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?