“When the pandemic hit I was like, ‘Greg, do you have time to talk about the meaning of life,’” Ms. Goldenberg recalled. “He showed me that it’s possible to find community outside a traditional religious context, that you can have the value-add religion has provided for centuries, which is that it’s there when things seem chaotic.”
Ms. Goldenberg reflected anew on how unlikely her path had been when her mother asked to see the university yearbook: “I told her, ‘I don’t think you’re going to like it,’” Ms. Goldenberg said. “It says I was co-president of the Harvard Humanists, Atheists and Agnostics. And you can see my shoulders.”
Nonreligiosity is on the rise far beyond the confines of Harvard; it is the fastest growing religious preference in the country, according to the Pew Research Center. More than 20 percent of the country identifies as atheist, agnostic or nonreligious — called the “nones” — including four in 10 millennials.
The reasons that more young Americans are disaffiliating in the world’s most religious developed country are varied. The Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith attributes the trend partly to the growing alliance between the Republican Party and the Christian right, a decline of trust in institutions, growing skepticism of religion in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and a shift away from traditional family structures that centered on churchgoing.
Mr. Epstein’s community has tapped into the growing desire for meaning without faith in God. “Being able to find values and rituals but not having to believe in magic, that’s a powerful thing,” said A.J. Kumar, who served as the president of a Harvard humanist graduate student group that Mr. Epstein advised.
Other Harvard chaplains have applauded Mr. Epstein’s efforts to provide a campus home for those who are religiously unattached, skeptical but still searching. Some said his selection to lead the group, following its previous Jewish leader, seemed obvious.
“Greg was the first choice of a committee that was made up of a Lutheran, a Christian Scientist, an evangelical Christian and a Bahá’í,” said the Rev. Kathleen Reed, a Lutheran chaplain who chaired the nominating committee. “We’re presenting to the university a vision of how the world could work when diverse traditions focus on how to be good humans and neighbors.”