Harvard's new chaplain is an atheist. Is that a contradiction?

What the rise of humanism reveals about a university founded by Puritans

Greg Epstein.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock)

The motto of Harvard University, which might as well be tattooed on aspirants to the American upper class, is "veritas." For those who never learned the Latin that was once part of the standard curriculum, that means "truth." It seems like an obvious fit for the nation's most prominent institution of higher learning. Isn't pursuing truth what a university is all about?

But the motto's history isn't so simple. Although it appeared in several versions following Harvard's establishment in 1643, most stressed the theological character of the truth to which the college was devoted. "Veritas Christo et Ecclesiae" — truth for Christ and Church — read one version. "In Christam Gloriam" — to the glory of Christ — went another. The one word version was adopted in the late 19th century, partly at the urging of poet Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.

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Samuel Goldman

Samuel Goldman is a national correspondent at TheWeek.com. He is also an associate professor of political science at George Washington University, where he is executive director of the John L. Loeb, Jr. Institute for Religious Freedom and director of the Politics & Values Program. He received his Ph.D. from Harvard and was a postdoctoral fellow in Religion, Ethics, & Politics at Princeton University. His books include God's Country: Christian Zionism in America (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018) and After Nationalism (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2021). In addition to academic research, Goldman's writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and many other publications.