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Thursday, April 28, 2011

Atheist Chaplains?

Our textbook gives emphasis both to military service and religion, so the topic of military chaplains is of special interest. The New York Times reports on a fascinating development:

In the military, there are more than 3,000 chaplains who minister to the spiritual and emotional needs of active duty troops, regardless of their faiths. The vast majority are Christians, a few are Jews or Muslims, one is a Buddhist. A Hindu, possibly even a Wiccan may join their ranks soon.

But an atheist?

Strange as it sounds, groups representing atheists and secular humanists are pushing for the appointment of one of their own to the chaplaincy, hoping to give voice to what they say is a large — and largely underground — population of nonbelievers in the military.

Joining the chaplain corps is part of a broader campaign by atheists to win official acceptance in the military. Such recognition would make it easier for them to raise money and meet on military bases. It would help ensure that chaplains, religious or atheist, would distribute their literature, advertise their events and advocate for them with commanders.

But winning the appointment of an atheist chaplain will require support from senior chaplains, a tall order. Many chaplains are skeptical: Do atheists belong to a “faith group,” a requirement for a chaplain candidate? Can they provide support to religious troops of all faiths, a fundamental responsibility for chaplains?

At The Huffington Post, Rabbi Shumley Boteach thinks through the issue:

On the one hand, it's kind of absurd. Atheist chaplains? It's a contradiction in terms. What are they going to teach? Non-belief? What services will they offer? Non-prayers and sermons on evolution? And what comfort will they offer dying soldiers, G-d forbid (oops! Even that doesn't work). Will they say, "Game over. You're going to a place of complete oblivion. Thank you for your service."?

On the other hand, I am completely opposed to any kind of religious coercion and why should non-believing military personnel not have someone they can talk to who shares their absence of faith? If you're an atheist and you've returned from Iraq or Afghanistan and you're finding it difficult, say, to reintegrate to life back home, maybe you don't want to talk to someone whom you think views life only through the prism of faith. In the same way that it might be uncomfortable for a Jewish soldier to talk about his deepest issues with, say, a Catholic Priest, it is arguably just as uncomfortable for an atheist soldier to talk to the same Priest.

Still it would seem that those who profess an absence of belief can't really be religious or spiritual chaplains. If you're an atheist then what you see is what you get. There is no other reality -- higher or lower -- and the word spiritual is nothing but a crude con.