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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.