Humanist military chaplain?

The request for atheist military chaplains not only forces us to look at the nature of the chaplaincy, it also forces us to wrestle with our  personal definitions of religion.  And these are not always clear.

According to a report today in The Christian Post, former Army chaplain and head of the National Association of Evangelicals Chaplain Commission Paul Vicalvi states

“Humanism is a religion. It’s a basis of motivation, ethics, day-to-day decision making,” he said.

“It’s not a power beyond themselves, or higher power, but they do have a god and it’s man. Humanists would claim that they have the power within themselves to be whatever they want to be.”

At the same time, Ret. Chaplain Vicalvi argues against having atheist chaplains:

Speaking to The Christian Post, Vicalvi, a retired Army chaplain of over 30 years, said he doesn’t see the logic behind humanist chaplains.

“Traditionally chaplains are seen as a person of a higher power faith. It would redefine the chaplaincy if a non-faith person becomes a chaplain,” he said.

Faith.  Religion.  Higher power.  What do these terms really mean? Can one argue that humanism is a religion while, at the same time, argue against a humanist chaplain?  Is the higher power invoked by Buddhists similar to the power humanists believe resides within man?  Or is it closer to the higher power invoked by Christians and Muslims?  How does one even begin to define either?

There are the historically recognized religions–Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism…  So what about Humanism? Some argue that it has been around formally since  1875, the year Octavius Brooks Frothingham published The Religion of Humanity.  That’s the same year that Mary Baker Eddy published her seminal book, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures; four years later she established The Church of Christ, Scientist and, today, the military readily accepts Christian Scientists as chaplains.  Another fact that has to be thrown in the mix is that the Supreme Court included, in a 1961 decision (TORCASO v. WATKINS, 367 U.S. 488), Secular Humanism as a religion alongside Buddhism (if you follow the link, scroll down to footnote 11).

So, yes, the request for atheist/humanist military chaplains is nothing if not thought-provoking.  It would be great to know what active duty chaplains think about this issue… anyone care to weigh in?


Filed under atheism, chaplains, chaplains, military, religion

2 responses to “Humanist military chaplain?

  1. Frothingham was a Unitarian clergyman. The Unitarian-Universalist Association has chaplains. George Tyger was their first–he describes himself as a “spiritual humanist.” Rebekah Montgomery, a Unitarian chaplain in the Army National Guard, was named Chaplain of the Year by the Military Chaplain’s Association a couple years ago. So, how would such a “humanist” chaplain be different? By the rejection of a spiritual dimension? If that’s the case, then what’s the point? How would such a “chaplain” be different from a social worker? And who would endorse such a chaplain? And they would have to have a Master of Divinity degree, with courses in religion, and sacred texts, and practice of ministry, and experience in ministry. What would they provide for this?

  2. Pingback: “Reckoning with Torture” | chaplainsunderfire

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