Harvard's humanist chaplain speaks on finding meaning and purpose without a religious faith

Americans are becoming increasingly secular, with nearly 30% of adults reporting they are not affiliated with any specific religion, according to a 2021 Pew Research Center survey of the religious composition of the United States.

The number of secular Americans is 6% higher than it was five years ago and 10% higher than a decade ago, the survey found. The respondents who reported "no religion" are those who describe themselves as atheists, agnostics or "nothing in particular" when asked about their religious identity.

Greg Epstein, the humanist chaplain for Harvard University and MIT, is among those who identify as atheist. He recently spoke to ABC News' Phil Lipof about his own journey to humanism and how people without a religious faith are making sense of their purpose and the meaning of life.

STOCK PHOTO: A small empty church (STOCK PHOTO/Getty Images)
STOCK PHOTO: A small empty church (STOCK PHOTO/Getty Images)

PHIL LIPOF: So, thank you very much for being here. This book, "Good Without God," has been out for quite some time, almost a decade. And I know you're writing more, but talk about your spiritual journey. You were raised in the Jewish faith.

Greg Epstein: Yeah, I'm culturally Jewish. And thank you for having me by the way. It's an honor to be here. I'm culturally Jewish. My mom was a refugee from Cuba whose family had also been refugees to Cuba. My dad was also the son of refugees from Eastern Europe. And I was raised in New York City in the most multicultural, multiethnic, multireligious neighborhood -- Flushing Queens -- in maybe even society ever created, ever envisioned at that point. And that was so influential on me -- the idea that at the end of the day, we're all so alike. We're all so human.

LIPOF: Catholicism and Islam and Judaism. Be a good person. Don't kill, you know, be kind to your neighbor. What's the difference?

EPSTEIN: So there are moral and ethical teachings, great moral and ethical teachings, in every single one of the world's major religious traditions, and I honor that. And if you're a religious person, I honor you. I'm not asking you to change. I'm not suggesting that you should change, and I don't think humanism is either. The idea is that for those of us who really, sincerely believe that human beings created religion, that the world can best be explained by science without reference to theology, there's just plenty of ways for us to pursue goodness and truth and beauty and community as well.

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LIPOF: Well, let's then speak just about Judaism for half a second, because that's the faith you were raised in. Mine as well. I know that there are rabbis, and I believe clergy across all religions, but specifically rabbis. And I guess -- I should -- specifically my mom, who is concerned that the more people move toward spirituality, the less they move away from the traditional aspects of a religion. And with a religion like Judaism, 15 million Jews across the world, not a billion. She and other clergy are concerned that the religion might disappear. You say?

EPSTEIN: I say, Judaism is a beautiful identity, heritage, culture, community as well as religion. Half of the world's Jews describe themselves as non-religious or secular. And I'm actually ordained as a rabbi myself. I was ordained by something called the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism. After five years of intensive study, including a year and a half in Israel, and actually becoming a humanist and really kind of becoming firm in my atheism and my secularism, my humanism, my not being religious, made me more interested in my own cultural background and my own family's history.

LIPOF: I'm curious. At these schools, these amazing institutions, Harvard, MIT. You split your time between the two, you're chaplain there. When kids talk to you about the meaning of life and what they should be doing with their lives, how do you approach that?

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EPSTEIN: I think these days there are so many people who have concerns, and I'm meeting with as many as I possibly can make time for, to talk about concerns about meaning and purpose in life, because people are really afraid of the change that is coming down the pipe in society, whether it's climate change or technological change or other kinds of change, including changes in our belief, in our religion. It's just, people are really worried that the world is not what it used to be, and what is it becoming?

LIPOF: And a lot of times when people are concerned, they go right to religion. People get more faithful, sometimes, when they're trying to make sense of these things. But you go in a different direction. So how do you guide someone?

EPSTEIN: For me, I think that being a humanist means really thinking deeply about how we are all only human, how there is no one right way to be a human being to, you know, to live and to love. But there's so much that we can do for one another and with one another to make life better for everyone.

LIPOF: Greg Epstein, thanks so much. We do appreciate you taking the time.

EPSTEIN: Thank you so much. Great to be here.

Harvard's humanist chaplain speaks on finding meaning and purpose without a religious faith originally appeared on abcnews.go.com