Premarital Counseling in the Military Should Not be Based on Christian Beliefs

The Military Association of Atheists & Freethinkers (MAAF) has posted two articles regarding premarital counseling in the military.

The concern is that chaplains 1) don’t understand or accept nontheists enough to provide proper counseling and 2) may be prone to religious bias in counseling programs that should be secular.

The Army, for example, has Strong Bonds, its family counseling program, as $100 million foundational program of the chaplaincy and the Army. Family counseling for deployment stress (FOCUS) and other resources outside the chaplaincy do exist, but the chaplains are recognized as the default resource. While this article isn’t an in-depth review of military family counseling, suffice it to say that the chaplains do handle marriage counseling at the Defense Language Institute (DLI).

The Defense Language Institute has mandatory counseling programs and several MAAF members have complained about the programs there. MAAF took the opportunity to highlight those programs as a case in point on chaplain-run counseling programs and the legitimate uncertainty and difficulty in reforming programs. As I noted in an earlier article on suicide prevention, counseling professionals are in short supply in the military. Chaplains often have counseling experience and credentials and may, with care, be able to reliably fill in. But problems do exist.

One MAAF member reported that his concerns about the religious nature of counseling were dismissed: “Freedom of religion doesn’t mean freedom from religion.” Another member reported direct discrimination: “We were told that we needed to ‘get right with god’ or we would be going to hell.” The training being used was Gary Smalley‘s “Hidden Keys to Loving Relationships” which was reported to be religious in nature.

MAAF contacted chaplains and leadership at the Language Institute to ask about the program. To their credit, the chaplains took time to review the program and found in their review that the program was not overtly evangelical. While not admitting fault, they expressed regret if any chaplain had dismissed or proselytized MAAF members as reported.

MAAF also reviewed the Smalley program and found that it was not overly evangelical but that there was a strong emphasis on stereotypical gender roles. Gary Smalley and his family develop and run the program but have limited counseling or psychological credentials, relying primarily on degrees or honorary degrees from universities that explicitly integrate or even prioritize Christian beliefs in counseling. MAAF reviewed and suggested an alternative approach — Prepare/Enrich — which seems to be more scientifically based while also providing accommodation for personal beliefs and values with optional modules.

We believe that atheists in the military should have access to premarital counselors just as religious people do — and that the counseling should be scientifically sound, not based on one group’s religious beliefs.

About Jason Torpy

**Comments at Friendly Atheist do not necessarily reflect the official policy or positions of the Military Association of Atheists & Freethinkers are any other organizations.** Jason Torpy serves as President of the Military Association of Atheists & Freethinkers (MAAF), a nonprofit community for atheists and humanists in the military. MAAF also educates military leaders about the needs of nontheists and advocates where necessary. Jason is a former Army Captain and Iraq veteran with a Bachelor of Science degree from West Point and an MBA from The Ohio State University.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jadelackey Jade Lackey

    Thankfully, we managed to bypass this step before our wedding.  Our branch is trying to make it mandatory prior to marriage. Which I do understand, many marriages don’t last long in here. (we are considered odd since we are 4yrs into a happy marriage)

       Long story short: If you an put atheist on your dogtags, they should have someone for you to get advice from with out the religion attached.

  • http://www.hitchslap.blogspot.com/ Gav Davies

    Surely, whether the counselling is mandatory or not, the couple should be given a choice of counselling they would like to receive? If you want Christian based counselling, tick the box, if you don’t want any religion involved, tick another. Any counselling, like any other area of life, should include choice.

  • http://patheos.com/blogs/confessionsofapagansoccermom/ krisbradley

    While not an atheist, I’m definitely not a Christian, either.  I married a military man almost 18 years ago and participated in the required counseling via the chaplain that married us (in a military chapel, because the price was right, lol).  

    Even almost 20 years ago, the chaplain was open, accepting and tried his best (with very little understanding of my beliefs at first) to work with us.  It’s a shame that not all military couples can’t experience it the same way.

  • http://twitter.com/moother moother

    this is one of those stories that really make me smirk at religious stupidity.

  • ASailor

    If i went to a chaplain and he said i had to “get right with god” i would say “sir, i’m just as offended by that statement as you would be if i said you had to ‘get right with satan’”


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