Atheists in the military need chaplains, too

Currently nearly 30 percent of the military identifies as religiously unaffiliated or atheist/agnostic. Yet there is not a single atheist or Humanist chaplain to serve them.

This summer the House finally passed its version of the National Defense Authorization Act, catapulting military issues to the forefront of public debate.

Among these issues was the question of Humanist chaplains in the military. Currently nearly 30 percent of the military identifies as religiously unaffiliated or atheist/agnostic. Yet there is not a single atheist or Humanist chaplain to serve these brave men and women who make incredible sacrifices to protect our freedoms every day.

This week we look to the Senate to take up this pressing issue to vote on the National Defense Authorization Act.

On first glance, the issue of atheist or Humanist chaplains is a bit counterintuitive, perhaps even ironic. Why would nonreligious or atheist military service men and women need chaplains—clergy members whose very purpose is to provide spiritual counsel and conduct religious ceremonies—especially when secular counselors and psychiatrists are available?

To understand the importance of chaplains for all service members—including atheists—one must first understand military culture, in which a visit to a psychiatrist can have a devastating impact on the member’s career.

Seeing a psychiatrist or counselor carries with it a stigma of “weakness” that does not exist when seeing a chaplain, and results in thousands of service members failing to seek the help they need each year. This is an issue that can have a grave impact on all soldiers, but especially those suffering from the emotional issues that war can bring on.

Additionally, the chaplain-patient relationship enjoys more confidentiality then the psychiatrist or counselor relationship does. In many cases, the information discussed with a therapist is not private and can have the unfortunate result of negatively impacting the service member’s future military career. This is a huge disincentive for service members to visit these professionals even if they are in need of help.

Service members who are atheists or have no religious affiliation are the second largest “religious group” in the military. Yet despite the growth of the religiously unaffiliated or “nones,” the religious makeup of the military chaplaincy is drastically different then the religious demographics of the service members. Nonreligious service members do not have a single chaplain.

In contrast, despite that the nonreligious outnumber the combined total of Hindus, Muslims and Jews in the armed services, all of these groups have chaplains for their respective religions.

Furthermore, atheist or non-religious family members are also being deprived of a channel of support for their questions and concerns as they deal with issues of separation, life on a base and even the death of a family member.

The military began employing chaplains because they felt that the health of service men and women was not being sufficiently maintained by medical professionals. And the very fact that the Department of Defense has employed chaplains of different faiths indicates that they believe that a chaplain of the same faith as the service member who seeks their help is the ideal situation.

Why then the non-religious, which comprise nearly a third of all service members, suffer the disservice of being the only group without chaplains who can best understand their perspective?

What in the past may have been legitimate oversight, today boils down to misinformation that vilifies nontheists and a basic misunderstanding of what nontheists believe. During debate over the amendment in the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. John Fleming a Republican from Louisiana said allowing atheists the same resources given to their religious counterparts would “make a mockery of the chaplaincy.” Rep. Mike Conaway, a Republican from Texas said atheists “don’t believe anything.” He continued, “I can’t imagine an atheist accompanying a notification team as they go into some family’s home to let them have the worst news of their life and this guy says, ‘You know, that’s it — your son’s just worms, I mean, worm food.’”

Not only do the representatives’ comments indicate a basic lack of understanding of nontheists, they blatantly ignore the needs of hundreds of thousands of service members who risk their lives for their country, and yet are denied an outlet to openly discuss the hardships they encounter doing so.

In fact, as Greg Epstein, the Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University recently explained, the Humanistic approach to death and dying is “positive and healthy” compelling us to use “every ounce of our critical intelligence and our hearts” to examine our life choices. Furthermore, from the Humanist perspective, difficult times serve as a “motivation to consistently treat others with love, kindness, and fairness while we have the chance …understanding that we are only human and we must forgive each other’s mistakes at times.”

Despite that the amendments failed, real progress was made. In a historical and ground-breaking moment, 150 representatives openly and on the record, voted in favor of supporting nontheists—a strong showing that was previously unheard of.

And in a heartening and spirited show of support, several representatives spoke openly about their support for the nontheistic community—an act that could have meant political suicide not long ago. Rep. Adam Smith, a Democrat from Washington, stood up for the nontheistic community, saying that nontheists do have strong belief systems, which “they value just as much as Christians value theirs.” He continued, “To say that an atheist or Humanist doesn’t believe anything is just ignorant…The response to the gentleman’s amendment makes me feel all the more the necessity of it.”

The reality is that atheists and the non-religious deal with the same questions about life and death, and fear, and loss the same as a religious individual, and can benefit from discussing such topics with a chaplain who understands their perspective the same as a religious individual can.

Currently, the armed services of the United States only allow chaplains who are granted an endorsement by an approved religious organization and who have received a graduate degree in theological or religious studies. By definition, these regulations bar atheist or Humanist chaplains—and they must be changed to support all of our service men and women, regardless of their religious beliefs or lack thereof.

The collective eyes of the nontheistic community now look toward the Senate, as they turn to consider this bill. Our nontheistic service members sacrifice for all Americans daily. The very least we can do is make sure all of our service members have access to those who can offer them needed help.

Image courtesy of darwin.wins.

  • ClarkKent1

    Good idea under the circumstances. Better, and more constitutional, would be zero chaplains – no taxpayer’s money used for clergy salaries. Churches/mosques/humanists/etc would/should minister to those they care about, without requiring a federal salary to do it.

  • logicrules

    While I can see the need for those of faith of any religion to need a Chaplin it is beyond me why an atheist would even consider one. An atheist may need counseling as any Chaplin might provide any one with a problem but it would not include someone that is faith based unless no one else was available and it would probably be offensive.

    Anyone being involved in combat will probably need some sort of counseling so why would it be considered as a problem among the rest of the military? I would think that any counseling would be held in confidence so where does the problem lie?

    As for paying the clergy it would seem if their facilities/churches cannot afford to maintain themselves it should not be the government’s responsibility to do so. A paid counselor for all would be the best solution. Those seeking religious guidance can attend the place of worship they desire.

  • Up by the Big Lake

    The problem is is that pysch services are not held in strict confidence in the military, knowledge that someone has visited a counselor is often unofficially, and on occasion even officially, held against the patient.

  • Rongoklunk

    Religious belief can be seen as just a denial of death. Death would seem to be a reality for us and for all living things. No exceptions. But as we find death a terrible way to end life, we just deny it by pretending we don’t die, but go to heaven where a god lives, and where we’ll live forever and ever and ever and ever – thus avoiding the horror of death. If other animals had a brain and had figured out that they were going to die one day – they’d make up animal gods and a place to go after death too, because it feels so much better than knowing that they’re just going to die,

  • SimonTemplar

    Well, this article basically is an admission that faith plays a vital role in human society.

  • itsthedax

    Military chaplains serve the same basic function as NFL team doctors or racetrack veterinarians. They are used to help numb the servicemen’s psychological pains and keep them at their posts. Like the general population, some soldiers have religions and distrust psychologists, so the military uses chaplains.

    If the military would work on eliminating the stigma that soldiers would feel in seeking mental health assistance, they would actually be able to provide them with effective professional mental healthcare, instead of the emotional placebos that are provided by chaplains.

  • itsthedax

    Sure, of course. The various faiths definitely play a role. A very destructive and corrosive role, to be sure, but a role nonetheless.

  • Rongoklunk


  • smashman

    don’t confuse a chaplain with a counselor. chaplains are concerned about saving souls for the hereafter, which is not something a “nontheist” is at all concerned with.

  • AGuyCommenting

    “Nonreligious service members do not have a single chaplain.” “the chaplain-patient relationship enjoys more confidentiality then the psychiatrist or counselor relationship does.”

    Obviously something fair is not going on.

  • Orlagh

    It really does need some indoctrination on a psucho level to get basically sane people to willingly go out to kill other people for some stupid cause which mostly is not theirs in the first place.
    So, you do the math …

  • PoppyCock

    It usually requires dehumanizing the enemy, which becomes harder when you can’t disparage their ethnicity/religion/nationality.

  • Orlagh

    It does, so you really must go far to get them in a feedingfrenzy for blood.

  • Secular1

    “Seeing a psychiatrist or counselor carries with it a stigma of “weakness” that does not exist when seeing a chaplain, and results in thousands of service members failing to seek the help they need each year. This is an issue that can have a grave impact on all soldiers, but especially those suffering from the emotional issues that war can bring on.” This means the wrong is not in “not having non-theist chaplains”, but the fact that “seeing a counselor” is considered a stigma. That is what should be countered and not perpetuating the idiocy that is military chaplaincy. In fact the stigma would still be attached even if you call the counselors by another name ie “non-theist chaplain”

    First of all military should abolish the practice of hiring paddlers of fantasimo, magic and miracles, not on our dimes. This runs counter to the establishment clause. I say abolish chaplaincy and institute counseling services with a top down campaign against stigmatizing people seeking counseling.

  • Catken1

    Or at least, being able to get counseling without stigma when you’re in a high-risk, high-stress profession.
    Do you still not see the privileges the religious enjoy over the non-religious in this country? If you seek out a psychologist to talk to, it’s stigmatized – if you talk to a priest or pastor or rabbi about the same issue, it’s just fine.

  • Fred Bearman Jr

    There are NO atheists in a fox-hole. More to write about but it will get deleted again.

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