National Chaplains Organization Reflects on Atheists

In the recent newsletter of the National Conference on Ministry to the Armed Services (NCMAF) focused on diversity within the chaplaincy, and the conflict of diversity and religious freedom.  The primary focus was on the religious objections some have to homosexual people.  The other focus was on the increasing diversity of the chaplaincy, from a primarily Protestant organization to one supporting all service members.  NCMAF also took time to reflect on the future of atheist and humanist chaplains in the military.

The newsletter featured the addition of Buddhist and Hindu chaplains to active duty service.   Captain Somya Malasri is the first active duty Army Buddhist chaplain.  Although Malasri is the first active duty Army chaplain, there is also one listed in the article as the first Buddhist chaplain, USA Today reported a prior Army National Guard Buddhist chaplain and one Navy Buddhist chaplain.  Although precedent exists for Buddhism, Captain Pratima Dharm is the first US military Hindu chaplain in any branch of service.  She was previously a Christian chaplain and seems not to have converted, but rather to have accepted both Jesus and the rest of the Hindu pantheon.

NCMAF authors recognized that there is a group not yet represented with a chaplain – atheists.  NCMAF dedicated their “For Reflection” section to two articles.  The first was the front-page NY Times article “Atheists Seek Chaplain Role in the Military.”  This article talked about the increasing number of military atheist groups, focusing on MASH Ft Bragg.  To meet this growing need and the significant minority of atheists and humanists in the military, MAAF is collaborating with the Humanist Society to endorse humanist chaplains.  These chaplains will be atheist in their world view and promote progressive, ethical humanist values.  This effort is part of the larger Chaplain Outreach program in which MAAF reaches out to current chaplains to ensure they have the information and resources to provide for nontheist service members.

NCMAF selected a response article from Rabbi Shmuley Boteach.  The article tried to denigrate atheism by associating it with religion – “atheism is supported by their own creeds and by the same willful denial of certain facts that has in the past characterized many of the faithful.” This negative view of the faithful is odd considering Rabbi Shmuley (his preferred moniker) is religious himself.  The article was not entirely negative though.  He represented atheists and humanists well in the following notional discussion:

I am well aware that many of my atheist friends will tell me, ‘Come on Shmuley. OK, so an atheist ‘chaplain’ might not be able to offer the same comfort to a soldier who saw his buddy die in Iraq. He won’t be able to say to him, ‘Your friend is in a better place,’ and we concede that telling him, ‘Your friend died for a noble cause. Now he is decomposing in a dark grave from which there is no escape,’ isn’t as compelling as saying that he’s up in heaven with the ministering angels. But why offer false comfort anyway, Shmuley? None of it is true and this is just religion once again serving as a balm for people’s fear of death, a true opiate of the masses.

If the chaplaincy and military leaders are in the business of questioning the validity of the beliefs of others, then what do Christians think of Muslims?  What do Jews think of Wiccans?  What do Lutherans think of Pentacostals?  The error here is in lumping “theists” against “atheists” and suggesting that all of those who believe in a god and an afterlife all believe in the same god, the same afterlife, and the same rules for living.  That is not the case, and the chaplaincy has in the past understood diversity of belief and supported all service members.  Now it seems that there is a religious test for access to government services, and that test is to profess belief in a supernatural power, at least according to Rabbi Shmuley’s article.  Buddhists and Hindus have passed, but there should be no test to pass – except that a person has offered their life in military service to support and defend the Constitution.

Rabbi Shmuley also makes the common suggestion of a separate “counselor” corps for nontheist service members.  “But please, call them something that doesn’t make a mockery of religion by pretending that someone can be a minister of the religion of non-belief.”  I assume he is referring to the name “chaplain.”  The term apparently draws its roots to Martin of Tours, later St Martin, a Christian, who offered his cloak to a beggar.  Legends vary, but the origin is distinctly Christian.  Now chaplains are Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, and Muslim, among others.  There are already Humanist chaplains in the Netherlands and Belgium.  There is already growing precedent for atheist and humanist participation in for “interfaith” — or maybe “interfait” (to draw from the french – for action) — projects.  The term chaplain has obviously expanded outside its Christian roots, and so there is no great “mockery” in expanding the term outside its theistic roots.

But the term used, whether chaplain or counselor, is of no consequence.  The issue at stake is the welfare of service members in the military and the important duties of the modern chaplaincy.  If Methodist personnel wish to have religious ministry from Methodist chaplains, then Methodist chaplains can provide that service regardless what other beliefs are represented.  Faith-to-faith ministry may be the most preferred duty of military chaplains, but it is not the most common duty.  Rabbi Shmuley relegates the chaplains to a narrow service-on-Sunday (or maybe Friday) set of duties.  If that is the case, then the chaplains should give no deployment briefings, no suicide briefings, no equal opportunity briefings, no religious accommodation briefings — none of services chaplains now provide to the general population.  The front-page-center project for the Army chaplains is not ministry, but rather Strong Bonds, a multi-million-dollar and supposedly secular family counseling program.  If chaplains are only religious ministers, then they are relegated to support only of their faith group.  That would be unfortunate.

The fact is that chaplains are in command briefings, in policy development, out on the line mentoring all personnel, and providing for the needs of every service member within the military.  These wide-ranging secular duties are not under dispute when chaplains are seeking influence and funding.  Now, an underserved population, atheists and humanists, are stepping up to ask for equal representation.  Some chaplains and commentators are retreating to a purely faith-based chaplain perspective.

Regardless what chaplains think of the idea of humanist chaplains, MAAF is seeking out those current chaplains and endorsers who are willing and able to support atheists and humanists.  The chaplaincy isn’t just about counseling or mental health or facilities, but rather a combination of many components supporting personal beliefs and communities.  Chaplains exist to help build personal values and connect personnel to a community of like-minded individuals, whether that is a Catholic, Orthodox, LDS, or humanist community.  We are seeking endorsers to sign onto our Minimum Statement of Support to show that chaplains aren’t just doing church on Sunday, but they are there for every service member, theistic and nontheistic.


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