Greg Epstein, Atheist Superstar

By ADAM REILLY  |  November 24, 2009

That didn't work out, either: upon traveling to Taiwan and China, Epstein recalls, he quickly realized that the believers he'd met there were just as superficial in their commitment as the Jews of his youth. Epstein then sought meaning in music, singing for Sugar Pill, an Ann Arbor rock band. Again: disappointment. ("I found that most people in the music world were really looking for a big party," says Epstein. "Not to take that away from them, but that wasn't what I was there for.")

"Good without God" posters are popping up all over the country — but why?

As he hawks his new book, Greg Epstein is the beneficiary of some high-profile cross-promotion on the part of the United Coalition of Reason, a new, Washington, DC–based group that aspires to organize (and found) atheistic groups around the country — and which decided to promote itself in tandem with Epstein's book release. The text of the ad campaign, with a cheery backdrop of blue sky and puffy white clouds, is plastered on billboards, buses, and subways around the country, including here in Boston: "Are you good without God? Millions are" (or some variation thereof).

"In the first half of this year, we were using billboards which say, 'Don't believe in God? You are not alone,' " explains United CoR spokesman Fred Edwords. "But some groups said they'd like a more positive message, one that says what we advocate rather than what we don't believe. And we thought that was a good idea. . . . When we learned Greg was writing this book, we thought we could probably generate more media interest if we hitched our wagon to his star."

It's not clear, though, where the money for this bit of synergistic PR is coming from. United CoR's primary funder, Edwords says, is a "businessman who makes computer parts" — and who's keeping his identity secret, not because he's ashamed of his beliefs, but because he doesn't want more people hitting him up for cash.

Epstein's luck finally changed when, in the early aughts, he had a chance encounter with a former teaching fellow who was training as a practitioner of Humanistic Judaism — which grounds Jewish identity in culture and history, rather than belief in God. Epstein subsequently followed suit, and ended up studying with the late Rabbi Sherwin Wine, the godfather of the Humanistic Judaism movement, whom he identifies as his greatest intellectual influence. Given how far Epstein had fallen, existentially speaking, it was a fortuitous turn of events.

"Although I couldn't really believe in the God of the Western canon, or the Abrahamic religions," says Epstein, "I'd been looking for a sense that the universe cared about me. When I first began to grapple with the fact that this was most likely not the case" — here he laughs, bleakly — "that was a very difficult time for me. I would liken it to coming down off a drug. I had some sleepless nights, some days where I had trouble getting out of bed — all that. And I was scared. I felt very lonely and very much in pain."

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