Thomas Paine (DeAgostini/Getty Images)

The New York Times ran an article at the end of August under the headline, “Harvard’s Chief Chaplain Is an Atheist,” which generated the head-snapping attention it was designed to produce. The university’s diverse body of chaplains had recently voted to make the humanist leader Greg Epstein the administrative head of its group, but it certainly sounded like Harvard as a whole had perpetrated the kind of outrage that only an elitist, out-of-touch institution of higher learning would dare to commit: It had turned the religious leadership of its students over to an openly godless advisor. As the political website, The Hill, repackaged the Times piece for its readership, “Harvard Elects Atheist as New Chief Chaplain, Defying School’s Origins.” It was clickbait, but it was also a narrative framework certain to create more heat than light—a leap from faithful Puritans of the 1630s, absorbed with gospel truths, to contemporary “nones,” untethered from religious authorities. Christians were set up to bewail their diminished standing, and secularists to celebrate their elevated status.

The arc of the story—a remote religious past, an emergent secular future—has an obvious appeal and familiarity: a Puritan-to-Yankee tale adapted to the latest social circumstances. But, what if the coverage had resisted that tempting hook—the old clergyman John Harvard displaced by the new atheist Greg Epstein? What if it had refused to bait culture-war rivals into conjuring images of victory and defeat—one Roman Catholic churchman, writing in the New York Post, called Epstein’s election a sign of “abject surrender” on the part of the faithful to the faithless? What alternative scripts, what shifts of interpretive perspective and historical framing, might help us see the significance of Greg Epstein’s new role at Harvard differently, as something besides another iteration of one of modernity’s (and anti-modernity’s) favorite myths in which secularization advances at religion’s expense? Two possibilities come to mind.

First, a story about humanism is a distinct story from one about atheism. Leading with the atheist moniker as the Times did in both its print and online versions of the article obviously had more pizazz than leading with the humanist tag, but the lower voltage of the latter term is one of the main reasons it is preferred by those who have adopted it, including Epstein himself. In the confusing welter of names that American nonbelievers have used to identify themselves—freethinker, secularist, agnostic, liberal, atheist, positivist, skeptic, rationalist, and nontheist, to make a partial list—humanist has been advanced, since the early decades of the twentieth century, as a mediating term designed to break through the sharp dichotomies between theism and atheism, religion and irreligion. To those who wanted to keep the lines of communication open between believers and nonbelievers, the atheist label had been freighted for so long with so much moral and political menace as to be an inevitable conversation-stopper. As one nineteenth-century Protestant aphorized, “A nation of Atheists is a nation of fiends.” Humanism too could be turned into a scare word (as it would be with the sustained attacks on secular humanism in the 1970s and 1980s), but it certainly had less baggage than atheism. As a descriptor, it was designed to lead with the positive—the ethical values, scientific principles, and societal hopes that freethinking, secular-minded people affirmed, what they imagined the good life to be.

Almost all of the early proponents of organized humanism in the United States—John H. Dietrich, Curtis Reese, Lester Mondale, and Edwin H. Wilson, among others—saw the movement in religious terms as a natural outgrowth of their own post-Christian ministries within and beyond Unitarianism. They saw little appeal in the more aggressive atheistic postures taken up by such combat-ready groups as Charles Lee Smith’s American Association for the Advancement of Atheism (1925), Joseph L. Lewis’s Freethinkers of America (1928), or Madalyn Murray O’Hair’s Society of Separationists (1963), subsequently renamed American Atheists. As religious humanists, they certainly considered orthodox Christianity threadbare, the biblical God an archaic survival, and petitionary prayer a superstition. Nonetheless, they still believed in churchgoing: that is, in creating humanistic forms of fellowship and ritual that would renovate religion for those who would otherwise have deserted it entirely. They did not so much renounce the atheist marker as put the stress elsewhere—on the constructive work of community-building, on making their humanistic commitments manifest in local congregations and national networks.

This more irenic impulse within secularist ranks has usually been eclipsed by all the attention the flamethrowers attract. Atheist Charles Lee Smith, for example, gained a rush of media attention when he challenged anti-evolution evangelicals on their home turf in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1928. Setting up his headquarters downtown, Smith announced his “frontal assault” on “the forts of the enemy” through posting a large show-window sign: “EVOLUTION IS TRUE. THE BIBLE’S A LIE. GOD’S A GHOST.” The scene predictably deteriorated from there into outrage and confrontation, a replay of the hoopla surrounding the Scopes trial in Dayton, Tennessee, three years earlier.

Meanwhile, the defrocked Reformed pastor John Dietrich, among the chief architects of the “new humanism” of the 1920s, was giving measured addresses from the pulpit of the First Unitarian Society in Minneapolis about how to salvage religion for those who had lost religion: “Religion without Revelation,” “Humanism—The Hope of the World,” “Thomas Paine,” “Meeting Trouble without God,” and “What Happens to a College Student’s Religion?” Careful to avoid atheist and theist labels alike, Dietrich spent his career trying to carve out a space for a naturalistic humanism that remained deeply affirming of the significance of religious inquiry, ethical striving, and congregational association. Like some of his descendants today (including Epstein), he even enjoyed playing with the notion of the “spiritual” dimension of humanism, declaring himself “a firm believer in the spiritual life,” while also noting that “to be spiritual is simply to be nobly human.” Needless to say, his sermons and those of his colleagues were not nearly as enticing to report on as Smith’s soapbox belligerence or Clarence Darrow’s courtroom theater.

The ferment surrounding the new humanism was bookish and cosmopolitan—it claimed philosophical support from John Dewey at Columbia, Roy Wood Sellars at the University of Michigan, and A. Eustace Haydon at the University of Chicago—but it was also logistical and local. It spawned small-scale congregations like the Fellowship of Humanity in Oakland, California, and the First Humanist Society in New York City and created nascent networks to link such ventures. Unitarians Curtis Reese and Edwin H. Wilson spearheaded the formation of the American Humanist Association in 1941, while Wilson and Lester Mondale took the lead in administering the Fellowship of Religious Humanists after its founding in 1963. Both these groups endorsed the organization of the humanist chaplaincy at Harvard in 1974; prior ministries—like those of Wilson, Mondale, and Dietrich—provided the template for this latest initiative.

Thomas Ferrick, an ex-Catholic priest turned leader of Boston’s Ethical Society, served as Harvard’s initial humanist chaplain. With assistance from like-minded students at Harvard Divinity School, he put together regular Sunday programs, hosted dialogues on contemporary social issues, led a weekly seminar on humanist ethics, and stressed the cultivation of a “generous spirit toward other faiths.” After three decades in this “Ethical-Humanist Ministry,” Ferrick began mentoring Greg Epstein as his successor. Epstein came to the Harvard job in 2005 through another group that took its rise within the wider American humanist movement: Sherwin T. Wine’s Society for Humanistic Judaism, which also had its roots in a local congregational venture, the Birmingham Temple, started in a Detroit suburb in the early 1960s. Wine, like Epstein after him, was the object of persistent media fascination as an “atheist” rabbi and had an equally hard time getting the press to put the accent on what he affirmed rather than what he denied. Pigeonholed as part of the “Death of God” movement that Time magazine immortalized on its cover in 1966, Wine’s story was another humanist tale of community-building told through the blare of atheist headlines.

Locating the Harvard-chaplaincy controversy within its most relevant lineage—religious humanism rather than oppositional atheism—is one way to rethink the significance of Epstein’s post and his election as an interfaith administrator. He is the heir of an “ecumenical humanism,” to borrow phrasing Ferrick embraced, that had long foregrounded cooperation over confrontation, creative reconstruction over explosive demolition. The second way to rescript the story is to disjoin it from a narrative of secularist ascendancy and to consider Epstein’s chaplaincy instead as a matter of a small sect gaining belated recognition at very big and diverse table.

Coverage of Epstein’s election by his fellow chaplains was immediately linked to the growing prevalence of religious “nones” in American culture, those who claim to have no religious affiliation or connection. Epstein himself has encouraged the conflation of his humanist stance with nonbelief of all stripes—as if his version of being good without God spans the globe and embraces secular people everywhere. This expansiveness clearly should not be taken at face value. Harvard’s humanist chaplaincy tells us very little about what “nonreligious” people in general believe—the “nones,” after all, are a notoriously diverse sociological grouping, often variously engaged with “spirituality,” while being disengaged from “religion.” Likewise, Epstein’s election is hardly a reliable index of the nation’s advancing secularity, but rather an indication of humanism’s gradual acceptance—however disputed and partial—as a minority tradition within the larger religious pantheon. Epstein’s new role, after all, is within an office designed to celebrate Harvard’s religious plurality and vitality—Muslim, Roman Catholic, Jewish, Southern Baptist, Swedenborgian, Bahá’í, Hindu, and on through a very long list of chaplaincies. That does not sound like Epstein has won a victory for the secularist mythology of religion’s decline but instead gained delayed acknowledgment of ethical humanism’s ambiguous religiousness.

The new humanists had always had a complicated relationship with the very idea of religion. In that regard, they were heirs of nineteenth-century tensions among freethinkers, agnostics, and atheists. Congregation-ensconced liberals, such as Octavius Frothingham and Felix Adler, thought that religion was “too good a word to lose” and were intent on reimagining its significance for secularist purposes. Often troubled by religious nomenclature, yet committed to maintaining it, they offered various alternatives for framing the “secular religion” that came after Christianity and Judaism: the religion of humanity, the religion of deeds, the religion of this world, the religion of Thomas Paine, the religion of ethical culture, or the religion of the future. On the other side of this in-house debate were those purists who wanted all this religious blather to disappear completely from secularist projects. An atheist from Los Angeles put the complaint this way in 1897: “As religion is a system of worship based on a belief in some kind of a God, all talk about the religion of humanity is a misuse of the word; and when I see a Freethinker trying to define his ‘religion,’ the inclination rises to call him down; for a man with a head afflicted with ‘plenary’ baldness would not be more ridiculous talking about his hair.” The new humanists of the 1920s and 1930s sided with those who wanted to reconstruct religion rather than expunge it, but the division lingered and still does. The very notion of a humanist chaplaincy sounds oxymoronic, if not offensive, to those who want to disentangle themselves from such persistent religious associations.

Imagining humanism in triumphant terms as the religion of the future was a fantasy that was hard to relinquish. Social and legal realities, though, had a way of bringing humanists back down to earth. As a matter of numbers, it was impossible to escape the fact that humanistic fellowships were small enclaves, not millennial vanguards. Felix Adler’s Ethical Culture Societies were one of the early success stories for those hoping to create a religion of humanity, but the movement boasted all of 1,064 members in 1890 spread over four congregations in New York City, Philadelphia, Chicago, and St. Louis. Various experiments to create Churches of Humanity, whether in imitation of the French philosopher Auguste Comte’s sacramental program or on independent terms, garnered even smaller numbers. When farmer W. H. Kerr called a national convention in 1906 for his Church of Humanity, headquartered in Great Bend, Kansas, sixteen people showed up, including him and his wife. As one observer joked of such enterprises, these were churches of “three persons, but no God.” The numbers did not get much better for the new humanists of subsequent decades. A. D. Faupell, the ex-Methodist and ex-Unitarian who founded the Fellowship of Humanity in Oakland in 1935, had a congregation that topped out at about 125-150 people, and his church proved one of the more prominent and enduring institutions in this subculture. Similarly, the Fellowship of Religious Humanists, the most obvious parent group in the begetting of the Harvard humanist chaplaincy, had a national membership of 594 in 1970. Humanism certainly looked like a small religious minority, not a secular hegemon.

The circuitous way the courts came to recognize the religiousness of humanism also bears out the sense of the group’s sect-like status. It took a lot of legal maneuvering in the middle decades of the twentieth century to make intelligible the previously inscrutable claim that the nontheistic could be counted as religious in American jurisprudence. When Faupell’s Fellowship of Humanity was denied its tax-exempt status as a religious group by Alameda County officials in 1952, it triggered a long-running court battle. To claim its property tax exemption the fellowship had to be using its meeting hall for religious worship, which local authorities argued was impossible since Oakland’s humanists were clearly not paying reverence to a supreme being. Findings in the case, though, suggested the group looked a lot like other churches. The congregation met every Sunday morning; it took a collection; it had readings, even “occasionally from the Bible”; and it had a sermon-like lecture “on a subject of interest to humanists.” Still, the congregation uttered “no audible prayers” and made “no expressions of adoration of a god or gods” at its meetings, which meant it failed the basic theistic test. When the case was finally decided in the humanists’ favor in 1957, the judge abandoned the God-revering criterion and expressly allowed nontheistic humanists a place under the umbrella of religion. It was belated recognition of the religious claims that the new humanists had been making about themselves since the 1920s. That acknowledgment, in turn, would be grudgingly extended to humanistic conscientious objectors in the 1960s and 1970s.

The humanist chaplaincy at Harvard, including Greg Epstein’s new role alongside his fellow chaplains, makes for a good story—just not the ones we have been primed to hear about atheist notoriety and ascendant secularity. Instead, it is a reminder of the ambivalent relationship that so many freethinkers, agnostics, post-Christian liberals, and secular Jews have had with “religion,” the allure of reimagining it for humanistic purposes, while simultaneously jettisoning it as outworn and oppressive. The story is a reminder too of the sect-like status of these religiously inflected humanist communities. Dense with particularity and locality—whether in Cambridge, Oakland, or Detroit—these fellowships, for all their ambitions and manifestos, have never been the measure of religion’s future in the United States (or elsewhere). Religious humanists are important in much the same way the Jehovah’s Witnesses are important—as a religious minority that makes us think differently about what counts as religion. In the humanist case, they undercut the Protestant-laden assumption that religion necessarily entailed a reverent relationship with God and opened the door—in courtrooms, before draft boards, and among university chaplains—for the fuller recognition of nontheists in the nation’s religious and political landscape.

Leigh Eric Schmidt is the Edward C. Mallinckrodt Distinguished University Professor in the Humanities at Washington University in St. Louis and part of the faculty of the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics. He is the author of Village Atheists: How America’s Unbelievers Made Their Way in a Godly Nation, which Princeton University Press published in 2016 and The Church of Saint Thomas Paine: A Religious History of American Secularism, out this month from Princeton University Press.