Thursday, July 25, 2013

Why shouldn't atheists in the U.S. military be allowed their own chaplains?

Last month Rep. Rob Andrews offered an amendment to the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act that would have provided for the appointment as officers in the Chaplain Corps of "persons who are certified or ordained by non-theistic organizations and institutions, such as humanist, ethical culturalist, or atheist" so that those non-theistic chaplains would be "available to provide guidance and counsel to members of the armed forces who are atheist, agnostic, or belong to no organized faith group."

It was a very sensible idea intended to accommodate a quickly growing demographic group. The reasoning was, "There are atheists serving in the U.S. military. Why should they be denied the same support currently provided to Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus serving in the U.S. military?"

There are U.S. military personnel requesting that support. There are qualified people wanting to serve the U.S. military as non-theistic chaplains. There are long-standing organizations, such as the Humanist Society and the American Ethical Union, that could provide certification for non-theistic chaplain candidates.

Some countries, including the Netherlands and Belgium, already have humanist chaplains in their armed forces.

Some universities, including Harvard and Stanford, now have full-time humanist chaplains.

So, why not allow humanist chaplains in the U.S. military?

A couple of Congressmen thought they had some good arguments against the amendment.

Rep. Mike Conaway said, "They don't believe anything. 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."

Rep. John Fleming said, "This I think would make a mockery of the chaplaincy. The last thing in the world we would want to see was a young soldier who may be dying and they're at a field hospital and the chaplain is standing over that person saying to them, 'If you die here, there is no hope for you in the future."

First, I'll address Rep. Conaway's claim that atheists don't believe in anything:

Atheists don't believe in gods. That doesn't mean they don't believe in anything. Atheists have belief systems (such as humanism) that are as developed as those of theists. Those belief systems deal with the big questions, like how to live an ethical life, how to find meaning in life, how to live a happy life, and how to cope with the deaths of the people you love and how to bravely face your own death.

Conaway's statement that an atheist chaplain would tell grieving parents that their son is "worm food" is astounding when you consider that that is almost exactly the same term that Lt. Col. Ralph Kauzlarich (a Christian) used to describe Pat Tillman (an atheist) after the Tillman family questioned the findings of the investigations the military made into Tillman's death.

Fleming's comment neglects the fact that thousands of U.S. military personnel are atheists. A young solider who may be dying at a field hospital deserves access to a chaplain who can give that soldier care consistent with the soldier's religious viewpoint. If the soldier does not believe in an afterlife, then a chaplain who tries to comfort the soldier with words about heaven would be as useless (and, possibly, as harmful) as a chaplain who tried to comfort a dying Jewish soldier with words about the importance of accepting Christ.

In the scenario that Fleming described, the religious views of the soldier should be paramount, not those of the chaplain. Non-theistic chaplains would be prepared to serve soldiers whose needs are now being neglected.

The House Armed Services Committee voted down Rep. Andrews' amendment, 43-18.

Rep. Andrews' amendment was later considered by the full House, where it was voted down 274-150.

Not content with that, Rep. Fleming introduced his own proposal that would, according to Fleming, prohibit the military from appointing atheist or humanist chaplains. (It's questionable whether Fleming's amendment would actually do anything since it only prevents funds from being used to appoint chaplains without an endorsing agency. Fleming's amendment doesn't seem to do anything to prevent non-theistic groups from being recognized as endorsing agencies, though. So far as I can tell, this amendment was just grandstanding intended to demonstrate that Fleming really doesn't like atheists.) It passed the full House earlier this week in a vote of 253-173.

Fleming dismissed the need for non-theistic chaplains by pointing out that less than one percent of service members identify themselves as "atheists." However, that number of self-identified atheists is larger than the number of Jews, the number of Buddhists, the number of Muslims, and the number of Hindus in the U.S. military. Yet, all those other groups have their own chaplains in the military.

Over 22% of U.S. military personnel are listed as "No Religious Preference." A good percentage of them are probably atheists. Some atheists choose to remain vague about their lack of belief in deities in order to avoid hostility from the religious majority. Also, it is very well-documented that some recruiters will put "No Rel Pref" on a recruit's paperwork even when the recruit clearly asked to be listed "Atheist." (That's a serious matter because listing oneself as "No Rel Pref" when "Atheist" would be more accurate can create problems for the family if something tragic does happen.)

I've witnessed an even more severe example of a recruiter overriding a recruit's religious identification request. When I was 19 I considered joining the Louisiana National Guard. While meeting with the recruiter one day, I overheard him helping a recruit with the paperwork. That recruit was actually a Marine who, after completing his active-duty service, was transferring to the National Guard. The recruiter asked the Marine what his religious preference was. The Marine said, "None." The recruiter paused and then said, "I'm going to make you a Baptist." Then, the recruiter wrote something (presumably "Baptist") on the Marine's paperwork. The National Guard recruiter asked, "Did the Marines let you get away with that?" The Marine said that sometimes they did.

Jeff Sadow, a blogger and assistant professor of political science at LSU-Shreveport, posted earlier today in support of Fleming's ban on non-theistic chaplains. Sadow cited the military oath as an additional reason why atheist chaplains would be inappropriate:

"And the idea also directly contradicts the very oaths by which members of the military take at enlistment or commissioning, both of which end in the sentence 'So help me God.' While polytheist members may expand the concept of 'God' to fit their views, nonbelievers may discount that portion of their oath as an appeal to fiction, yet the military with the presence of the phrase certainly takes it seriously. So it makes no sense in a procedural way to say there can be nonreligious spiritual guides when the institution itself ordains that all its members attest to belief in a spiritual being(s)/presence of some kind. To be consistent, it would first have to remove from the oaths that phrase before adding in 'chaplains' who guide without reference to a spiritual force."

Prof. Sadow is, apparently, unaware that the phrase "So help me God" is optional in the military oath. Those taking the oath don't have to say "So help me God" and they can cross out the phrase before signing the printed version of the oath.

Sadow also says that atheists in the military who need the support that an atheist chaplain could provide should, instead, seek the help of a non-chaplain counselor. In response to similar arguments made by other opponents of atheist chaplains, Edwina Rogers, executive director of the Secular Coalition for America pointed out that seeking psychiatric help, as opposed to the help of a chaplain, can stigmatize a service member and hurt his military career. On that same point, Rep. Andrews said, "Going to a mental health professional is a choice that is laden with risk and controversy for a member of the service. Going to a faith advisor is not."

Humanist and atheist veterans can be buried in national cemeteries under headstones bearing emblems of their belief systems, but they can't be provided access to a chaplain affiliated with their belief system while they are actually serving in the military. Would it really hurt everyone else so much if non-theistic service members were given that benefit?


castaway said...

What is the symbol on the grave to the left?

Randall T. Hayes said...


It's the Humanist symbol. The one on the right is the Atheist symbol.