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July 31, 2013

Should the U.S. Military Provide Atheist Chaplains?

Soldiers pray with a chaplain in Afghanistan. (Photo credit: National Public Radio)

By Alexander Griswold (@HashtagGriswold)

Religious opponents have often framed gay marriage as a redefinition of a term that for millennia has meant a union of a man and a woman. But in the wake of two major Supreme Court decisions on gay marriage, religious Americans ought to take note of another political battle being waged over whether to redefine another state-recognized religious institution: military chaplains.

Last month, Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO) introduced an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that would have allowed for atheist and humanist military chaplains. The amendment was voted down largely on party lines, and just this past week the House approved an amendment codifying the existing military requirement that all military chaplains are endorsed by a religious organization. According to the bill’s sponsor Rep. John Fleming (R-LA), “The notion of an atheist chaplain is nonsensical; it’s an oxymoron,”

A cursory search of easily available online dictionaries shows that Rep. Fleming is correct. The relevant Merriam-Webster definition claims a chaplain is “a clergyman officially attached to a branch of the military, to an institution, or to a family or court.” The American Heritage Dictionary defines ‘chaplain’ as “A member of the clergy attached to a branch of the armed forces. “ Collins English Dictionary is even more restrictive than most definitions, specifying that a chaplain is a “Christian clergyman.” All definitions accept that a chaplain is first and foremost a member of the clergy. And who’s ever heard of an atheist clergyman?

Pushes for irreligious chaplains don’t just change the traditional definition of what a chaplain is; it clashes completely with their function within the military. The military has counselors and psychologists that soldiers can bring their troubles to and ask for advice. But the military employs chaplains recognizing that religious troops often require spiritual and religious counseling consistent with their personal beliefs. Chaplains also preside over religious ceremonies, such as masses and weddings, and take confessions. The constitutionality of chaplaincy has always been justified by the need for religious Americans to take part in these rituals when stationed with the Armed Forces.

The very concept of chaplaincy is cloaked in the idea of religious belief and orthodoxy. It is difficult to even conceive of a function an atheist chaplain could provide that the Armed Forces’ secular services can’t provide. How many atheists really desire an irreligious thought leader to preside over their weddings? How many of them cannot bear to have a conversation with a therapist without constant invocations of “And of course, there is no God”?

There’s also the inconvenient fact that self-described atheists make up a minute part of the Armed Forces. Department of Defense statistics place the number of atheists at 9,600 out of an active-duty force of 1.4 million, or 0.7 percent of the United States Armed Forces. Proponents of nontheistic chaplains have pointed to the more than 20 percent of military personnel, who say they have “no religious preference.” But “no religious preference” does not a disbeliever make. If military personnel without religious preferences are anything like the “nones” in Pew’s 2012 religious affiliation survey, over two-thirds believe in God (including 30 percent who are “absolutely certain” of His existence) and 41 percent pray at least once a month.

With little demand and virtually no supply (right now, there is one chaplain awaiting approval, sponsored by the Humanist Society), why are many people pushing the idea of nontheistic chaplains? Most proponents see it as a simple matter of fairness and religious equality. But these arguments would only work if there were no limit to the amount of chaplains the military chooses. When a finite amount of resources is set aside for the hiring of military chaplains, the exclusion or minimization of some religious traditions is inevitable. The military cannot be expected to cater to every conceivable religion when doing so keeps out chaplains that are actually needed for religious purposes. Especially if the unrepresented religion lacks any sort of rituals, doctrine, or sacraments.

So to reiterate, progressives in Congress are pushing for chaplains who contradict the longstanding definition and purpose of military chaplains to cater to a very small percentage of soldiers in a manner that secular counselors almost certainly already can. I think it’s pretty clear the push for these chaplains has little to do with a concern for our soldiers or sound military policy and everything to do with creating larger acceptance of irreligion. As in debates over Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and women in combat positions, it seems that once again the military is treated as just another frontier in the battle for acceptance of liberal constituencies.


  • Gabe

    Can you imagine an atheist chaplain administering last rites?

    “Well, you’ve had a good run. You’ll be passing into nothing.”

    Or as they are deployed into battle?

    “Remember, men, you are on your own! There is no one watching over you and you have yourself to rely on. Go with…er, you!”

  • Greg Paley

    Once you devalue words, you devalue everything. A generation ago, if you used terms like “gay marriage” or “atheist chaplains,” people would fit you with a straitjacket. Now, everything is up for grabs. Why not “four-sided triangle” or “hot iceberg”? Fill people’s heads up with nonsense 24/7, and look what happens.

  • Richard Maloney

    “But the military employs chaplains recognizing that religious troops often require spiritual and religious counseling consistent with their personal beliefs. Chaplains also preside over religious ceremonies, such as masses and weddings, and take confessions.”

    Because atheists don’t do these things already–better, even, since atheists typically understand theology far better than believers? Mr. Griswold should attend a humanist gathering, since it’s abundantly clear he hasn’t.

    It’s also abundantly clear that Mr. Griswold has never visited Arlington National Cemetery, where an abundance of avowed atheists now rest after fighting for his right to call them second-class citizens.

    • Adrian Croft

      Your post typifies the attitude of the typical atheist: colossal conceit. An atheist is convinced he’s peered into every corner of the universe and, since he didn’t see God, there is no God. No fundamentalist Christian can outdo an atheist in the fields of arrogance and contempt for people with different beliefs. An atheist is always ready to assure people that HE has studied religions (especially Christianity) closely and knows them better than the believers do. This is poppycock. It’s also poppycock for the atheist to say his beliefs are “rational” and “scientific.” What pushes him to atheism is that he wishes to identify with people he considers cool or smart. He expresses contempt for Christians who try to evangelize, but no one (not even a Mormon) can outdo an atheist in his zeal to convert others. They dwell on the harm done by religions, and conveniently ignore the millions of people killed by the regimes in the USSR, China, Cuba, etc. I’ll admit there may be individual atheists who are nice, decent people – but I haven’t met any yet. The ones I’ve met are turbo-narcissists, marinating in their own conceit, taking some sick pleasure in looking at religious folk and thinking “Well, I’m nothing like THEM” — but in fact he is, because he makes it a dogma that God does not exist (something difficult to prove scientifically) and that the Supreme Intelligence in the universe is (surprise!) the atheist himself.

      Even if I ceased to believe in God, I would not want to be associated with people who worship their own cerebrums. I prefer a big God, whose heart is full of love, not intellectual conceit.

      • Deborah Lynch

        You can find the nice atheist volunteering at the Atheist funded and Atheist run food bank or the Atheist funded charitable hospital not to mention the ……oh never mind

      • Gary Nelson Harper

        That was a great response! I am not a true believer of any faith, but don’t discount any religious ideology. It would be one hell of a thing if God stopped believing in atheists.Literally.

      • Paul

        …you’re over compensating. To those of you who keep on insisting that god is real I have one thing to say to you.

        Is your fear of death really that strong?

        Oorah Marines!

  • Nathan McGill

    There is one important feature of chaplains that this article overlooks: disclosure. When you speak to a chaplain of any faith for counseling, he can’t under any circumstances report what you’ve told him to the authorities. He can encourage you to do so, but he himself can’t. Counselors, on the other hand, must report your story if it involves violence or any of a number of other things. If you need personal advice on a matter that might otherwise get you into a lot of trouble, or if you’ve been victimized and need help but don’t want anyone to know about it, a chaplain is the only place you can go. I’m not an atheist and an atheist chaplain does seem like a contradiction in terms, but you have to understand they would not be simply a waste of taxpayer dollars or an excuse to make atheism “legitimate.” It already is.

  • Joyce Neville

    A congregation without God is just a social club. An atheist chaplain is just an emcee.

  • Paul

    I am an athiest, and am going into the Marine Corps as an Officer. I DO NOT understand what purpose an athiest chaplain would serve in the service.

    With this being said, I am joining to protect this country and to defend our rights. I am joining to fight oppression everywhere, in all shapes and sizes. Stop being disrespectful to Atheists. I have volunteered in various charity organizations such as Imagine LA so back off Deborah Lynch.

    So in conclusion, Atheist Chaplains are on Oxymoron, but why does everyone attack a group of people because we base our beliefs off of facts and reason?

    Being an Atheist is kind of like being the one kid that runs around saying Santa’s not real. You may be right, but everyone is going to hate you for saying it.