You read it right: atheists are seeking to be military chaplains. It says it right there on the front page of the New York Times (and we know it is is true because there was a blog about it right here on this site back in February).
The discussion surrounding the notion of an atheist chaplain raises far-reaching questions — questions about the nature of religion and spirituality, about chaplains’ duties and responsibilities, about the reason we have chaplains in the first place. Do we tax payers fund them solely to perform religious services or do we want chaplains there to help our troops with a panoply of emotional and spiritual issues? And just where is the line between these exactly?
No matter what your worldview is, you are going to think about it more deeply when faced with your own mortality as well as that of your buddies. So that would argue for the acceptance of atheist or humanist chaplains who, like clergy, have spent years deepening their understanding of what it means to be an atheist, agnostic or humanist and the implications for the way they act and the moral and ethical choices they make.
But if the military recognizes non-religious chaplains, what would distinguish these from psychologists and social workers who have also spent years honing their understanding of people and the world? Would the difference lie in additional training (say, a dose of pastoral care)? Or would it be simply a matter of a chaplain’s job description and responsibilities?