Humanist Chaplains in the Dutch Military

dekootersessionIn the United States, humanist chaplains are decried as contradictions in terms or as abominations against the Christian establishment. Chaplains provide a valuable service to boost the morals and morale in the military, health care positions, the military and other specialized settings. MAAF continues to reach out to equal chaplain services for humanists. Thus far, humanists are generally treated as outside the purview of chaplain support and humanism is considered by some to be insufficient for chaplain work. Such attitudes are simply cultural and religious prejudice or at least borne of ignorance. Humanist chaplains are already serving in various settings and showing these examples can help both humanists and non-humanist chaplains move forward toward chaplaincy for all.

Chaplain (Lieutenant Colonel) Norbert de Kooter is one of a long-standing corps of humanist chaplains in the Dutch military and provided to MAAF commentary on his experiences.

* At the end of this article, there is a 13 minute video, an article, and a 33-page document of stories from the Dutch chaplaincy.

I originally had the opportunity to meet Erwin Kamp, Lt Col de Kooter’s predecessor, when I was at the World Congress of the International Humanist & Ethical Union in Oslo, Norway in 2008. The conference focused on Peace and I spoke about humanism in the US military. The Congress voted to support a resolution in favor of humanist chaplains in the military. This conversation will continue our efforts. The following interview will be used to update content at Wikipedia’s chaplain page.

MAAF. In the US military, chaplains are commissioned officers who serve on commanders’ staffs and, aside from being generally excepted from commanding, are just like any other officers. How do humanist chaplains fit in the Dutch military?

Lt Col de Kooter

Lt Col de Kooter

Lt Col N. D. de Kooter. Humanist chaplains, sometimes called humanist counsellors but part of the chaplaincy, contribute to the (mental) well-being of military personnel, those related to them, and veterans. They do this through visible presence at the workplace, personal contact and guidance. They hold conversations, give advice and offer support. Issues concerning meaning and ethics are central to their work.

The work of humanist counsellors in the armed forces consists of the following:

  • Presence at the workplaces, training locations and during deployments
  • Individual guidance to (current and former) military personnel and those related to them
  • Informal training for groups
  • Education/training in ethics
  • Philosophical/spiritual meetings
  • Contribution to military ceremonies
  • Identification of, and advice and counselling on issues that concern the well-being of people (humanization)
  • Participation in Social Medical Teams (SMTs), together with other aid and care workers.

MAAF: So Dutch chaplains and counsellors are officers like other military officers?

Humanist counsellors are appointed as civil servants not commissioned officers. For carrying out their work they are viewed equivalent to the military ranks (captain, major or lieutenant colonel). They are employed in the military, not by the military, and work outside the military hierarchy. Professionally they are not accountable to the Ministry of Defence or the military authority, but to the agency that sends them, in our case the Dutch Humanist Society (Humanistisch Verbond). Chaplains are not formally subject to the orders of the military commanders. This service exists primarily for the people as individuals, not for the military apparatus. Humanist counsellors thus like to call themselves “critically involved” (in a good way).

MAAF. What have you found to be most challenging about chaplaincy work?

de Kooter. You give support, but also maintain a critical distance. It means being part of the (military) unit, befriending them and gaining access to their world, while at the same time being able to pose the critical question, keeping sufficient distance to be able to see things from a different perspective, to remain the involved outsider. That to me is the strength and also the challenge of this work.

MAAF. Where do Dutch chaplains do their work?

SFOR in Bosnia with Dutch chaplain

SFOR in Bosnia with Dutch chaplain

de Kooter. Wherever the soldiers are stationed, humanist counsellors are active, working for the benefit of the mental well-being of personnel in the armed forces. Humanist counsellors are thus, also stationed outside the Netherlands, for example at Curaçao, and join missions abroad as well as  longer naval operations. I’ve been to Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan myself.

The great thing about this job is that you literally work together with the unit you’re stationed with. As counsellor you go along once in a while on patrol, help out in the kitchen sometimes, sit with the guards at another time, or visit someone at the military field hospital. You are a member of the unit, while holding your independent position as well. You also join the deployments abroad, so you live and work in the same, sometimes difficult, circumstances as the soldiers.

MAAF. What is the history of the Dutch chaplaincy?

de Kooter. The humanist counselling department in the armed forces was introduced on 1 September 1964 in order to serve secular and non-religious soldiers such as humanists. The department started with five counsellors. Over the years however, it has developed into one of the major counselling departments of the armed forces, with a current total of 38 humanist counsellors (of about 150 total, see note* below). The counsellors adopt the humanist philosophy in their work while not imposing one’s ideas onto others. In this form of counselling, the person asking for help and his own views and ways of thinking are central. But the counsellors do try to contribute to the humanization of the armed forces, by creating a more dignified, humane atmosphere.

MAAF. But you must do some humanist-specific work for humanists. How does that come into play?

de Kooter. Humanism is a life stance in which the human being is central. Humanists want to determine their life-choices themselves, assuming self-responsibility, and living autonomously, but in connection with others and the world around them.


MAAF. There are chaplain endorsing agencies in the US, including the Jewish Welfare Board, National Association of Evangelicals, and Catholic Archdiocese. MAAF is working with the (American) Humanist Society, American Ethical Union, and other organizations to endorse in the US for humanists. You mentioned the Dutch Humanist Association. Is that the only one?

de Kooter. The Dutch Humanist Society, Humanistisch Verbond, is the only endorser for humanist chaplains in the Netherlands.  The Society expresses its values in the document “Contemporary Humanism”. This document states that Humanism is a philosophy that is formed, nurtured, and inspired by man, his power and dignity. Humanists strive to develop a just society based on the dignity of the individual. This aim is best suited to a democratic state and requires the active participation of citizens. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is, for us, an important moral and political source of guidance. Humanism encompasses the pursuit of a good, beautiful and meaningful personal life.

MAAF. We’ve had a lot of issues with “spirituality” in the US military being imposed from a predominantly Christian perspective. How does that play out in the Dutch military?

de Kooter. The question about ‘spirituality’ is a controversy in Holland also. The Humanist Association wants to be an organisation who connect a wide range of humanists, from hard-core atheists to so called ‘religious humanists’ (who define ‘god’ as a natural force within man). But the main body of humanists are non-religious and do not believe in god. There is some discussion about non-religious spirituality.

-end of interview-

This approach to chaplaincy, which is a hybrid of military officership and civilian oversight is an intriguing approach that may resolve some of the nagging church-state separation issues in the military. In addition, the example of having “counsellor” or some name other than “chaplain” may also be a convenient compromise for those anxious to maintain the “chaplain” moniker for Christians alone due to the term’s Christian roots in the story of St Martin. However, the openness the Dutch military has shown in accepting humanist chaplains, and the resulting long-term success of humanist chaplains in the Dutch military, provides an inspiring example for the US military and the profession of the chaplaincy in the US.


Additional References:

Stories of Dutch chaplains:

Dutch Chaplaincy Articles (pdf, 3 articles, 33 pages): From Isolation to Solidarity (pg 1), Moral Counselling During a Mission (pg 14), Reunion Conferences (pg 23).

Dutch Chaplaincy video filmed in Bosnia:


* Note: I had previously been told that humanist chaplains were a ‘majority’ in the Dutch military. Lt Col de Kooter states as of this printing that there are in the Dutch armed forces 54 Roman Catholic chaplains, 52 Protestant, 2 Jewish, 2 Hindu and 2 Islamic chaplains besides the 38 humanistic chaplains. View US chaplaincy demographics here.


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