Tag 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.


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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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?


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Oxymoron or timely idea?

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?

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Rocking the First Amendment?

First there was the Christian “Rock the Fort” concert on September 25, 2010 at Fort Bragg.  It was put on by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and Fort Bragg chaplains were the contact point.  Which, of course, makes sense.  This was both a religious event and a morale booster.  According to news reports, the head chaplain, Chaplain (Col) David Hills, said he would give equal support to events organized and sponsored by people of other faiths.  Which also makes sense: to give preference to one brand of religion over another would be a violation of the establishment clause.

Some, including the Military Religious Freedom Foundation and the Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, charged that the Army had no business hosting, promoting and financially supporting an event whose intent was to make converts.

Now there is the “Rock Beyond Belief” concert, also at Fort Bragg, this time organized by non-religious servicemembers with the support of secularist and atheist organizations.    It was scheduled to take place on April 2nd.  According to documents the Freedom From Religion Foundation received under the Freedom of Information Act, Fort Bragg supported the Christian “Rock the Fort” concert to the tune of $52,475.80.  These are, of course, tax dollars.

Judging from the Rock Beyond Belief log and Facebook page, the organizers have been planning and raising funds since last October, assuming they would be granted the same support that the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association received.  But on March 1st, they received word that For Bragg had rejected their request for $41,670.  It is hard to tell whether the organizers had also been led to believe they could stage their concert on the Fort Bragg Main Parade Field, which can accommodate thousands and where Rock the Fort concert took place last fall.  They refer to a “change of venue” and say that the Garrison Commander is offering a theater for the concert.  The post theater seats 700.

The restrictions set for the Rock Beyond Belief were “crippling,” said the organizers.  And they are suing.

None of the press coverage we have seen mentions what position the chaplains are taking on this.  Are they advising the command?  Do they feel that, being a non-religious event, they have no say in the matter?  Do they think Rock Beyond Belief deserves the same support as Rock the Fort?

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Call for humanist military chaplains

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.

more on humanist chaplains

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