company of our nuclear families. This is how we became demographics to one another. Do not make this mistake again. You must reach beyond living as isolated interest groups and learn to be flawed people who know one another and care about one another. You can be vulnerable enough to do this.

So learn to steady yourself. Follow your breath when it is hard. In the old country you went to sleep in last night, you could afford the luxury of avoiding bad feelings. There, many temptations could be sensuously indulged. You could drink away pain. Netflix worked, too. In this new land, you cannot allow yourself many moments of blissful distraction.

Remember this is different from saying you should never relax. You must make time to relax. You must take care of yourself. In the land of loss, cabin pressure will destabilize more often and children will need you– this will not be a drill– to commit the terrifying act of putting on your own oxygen mask first. How will you do it? Come back to the breath, don’t fight it.

And don’t put yourself in a bad situation. Yes, use the internet to connect and inform and inspire. Then use the internet blocker (Blessed be thy Freedom, and SelfControl) when you know you need to meditate. When you know you need to write down your pain so you can see it storm in front of you like condensing breath. When you know you need to see real people tonight, not just captured images projected onto a black mirror. Call us, please. We will be there too.

I don’t remember much about Irene and Max now, but I can still see her careful perm and his striking widow’s peak, as they sat, dignified but slightly bent, in their modest Miami apartment. They played cautiously with me, their American grandson, wincing if I spilled orange juice on the plastic they wrapped around their furniture so their fragile investment in their second land of loss would not be damaged. Irene would shake with desperation some days, because they were not prepared to emigrate once more.

But you cannot really emigrate from the land of loss. You cannot avoid the question of how to live in it. What you must do is reframe the question: not how do you, but how do we live?

The only answer is to live with love. My wife and I will raise our newborn son with joy, not because we will pretend his world isn’t filled with sadness but because we will remember that when we try to suppress our sadness, we also wipe away the possibility of real joy. We will weep and we will do so together with many of you, and we will build community, always community. Love is not easy in the land of loss, but it is possible and enough and it can begin with a simple hug and the willingness to begin again.


Greg M. Epstein serves as the Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University and is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Good Without God. He is the executive director of the Humanist Hub, a nonreligious congregation in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He is on Twitter at @gregmepstein and on


RELEASE: Harvard’s Atheist Center Honors Founder of Secular AA

RELEASE: Harvard’s Atheist Center Honors Founder of Secular AA

Harvard Medical School Faculty Retiree Honored for Founding Worldwide Nonreligious Addiction Recovery Group

CAMBRIDGE, MA: The Humanist Community at Harvard (HCH) will present Dr. Joseph Gerstein with the 2016 Humanist of the Year Award on October 9, honoring him for 25 years as the President and founder of SMART Recovery.

SMART, which stands for Self-Management Addiction Recovery Training, is an evidence-based, secular alternative to Alcoholics Anonymous. With its focus on recovery from addictions, it operates both as a support group and as a tools-based group which helps individuals clarify their thinking so they can make better decisions for themselves.

“Dr. Joe Gerstein’s work creating SMART Recovery is one of the most important and underrated community service projects of all time,” said Greg Epstein, Humanist Chaplain at Harvard, and the Executive Director of the Humanist Hub — the community center that houses HCH, and that serves hundreds of nonreligious persons each week with programs and counseling.

“Without any financial gain or attention-seeking, [Gerstein] has helped hundreds of thousands of people to recover from addiction through scientifically based, nonreligious techniques, and his work may reach millions in the future,” Epstein continued. “He is a true hero for our time.”

Gerstein brought the SMART Recovery Program to Massachusetts in 1990. Since that time, there have been more than 28,000 free SMART Recovery meetings in Massachusetts, including 29 weekly SMART meetings in hospitals, churches, synagogues, VA facilities, sober houses, jails, prisons, and community centers.

Gerstein has facilitated more than 3,000 of these meetings himself.

“Dr. Gerstein was a clear choice for this award,” said Sarah Chandonnet, Program Director at the Humanist Hub.

“We at the Hub view his work among the greatest examples of community service in the history of modern humanism.”

In recent years, SMART Recovery has also been offered in prisons worldwide.

A recent study in Australia on 6,000 inmates demonstrated a dramatic decrease in reconvictions for violent crimes after release for those exposed to the SMART Recovery program versus those with standard programming.

SMART Recovery is now available in 22 countries on six continents, and its Handbook has been published in nine languages.

“[His] passion, care, and commitment to people and to SMART Recovery is unparalleled,” said Shari Allwood, the current Executive Director of SMART.

Other recipients of this award have included entertainers Seth MacFarlane and Steve Allen; human rights heroes Gen. Romeo Dallaire and Taslima Nasreen; and world-renowned scientists Steven Pinker and E.O. Wilson

Gerstein will accept the award and deliver an acceptance speech at 1:30 PM at the Humanist Hub, 30 JFK Street in Harvard Square. Visit for more information.

For information on SMART Recovery, visit

2015 in Review

“Congratulations on all the amazing accomplishments of the Chaplaincy and Hub. I always knew that you’d do great things with them, but I have to say that I underestimated how great they would be!” –Steven Pinker


Welcome to the 2015 Year in Review for the Humanist Hub and the Humanist Community at Harvard! Below, we’ve worked* hard to tell the story of a year in the life of a community unlike any other.

This past year, our weekly attendance at Hub programs has tripled, membership has doubled even without our having time to put on a membership drive (stay tuned for one of those in May, when we hope our membership will double again!).

How did we accomplish all this, and what are the individual stories of the people whose lives we’ve impacted? Read below to find out.

We hope you and others will enjoy our story and consider being part of it, by participating locally, joining as members, donating, following us online and/or using the resources we are creating for communities elsewhere.

In 2015, we saw great improvements and/or major new developments in our work on:

  • • Community Growth
  • • Media and Public Advocacy
  • • Politics and Society
  • • Family and Kids, locally and nationally
  • • Training New Leaders
  • • Financial and Management Transparency
  • • and Strategic Planning for even bigger things in the future!



Community Growth

[I’m] very excited about working with the Humanist Hub in the future.  I’m still a little shocked, happily so, at finding a place that so closely aligns with my passions and beliefs.  It’s pretty incredible the growth you’ve been able to facilitate for the group over the last decade!  
–Traci Ann Brown, Harvard postdoc & former leader, Montana Secular Community

Through Boston’s marathon of blizzards this past winter, and with even more growth over the summer and fall, we’ve been filling the Humanist Hub every Sunday, for our signature Sunday programs, the details of which we have thoughtfully designed and implemented this year more than ever: food, participation, music, and social and coffee hours, and more.

They have been so successful, in fact, that another 30 or so members come back every Monday night for our outstanding follow-up discussion group, co-facilitated weekly by Chaplain Greg Epstein.

Other programs included special events attended by hundreds; weekly meditation sessions; Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction courses; weekly undergraduate student group meetings; monthly kids Learning Lab and parents discussions; the expert-led humanistic psychology workshops; our Harry Potter as a Sacred Text reading group; a film series on humanism, race and social justice; our new positive psychology program; a book group; game nights we co-hosted with local allies Greater Boston Oasis, Boston Atheists, and Sunday Assembly Boston.

Beyond all these programs, however, are the individual stories, the “roses and thorns” in the lives of our hundreds of members and participants. This year, we helped dozens of members with major life events such as weddings and baby welcoming ceremonies, career and academic transitions, funerals, depression and suicidal thoughts, overcoming homelessness, or simply connecting with good friends in a deeper and more caring way than society usually allows.

After having lost my identity as a married person almost four years ago with the death of my wife, after having been coupled with her since we were eighteen years old…  I am not what I was for my previous entire adult life. The Hub has become my College of Life, which fits well for me here on the Campus of Harvard University. –Dan Yetter

The Humanist Hub is where I’ve found real support and help as I try to do two very different and equally difficult things: develop a social justice card game and finish my book about navigating the emotional impact of changing your diet. There aren’t many places where I could get the kind of enthusiasm and support I have gotten for two such incredibly different projects. But the Humanist Hub is that kind of place. If it’s good for humans, if it’s a way to solve a problem, Greg and Sarah and everyone else at the Humanist Hub want to help you make it real. This community is a safe place for innovation and I’m incredibly grateful for it. –Lillian, member and entrepreneur
For me, the Hub fills a pressing need in the Boston community. I know so many people who are non-believers, but are looking for the sense of community that others get through their religion. I support the Hub because it provides me with that community, and because I believe the Hub has an important role to play in connecting many more people in the future. –Sam Ribnick, strategic planning committee, parent

Media and Public Advocacy

The news media took an extraordinary amount of interest in our community this past year. Highlights:

In March, used our organization as the answer to the question “what is humanism?,” in their groundbreaking documentary on atheists and humanists in America; then asked us to say more online. In October, the New York Times covered the “boomlet” of humanist students coming to Harvard Divinity School to study and work with us.

A leading feminist publication called us the “Feminist ‘Godless Congregation’ Challenging Atheism’s Bro-Culture,” and even our parties this past year were covered by major media sources like the Boston Globe, NPR, Boston Magazine, and…Sports Illustrated!?

Politics, Society and Culture

We worked hard in 2015 to show people– locally, nationally, and internationally– what it could look like for a diverse humanist community to work on important social, political and cultural issues of our time. Highlights:


Following up on his work advising former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in 2012-13, and on Massachusetts Governor Patrick’s proclamation of “Humanist Community Day” throughout Massachusetts in honor of our grand opening in December 2013, early this year Greg Epstein was invited to join Boston Mayor Walsh’s administration, becoming perhaps the first humanist to serve on an interfaith advisory board for a major US politician.

Our response to the terrible February murder of Muslim honor students in North Carolina also received national attention, and our response to the tragedy on campus caused Muslim students to stop and thank some of us for days thereafter, simply for having been there with them despite our differences.

We hosted some of the most influential environmentalists in the US at the Hub this year, and we are now partnering on an important project with Karenna Gore and her work expanding on her father Vice President Al Gore’s legacy of earth ethics.

In December 2015 Greg was invited to the White House as part of a small group of young leaders representing humanism as part of a new nationwide interfaith inclusion campaign called Know Your Neighbor. The Humanist Hub was cited (by Michael DeDora of the Center for Inquiry) during one of the panel discussions at the White House event, as a leading example of humanist communities and the good they do in society.

Many members of the Hub community worked passionately and prominently on issues of race and social justice this year, toward recognizing our privilege and fighting for justice.

Thank you for providing such a warm and supportive atmosphere in which to teach the White People Challenging Racism Course, and for allowing me to work with such a reflective, bright, inspiring, and committed group of people. –Beth Herman Davis

We hosted a dialogue on prison reform with #1 New York Times bestselling author Piper Kerman, and we’ve since been invited to present on humanism to the chaplains of the MA Department of Corrections, with plans to design an introduction to humanist community course to teach in MA prisons next year.

We’ve announced an upcoming meeting with Carrie Fisher, to highlight her mental health activism: 


On December 6, our 3rd annual Humanist Community Day, we will host our Harvard Humanist of the Year John Amaechi O.B. E., a psychologist and bestselling author who was the first former National Basketball Association player to come out as gay. (Our other 2 speakers will be Pulitzer Prize-winner Ron Suskind, on his latest book Life, Animated; and Hub member Sasha Sagan, on the solstice and the legacy of her father, the late Carl Sagan.

Family and Kids

The Humanist Learning Lab (HLL) provides children and adolescents with an inclusive space to learn in a secular setting about what it means to be a moral citizen. Our goal is to create a safe environment for youth to explore their identities as critical thinkers and as compassionate, community-minded participants in our diverse world. 2 preview videos for our sold out learning lab!

We worked hard at fundraising all year, to be able to hire Nick Bohl, whose videos are above, as our full time HLL teacher and coordinator; alongside our wonderful psychologist in residence at the Hub, Dr. Erik Gregory, who brings extraordinary credentials to his work supervising Nick and HLL.

Now we are hard at work to create a series of videos and resources that will allow kids and families anywhere to enjoy the curriculum we’ve created in partnership with scholars at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
To give you a sense for the kind of resources we have the potential to create, check out this animated video we made on the beauty and inspiring message of the Solstice, created with editor and producer Sasha Sagan, using just an iPhone. We’ll use it as part of our forthcoming unit on the cosmos.

I just watched the video for the Learning Lab and it was amazing! You found someone so talented and engaged. Bravo! I miss the Hub and the Learning Lab. –Brendan Randall, Director of Campus Engagement, Interfaith Youth Core and former chair, HLL curriculum committee.

Training New Leaders

After many years of training and teaching new humanist community leaders, we were delighted to see the New York Times cover our work with the “surge” of atheists and nonreligious students who are now applying to and attending Harvard Divinity School and related institutions, specifically to study with us.

[Our former chaplain & director, 1974-2005] Tom [Ferrick] did many things for me when I was a poor student, so it is only appropriate that I give something back now that I am not so poor. –Jason B, Harvard Law School graduate and former HCH intern.

We’ve placed our trainees at Yale and Stanford, and helped set up Humanist chaplaincies or the equivalent at USC, Carnegie Mellon, Tufts, American University and in many other communities. The demand for our expertise in humanist community leadership has been overwhelming, growing every month this year.

My connection to the Clinical Pastoral Care program at Havenwood in Concord, NH (Chaplaincy internship), was through another chaplain you introduced me to at the Hub one Sunday after your talk. She gave me a good view of the CPE programs around the city and pointed me in the direction of the program Rev Michelle DeCoste does at Havenwood, as a good match for me. It has worked out famously!! This makes real one of your goals of “making connection” happen in a very tangible way, at least for me. Thank you again. –Herb Hale, humanist chaplain in training

Fall 2015 also brought the release of a book, Secular Meditation, based on the weekly meditation sessions we’ve been having for the last six years; Secular Meditation has been adapted as a resource for teaching meditation by the Secular Student Alliance and several other secular groups nationwide.

Financial and Management Transparency

In past years, we received feedback from supporters who wanted more information about our income, expenses and budget, and about how we made decisions on critical issues such as programming, staffing, and more. We completely agree and are excited that this year, we finally achieved a level of operational stability and sustainability where we were able to make such information public in a well-organized way.

On October 4, we held a well attended public “Town Hall” at which we presented briefly on every aspect of the organization, and took questions from the audience. The slide show of our Town Hall presentation can be downloaded here.

Additionally, supporters or prospective supporters may request additional financial information such as P&L statements, balance sheets, budgets, fundraising proposals, and more. Just send us an email inquiring about any of this.
Strategic Planning

We are working hard to map out a sustainable and ambitious strategy for growth over the next five years. In 2015, we held a strategic planning retreat to which we invited members from all aspects of our community, and we established a Strategic Planning Committee as well as a Community Committee, wherein Hub members can volunteer to be part of this development process. In the coming weeks, we will post the names and bios of members of these committees as well as of our board.

Here are some images from our June strategic planning retreat:

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How great it is for a secular group to have their own facility. This arrangement should be a goal for all other large metropolitan areas.”— Lewis Kana, Houston Coalition of Reason

If you’ve read this far, we urge you to make a year-end donation to help us grow our work. We get zero funding from Harvard University and we can’t grow or even continue our work without financial support from people like you!