Contrary to the old adage, there really are 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 US 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 US 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.