Why Do We Need Humanist Chaplains in the Military?

The terminology war aside, why are Humanist chaplains in the military so necessary? (And why do we even have military chaplains in the first place?)

Jason Torpy, president of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, appeared on The Alyona Show (airing on the network formerly known as Russia Today, with host Alyona Minkovski) to answer those questions:

In short, the military’s not going to get rid of chaplains anytime soon — that’s a separate battle and one we’re not likely to win anytime soon. But as it stands, atheists who want to talk to someone for professional counseling or want to attend a morale-boosting event have no one to turn to outside of religious chaplains, who often have nothing to offer atheists because they only know how to counsel people with a religious mindset. Having a secular alternative to religious chaplains would help alleviate that problem.

MAAF is trying to fix the situation and you can read more about its positions on Chaplains here.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • godlessnate

    As a former soldier, I have to say that getting rid of chaplains is absolutely the wrong way to go – they provide valuable services above and beyond whatever religious services they provide.  I definitely WOULD love to see atheist chaplains added to the ranks though, since I always felt that the religious chaplains there didn’t quite meet my needs as well as an atheist chaplain might.

  • Erp

    There may be some atheistic humanist chaplains amongst the UU chaplains in the military (though I’m not sure how many of them there are, one article a couple years back in UU World  said about a dozen).    Another reason for Humanist chaplains is they are far more likely to be perceived as friendly to LGBT people and so approachable (the current screams by many evangelical and Catholic military chaplains over gays isn’t helping the reputation of Christian chaplains). 

    http://clf.uua.org/military/

  • PamBG

    OK, I’m a hospital chaplain so I don’t know all the specifics of military chaplaincy. I actually know an atheist UU chaplain and certainly wouldn’t mind having an atheist colleague. The thing is, chaplaincy isn’t about trying to convert you. Chaplaincy is about providing – dare I say it – a human connection in a time of crisis. It is all about the patient, the patient’s family and their needs and beliefs. It is professionally unethical for me to press any kind of religious agenda on anyone and if anyone tries to do that to you in the hospital, report them. By the way, a large number of gay people enter hospital chaplaincy because LBGT people have a hard time getting pastorates in churches too.

    • Anonymous

      I can tell you about military chaplains. I left the Marine Corps after a six year hitch because as an atheist, a closeted atheist, I was  either forced or felt compelled to do things and attend events that I did not believe in. It seems as if things are even worse now. 

    • Anonymous

      chaplaincy isn’t about trying to convert you

      Most military chaplains see that differently these days. The military (especially the Army) is absolutely infested with evangelicals. The majority of chaplains are Southern Baptists. And for them, it’s really little more than a tool to convert people and have a captive audience that can literally be forced to pray

    • http://a-million-gods.blogspot.com/ Avicenna

      The issue in the army is that due to a consistent hiring policy of evangelical protestants into the chaplaincy, a culture of christian evangelism has permeated throughout the chaplaincy. 

      The assumption that everyone’s christian or jewish exists. And hospital chaplaincies I assume test faith a bit more. They aren’t very cushy jobs. 

      I also prefer the idea of a humanist/secular chaplain. The faith doesn’t matter, if the soldier thinks prayer is the way forward and needs help with that the Chaplain should be in the position to help. If the soldier just needs a quiet word with someone? Then the very same chaplain should be able to help. 

      I see the role of the chaplaincy expanding as it becomes more secular. I see it as a massive force against PTSD and combat stress and indeed maintaining both morale and drive during a deployment. Real work can be done through the chaplaincy if it stopped being about faith and became about the psychological well being of the people in the army. 

  • Erp

    From what I’ve read most hospital chaplains hold to a better official code of ethics than the military chaplains; you support the patient and family in their beliefs (or non-belief).  Up until this past year the code of ethics most military chaplains adhere to explicitly stated

    “I will not proselytize from other religious bodies, but I retain the right to evangelize those who are not affiliated.”

    The current one is
    http://www.ncmaf.org/policies/codeofethics.htm
    which drops that wording though is still not as strong as the code of ethics you subscribe to.

    Neither version has military endorsement (though the earlier one had Air Force endorsement for a short while).     Besides the unaffiliated being unhappy, some evangelical chaplains were upset that they could not poach other flocks.

  • http://www.christianfighterpilot.com/blog JD

    Having a secular alternative to religious chaplains would help alleviate that problem.

    You say that so authoritatively — but what makes you think they don’t have such an alternative?
    What’s the difference between a humanist chaplain and the non-religious counselor the military already provides?

    • Anonymous

      As it is, talking to a chaplain is far easier and less stigmatized than talking to a counselor. That’s what really needs to be changed

    • cipher

      A humanist chaplain could, among other things, provide some protection from the predatory fundamentalist chaplains of whom you’re so enamored, JD.

    • TheBlackCat

      From what I have heard, chaplains have an obligation to keep what they hear confidential.  Counselors are supposed to report what they hear to the commanding officer of the unit.  That is a really, really big difference.

      • http://www.christianfighterpilot.com/blog JD

        You are not entirely correct.  Counselors are not “supposed to report” to commanding officers.  In fact, they have many of the same privilege protections as Chaplains, largely because of attempts by the military to remove the “stigma” associated with getting help.

        Incidentally, the “protection” provided to confessions to priests — the same thing which protects those with Chaplains — is based in judicial precedent, not military policy.

        • Anonymous

          Are you suggesting that Jewish or Muslim chaplains do not have these rights, as confession is not part of these faiths?  There is not any legal precedent which protects confidence given to these faiths.  So therefore an atheist chaplain would not be able to hold what is said in confidence?

          So, what you’re saying is: Christian speech and confidentiality  is officially protected by the military, and forget everybody else?

          • http://www.christianfighterpilot.com/blog JD

            No more than saying those without “priests” lack it. Look up “priest-penitent” for an explanation.

    • Erp

      Three differences (not sure of the accuracy of all)

      1. Privacy: visits to an official counselor are apparently on your record.  Visits to a chaplain are not.  Even if you are seen visiting or talking to a chaplain it could well be something other than needing counseling and therefore not noteworthy.
      2. Confidentiality: what you say to a chaplain is generally considered more confidential than what you say to a counselor (though chaplains have been accused of outing lesbian and gay soldiers)
      3. Understanding: this is more within a chaplain corps, having humanist chaplains means other chaplains can call upon them for advice (e.g., if they have to conduct [or arrange if they feel they can't preside] a memorial service for a humanist soldier) or training. 

      In the long run, chaplains might disappear or mutate from connection to a specific religion but until then they should allow humanist (and wicca etc) chaplains as long as they are trained (including training about other religions and life stances) and willing to abide by a good code of ethics which includes no proselytizing.

      • http://www.christianfighterpilot.com/blog JD

        1.  You are incorrect.
        2.  You are correct that only Chaplains have “absolute” confidentiality.  However, that exists because of the unique relationship between “priest and penitent.”  It is based in the belief of some religions that approaching their priest is essential to their religious exercise.  If the conversation is not part of “priest/penitent,” it is not protected.  Why would an atheist need protection of his theological beliefs?
        3.  Chaplains are trained to “understand” enough of other beliefs to refer the member to the most appropriate person.  Should there be an “atheist chaplain,” wouldn’t he have the same problems “understanding”?

        You’re also conflating atheism and humanism.

        • cipher

          Chaplains are trained to “understand” enough of other beliefs to refer the member to the most appropriate person.

          Yes, and we all know how well that’s been working out.

          Should there be an “atheist chaplain,” wouldn’t he have the same problems “understanding”?

          This makes absolutely no sense.

          • Anonymous

            Exactly.  The point of having one is so that any soldier are able to go to the chaplain that is appropriate for them.

            An atheist chaplain is not going to be unaware that there may be a theist chaplain they should point a particular solider to.

            The issue is there isn’t an option for the atheist soldier.  He gets referred to no one, since there is no one who is appropriate.

            Furthermore, the humanist reference is very appropriate to the conversation.  It is important within the chaplaincy to have ethics and morality as part of what they provide.  This would be more appropriate to a secular humanist teachings, than a science based atheist.  I doubt any soldier will have atheist crises that urgently need to be addressed that could be answered by an astrophysicist, or genetic biologist.   Ethical or moral dilemmas are what all chaplains are there for, so a secular humanist chaplain makes much more sense.

            • http://www.christianfighterpilot.com/blog JD

              He gets referred to no one?  What gives you that idea?  If a person needs non-religious counseling, they get referred to a non-religious based counselor.  It’s not rocket science.

              • cipher

                Please. You think the conservative evangelical chaplains at the Air Force Academy – your buddies – are referring young men and women who come to them to anyone other than another fundamentalist? I’d be very much surprised if they would even condescend to refer a Jew to a rabbi – but an atheist to a “non-religious based counselor” (should one even be accessible)?  No way.

  • Dan W

    Why can’t the military just replace chaplains with secular counselors?

    • 1manofreason1

      So what about those many soldiers and officers who want to practice their faiths particularly on the front line which is where the chaplain belongs? I can’t see secular counsellors going on patrol (without a weapon as the chaplain is a sign of peace), and we already have counsellors in the military, psychiatric and none. Chaplains are un-replaceable nothing atheist has anything remotely as unique (and prophetic) as a chaplain.

  • Anonymous

    Other than calling it a “chaplaincy,” which is probably required by military protocol, this person would just serve as a counselor or someone a soldier could blow steam to that would keep his steam confidential.  I see that as a necessary function, especially in wartime, and as an atheist, were I in the military, I wouldn’t want this person to be religious.  Think of it as a really good friend and confidant for whom you don’t have to buy a holiday gift but who will listen to you whenever you need them and they won’t gossip about your problems.

  • M Vanroy

    So how would an atheist or secular chaplain be any different than a psychologist?

    • Erik

      Probably a few years of education?

      • Anonymous

        zing!

    • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/FDGYHBEWVNGUG763L5X4TON3JQ Nazani14

      Military personnel are phobic of the words “psychiatry” and “psychology.”  Mental health counseling in your records is a career killer.  Stick to “counselor.”

  • http://thegodlessmonster.com/ The Godless Monster

    Former military. Chaplains are as useless as tits on a boar hog. Get rid of all of them. There’s no need for secular humanist chaplains. Got issues? See a counselor. The military has those as well.

  • Anonymous

    Quite surprised that ~25% of servicemen identify as atheists.  Like, how hasn’t this issue been dealt with already?

    • http://www.christianfighterpilot.com/blog JD

      You’re referring to a debunked statistic.  The “~24%” number comes from those who cited “NO REL PREF,” or “no religious preference,” in their administrative paperwork.  The actual (official) number of declared atheists is less than 1%. 
      NO REL PREF includes many people who are theists, including accused Fort Hood shooter Nidal Malik Hasan.
      Link: http://christianfighterpilot.com/blog/2010/03/12/soldiers-fellowship-with-like-minded-atheist-peers/

      • Anonymous

        Oh, I’ll just take my references from the fair and balanced sounding website, “ChristianFighterPilot.com,” then. /sarcasm

        Why would ~23% of all soldiers within the military who have a religious background, go to a church, and believe in a god all state they have no religious preference?  There’s a box for generic faiths like ‘Christian,’ why wouldn’t they use that?

        Furthermore, what box *should* atheists be using if not the “no religious preference” box?  After all, there isn’t one for atheist/ agnostic/ freethinker/ nonbeliever.  You don’t get to claim the atheist numbers are misleading if there is no option for atheists.

        Part of discrepancy seems like it would be easily solvable if “No religious preference” became “religious: no preference” and “Not Religious,” or a *real* option for atheist/ agnostic/ freethinker/ other nonbeliever

        (Can’t tell if troll or poe sometime…)

        • http://www.christianfighterpilot.com/blog JD

          If you’d actually read the links, you would have seen the statistics come from the Defense Manpower Data Center, and were used by Jason Torpy of the Military Atheists.  Sarcasm unnecessary.

          As to you’re “why” questions:  It’s irrelevant.  The fact is, they do.

          What makes you think there isn’t a box for “atheist”?  Think about it:  How did the military get statistics from their records of declared atheists if there’s no record of atheists?

      • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/FDGYHBEWVNGUG763L5X4TON3JQ Nazani14

        That’s because when you go to get your dog tags made the sergeant pressing them LIES.  Now there is in fact an option to get “atheist” on your tags, but the sergeant either won’t tell you about it or will actually deny that such an option exists.   Sadly, there is not a “none of your f-ing business” template.

        • http://www.christianfighterpilot.com/blog JD

          Nobody said anything about dogtags.  You’ve only proven you don’t understand the system.

  • Rufus

    I think the Royal Navy (and the Royal Australian Navy) have an interesting approach to the whole chaplaincy issue. Aside from the vast majority being C-of-E (for which read Christianity-Lite (cake or death)), chaplains do not hold any rank other than “Chaplain”.

    They have assumed rank equal to whoever they are talking to, so while talking to a Captain, they assume the rank of Captain (which they apparently do on a regular basis, as everyone else on the ship will have people of the same rank to let off steam to), whereas when they’re talking to an Able Seaman they have the rank of Able Seaman.


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