Humanist Chaplains in the Military?

My friend Greg Epstein, also the Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University, has written a piece for the On Faith blog about the need for Humanist/atheist chaplains in the military.

He writes that the non-religious are not trying to eliminate religion from the military. Certainly, anyone can practice their faith as they wish. What we are against is proselytization of one particular faith over other faiths or no faith.

… we simply [ask] legislators to eliminate any publicly funded religious proselytizing, and to ensure that non-religious soldiers are not systematically discriminated against or denied opportunities that their religious counterparts are awarded. If the military can take care of these basic conditions, Humanists or other nontheists like me will get along with it just fine.

Greg also answers the question of why taxpayer-funded chaplains are in the military in the first place. Isn’t that a violation of church and state?:

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?

So what about the rest of us, who have no need for supernatural or religious-based explanations for those big questions?

That’s where Humanist chaplains in the military would come in handy:

If the military is going to serve its soldiers fairly, the time has long since come to do more to reach out to this [non-religious] population. Why not take a bold step and recruit Humanist chaplains for all branches of the armed forces? There are plenty of gifted people graduating from places like Harvard Divinity School who are Humanists and yet would like to work in the ministry, but are unsure what kind of job would be available for them.

Perhaps we should call on the US armed forces to make a good faith effort to hire Humanist chaplains proportional to their numbers of Humanist, atheist, agnostic and non-religious servicemen and women within the next five years. I’d happily volunteer to consult with the armed forces and help them identify qualified, energetic, patriotic candidates for such positions—not to volunteer them, but some of my students at Harvard would be perfect. Maybe you know someone who would be too.

I know there are members of the Armed Forces who read this blog.

I’m curious what they think about this idea. Would they make use the Humanist Chaplains if provided? Would they care either way?

Do those of you not in the military think this is a worthwhile goal to pursue?

  • Todd

    I don’t. I think Atheist (or even Humanist) Chaplain is an oxymoron, and it adds weight to argument that atheism is “just another religion”. But YMMV, and those serving, of course, might disagree.

  • Adrian

    I’m inclined to say that if there are anyone serving in the military who want someone to talk to for any reason – Chaplain, counsellor, whatever – they should be able to. If Christians have this resource, then everyone should.

    I sympathize with Todd’s comment about terminology, but let’s face it, the Christian Chaplain got snuck in due to some questionable wording interpretations and if this door is open, why shouldn’t others walk through as well?

  • Ron in Houston

    My first thought was also that it’s an oxymoron. I think the military’s money would be better spent on policing their existing rules against discrimination. However, as Todd said, I’m not in the military.

  • Todd

    Oh, I definitely agree that someone should be available. It’s the word chaplain I object to, but hell, I don’t even know what a chaplain really is. I’ve always assumed it to imply clergy, but I might be wrong there.

  • Siamang

    I’m actually surprised that there aren’t humanist chaplains in the military.

  • ubi dubius

    I am a veteran and an atheist. My last attempt to attend church services was while I was in uniform and a Pentecostal minister from a different battalion gave the sermon. I was done after that. My own chaplain was a catholic priest and a well-liked and important part of my combat battalion. A good chaplain can speak to the commander on behalf of the soldiers like nobody else can. A chaplain can also help keep morale up.

    A good chaplain also has to be able to set aside his (or her) own religion’s path to salvation/nirvana/valhalla and work with each soldier to make him (or her) stronger in the soldier’s own faith. Many chaplains today seem to be having a problem with this.

    One of the reasons there is a problem is that ministers from the religious left are less likely to be willing to work with the military (two college friends of mine who are now ministers thought my participation in ROTC was horrible, just horrible, one called me a “baby-killer”). The religious right is much more comfortable with participating in the military. So, military chaplains are disproportionately from the more fundamentialist side of religion.

    The Army has a few rabbis, and I believe at least one moslem chaplain, and there was fight a few years ago about whether to allow a wiccan chaplain. I don’t recall how it came out. Humanist chaplains should try to become military chaplains. I think it would be a wonderful addition, or at least we can have a wonderful fight if the military says “no”.

  • Randy

    The chaplins I dealt with in the Navy filled more of a counsellor role. The held services on Sunday if you wanted to attend (the whole ship was “off” on Sundays). They dealt with the Red Cross, sent families news letters, etc. Our chaplin was also on the quarter deck as we were leaving to play in the Phillipines. He was handing out condoms and saying “have fun, be careful”.

  • ubi dubius

    From the Army recruiting website:

    To be an Officer in the Army Chaplain Corps, you must obtain an ecclesiastical endorsement from your faith group. This endorsement should certify that you are:

    A clergy person in your denomination or faith group.

    Qualified spiritually, morally, intellectually and emotionally to serve as a Chaplain in the Army.

    Sensitive to religious pluralism and able to provide for the free exercise of religion by all military personnel, their family members and civilians who work for the Army.

    Possess a baccalaureate degree of not less than 120 semester hours.

    Pursuing or possess a graduate degree in theological or religious studies, plus have earned at least a total of 72 semester hours in graduate work in these fields of study.

    Here are some figures from a Washington Post article on an Army Chaplain losing his position when he tried to change from being a Baptist Chaplain to a Wiccan.

    “According to Pentagon figures, however, some faiths with similarly small numbers in the ranks do have chaplains. Among the nearly 2,900 clergy on active duty are 41 Mormon chaplains for 17,513 Mormons in uniform, 22 rabbis for 4,038 Jews, 11 imams for 3,386 Muslims, six teachers for 636 Christian Scientists, and one Buddhist chaplain for 4,546 Buddhists.”

    The link to the story: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/02/18/AR2007021801396.html

  • Jason

    He’d be the most laid-back guy in base.
    “Chaplain Dennison, I had pre-marital sex.”
    -”Jackpot, did you finally nail the chick who works over at the hospital?”
    “*sniff* yes.”
    -”High-five!”
    “*leaves with a smile*

  • incunabulum

    I am an active-duty TSgt in the USAF. I whink this is a wonderfully wonderful idea!

    Despite the job requirement, military chaplains are not particularly sensitive to religious pluralism, especially in its humanist/secularist/agnostic/atheist forms.

    You have no idea the opportunities I pass up to improve my marriage, social life and coping skills simply because I do not want to participate in religion-saturated events. People that feel comfortable with one of the major monotheistc religions have an edge here. I will admit that I am limiting myself by refusing to go to chaplains in times of need. But I can’t help but wonder how many others there are out there like me, who wouldn’t mind having someone to talk to confidentially, who wouldn’t mind getting some marriage or relationship advice, but don’t like the choices presented.

    Even if these events are more secular than I imagine, it’s hard to go to them knowing that a) you will be looking at a cross (or other religious symbol) on their uniform and b) you’ve heard them pray before at military functions so you feel you know where they stand.

  • Steven

    Randy said:

    “The chaplins I dealt with in the Navy filled more of a counsellor role. The held services on Sunday if you wanted to attend (the whole ship was “off” on Sundays). They dealt with the Red Cross, sent families news letters, etc. Our chaplin was also on the quarter deck as we were leaving to play in the Phillipines. He was handing out condoms and saying “have fun, be careful”.”

    It sounds as though Randy’s chaplain may have departed just a bit from established dogma – depending on his church anyway. I certainly like the idea of a preacher who knows you’re going to “sin” and provides the means to mitigate the consequences. The Church of Common Sense could definitely use a few more followers.
    If I were in the military, having someone to talk to and act as an advocate would be extremely valuable no matter what their personal beliefs might be. It’s a shame there’s no such thing as a non-denominational priest, chaplain, reverend, rabbi, imam, etc. I mean, all you really need to do is change the robes.

  • Stephen

    I think we should see what the results of Specialist Jeremy Hall’s lawsuit against the Department of Defense pans out. The US military I currently serve in is overwhelmingly Christian. If not it practice, most are Christian socially. Specialist Hall’s situation shows the intolerance and misunderstanding that currently exists and what damage can be done to a military career if one’s “beliefs” don’t fit the norm.

    That sad part is that every single person in the military takes an oath to support and defend the Constitution–not just the parts you agree with or distort to your own agenda.

    If the results of SPC Hall’s lawsuit are in his favor I suspect to see a top fed courtesy “we must be tollerant/understanding of all faiths/beliefs/codes as stewards…blah blah blah.” But the precedent will be set and the waters safer for freethinkers to go swimming.

  • Zachary B.

    I’m in Iraq right now, and while it would be nice to have a fellow humanist to chit-chat with, we really have no need of one. What exactly would I talk to a humanist chaps about? I wouldn’t be opposed to it but don’t see any real point.

    On the other hand there was an e-mail from our chaps the other day answering a question a Marine had asked about why such terrible things happen in the world. The chaps answer basically came down to “The Fall.” I shot an e-mail with Epicurus’ riddle about god and we had nice little conversation that basically boiled down to the fact that he was able to believe in revelation from the scripture and I was not.

    I didn’t even get into the scientific aspect of any of it, and at that point I just dropped it because I didn’t see a point.

  • Ron in Houston

    After hearing from people with military experience, I have to admit it makes a lot of sense.

    I think the key here is a “humanist” chaplain rather than an atheist one. That way when a soldier says that he thinks god wants him to quit the military the chaplain won’t say, “God talking to you? Are you crazy?”

  • Andrew

    A good chaplain can speak to the commander on behalf of the soldiers like nobody else can. A chaplain can also help keep morale up.

    I agree. I served in two different battalions on my last tour in Iraq. The chaplain from my first battalion was a really great guy. This guy would go to midnight chow to meet up with soldiers on graveyard. He went out on missions. And he knew every body’s names. He and I never once talked about my atheism. He never brought it up. I thought that was really cool, because if I wanted to talk about it, I would have.

    Now the second battalion I went to work for… That chaplain was a first-class Dbag. Never knew my name. He always followed the commander around like a lost puppy. I think he fancied himself some kind of combat officer or something. He was condescending and rude. They actually transferred him to a CSC (basically a walled-off gas station and chow hall) to get him out of the way.

    A good chaplain also has to be able to set aside his (or her) own religion’s path to salvation/nirvana/valhalla and work with each soldier to make him (or her) stronger in the soldier’s own faith. Many chaplains today seem to be having a problem with this.

    Right. Pluralism is something many of today’s chaplains ignore.

    I’m in Iraq right now, and while it would be nice to have a fellow humanist to chit-chat with, we really have no need of one. What exactly would I talk to a humanist chaps about? I wouldn’t be opposed to it but don’t see any real point.

    Well Zach, most people who seek counseling from a Chaplain aren’t looking for religious instruction. I have never met for counseling with a chaplain because that fear was always hanging in the back of my mind. The fear that our conversation would turn into proselyzation on his part or even just an argument.

    That is why the military needs Humanist chaplains. They won’t tell you to “pray about it”, they’ll tell you what they think.

  • http://www.agnosticmonk.blogspot.com DSKS

    Seems like a no-brainer. If there are people prepared to fill that role, then it should be as available to them to do so as for their theist colleagues.

    It would be a tough sell for the military to say that no secular chaplains are allowed. I’m sure many would object, but it would be a futile endeavour before the 1st Amendment.

    As mentioned above, though, the best chaplains are likely to stick to a secular themes anyway; it’s the only way to maintain a broad appeal in a military consisting of a vast diversity of Christian denominations, let alone non-Christian. At the end of the day, a chaplain’s primary responsibility, regardless of his creed, should be to the welfare of the troops under his charge, not God or even reason.

  • Justin jm

    The question in my mind is how many chaplains would you need for all the represented faiths/non-faiths in the military, and if it is practical to have a lot of them. That said, I like the idea of having humanist chaplains: their services can be available without any proselytizing involved.

    PS. Thanks to the veterans (commenting on this blog) for their service in the military.

  • Robin

    It has to do with conferring legitemacy as well. What the military is saying when they say that humanist/atheist/agnostic/etc. soldiers or wiccan soldiers don’t need someone to serve in this role, they are telling those people (and everyone else) that their needs are not as important. They are second class members of the group. If they want counselling or advocacy, they must go to someone else’s faith leader and make the best of it. It may not be important for an atheist’s “spiritual growth” to have a chaplain (the humanists may feel otherwise), but it is important that these groups (even the wiccans) are not viewed as excluded groups, because doing that tells everyone in the military that some people are part of the in-group and some are not. Not ideal for an institution that requires a lot of cohesiveness to operate well.

  • sc0tt

    In Navy boot camp (Orlando 1979) we had our choice on Sunday mornings of staying in our barracks room with 80 other guys shining boots and smoking cigarettes, or going to boot camp church.

    I went to a “modern” Catholic service one Sunday because some of my friends said it was fun. I ate a communion cracker (only one ever – had no idea what to say or do… just figured I’d get the whole experience). There was a lot of hugging and good will and no one seemed to notice my lack of catechesis.

    But I would certainly have preferred a secular church option where we could go play pool and look at girly magazines. I bet that would be a popular service.

  • http://mnatheists.org Bjorn Watland

    My uncle is one of the dirtiest guys I know, full of sexist and racist jokes, he has a mean temper, and he’s a chaplain in the Air Force. He couldn’t cut it as a pastor in a run of the mill church.

    Anyway, from what I’ve learned from him, mostly his role is a counselor. He has to deal with a lot of grieving people. He’s not fundamentalist or anything like that, but he’s able to fill a role that people look for. I think there is a stigma about talking to a therapist, or a counselor, but talking to a chaplain is alright. Maybe there’s some truth to that, but as a diabetic, I won’t be jumping into military service any time soon.

  • cipher

    we simply [ask] legislators to eliminate any publicly funded religious proselytizing, and to ensure that non-religious soldiers are not systematically discriminated against or denied opportunities that their religious counterparts are awarded.

    Perhaps we should call on the US armed forces to make a good faith effort to hire Humanist chaplains proportional to their numbers of Humanist, atheist, agnostic and non-religious servicemen and women within the next five years.

    Wonderful ideas that will never happen.

  • Randy

    I guess it really depends on the chaplin, and base for that matter. I was stationed at USSTRACOM, a joint intel base. I was Navy at an Air Force base. I have to say, when a couple of bible thumpers starting giving a resident Wiccan a hard time (devil worshipper) it was the chaplins office that lowed the boom on thier supervisor. I guess its like anything else in life, it depends on the person and what they feel thier “job” is really about one faith or serving all that are represented.

  • Josh K

    The best chaplains (well, the ones I remember at any rate) always saw themselves as counselors first, religious second. They were more interested in my mental, emotional, and physical well being than they were my spiritual. Their religion wasn’t relevant.

    The chaplain was always the one person you could always talk to and have some confidence that the conversation was ‘unofficial’. Scared silly? You can talk to the chaplain. Can’t make ends meet at home because you’ve got a gambling debt over your head? You can talk to the chaplain. Problem with drugs? You can talk to the chaplain. Got a girl pregnant last shoreleave? You can talk to the chaplain.

    Think of it as a relief valve on a regimented, sometime uncarring lifestyle.

    I’d go for ‘humanist’ chaplains, so long as they’re ready to meet the ritual needs of religious portion of their flock. Chaplains were always in short supply….so letting humanist chaplains into the mix would bump the numbers up some.

  • Erp

    I understand that in Jeremy Hall’s case the chaplain had approved the meeting. It was a non-chaplain superior officer who got upset.

    The American Humanists or Ethical Culture might be able to pass muster as approvers for US military chaplains but, as far as I know, have not tried. The Unitarian Universalist Association can act as approvers and possibly has approved non-theistic chaplains in the past. They’ve certainly provided more a few university chaplains.


    UUA military chaplain link

    Wiccans have the difficulty of a national approving organization but again the UUA is a possibly route for them also. There was a Wiccan prison chaplain, Jamyi Witch, appointed a few years ago in Wisconsin must to the dismay of of a major supporter of the prison chaplaincy program in the legislature (he was expecting only christians to be appointed).

  • ubi dubius

    The Army has said that they are willing to take a qualified candidate from the Wiccans. The last person the Wiccans put forward did not pass the Army physical.

    That is mentioned in the following article: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/02/18/AR2007021801396.html

  • Tom

    Why is there a need for humanist chaplains? There are no humanists, atheists, or agnostics in the military, just many thousands practicing “no religious preference” who clearly haven’t heard enough about Jeebus yet.

  • Brian H.

    Interesting post. I’m currently deployed to Iraq and just last week was discussing a problem a soldier is experiencing. He’s in the process of getting a divorce and has sought counseling with the mental health folks; they’ve prescribed him a sleeping aid.

    Let me preface my statements that I am an agnostic. I encouraged him to seek counseling from a chaplain albeit a liberal one as they tend to not throw the book at us so much. He went and I asked him how things were and he stated the usual “He just told me to focus on God and stuff.” I wasn’t too impressed but I guess I tried, we have what we have here.

    My other point is that the Unitarian Universalists are the closest to humanitarian chaplains that we have and they are very few.
    They do in fact have a few theological schools and an ecclesiastical endorsing body – I actually considered it once and it’s been in the back of my mind. To the best of my knowledge, the services have them but they’re very few and far between unfortunately. The chaplains we do often get are not prior service, have no understanding of the military (at least in my experience) and are fresh out of seminary pretty much. A lot of it is the same stuff we here in the civilian world – it’s not much different.

    That said, I’m glad they’re here but it’s not my cup of tea. Some folks need them, I don’t think I do but if there were a humanist chaplain or a Unitarian Universalist I’d visit and speak with them.

    That’s just my perspective.

  • http://liberalfaith.blogspot.com/ Steve Caldwell

    Currently, there is one active-duty Unitarian Universalist chaplain in the US Navy — Rev. Cynthia Kane. She also serves on the denominational ministerial credentialing body and her bio info can be found here:

    http://www.uua.org/aboutus/governance/board-appointedcommittees/ministerialfellowship/112215.shtml

    A UU minister would be the closest thing we will find for a humanist chaplain.

  • http://undergroundunbeliever.blogspot.com Anna Lemma

    The only time I had any direct contact with a military chaplain during my 8 years in the Air Force was when I was going through Officer Training School. We could earn 5 merits to offset demerits by attending a church service on Sundays. I went with my room mate and made sure everyone knew I was there only for the merits. After the service I had fun during the bible study by asking awkward questions the chaplain did not really want to discuss. I was not rude or anything, but attended with the attitude of “You guys really don’t believe in all of this supernatural stuff do you?”. The chaplain decided to give me the 5 merits to not attend his services on Sundays. I could then earn my 5 merits sleeping late on Sundays. It was a win-win solution to both of our problems.

    I really think pointing out that they were paying officer trainees with merits to attend his services must have bothered the Chaplain. Perhaps he was one of the good ones and not one of the intolerant ones.

    When I was stationed at Scott AFB, there was talk about a Chaplain who breached the confidentiality of an enlisted member who confided that he had lied in his background information about some minor pot smoking as a high school student. What a jerk. Even as a non-chaplain officer I would not have tattled. I would have counseled the person to follow the dictates of their conscience rather than tattling unless it was a crime, not some minor smoking of a joint several years before.

  • Andrew

    Why is there a need for humanist chaplains? There are no humanists, atheists, or agnostics in the military, just many thousands practicing “no religious preference” who clearly haven’t heard enough about Jeebus yet.

    I get your point, but it says “atheist” on my ID (dog) tags.

  • Andrew

    When I was stationed at Scott AFB, there was talk about a Chaplain who breached the confidentiality of an enlisted member who confided that he had lied in his background information about some minor pot smoking as a high school student. What a jerk. Even as a non-chaplain officer I would not have tattled. I would have counseled the person to follow the dictates of their conscience rather than tattling unless it was a crime, not some minor smoking of a joint several years before.

    That reminds me of a funny story about that Dbag chaplain I mentioned above. Even though I was at another battalion at the time, our whole brigade heard about this one.

    So our Brigade was packing up to ship out to Kuwait then Iraq. Basically we were packing and throwing out all the stuff we had accumulated over the past several months of training. This chaplain decides to go bargain shopping in the garbage and finds a box full of pornographic magazines… He went ape shit. He first went around to all the companies trying to catch the person (or persons) who obviously didn’t speak up. He raised such a stink that the brigade chaplain had to tell him to let it go… So stupid…

  • ubi dubius

    He was angry somebody threw the porn magazines away? He wanted the soldier to keep them? Dispose of them more respectfully?

  • Jason

    If such a possibility opened up, there’s not a doubt that I would do everything possible to get commissioned.

  • Adrian

    This chaplain decides to go bargain shopping in the garbage and finds a box full of pornographic magazines… He went ape shit.

    As everyone knows, soldiers can kill and die for their country but street-legal pornography crosses the line.

    I can only imagine how little respect this chaplain has for soldiers, and how arrogant he must be to place his prudish morals so high above everyone else’s. Gobsmacking.

  • David

    I have been seriously considering extending my military service beyond my planned 20 years if I could become a Humanist Chaplain. As ubi dubius already cut and pasted, the issue is a governing body for endorsement and even more important, the educational requirement.

  • Erp

    Well this thread is about 2.5 years old so I’m not sure anyone else will answer; however, at this time probably the easiest route for a humanist (as opposed to a Humanist) chaplain would be via the Unitarian Universalist Association since they are already a recognized endorsing agency. You aren’t going to escape the educational requirement. If anything the UUA requirements are probably a lot stricter than some of the evangelical Christian endorsers. A Humanist group if one were to become an endorser would likely have similar educational requirements though with a heavier required emphasis on humanist thought.

    According to their web page you need a Masters of Divinity from an approved school
    (Certainly the first two and probably all are approved schools). However your best bet might be finding a UU military chaplain (or regular UU minister) and talking to them about the ins and outs.

  • George

    Okay,

    So I am a Unitarian Universalist and an Army Chaplain and a Humanist. Yes, the UU requirement for education and endorsement if one of the highest. I would not have it any other way.

  • Jeremiah

    I am a chaplain in the USAF Reserves although I serve active duty. Even though I am a Christian chaplain I will (and have) encourage atheist, agnostic, and humanist individuals in their own belief systems. Two weeks ago and then again on Monday I had an two different agnostic individuals in a counseling session and encouraged and counseled them in the situation they were in. Last week I worked with an atheist individual with some of the theistic language used in the military. I don’t agree with their “theology” or thoughts but as a chaplain I am very much an encourager of freedom of religion (even if includes a lack of belief in a deity) and respect the diversity allowed in the military.

  • C.S. McKinney

    Humanist military chaplains are such a great idea that I would be very interested in becoming one, in the future. I’m a gung-ho Atheist that wants to make a difference for science, reason, humanism and atheism in the military amongst other places. The U.S. military is plagued by superstition and ignorance just like the rest of the world. Our patriots deserve the option of being supported by chaplains equipped with the truth of a rational worldview rather than be stuck with just those chaplains promoting irrational and superstitious religious nonsense.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X