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.