Category Archives: atheism

Our fragile and amazing First Amendment

At a recent evening hosted by the Crossroads Cultural Center, a young woman in the audience asked  how chaplains minister to troops of other faiths or no faith.  This is a question that always comes up, and, indeed, it was one of the issues that drove us to make the film: we wanted to see for ourselves whether and how a predominantly Christian clergy in the employ of the state served the needs of a religiously diverse population.  Chaplain Ken Bolin answered in a way that reminded us of the many chaplains we saw in Afghanistan and Iraq.  They reached to others out, fueled by their faith to love, not judge, fellow service men and women.

The more time passes, the more I realize how very important this is.  Anyone read the book Christian Nation?  It is a particularly chilling dystopia because it underscores that what we have is so very valuable and, possibly, so very fragile.  We take its existence for granted, but the  Constitutional balance that at once guarantees our free exercise of religion and prohibits the government from establishing any one religion is delicate and finely tuned.  And it needs to be protected if it is to endure.  In his extremely well researched novel, author Fred Rich sets out how, through a confluence of planning and accident, a dogmatic religious faction comes to power in the US.  And, yes, military chaplains play a role in this dystopia: rather than reaching out in faith-inspired love to help and comfort troops, the chaplains in this novel love only those who share their faith and help the government impose that faith on those who do not.

We are so very lucky that the world Rich describes exists within the pages of a book and not in the world we inhabit.  As we approach Memorial Day, we want to thank all the chaplains and all the troops who have died upholding this delicate and oh so valuable balance in our Constitution.

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Humanists hope to get what Wiccans have: lay leaders

“We are trying to work up to what Sacred Well has,” says Jason Torpy of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers.  He is referring to the Sacred Well Congregation, a Wiccan church headquartered in Missouri.

Although the Sacred Well has not yet succeeded in having the military accept a member of its clergy into the chaplaincy, it is a recognized denomination in the military.  This means that chaplains have to provide Wiccan lay leaders with logistical help, such as finding them a space for meetings or assistance in accessing study materials.  Chaplains routinely do this for Christian, Jewish and other religious lay leaders in the military.

Humanists have no such standing in the military, where many balk at classifying non-theistic belief systems under the rubric of religion.  This comes out most clearly in discussions surrounding calls for humanist chaplains.  Indeed, a humanist who holds a divinity degree and an endorsement from the Humanist Society has submitted an application to the Navy to become a chaplain.  This triggered fierce reactions — “The notion of an atheist chaplain is nonsensical; it’s an oxymoron,” Rep. John Fleming, a Republican from Louisiana, told reporters in June.

Not surprisingly, the humanist chaplain application “has lingered for three months,” says  Torpy whose expression indicates he doesn’t expect a resolution any time soon.  This may explain why he has set his sights on achieving what the Wiccans have: the ability for humanist troops to become lay leaders.  In this role, they would be trained to assist the growing number of troops who profess no religious affiliation yet struggle with the same life issues as other servicemen and women.  Indeed, humanist, atheists and agnostics a growing demographic of so-called NONES, Americans who do not identify with any religion and who, today, account for 30% of Americans under thirty.

As evidence of increasing support for the recognition of humanists and atheists, Torpy points to a  petition signed by a diverse range of individuals and organizations, including some Christian churches.  In calling for ” chaplaincy for all troops,” the petitioner ask “our national leaders to assure that military chaplains can adequately address the needs of the men and women in the Armed Services by providing support to humanists and other nontheists and by accepting otherwise qualified chaplain candidates who represent nontheistic beliefs.”

But there is also staunch opposition, witness the amendment to the Defense Appropriations bill that, if passed by the Senate, would bar the military from appointing a chaplain who does not have the endorsement of a religious organization.

As much as  Torpy and believes that non-theists “need  a humanist chaplain who can help them live the well-examined life,” his short-term goal is to gain recognition for lay leaders.  “Five thousand chaplains are not supporting atheists,” he says.  He wants that to change.   First, though, the military would have to recognize lay leaders representing a non-religious worldview.

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We caught up with him at the  Religion Newswriters Association conference in Austin where he sat on a panel that, over breakfast, illustrated to a room full of journalists the diversity within the ranks of atheists, agnostics, humanists and other non-theists.

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Why can’t we speak of ‘worldview’ instead of ‘spirituality’ or ‘faith’?

A piece in Huffington Post blasts the Marine Corps for considering, the author writes, “those who do not profess a religious belief  or choose to leave their religion are to be considered a potential hazard to themselves and the Corps and be placed under greater scrutiny than their peers.”

Let’s back up.  At issue is a Marine Corps document that deals with, among other things, identifying Marines who might be prone to engaging in risky behavior.  It reads:

Screen Shot 2013-07-28 at 9.17.08 AMIt goes on to list 11 categories of these potential risk indicators, including such things as relationship problems, substance abuse, financial problems, and off-duty activities that include high-risk or anti-social behaviors.  One of them has to do with Guidance/Moral Compass. It reads:

Screen Shot 2013-07-28 at 9.21.28 AM

It is easy to see how a loss of spiritual faith might be a warning signal, since it could mean that a person is suddenly bereft of a belief system and community that provided great support.  It is equally easy to see why the author, who works for the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, is irate at the inclusion of lack of spiritual faith as a marker.  Plenty of people without any “spiritual faith” have a thought-out worldview from which they derive meaning and morality.   Interestingly, a study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry concluded that people who profess to be spiritual but do not adhere to any one religion are more at risk for drug use and mental health problem than people who identify themselves as agnostic, atheist or religious.

It seems pretty clear that the determining factor in terms of mental health is not religious or spiritual faith but the presence or lack of a thought-out a worldview.  So would it not be more accurate for the military — and the culture at large — to think and speak in terms of “worldviews”  when dealing with practical, this-earthly-life issues?  The question at hand was not religious in nature.  The task was to identify indicators that would lead to risky behavior.  And, in terms of mental stability, it is the fact that a person thinks about the role of individuals  in the greater scheme, about the fact that individuals belong to a greater body of humanity — that is what’s important, not whether the framework is religious, humanist, or atheist.

Ron Eastes, a military chaplain we spent time with at War Eagle in Iraq, talked about working with soldiers “not of my faith, atheists, soldiers who understand the world differently.”  When they came to him for counseling, it was not their lack of faith that put them at risk for problems.  It was a bad marriage or financial issues.  Similarly, Pat McLaughlin, with whom we spent time at TQ also in Iraq, talked about atheists whom he regarded as models in terms of their ethics and behavior.  Would both have liked to see these men and women come to share their faith in Christ?  Absolutely.  Did either of them see in their lack of faith a cause for concern in terms of the stability and safety of the unit? No.

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Is Chuck Norris right?

Did the military go too far in its attempt to avoid proselytizing to wounded warriors on the wards of Walter Reed?  Chuck Norris certainly thinks so — he blasts the Dept of Defense for a Walter Reed memo that instructed Partners in Care — which seems to include non-profit organizations, volunteers and  family  — not to use or give away religious materials during their visits.

The military has since rescinded the memo, making the point that there are plenty of opportunities for religious practice at Walter Reed and issuing assurances to families and religious groups:

Please know that at admission, all patients are asked for their religious preference and a chaplain associated with their preference visits them regularly to provide spiritual services. In addition, their families may also bring religious material and we will not refuse any religious group entrance.
WRNMMC [Walter Reed National Military Medical Center] provides multiple venues at WRMNMC for religious expression and worship. There is daily Catholic Mass as well as Protestant, Hindu, and Muslim services. Eucharist is also available at the bedside. There are weekly Torah studies, multiple weekly Christian bible studies, as well as weekly Qur’an study. Furthermore, chaplains coordinate spiritual needs for those whose faith groups are not represented by staff chaplains (such as Latter-Day Saints, Buddhist, and Christian Scientist).
Walter Reed National Military Medical Center remains committed to supporting the religious preferences of all our patients and we will continue to ensure their spiritual needs are met.

As Walter Reed rewrites this policy, we humbly suggest that its drafters draw the distinction between supporting wounded warriors and imposing on them while at their most vulnerable.  Their lives have just been turned upside down, their bodies often changed forever.  While they are at Walter Reed, there are precious few areas in which wounded warriors have any control: they can’t decide, say, when to have PT or how long to stay in isolation or where to take their spouse to dinner on their anniversary.  The least we can do is give them control over how to practice their faiths — or not.  So it is really pretty simple: let the warrior ask for a Bible or a rosary or a Koran or…. and in those cases where injuries prevent warriors from making their views known, check the records.  This is basically the policy military chaplains are taught and, from what we saw, it works.

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Should clergy participate in 9/11 ceremony?

In many ways, “Chaplains Under Fire” is a case study of religion in the public square.  As those who come to tomorrow night’s screening in Boston will see,  we have clergy being hired by the State, paid for with public funds, serving our military men and women. And, as the film shows, often ministering to them in dire situations.

When controversies erupt over the role of religion in other situations, one cannot help but wonder whether the case of military chaplains cannot help shed light on the debate.  Several articles today wrestle with whether NY Mayor Bloomberg has acted correctly in making the commemoration of 9/11 an entirely secular affair, with no participating clergy. The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post blogs, and others have weighed in.  What do you think?

 

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September 10 screening in Boston

Follow this link for the details about the free screening at the Mary Baker Eddy Library in Boston.  This is part of the library’s year-long Finding Peace program and we are honored to have been asked to participate.

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School chaplains down under raise Church-State issues

“Chaplaincy is a murky area and little appreciated, so though expressed obviously for the USA and your situation I thought [Chaplains Under Fire] would have some relevance to the Australian context” — this is what Michael O’B. wrote to us from Australia when we asked him how he had come to purchase a copy of the film.  There are in fact many parallels between the Church-State debate in both countries.  Here, it centers around the military, in Australia it centers on public schools, as this recent report shows.

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