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There are practical and spiritual reasons for atheists to join the military’s chaplaincy.
The U.S. military needs atheist chaplains. Why? Because members of the military have requested them, and the core value of the chaplaincy is to serve the needs of those serving our nation.
This issue is back in the news as Army Capt. Ryan Jean, an intelligence officer at Fort Meade, seeks full recognition for non-believers, including their right to have at least one chaplain dedicated to serving them. In this case, Capt. Jean seeks recognition of himself as a chaplain’s assistant, a role reserved for lay members of a faith who help an ordained chaplain.
Some mock Jean’s request and others simply find it incomprehensible. So far, spokespeople from Fort Meade have indicated that the army is unlikely to respond positively to the request, since atheism is not a recognized faith. What a mistake, for believers and non-believers alike, let alone for those atheists in the military whose needs are going unmet.
Believers should embrace a move toward including atheist chaplains for a number of reasons. First, it would require atheists to place themselves on the same level as theists – something they often refuse to do. By supporting the creation of a lay-chaplaincy, believers would be supporting the awareness that there are big moral, ethical, and spiritual questions which demand responses – that such questions are not simply for the small-minded or the fearful, as atheists often charge, or that they can be addressed in purely clinical or scientific ways, as they often insist.
To be sure, for believers to support the idea of atheist chaplains, they would have to admit that people, at least some of them, find meaningful responses to those big questions, outside of faith. That would actually be a good thing, given the arrogance with which some religionists approach the sufficiency of either faith in general, or even more toxically, that of the particular faith they follow.
Finally, some people find the meaning and purpose they seek in faithlessness, but since chaplaincy is all about putting the serviceperson’s needs first, that should not be a problem. If it is, then the real issue is with religionists who fail to appreciate what military chaplaincy is all about. And that is the real story in this debate about atheist chaplains.
Were all parties to this issue truly willing to put the expressed needs of American service personnel first, then this would be an issue to address. We need atheists to admit that theirs too is a kind of faith. We need religionists who admit that no faith is the single answer for all people, certainly not in the military. And ultimately, we need a military that doesn’t use old definitions of what counts as a legitimate category of people who deserve to be served.
If we had all three of the above, this issue would already be resolved — military atheists would be better taken care of, atheists would appreciate how much they share with religionists, and the religiously arrogant would be reminded that in our public institutions at least, there is no room for religious triumphalism. Certifying atheist chaplains would be a win not only for atheists, but for the military and for American religion as well. Let’s hope that we see them, or at least one of them, soon.