Should atheist chaplains serve the military?

PETER PARKS AFP/GETTY IMAGES TOPSHOTS US soldiers from 3rd Battalion 2nd Marine Regimental Combat Team 8 return to Camp Pheonix … Continued



TOPSHOTS US soldiers from 3rd Battalion 2nd Marine Regimental Combat Team 8 return to Camp Pheonix from a patrol near the town of Musa Qala in Helmand province in southern Afghanistan on April 11, 2011.

Apparently, and contrary to the old adage, there really
atheists in foxholes, and in many other places in the US military.

It should come as no surprise that military, like the rest of America, includes atheists and secular humanists among its ranks. More surprisingly perhaps, is a request which some of them are making.

A number of atheists and secular humanists currently serving on active duty are asking for chaplains to serve their needs. No, they have not undergone conversions, “seen the light,” or any such thing. They are asking for trained professionals to provide support and counsel based on their own non-religious tradition, much as other chaplains draw on religious traditions to do the same.

I hope the Pentagon responds favorably, not only for the good of those making the request, but for the good of military and for the good of religious freedom in America. While small in number (about 10,000 out of 1.3 million personnel), there are many good reasons to embrace this request.

For starters, the military does its utmost to provide for the spiritual and emotional needs of all men and women in uniform, and has always known that professionals charged with that primary mission, chaplains, are a vital part of the process. Whether they believe in God or not, people have existential dilemmas, emotional needs and spiritual struggles. They may not turn to God for answers, but that doesn’t mean they don’t need and deserve support to find the answers they need. That’s what Chaplains do, and that’s why there should be at least one from the secular tradition.

Some may object to the notion that secularism or atheism is a “real” tradition. But once we go down that road, why not get rid of Jewish or Muslim chaplains since, according to some Christian belief systems, they are as empty and misguided as atheism and secularism? And to be clear, that question is rhetorical.

The military engages chaplains based on their ability to serve the needs of those in uniform, not on the basis of the Pentagon’s sense of which traditions are true and which are not. The measure of successful military chaplaincy is not theological correctness or the number of converts made, it is the number of people served. On that basis, there must be room for a secular chaplain in the military.

Interestingly, the presence of secular or atheist chaplains would also force secularists and atheists to be a bit more candid about the fact that theirs is every bit as much a faith, as are the belief systems of the believers with whom they serve. Like classical believers and religionists, atheists and secularists make a decision about the world based on what works in their lives.

They have similar needs, need similar professional help and support, and can no more know that they are right than believers can. Members of each camp construct complex arguments to “prove” the correctness of their respective conclusions, but in reality both believers and non-believers are doing their best to make sense of their lives and the world in which they live, and each has found a different way of doing it. The presence of atheist chaplains could help both groups to see that and end their endless and pointless bickering about which side is right.

Finally, the inclusion of atheist chaplains in the military would be a reminder to believers and non-believers alike about a fundamental commitment made by military chaplains – one from which all religious leaders could learn. The issue is not which tradition the chaplains calls upon, but their ability to use their chosen tradition to serve BOTH those most closely affiliated with their own tradition, AND those who are not. That should be the mission of all faith leaders, even when they do not agree about matters of faith, or even about what it might mean to be of service to those in need.

What all clergy should agree upon is the notion that if those they are meant to serve do not experience themselves as being served, then those doing the serving – the chaplains or other religious leaders -have failed to achieve their mission. And since all traditions have some sense that they are meant to serve beyond their own membership, the real test of successful service lies with those outside of one’s chosen faith or non-faith.

Military chaplains try and meet that mission every day and the inclusion of atheist chaplains will only aid in achieving the mission more fully by all members of the military, believers and non-believers alike.

Brad Hirschfield
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  • eezmamata

    Atheism is not a belief system, it is not a system, in fact it is a not-system. Why can’t you believers understand that, what is wrong with your mind that you can’t see that?

    Atheists have the same need for human community as anyone else, this does not involve reading Sam Harris or listening to Hitchens, it does not involve people sitting on folder chairs in a circle and praising or worshiping anything.

    There’s something else going on here when you believers try to do this. Are you trying to raise the value of your belief system by comparing it atheism, or are you trying to lower the value of atheism by comparing it to your belief system?

    This is just plain retarded.

  • jimfoxvog

    Atheist chaplains make more sense than Christian ones. A chaplain that advocated following the teachings of Jesus, such as “love your enemy” would not last long!

  • WmarkW

    Secularists do have what might be termed an organizing problem — it’s difficult to form a group defined by non-interest in a subject. But the military might serve a valuable role in creating a model for one. If they can “translate” the organization structure within which theistic chaplains operate into a secular equivalent, civilian life might be able to create a cohesive form of non-theist organization based on the military’s ideas.

  • slowe111

    I applaud and thank Mr. Hirschfield for his support for secular “chaplains” in the military to serve the ever increasing of non-theists serving. I must take issue, however with his calling atheism a tradition of “faith”.:…the fact that theirs is every bit as much a faith, as are the belief systems of the believers with whom they serve”. This is a misuse of the word faith, which has recently become a euphemism for religion ( communities of faith, faith-based initiatives, person of faith, etc. ). Faith, in the religious context, is the ability to treat as truth, i.e. believe something, without evidence or even in the face of counterevidence. Atheists and by extension, Humanists abhor this methodology and practice. We do not use or depend on faith to sustain us, reach conclusions or make claims about reality. Secularism is NOT a faith nor desires any association with it. Please do not misunderstand us by calling us a “faith”. I hope the militaries will all replace thelogical chaplains with professisonally trained counselors – certified in psychology, psychiatry, and counseling – trained in universities, not seminaries.

  • Sajanas

    I’d like to echo the other comments… Atheism is not a ‘faith’ or a ‘belief system’. Its simply the state of someone who has not found the claims of any religions to be backed up by proof. Casting atheism as such is a major problem with forming atheist organizations and having chaplains and so on, since it provides other religions with an easy way to write us off and ignore the problems that we raise.

    However, I do appreciate that the author at least recognizes that atheists are people too, and that those people have needs, especially in something as stressful as military service. What surprises me is that chaplains are the only ones providing the sort of comfort and open ear that *everyone* in the military should be able to get. Where are the grief counselors and psychiatrists? Is it simply a matter of them being forced write up the soldiers visited them? Surely in this day an age, we can recognize that all soldiers have times when they need objective, professional help, not necessarily just whatever bits of psychology you get from reading the Bible and going to seminary.

  • Sara121

    Actually there are counselors and psychiatrists that are available to everyone, sort of, they are just not organic to a unit the way chaplains are, down to the battalion level. They are civilians working at an installation level office. Making a mental health visit is slowly becoming less stigmatized. Commanders and supervisors are not supposed to let the fact that someone makes a mental health visit, in and of itself, a reason for a poor evaluation. That being said, I am sure it still happens. Baby steps.

    I too take issue with the the comment on atheism being a “faith,” but I agree with the rest of the column, particularly the idea that we should remember that chaplains are there to minister to their own, but provide support and access to other resources for everyone else. That’s why it doesn’t matter which faith, or not, a chaplain is in order to do his or her job.

  • daniel12

    Atheist chaplain? Good joke. Sounds to me like a ploy not to have to admit to seeing a psychiatrist or psychologist. “Atheist chaplain” is a contradiction. “Chaplain” has to do with religious faith. Psychiatrists and psychologists on the other hand have arisen with secular society and exist precisely as an alternative to religious counselors…For example, in Christianity a mentally ill person might be considered possessed, but in the secular tradition, and according to our secular and non-religious chaplains the psychiatrists and psychologists, the person is mentally ill. It sounds to me like an attempt to rename psychiatrists and psychologists for the sake of he-men who otherwise would have reluctance to see a mental health professional. Just another one of those renaming processes such as renaming “human resources” from what it used to be, the position of employee management (hiring, etc,) in the workplace…Atheist chaplain…What precisely could such a person say to another but a general and non-religious address of mental issues? And what advice but take medication (as an alternative to solace in God) or talk out problems (again, psychologist)? Atheist chaplain–what nonsense! A person who would want to see such a person has a definite problem already: A lack of courage in seeing precisely that he is talking to a mental health professional…Or worse: He is both cowardly and unwilling to admit to seeing a mental health professional and has a chip on his shoulder against the religious and wants to rub “his chaplain” in their faces…Or probably the actual event: Some people want psychologists and psychiatrists to rename themselves definitively for what they have been doing for decades already–which is to say place once and for all the entire apparatus of secular mental health in the atheist camp…Atheist chaplain…the main problem is to take seriously people that would put “Atheist” and “chaplain” together.

  • Carstonio

    First, people like Hirschfield need to stop lumping atheists and secularists together as if they’re the same thing. They’re most definitely not. Large numbers of believers consider themselves secularists, meaning that they regard faith as first and foremost a personal thing and they subscribe to the First Amendment principle of government neutrality among religions.

    Second, by insisting that atheism is a faith, Hirschfield wrongly lumps together people who believe that gods don’t exist with people who hold no belief either way.

    Third, the question of whether gods exist is one of fact – either they exist or they don’t. Whatever the answer to that question is (and I don’t claim to know it), it should be considered separately from the matter of people “making sense of their lives and the world in which they live.” Arguing otherwise amounts to making up facts based on what’s comforting, like the old claim “If God doesn’t exist then life would have no meaning.” Making sense of one’s life shouldn’t involve substituting beliefs for answers on factual questions. That’s like saying 2 + 2 is 5 only because one doesn’t like even numbers.

  • Carstonio

    “chaplains are there to minister to their own, but provide support and access to other resources for everyone else”

    I’ve read that the percentage of chaplains who are fundamentalist is far greater than that of the military in general or that of the US population, and that the percentage is increasing. I’m concerned that these particular chaplains may see their mission as not ministering but proselytizing. Given the extreme nature of their beliefs, I have little confidence in their willingness to provide support for service members of other faiths. At best, I can imagine them sneaking in sales pitches for their own religion. At worst, I can imagine them telling wounded Jewish soldiers that they had it coming for not accepting Jesus.

  • Carstonio

    Thanks for the clarification. I think it’s important to emphasize that fundamentalists are a subset of evangelicals. The two aren’t the same thing, and many evangelicals disagree strongly with fundamentalists both theologically and politically. But you’re right about the danger when chaplains see themselves as entitled to proselytize. Not only does that affect service members of no religion, it also affects members who belong to religions other than the one being preached, particularly the minority religions.

  • Sara121

    Good points. I guess I was just pointing out what chaplains are supposed to do. I’ve never been proselytized to by any of the (admittedly few) chaplains I’ve been in contact with, though I have been proselytized to by non-chaplains.

  • Sara121

    Not all problems you might go to a chaplain with are mental health problems. Sometimes they are chain of command problems, or inter-squad or sectional problems, or mundane, non-religious family problems. Chaplains, as service members, are in a much better position to assist other service members in those types of situations than a psychologist or psychiatrist is. Also, mental health professionals, if that is what’s needed, are not always readily available, especially on a deployment. Chaplains, if they are doing what they are supposed to be doing, are there to help you themselves, or help you get the additional resources you need, mental health or otherwise.

  • eezmamata

    I suspect believers lump secularists with atheists for the same reasons they claim atheism is “also” a faith. Of course many are simply too ignorant to know the difference, but that doesn’t explain why someone such as Hirschfield does it – I would never claim he is an ignorant man.

    No, they’re trying to redefine what words mean to help themselves support their beliefs and support their believing.

    Hirschfield is a quite typical believer when it comes to this. They are trying to tar secularism with atheism, at least that’s the effort.

    I see it in political life too, a similar manipulation. When a republican, for example, gets caught doing something sexually ‘troublesome’, the republican faithful come out in droves listing all the democrats who have done the same thing.

    “You’re no better than we are, you’re just as bad” … when you get right down to it, when they attempt to ridicule atheism as a faith they are in fact ridiculing faith itself. Pay attention believers, this is what we see you doing.

  • Carstonio

    Eezmamata, what you describe would appear to be two different varieties of absolutism, and not necessarily ignorance. The people who wrongly lump secularism with atheism don’t represent all religious people, but they seem to believe that either one supports their particular religion or opposes it, apparently rejecting neutrality as impossible.

    The political phenomenon you describe is almost the same thing. It’s essentially “So’s your old man,” where the partisan wrongly interprets criticism of one person with the same political philosophy as a bashing of that entire philosophy. I’ve noticed it among some people who identify as liberal or Democrat, but more often among people who identify as conservative or Republican. In both cases it amounts to an unnecessary type of defensiveness.

  • eezmamata

    Assertions: if 1 = There is a god, -1 = there is no god

    Then atheism represents both 0 and -1. Believers seem incapable of perceiving the 0. I truly have not encountered any who understand this.

    I once thought they did not see it on purpose or refused to admit seeing it, out of some resentment perhaps, but now I no longer think this to be the case.

    They cannot see the 0. They cannot allow that not believing is not the same thing as believing not.

    This is an example of the damage done to a thinking mind by religion, or indeed by any Absolute Ideology including political ideologies.

  • Carstonio

    Spoken (or written) like a programmer…

    So how does atheism represent both 0 and -1? And what is the name for the latter position or value? Traditionally I had been deeming that position as atheism to distinguish it from “No answer available.”

  • eezmamata

    I am a programmer

    atheism means not theism, and that’s it. The set of all things which are theist vs the set of all things which are not theist, there is no intersection between these two sets.

    An affirmative assertion that there is no god belongs in the latter set. A denial of the assertion that there is a god belongs in the latter set, such denial though does not necessarily imply an affirmative assertion of the negative.

    I have an apple tree in my back yard that grows blue apples. Do you believe me? Do you believe I don’t?

    Until I come over to your place and plunk one down on your keyboard you have no reason to accept my claim do you? Are you going to come all the way over to my backyard to prove I don’t have such a tree, or are you just going to say that I have not provided any evidence to support my claim?

    Your common sense tells you that there is no such tree anywhere, such an extraordinary claim requires real proof. But it’s not on you to prove I don’t have such a tree is it, it’s on me to prove that I do.

    The greatest argument for me that there is no god is the incredible number of other gods people have believed in which we all accept as created by man. People believe in gods, it’s a primitive and often barbaric practice common to our ignorant ancestors. To continue believing in gods is no better than believing in astrology or the flat earth.

    Were it not for the fact that the modern god believers insist on legislating or indeed fighting wars to put their religion into political power we would not bother with these people.

    I do not notice I am atheist until I have to endure the neverending nonsense put out by the religious. I am quite pessimistic in fact that our species will survive this juvenile phase in our existence.

    I hope we will, but I have no faith that we can discard this disease in time to prevent our destroying ourselves over BS.

  • Carstonio

    Using your blue apple tree example, my own stance is that the existence of such a tree in your yard is extremely unlikely but not impossible. Obviously the burden of proof would be on you to provide evidence, such as an apple for such a tree. But I don’t *know* that there is no such tree in your yard, just as I don’t know that there is. If I said “I don’t believe your claim,” that’s not the same as “I believe your claim is false,” and I suspect you agree. My point is that the distinction between the two is very easily lost or ignored unless it’s made explicit. I’m not quibbling over what exactly qualifies as atheism, but simply saying that two separate terms are necessary.

  • jdolsson1

    Why would I like a Humanist Chaplain?
    1. Sometimes I need someone to talk to when I am lonely, someone who understands how I think, a friend and a confidant.
    2. It can be really tough to open up to someone, even if they have good intentions when you know they are ‘struggling’ to understand what you believe or think.For me a humanist chaplain would solve this problem.

    3. If I am sick or injured, I do not need or want to debate about God or my ‘lack of’ salvation from my hospital bed. (This is a common complaint from the many humanists I know and the main reason we have put humanist contacts on the Hospital chaplaincy lists at the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority.)

    4. When I die, my family wants someone who will respect their humanistic beliefs when performing a memorial service. I have seen many examples where a well intentioned minister “assumes” everyone wants to hear a rousing sermon about “our hope in heaven” and he quickly forgets to focus on the deceased and the family. The humanist funeral service is one of the most beautiful services I have ever experienced, where the focus is on our memory of the deceased, their life experiences, our love for their family and sharing.

    5. A Humanist Chaplain is someone who is usually well versed in psychology and comes armed with various strategies used to deal with life’s problems without being judgmental about my world view. This is where the biggest rub between believers and nonbelievers exists. How can I expect to get good counsel from a conservative or evangelical pastor who thinks I am going to hell because I don’t believe Jesus was a God or who thinks that acceptance and belief in a particular deity is the best remedy to a problem I may be experiencing?

    6. When my children get married I know at least one of them wants a humanistic ceremony. There is no need to ask for a blessing from God in her view. She, and her husband to be, understands the beauty of two people pledging their lives to each other. If we ask a Christian m

  • amelia45

    I have to admit I am having a hard time putting my mind around the idea of a chaplain for those who are atheist or secularists. Very stupidly and unfairly, I realize I think of either as a loner, someone with no place to go to discuss big-sky questions like right and wrong, good and bad, mortality and immortality. Or, I think those who have those labels have no set of shared “beliefs”/truisms/tenets around which a common label can be used so how can there be a chaplain to what is amorphous. Or, somone whose whole internal approach to the big-sky stuff is totally in the head, not of the heart and spirit. (Should I have used the word “conscience” instead of “spirit”?) I am terribly prejudiced about atheists for sure, and somewhat about “secularists.”

    Then I keep wanting to tie down that word “chaplain” as being the religious representative, the teacher, guide, the affirmer of what you can believe in really scary moments. Then I get all involved in trying to figure out if there are seminaries for secularist or atheist ministers so the military can get “qualified” chaplains. And I did have a moment of wondering if they should be called ministers, but then the title is probably just fine – a minister gives aid or service. (I do wonder if the Christian chaplains will object to sharing the title of “minister” with non-Christian givers of aid or service.)

    So, you see, I never thought about this and I have to retool my language and patterns of thought to find a way through thinking about it.

    Daniel12, I think what a psychiatrist/psychologist does for mental health is not the same thing as what a “minister” does for our heart/soul/conscience/whatever it is that makes us explore big-sky issues.

    Hirschfield, you bring up the most incredible stuff.

  • Sara121

    said “I don’t believe your claim,” that’s not the same as “I believe your claim is false,” and I suspect you agree. My point is that the distinction between the two is very easily lost or ignored unless it’s made explicit.

    It’s the agnostic/atheist distinction, knowing versus believing. You can believe without knowing (the agnostic theist), believe and claim to know (the gnostic theist), and not believe and not know (the agnostic atheist). If I ever have to label myself anymore I don’t like labels), I use agnostic atheist, just so I can make that distinction.

  • edbyronadams

    Wouldn’t a atheist chaplain be labeled a psychiatrist?

  • Carstonio

    The idea of believing without knowing doesn’t make sense to me, because it amounts to treating belief as a false substitute for knowledge. If one doesn’t know, then it seems intellectually irresponsible to have the certainty of belief. Two issues I have with the term atheism – it treats theism as the default position and otherizes any other positions, and it’s often treated as opposition to theism as opposed to simple disagreement with it. I wouldn’t tell people to believe that gods exist or that gods don’t exit, and I hope my posts don’t imply otherwise. I just want them to be aware that when someone says “I believe that gods exist” or “I believe that gods don’t exist,” either one of those is a falsehood and I don’t like being lied to, even inadvertently.

  • daniel12

    Makes sense what you say Sara–and I suppose if religion is strongly stressed in the military it would be nice to know that one has a chaplain of one’s own on one’s side to counter the balance that might lean toward the more religious men being favored in the military…

  • Sajanas

    I’ve talked plenty with people about right and wrong, and I’ve changed my mind about gay marriage (no to yes) and the death penalty (yes to mostly no) by conversations with my friends, and frankly, I find it a lot easier to talk about moral problems when you excise the religion. God commanding it so one way or the other really doesn’t lead to a thoughtful conversation.

    Your point on atheist chaplain training is quite valid though… I have no idea what they would go through to be qualified, though, at the same time, what do you have to do to be a religious chaplain (seriously… I’d be interested to know). And frankly, I still don’t think religious knowledge on its own makes you good at helping people… reading the Bible in Greek and Hebrew and knowing all the stories does not mean you necessarily grasp how to relate to people and their problems.

  • Sara121

    Believing without knowing is Pascal’s Wager type nonsense. It doesn’t make sense because it’s nonsensical. Nevertheless, there are religious folks who insist. I think admitting they don’t know is an attempt to come off as intellectually honest that fails. I don’t like being lied to either. That’s why I think gnostic either one is untenable and agnostic atheist is the only honest position to take.

  • daniel12

    “They cannot allow that not believing is not the same thing as believing not.”

    Interesting sentence by Eezmamata. I would like to hear how exactly that is a logical proposition. I would say that believing not is identical to not believing. Unless you want to play games and say “believing “not” is not the same as not believing”. Which is to say get into private semantics. In other words in a discussion of whether or not a person believes in God one says “I believe “not” and say that is not the same as not believing. Actually Eezmamata is quite funny: If he say “I believe not” that is a general proposition of the belief in negative which is nihilism, precisely what people accuse atheists of doing. I suggest Eezmamata not believe rather than believe not…To not believe in God is to specify precisely an object, God, one does not believe in…but to believe “not” is to be precisely a person who believes in the negative all the time. But let us just ask Eezmamata whether he believes in 0 or -1. He seems to say he prefers the 0 to the 1, which is to say he clearly objects to atheists always being seen as the -1 but to be 0 is worse! That is a tacit admission of nihilism! Let us see of old Eez can explain himself more clearly. So far it seems he can count to 1, subtract 1 and state 0.

  • amelia45

    I don’t think chaplains and psychiatrists can substitute for one another. A psychiatrist can treat some things a chaplain cannot – like schizophrenia or paranoia, mental health needs. But cannot substitute for the chaplain in dealing with the soul/conscience.

  • itsthedax

    Isn’t the real question: “Should the armed forces continue to support the chaplain system?”

    Is this better than providing trained psychologists to troops in war zones?