Getting a Military Chaplain for Atheists April 27, 2011

Getting a Military Chaplain for Atheists

The New York Times has a great article on the front page of Tuesday’s paper about how atheist groups are trying to get a non-theist into the chaplain corps:

Joining the chaplain corps is part of a broader campaign by atheists to win official acceptance in the military. Such recognition would make it easier for them to raise money and meet on military bases. It would help ensure that chaplains, religious or atheist, would distribute their literature, advertise their events and advocate for them with commanders.

But winning the appointment of an atheist chaplain will require support from senior chaplains, a tall order. Many chaplains are skeptical: Do atheists belong to a “faith group,” a requirement for a chaplain candidate? Can they provide support to religious troops of all faiths, a fundamental responsibility for chaplains?

Jason Torpy, a former Army captain who is president of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, said humanist chaplains would do everything religious chaplains do, including counsel troops and help them follow their faiths. But just as a Protestant chaplain would not preside over a Catholic service, a humanist might not lead a religious ceremony, though he might help organize it.

“Humanism fills the same role for atheists that Christianity does for Christians and Judaism does for Jews,” Mr. Torpy said in an interview. “It answers questions of ultimate concern; it directs our values.”

The article also mentions the Fort Bragg Rock Beyond Belief controversy as well as the biased “Comprehensive Soldier Fitness” survey which assessed soldiers in part on their “spirituality.”

There may be tens of thousands of atheists in the military — you’d never know from the demographic numbers because they’re all lumped in under “no religious preference” — but there are no chaplains for that population.

MAAF offers this incredibly helpful visual on its site (click image to enlarge):

The discrepancy is incredible.

The military hasn’t issued any statements regarding why there are no Humanist chaplains in their ranks — maybe because there’s just no good reason to deny them and the injustice has continued for so long. And once you let the first one in, others will follow.

It would only make our military stronger, though.

It looks like the Christian stronghold on our military is trying to prevent the status quo from changing, regardless of how many soldiers a Humanist chaplain would benefit.

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  • Larry Meredith

    And once you let the first one in, others will follow.

    I hate slippery slope arguments… they’re so flimsy.

  • Noodly1

    Personally I think they need an ordained minister from the Church of the Latter Day Dude to fulfill the requirements of an “atheist” minister. And, ah-hem, I just happen to know (be) one. Seriously. Wouldn’t that be awesome? To present a “religion” that isn’t as a religion? How can they argue with what does and doesn’t constitute a religion? I would certainly be more than happy to pretend to know all kinds of stuff about stuff I know nothing about (like any other good religious leader would do).

    (Of course, I could also be considered a Pastafarian. Take your pick.)

  • I’ve been in contact with Jason Torpy in the last few weeks, even if we get government sanction to have humanist chaplains, all the standard requirements will still be in place, including two years of pastoral experience and a MDiv or similar religious masters degree.

    There are schools, such as Harvard, that would accept atheists into MDiv programs, so that requirement can be met. What will be more interesting is if the military would be willing to accept experience leading local atheist groups as pastoral experience.

    If this gets worked out, it is something I may be willing to return to a seminary for.

  • littlejohn

    If fairness, this is a bit like asking the Vatican to elect a Jewish pope.
    Chaplains, by definition, claim religious belief.
    The best we could hope for would be chaplains from unconventional religions, such as Jain, Buddhist or Flying Spaghetti Monster.

  • marc oberholtzer

    this is lame, if keeps up like this we’ll be a fricken church soon, wont that be fun. every man for himself. we don’t need god and we don’t need this.

  • marc oberholtzer

    this is lame, if this keeps up like this we’ll be a fricken church soon, wont that be fun. every man for himself. we don’t need god and we don’t need this.

  • Randall Morrison

    So atheism is a religion after all.

  • Doesn’t this validate the whole idea of having chaplains? There’s supposed to be some secular purpose for them, but it’s negated by the fact that most of them are very religious. They necessarily hold anything secular to be inferior, and thus less relevant.

    What would an Atheist need from a chaplain? I’ve always felt that religious people need chaplains because they need babysitters. Even in the highest ranks of the military.

    I think our people are more rational than that. When I was in the military, the chaplain was NOT a source of secular help on any issue whatsoever. He was that guy who’s job it was to push religion on everyone. Not help. Yes, I and several other non-religious soldiers needed help in the way that a councelor would provide. But screw that. I’d rather go without. He’s a con-artist, by trade.

    Our movement used to complain to the government over the hiring and use of these people, without any clear secular purpose, and with the knowledge that some of them are downright hurtful to Atheists.

    Still it’s nice to see our people wanting to expand into new arenas. I like that part.

  • Kaylya

    This would be a perfect career path for religious leaders who develop doubts and turn into atheists after they’ve established their careers 🙂

    Then again, one could argue that any social workers and mental health staff working with the military are a form of “secular chaplain”. But.. those types of people are usually more separate from the day to day life in a unit than a chaplain is, as I understand. When I see videos of military chaplains they’re always going around, talking to the troops, etc. in a way that I don’t think most mental health staff do; and such casual chats probably offer a certain form of preventative measure or early detection of problems. But I could be wrong there.

  • Defiantnonbeliever

    Atheists need and deserve all the services and support that anyone else does, not that our non existent souls need help, but I have a real problem with the title atheist chaplain/priest as I do with humanist chaplain/pastor/witch doctor. Such titles are as sensible as a snowman’s sauna. Likewise spiritual fitness is an oxymoron.
    There needs to be equality and new language that displays it not secular offices grafted on to a superstitious structure.

  • I have issues with chaplains in the military in the first place. An organization that is supposed to be a collective “GI”-hood, absent of any (public) faith or politic. Privately, as citizens, service-members are free to believe whatever they will, but as long as they’re owned by Uncle Sam, their “god” is the flag and their “bible” is (supposed to be) the Constitution. Do I understand why chaplains are intended to be present? Sure. However, I have long felt the *better* option is to get rid of ALL the chaplains and replace them with qualified psychiatrists and therapists (equivalent ranking to chaplains and chaplains’ assistants) to truly help service-members in times of emotional duress (shell shock, etc).

    To endorse an atheist “chaplain” would serve two things that would create a serious backlash. First, soldiers (airmen, sailors, marines, etc) NEED people available during those times of duress…and a chaplain, while often well-meaning, simply is not qualified to diagnose (though chaplains do have other influential powers for spouses and families in terms of chain-of-command – powers that could easily be transitioned to a DOCTOR who IS qualified to diagnose and treat). Putting someone in that role who uses a bible and a set of ideological tenets as a guide is (and has always been) ineffective and undercuts our men & women in uniform. (Not to mention, one of the roles of a minister by whatever name we give them, is to proselytize – do our service-members really need that?!) Second…it would lump atheists into the category of “religion”…which I suspect many (if not most) of us would really disagree with…in AND out of the military.

    Just my two cents.

  • I’m ex-military. Chaplains are for the religious. Period. And the idea of having a humanist/atheist chaplain in the military is just plain silly. It seems that most in this thread seem to have not grasped the whole idea of what the military is for. It’s about killing other human beings and blowing shit up. It’s not a value judgment, it just is. Oh, you can white wash it any way you want (“It’s a deterrent force, etc.), but killing things and destroying things is what the military is designed to do. How it’s used and implemented is a completely different thing, so let’s not confuse the two, okay?
    I really can’t see that those espousing humanism would have a whole lot in common with the military’s end purpose. The religious, on the other hand, have a vested interest in religion…violent, bloody, vengeful and self-righteous religion. The whole, “God, Guts and Guns” or “God and Country” mentality. They feed off of each other and support each other in a sick and twisted symbiotic relationship.
    Just let the silly bastards keep their religious chaplains and let us hit the establishment with lawsuits until they treat atheists equally. It might take a generation or two, but we will eventually win. Things like this take time. There is no quick and easy fix to such a deeply entrenched problem.
    We don’t need to become like them in order to win. It just doesn’t make sense and it confuses the issue.

  • frank

    Can someone explain how having an atheist chaplain whose “degree” is an MDiv, and who is therefor just as lacking in counseling training as any minister, would benefit atheist soldiers?

    Can someone explain how asking a protestant minister, for example, to serve the religious needs of a muslim soldier, isn’t a violation of the ministers rights?

    Can someone explain how putting a professional atheist in a position of government imposed authority (all military chaplains are officers) over christians isn’t a violation of those christians rights?

    Can someone explain how forcing taxpayers to pay the salary of a professional atheist isn’t a violation of those taxpayers rights?

    Can someone explain how representing humanism as something that can have a distinct clergy class, or a degree program in its philosophy, isn’t lying about the nature of humanism?

    I understand that there is a problem with the chaplains corps, and a problem with the treatment of atheists in the military, but this seems like a terrible way to go about addressing it.

    “The religious, on the other hand, have a vested interest in religion…violent, bloody, vengeful and self-righteous religion.”
    SHOULD READ: “The military, on the other hand, have a vested interest in religion…violent, bloody, vengeful and self-righteous religion.”

  • bigjohn756

    My question is: WTF is an atheist chaplain?? Perhaps the term advisor would be appropriate, but chaplain…never. Look up the definition of chaplain FCOL!

  • Non-Litigious Atheist

    Holy shit! I’m usually one to complain about conflating atheists with the nones, so I commend MAAF for avoiding that mistake here. But is that graph accurate? Are atheists and agnostics combined really just one-half of a percent of the US population?! If that’s accurate no wonder we can’t get any traction on anything.

    Most of those nones might well be ‘I don’t give a shit/think about religion’ who won’t really help any ‘side’.

    Are the light blue vertical bars in the second chart the number of chaplains representing that religion?

    P.S. ‘Unknown’ chaplains would really be awesome! 🙂

  • Steve

    Calling it an “atheist chaplain” sounds silly indeed, but the concept of “humanist chaplains” isn’t that revolutionary. They exist. The military also allows you to get a humanist symbol on your headstone if you die

  • SWare

    Atheist chaplain…it really does have an oxymoronic ring to it when you say it out loud.

    Licenced counselors trained to handle all that soldiers must deal with I could completely support, taxpayer funded and all…but chaplains…not so much.

  • JD

    you’d never know from the demographic numbers because they’re all lumped in under “no religious preference”

    That’s a patently false statement. How else would you explain the graphic’s depiction of atheists, or the fact people have “atheist” on their dogtags? They’d all be No Rel Pref if your statement was correct.

    That tripe was debunked more than a year ago. Nidal Malik Hasan’s records indicated “no religious preference.” Care to claim him as an atheist?

  • Non-Litigious Atheist

    If what you say is true, JD – and I hope that it is not – then it captures so much of what is wrong with organized atheism today.

    The ease with which ideological atheists will just invent something out of thin air, or even blatantly say something they know to be false, just to ‘promote the cause’ is plain sickening.

    But I guess you reap what you sow when you let politicians hijack what used to be a point of view people promoted because they saw it as one small part of promoting truth in general. The atheist media whores/used car salesmen ain’t got nothing on Bertrand Russell.

  • Ian

    I hate slippery slope arguments… they’re so flimsy.

    I hate them too. Its too tempting to slip a little one in, and then before you know it, your whole argument relies on them.

  • Kaylya

    @Non-Litigious Atheist

    My interpretation of the graphs is that it is the “General Population” of the Military, as identified on official records, and not the US population as a whole.

    Given the climate I’ve heard of, I can definitely see lots of people deciding it’s easier to list No Religious Preference than Atheist. I seem to recall a post a couple months back of someone who had to go to great lengths to get that preference changed after a recruiter pressured them into something.

  • Evan

    I’m ex-military.

    In Navy boot camp, there are Unitarian Universalist services, which basically draw anyone who’s not Christian/Jewish/Muslim/Buddhist and who’d rather sit around on comfortable chairs and talk philosophy for an hour or so instead of sitting on the floor in the berthing shining their boots. Roughly 2/3 of the people who went to UU services in the 2 months I was there were NRPs (the rest being predominantly Wiccan, neopagan, or generic non-observant Christian, though we did see one Taoist and 2-3 identified atheists); of the NRPs, most identified themselves as atheist, agnostic, nonbeliever, secular, humanist, or Pastafarian, with only one exception who said he was a Satanist.

    One of the things we talked about was why we were all officially NRPs instead of atheists/agnostics. A lot of us had stated “atheist” when we joined, and only later came to find out that we’d been filed as “NRP”; others (mostly the humanists) were directly told that their preferred label wasn’t an option; still others were given the option but discouraged from taking it by recruiters who told them not-so-subtly that it was a bad idea to stand out in boot camp. The few people who were proudly wearing “atheist” dogtags all said that they had to fight to get them.

    I think there’s good reason to believe that a substantial portion of NRPs are nonbelievers. (In fact, there are probably a fair number of nonbelievers filed under generic “Christian” or Unitarian.)

    As for chaplains: I’d rather they just got rid of them entirely. But if we have to have them…unfortunately, despite being a religious position, they fill a secular role. They’re pretty much the only counseling-type figure you can see without arousing suspicion or stigma. But they’re not really available to nonbelievers. Be nice if we had an equivalent. Just wish they didn’t have to be a ‘chaplain.’

  • Evan said, “[Chaplains are] pretty much the only counseling-type figure you can see without arousing suspicion or stigma.”

    That’s important. Also, according to a comment on at The Slacktiverse, medical records, including counselling records, are not private in the military, whereas discussions with a chaplain are. That matters.

    But yes, the name chaplain could be a bit of a sticking point.


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