Still, Epstein just might be diplomatically savvy enough to pull it off. During a recent conversation in his office, situated in the basement of Harvard's Memorial Church, I try to bait him into talking about (and picking a fight with) religious critics who see his existence as an affront. But Epstein doesn't bite. Instead, he segues smoothly into a come-hither call to religious progressives.
"What I'm more concerned about," says Epstein, "are religious people who'd be fine with Humanism, and interested in working as equals with me, but have never heard of it. When we meet those people, we have to explain: 'We're not here to erase you — we're here to embrace you.' "
Corny? Most definitely. But as Epstein tries to reconfigure the relationship between the faithful and faithless — and to transform the nonreligious community's understanding of itself — this knack for supplanting conflict with warm, fuzzy affirmation will come in handy.
So, too, will Epstein's skill at packaging complex ideas for maximum intellectual digestibility. Good Without God is largely a synthetic work, with bite-size treatments of Humanism-friendly individuals (Epicurus, Spinoza, Freud), books (Jennifer Michael Hecht's Doubt: A History, lots of Albert Camus's The Plague), and academic specialties (game theory, evolutionary biology). So wide-ranging is Epstein's rhetorical net, and so agreeable its entanglements, that readers of all stripes will be hard pressed not to join the chorus by the book's close: atheist-bashing is shameful! Humanists and believers can get along! Religion can teach atheism a thing or two!
IN SEARCH OF DIGNITY Renowned atheist Greg Epstein has tried his hand at Reform Judaism, Buddhism, and rock stardom. Now, he’s hoping to unite the umbrella of Humanism and to create church-like communities of nonbelievers.
And Epstein has other assets. With his youth, pleasantly angular visage, and standard-issue hipster physique, he looks the part of an intellectual liaison specializing in bookstores, college campuses, and assorted national-media outlets. He's also got a serious pop-culture fetish: despite its heavy subject matter, Good Without God manages to reference the Miss Universe pageant, Planet of the Apes, the Beatles, Jay-Z's "Money, Cash, Hoes," Nelly's "Ride With Me," The Sopranos, and Iron Chef.
Lest all this makes Epstein sound glib, it's worth noting that he arrived at his current Humanist ideal after a protracted, painful personal search. As a kid growing up in Flushing, Queens, Epstein says, he was an instinctive pluralist: the ethnic and religious diversity around him made it hard to buy the idea that any one religion had a sole claim on truth.
After his half brother was Bar Mitzvahed, Epstein decided to follow suit. Almost immediately, though, he fell away from Reform Judaism because the faith he saw struck him — in practice — as lethargic and insincere. Later, he identified Buddhism as a possible source of the genuine meaning that eluded him in Judaism — and majored in religious studies and Chinese at the University of Michigan, determined to read the sacred texts of Taoism and Zen Buddhism in the original.