Sound like an oxymoron? Well, the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers certainly doesn’t think so. It has put out a call for humanist chaplains on its web site, though it is unclear whether anyone has yet applied or whether the MAF has the credentials to endorse them if they did (we’ll look into this and post an update).
There aren’t many humanist chaplains worldwide, but their number might well be growing. They serve in the Belgian and Dutch armies, and three universities have humanist chaplains. One of these and the only US one is Harvard University, whose humanist chaplain Greg Epstein made a case for their inclusion in the armed forces. In a blog for the Washington Post’s On Faith, he wrote:
So why does the military even have publicly funded chaplains? One of the most common justifications is that by taking servicemen and women out of the rhythm of everyday life and sequestering them for military purposes, undue burden is placed on their first-amendment right to free exercise of religion. This may pass muster from a legal point of view, but let’s face facts: it has little to do with why we have chaplains.
Military chaplains exist because military life, by its nature, involves dealing with death. When people are about to die, in danger of dying, or even when they are merely contemplating death as we all do from time to time, they ask questions. Who am I? Where did I come from? What is the meaning of my life? What do I value most deeply and what will become of it–and of me–when I am gone?
Non-coincidentally, the world’s religions are built around providing systematic answers to such questions. . . . . . So we provide chaplains to help recruits, who must cope on a daily basis with a huge range of incredibly painful scenarios, make sense of them all.
In the absence of humanists in the chaplaincy corps, the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers offers to send religious military chaplains information and materials that would help them respond to the needs of atheist and humanist troops.