Why the military needs atheist chaplains

There are practical and spiritual reasons for atheists to join the military’s chaplaincy. The U.S. military needs atheist chaplains. Why? … Continued

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.

Brad Hirschfield
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  • jonmce

    How truly weird and what a dopey idea, talk about fish and bicycles. Since there is no such thing as atheistic priests, ministers, rabbis or mullahs where are you going to find this truly undefined and unwanted character? There is no atheistic dogma or doctrine other the nonbelief in the supernatural. Atheists like everyone else may have social or psychological problems but pretending it is a pseudo religion or that there some kind of faux father figure isn’t going to help resolve such problems. Perhaps a psychologist, an ethicist or even an elder wise individual might be of use.

  • mljr

    The biggest problem I see with ‘atheist chaplains’ is that atheism is a descriptive term and not a creed itself. A lot of Unitarians and Buddhists, for example, are both atheistic and spiritual, but wouldn’t label t ‘atheism’ as being their ‘religion’.

  • ccnl1

    From the Land of Loading More and More Comments:

    Why the military or anyone else do not need organized religion:

    Recognizing the flaws, follies and frauds in the foundations of Islam, Judaism and Christianity, the “bowers”, kneelers” and “pew peasants” are converging these religions into some simple rules of life. No koran, bible, clerics, nuns, monks, imams, evangelicals, ayatollahs, rabbis, professors of religion or priests needed or desired. Ditto for houses of “worthless worship” aka mosques, churches, basilicas, cathedrals, temples and synagogues.

    Of course, it is not worthless to Rabbi Hirschfield as he makes about $400,000/yr huckstering the flaws and falacies of Judaism.

  • Eugenecarriesdemwater

    perhaps they should just see a counselor?

  • klinger1

    Some commenters object to the idea of an atheist chaplain because they see atheism as a position against something rather than a movement for something. Also the opposite of an “atheist chaplain” is a “theist chaplain” which I don’t think exists. However, there are more specific groups within atheism that have more specific beliefs, such as humanism. In fact there are already humanist chaplains at colleges such as Harvard and Rutgers, so it’s not that big a leap for the military to have those (and perhaps representatives of other atheistic belief systems as well).

    There is a lot of confusion about the meaning of the words “religion”, “faith”, and “belief” and whether any of these can apply to any variety of atheism. Usually we take religion by definition to be a belief in God or gods. On the other hand some people call any strong belief system (usually one they don’t like) such as patriotism or membership in a social movement as a religion, which I think stretches the meaning of the word too much. It does make some sense to use religion to include atheistic movements, such as humanism, which seek to bring people together to make sense of their lives and to help each other.

  • telemachus

    Same sex “marriage”.

    Atheist “religion”.

    Nation building “armies”.

    Destroy a nation to “save” it.

    No new taxes, just “revenue enhancers”.

    Compassionate “conservatism”

    No state support for religion, only for “faith based initiatives”.

    GEORGE ORWELL WON’T YOU PLEASE COME HOME!!!

  • Carstonio

    If one wanted to get technical, one could label a positive belief that gods don’t exist as a religious belief. (That describes the position of some atheists but not all.) But as far as the government is concerned, atheism and agnosticism and humanism qualify as positions on religion driven by individual conscience, and thus fall under the First Amendment.

  • Eeyore4

    Surely one can accept the notion that atheists may have sprititual concerns. They simply don’t see theism as capable of providing the answers they seek.

  • JG17

    No, Carstonio. Most rational atheists who have put two thoughts together won’t declare some positive belief that “gods do not exist.” It is simply a lack of belief because of the lack of evidence. If evidence presents itself, rational human beings will always examine and weigh it, while those entrenched in whatever dogma will try to ignore it. Still, the lack of a belief system is not by default a belief system.

  • Carstonio

    JG, I wasn’t arguing that a lack of belief constitutes a belief system. I was trying to define the government’s interest here, which is leaving individual citizens to make up their own minds about religion and to protect minorities of any kind from discrimination.

  • temartin

    What an incoherent essay.

  • DaveHarris

    Anyone calling himself an atheist who requests a chaplain is no atheist. If you need holy men to tell you what to do, you might as well be a Catholic.

  • HappyArmyWife

    I believe in a person’s right to believe whatever they want religiously, but wouldn’t this be an oxymoron of sorts? Chaplains are inherently of a particular faith and the point of atheism is a belief that there is nothing beyond or above life.

  • nanonano1

    Don`t agnostics deserve any ink in this discussion?

  • HappyArmyWife

    Wouldn’t that make you agnostic, as opposed to atheist?

  • Sabelotodo

    I was once a high school debate coach and used to enjoy the way that my bright sophomores would learn a few basic tools of persuasion, then come alive with the prospect that seemingly-cogent arguments could be put forth for ANY proposition–no matter how silly!

    Now I have to listen to such propositions, put forth by supposedly mature, intelligent adults: essentially, how those who construct their lives around a belief system which denies the existence of a Higher Power, must be supplied with their own chaplains to provide them with current and lively affirmation of their belief system!

    How long before someone demands chaplains for that other fast-growing religion, Political Correctness, which posits that we cannot make judgments of anyone for any reason? Talk about a potent new religion! It’s PC and the fears of social condemnation that it so effectively spreads, which is causing us to lose our ability to discern the substantial from the nonsensical.

  • I-270Exit1

    Maybe after we atheists get a Chaplain, we can get a place of atheist worship and then (and most importantly) tax breaks from the government.

  • Carstonio

    No one knows whether gods or heavens or higher powers exist, and the issue about chaplains isn’t really relevant to such questions. Instead, the issue is whether chaplains play a role outside religion as well as inside it. Does the emotional support they offer apply only to religious people or to any service member regardless of religion? Since a few nations have humanist chaplains in their militaries, perhaps the answer is yes.

  • telemachus

    Amen!!!

    Well said.

  • ThomasBaum

    For those that say, “If I had evidence that God Is, then I would have faith that God Is”.

    This statement seems to me a statement that one does not know the meaning of faith.

    Irregardless of whether or not one believes anything that is written in the book called the bible, one of the things written in the bible is: “Faith is a gift that no man should boast”.

    Seems to me that quite a few “boast” about their faith and in the process belittle those without faith and in the process step on and ignore many of the things that Jesus attempted to teach us hardheads.

    Of course, it is not only the “religious” that have this holier than thou attitude, seems as if quite of few of the “non-religious” also have a holier than thou attitude.

    As far as having faith or not having faith (in God), I would say that quite a few of both groups are in for quite a shock when they find out that God looks at the whole person, not just their “faith”.

  • ccnl1

    Ahhh, Mr. Baum, the prophet Mohammed, returning in the 21st century with one exception, unlike Mo he talks to God directly not needing the heavenly agent Gabriel.

  • ccnl1

    From the Land of Loading More and More and More Comments:

    Why the military or anyone else do not need organized religion:

    Recognizing the flaws, follies and frauds in the foundations of Islam, Judaism and Christianity, the “bowers”, kneelers” and “pew peasants” are converging these religions into some simple rules of life. No koran, bible, clerics, nuns, monks, imams, evangelicals, ayatollahs, rabbis, professors of religion or priests needed or desired. Ditto for houses of “worthless worship” aka mosques, churches, basilicas, cathedrals, temples and synagogues.

    Of course, it is not worthless to Rabbi Hirschfield as he makes about $400,000/yr huckstering the flaws and falacies of Judaism.