The Point of Humanist Chaplains (and other clergy equivalents)

There’s a pretty good article in The Atlantic about the Navy’s recent rejection of Jason Heap’s application to become the U.S. military’s first humanist chaplain. At least the stated reason he was rejected didn’t involve reference to his lack of belief in God. The Navy just said it was “a very competitive process”. The other complicating factor seems to be that Congress last summer reinforced the barriers for there to be humanist chaplains:

Last summer, around the time of Heap’s application to the Naval chaplaincy, the House of Representatives passed an amendment that would suspend funding for chaplaincy appointments that don’t follow Department of Defense guidelines, which state that only religious groups can endorse chaplaincy candidates. “Religious groups” are defined in the same way as the IRS defines them: people who have a sincerely held set of beliefs. But while secular humanists qualify as religious groups under this standard, the Humanist Society, which endorsed Jason Heap, is not on the DoD’s list of qualifying organizations. In short: No endorsements from secular humanists, or you’ll lose your funding, the House said.

In response to the requests for humanist chaplains, there’s been a lot of scoffing, both from theists and some atheists. I want to explain why I strongly support them and support clergy equivalents for humanists.

First of all, on the military chaplains issue, one reason that some secular humanists and other atheists oppose having humanist chaplains is that they are against the idea of military chaplains, or of military funded chaplains, altogether. I strongly favor the chaplains and think it is fine that the government pays for them. This is the case even though I am opposed to all ceremonial prayers in legislative bodies and anywhere in the military. I just don’t think the chaplains should be leading prayers or worship services that have indiscriminate mixtures of service people at them.

I can understand them having private services for those who want. But those should all be voluntary without so much as a hint of coercion–no implications even slightly implied that there will be extra benefits or any drawbacks for non-attendance. No one should be invited by anyone outranking them to attend any kind of service that doesn’t conform with their existing faith, etc., etc. In other words, such services should be purely voluntary prayer or worship or devotional opportunities for those who already would attend such things at home.

I think it’s only right that such services generally and clerical counseling in particular are made available to people who want them and that the government foot the bill because the military involves routinely taking people away from their home communities and moving them around constantly, and is obligated to meet their needs. The desire to express one’s religious and spiritual inclinations is widespread in human nature. It’s unfair to people to make it onerous to them to be able to do so. So I’m glad the military takes an active interest in making sure there are at least chaplains available who can be a consistent clerical presence for those who want such a thing.

What is disgusting is when chaplains are allowed to coerce service people into participating in prayers they don’t believe in or into worship services, etc. There is a lot of pressure to conform in the military. None of the intensely conditioned cooperative attitude of service people should be exploited for participation in any religious activity, no matter how rote and formal it may be, against their conscience. Everyone in the military should scrupulously err on the side of avoiding violating each others’ conscience in religious matters. Often religious theists assume there is no harm in being conscripted into prayer against one’s will. But it is intrinsically offensive and should be felt as offensive by non-theists to be pressured into allowing someone else to petition a deity on your behalf when you do not believe in or acknowledge that deity.

Corporate prayer is not personal prayer. It’s speaking to a deity on behalf of the group assembled or in presumed unison with the members of the group assembled. Implicitly conscripting atheists into prayers to deities in general, or conscripting members of different religions into sectarian prayers they may not approve of, is both to misrepresent the consciences of those assembled and inherently to try to coerce those consciences into acquiescing to what is said in their name. It is an attempt to use their social membership in the group being led in prayer as a way to manipulate them into a distinctly religious social membership. Corporate prayer means something. It either expresses solidarity of religious feeling and belief or it tries to socially manipulate the uninitiated or the dissenter into the group’s religious feeling and belief through an undeniable form of social pressure.

It shows fundamental disrespect to non-believers, and is fundamentally coercive to us, when corporate prayer aimed at all assembled is held in what should ostensibly be non-religious contexts (like legislation sessions, football games, secular workplace activities–essentially everywhere that people of a plurality of faiths might be assembled for some non-faith-specific activity). If likeminded legislators would like to pray together informally , i.e., outside of the legislative session, then that’s their business. If, voluntarily, service-members of the same faith want to meet for worship, that’s fine. If the Christian members of a football team want to arrange a Bible Study amongst themselves, that’s a-okay. But no non-believers or religious minorities should be subjected to participation in religious ceremonies or devotionals or prayers that they don’t believe in, whereby a member of the group aims and claims to speak for them or in solidarity with them when they don’t.

So where do humanist chaplains come in? Why are they necessary?

Some who favor chaplains generally but not humanist ones in specific argue there shouldn’t be humanist ones because the chaplaincy implies belief in God. But this is an ignorantly narrow conception of both religion and what justifies our respecting people’s desire for chaplains. For one thing, not all religions are monotheistic or theistic at all and not all religious adherents are theistic. There are atheistic Buddhists, atheistic Wiccans, atheistic Jews, atheistic UUs, atheistic humanists, etc.

Even among supernaturalist beliefs there is polytheism, animism, ancestor worship, and more. Religion is a diverse phenomenon with no one feature that is the necessary and sufficient condition for it. It is only our Western Christocentrism that makes so many reflexively define it by monotheistic worship of one god (either named “God” or referred to as “a higher being” when they are attempting to be “secular” and inclusive).

The other, more important, issue is that people turn to chaplains as counselors for needs that are bigger than religion itself. While some people go to chaplains for specifically religious questions unique to specifically religious practices, the deeper undergirding issues are usually philosophical questions that mass culture assumes (wrongly) it is best to turn to religious leaders to answer. Questions of metaphysics and ethics are not the exclusive domain of religion. Neither are they questions for psychologists alone either. People may turn to religions to answer them but they are actually philosophical questions fundamentally. And there are robust, millennia old, rational, secular traditions of reasoning and valuing related to them.

It is people’s philosophical natures that are more encompassing even of their religious natures. While a given humanist may have less interest in more distinctly religious ways of expressing or developing their philosophy (i.e., through rites, rituals, myths, connection to supernaturalistic beliefs) nonetheless humanists are no less equally invested in deep philosophical questions about ethics, meaning in life, human nature, the nature of reality itself, etc. If anything, I would strongly argue that humanists are better positioned to come up with good answers to these questions since they explicitly rely on critical thinking in answering them rather than just double down on a dogged allegiance to the crude guesses of ancient peoples.

Humanist service people deserve the wealth of rational secular ideas about reality and ethics in the Western cultural tradition, which stretches back in the West at least to the ancient Greeks and finding parallels in Eastern traditions, be respected as a valuable alternative worldview to supernaturally based ones. The notion of the “chaplain” role should expand to be about worldview and values traditions generally rather than prejudicially (and I think outright backwardly) favor religious approaches to philosophical questions exclusively.

And the broader humanist movement needs to start taking seriously that there is a serious place for expressly philosophical development and guidance among humanists. We should be proactive about plumbing the vast humanistic and generally secular and rational resources from antiquity all the way up through cutting edge philosophical scholarship in order to help ordinary humanists develop rational and coherent views on reality, meaning, and ethics.

We certainly don’t need priests who represent us before gods, nor prophets who presume to give us supernatural wisdom they cannot prove to us with reason, nor pastors who treat us like sheep rather than freethinkers–what we need are skilled philosophers and philosophical advisers who simply help us think through our distinctly philosophical intellectual questions and our everyday problems that arise because of philosophical issues rather than psychological problems.

Not every dilemma people face arises because there is something psychologically wrong with them. Not every choice needs to be considered from a primarily psychological perspective. How we develop our values and apply them in situations is a philosophical challenge for all of us and should be undertaken with due seriousness and rigor of deliberation, including by and for those who are psychologically as healthy as can be.

This is why I have recently gotten involved with what’s known as “philosophical practice” or “philosophical counseling” and personally offer philosophical advice services. Not because I presume myself to be some sort of shaman or conduit of supernaturalistic wisdom. Nothing could be further from the truth. It’s just because the tools of philosophical methods of reasoning and the wisdom of the philosophical tradition, both old and current, are not only deeply applicable to but necessary for people’s lives. While any number of people can reason through such issues informally and do a fine job without professional help. It is seriously irresponsible not to have anyone dedicated to helping those who want some help with some of the most fundamental and difficult questions of life.

Unfortunately, too many people are culturally conditioned to turn to supernaturalist traditionalists to answer the most important questions of life. Humanists need to fly the banner that offers philosophical answers to philosophical questions and psychological answers to psychological questions as a clear alternative to those who offer religious answers to everything.

Finally, military service people often worry about the stigmas of going for psychological help. Those stigmas need to be removed. People with real psychological traumas are suffering for their entire lifetimes or even killing themselves at heart-sinking rates because they’re not getting psychological help for psychological problems In the meantime, if they are afraid to talk to psychologists but know they have confidentiality and no stigmas when it comes to seeing chaplains, they need chaplains they can trust and who will speak to them within a worldview and values that make sense to them. That means humanists need and deserve humanist chaplains who won’t make them uncomfortable. That also means all service people need the kind of chaplains who don’t violate their conscience by holding group prayers they can hardly avoid.

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.