No chaplains in NYT foxhole

About a month ago, I did a post on media coverage of atheists in the military.

I voiced a few concerns about the stories by The Associated Press and the News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C., but thought the pieces were pretty nicely done overall.

Into the journalistic foxhole, I’d like to welcome The New York Times, which this week decided to lower the bar on coverage. In the Times’ foxhole — er, story — there are no believers in God, only atheists. The atheists’ perspective is, apparently, the only one that matters in this one-sided report.

The top of the Times story:

FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. – In the military, there are more than 3,000 chaplains who minister to the spiritual and emotional needs of active duty troops, regardless of their faiths. The vast majority are Christians, a few are Jews or Muslims, one is a Buddhist. A Hindu, possibly even a Wiccan may join their ranks soon.

But an atheist?

Strange as it sounds, groups representing atheists and secular humanists are pushing for the appointment of one of their own to the chaplaincy, hoping to give voice to what they say is a large — and largely underground — population of nonbelievers in the military.

Personally, I’d prefer more concrete numbers than atheists describing themselves as a “large” population. But that lede is fine. It’s catchy and certainly makes me want to read more of the story.

The problem is that, as you keep reading, the story makes broad generalizations without any named sources or data to back them up.

For example, there’s this sweeping paragraph:

But winning the appointment of an atheist chaplain will require support from senior chaplains, a tall order. Many chaplains are skeptical: Do atheists belong to a “faith group,” a requirement for a chaplain candidate? Can they provide support to religious troops of all faiths, a fundamental responsibility for chaplains?

Exactly who are these skeptical chaplains? That’s impossible to know because the Times doesn’t quote a single chaplain. In fact, the story provides direct quotes from only three sources — all atheists.

Exactly how did the Times determine that many chaplains are skeptical? Did the reporter actually talk to any chaplains? Did the reporter rely on the atheists for this detail? Again, the story doesn’t say.

Later in the story, there’s this:

Defense Department statistics show that about 9,400 of the nation’s 1.4 million active-duty military personnel identify themselves as atheists or agnostics, making them a larger subpopulation than Jews, Muslims, Hindus or Buddhists in the military.

But atheist leaders say those numbers are an undercount because, they believe, there are many nonbelievers among the 285,000 service members who claim no religious preference on military surveys. Many chaplains dispute that interpretation, and say that most people in that group are religious, just not strongly so.

Fewer Jews in the military than atheists? That statistic surprised me. In some quick Google searching, I found some links that seemed to back up that claim and others that would refute it. I wish the Times had provided some more details and analysis of that claim.

And once again, we have many chaplains cited but exactly zero quoted. But plenty of space is given to the military atheists “who worry about being ostracized for their worldviews.”

Many readers say the Times slants its news coverage to the left. Trust me on that. Surely I don’t need to cite named sources.

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • Harold

    And once again, we have many chaplains cited but exactly zero quoted. But plenty of space is given to the military atheists “who worry about being ostracized for their worldviews.”

    Your quotations suggest you are skeptical of the claims of athiests.

    This is a story about the athiest experience in the military and the desire for chaplains. Do we really need ever-present Christian military voices as a counterbalance?

    I agree that the fact that there is skepticism should have been sourced. Beyond that I thought it was an ineresting story about non-believers in a military culture that has a well-documented hostility towards non-Christians and non-believers.

  • Jon in the Nati

    But winning the appointment of an atheist chaplain will require support from senior chaplains, a tall order.

    I’d like to know more about this. What is the process for getting a group recognized by the military to the point where it can have chaplains? The story doesn’t really address this, but I can’t imagine there are very many people out there who are really aware of the process.

    Sergeant Griffith said he believed there were already atheist chaplains in the military — just not open ones.

    On a personal note, that wouldn’t surprise me at all, given some of the findings aboutcloset atheism among clergy.

  • Dave

    Whether atheists properly belong to a faith cohort is a topic that needs wider public discussion outside the military. Before I became Pagan I was a religious Humanist with an articulate defense of that position, the like of which most parties in this dispute have never heard. The military has its own culture (and the chaplaincy a subculture within that) but they are embedded in the larger culture and, as with Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, move with peril into areas the wider culture has yet to engage.

  • Jerry

    The numbers look weird. Are there really less than 9400 Jews in the military? If so, that is worth a story in itself.

  • Dave G.

    I agree. There needed to be more of a story here. I don’t feel I know anything except what one group wants, thinks, believes, and expects to get. The only other viewpoint is some vague ‘they can’t have that’ from an equally vague source. Geeesh.

    Oh, and:

    Many readers say the Times slants its news coverage to the left. Trust me on that. Surely I don’t need to cite named sources.

    Well said.

  • http://www.post-gazette.com Ann Rodgers

    I wrote a military chaplains story a few months ago and I can tell you that the military’s figures aren’t very good. Each branch has its own religious categories, and they don’t necessarily match up with each other. So take all of the numbers with a grain of salt.
    That said, I find no difficulty in believing that the number of agnostics and atheists would surpass the number of Jews and Buddhists in the military. Neither of the latter faiths has a culture of encouraging military enlistment, and many young people are agnostics as a sort of default position.
    There is a very simple solution for this. The Unitarian Universalist Association already is an endorsing agency for military chaplains, and the UUA includes atheist clergy. The UUA is also on a recruiting drive for military chaplains in response to the lifting of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. (See this sidebar to my larger chaplains story: http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/11058/1128099-84.stm .
    The atheists should simply team up with the UUA as an endorser, which would also ensure that the atheists have a solid (a)theological education and proper training in pastoral ministry. Problem solved.

  • http://ontheotherfoot.blogspot.com Joel

    He lost me at the word “underground.” Not only does it give the reporter carte blanche thereafter to make up his own figures, but it also automatically casts the atheists as persecuted and in grave danger of they’re exposed.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    Joel – Based on what I’ve seen from the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, I’d say atheists in the military are about as persecuted as conservatives in academia. Not life-threatening, but irritating and in some circumstances career-limiting.

    On the other hand, some actual cases would have substantiated the article much better.

  • Jettboy

    Atheist chaplain? Interesting considering that many atheists that I have read and talked with get really touchy when presented with the idea its a religious belief system; even if in the negative. Considering what a chaplaincy represents I wonder if any atheists can be found do agree with the skeptical chaplains.

  • Dave

    Jettboy, there’s a deep divide among the atheists who call themselves Humanist about religion. The secular Humanists want nothing to do with religion; some of them call what they practice “eupraxophy” as distinct from religion. The religious Humanists aver that one can have religion without deity.

    In any event, the pastoral role of a chaplain could readily apply to either in the service. What we’re discussing is whether the news organization covered the subject adequately.

  • bob

    The coverage never mentions whether there will be special training to be (or not to be?) an atheist chaplain. How do you know if you are or not? Can an atheist soldier really say he has one or not? Does he have to *believe* someone is to have a meaningful chat (and what would a meaningless chat be like?) with one? The atheist soldier is asking for a great leap of faith from his commanders. Journalists should ask more of their atheist subjects.

  • Jon in the Nati

    The coverage never mentions whether there will be special training to be (or not to be?) an atheist chaplain

    For that matter, I find myself wondering what exactly the role of an ‘atheist chaplain’ would be. Would he or she just be someone around who the soldiers can talk to about whatever without religion or a deity coming up at all? Would the soldiers be going to this person for advice or counsel? If so, how would this be different than going to your base or unit psychologist?

    I suppose it makes sense in the abstract that atheists/humanists in the military might want to have their own chaplains. I just really wonder how it would work in practice, and what the point would be.

  • Dave

    Jon and bob, Ann gave you the clue in her reference to Unitarian Universalism. Atheist UU ministers perform pastoral and liturgical functions parallel to those taken on by theistic ministers. Just because some find it hard to imagine doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen or that there is no need. None of which addresses the JOURNALISM issues.

  • Jon in the Nati

    None of which addresses the JOURNALISM issues.

    Really, I disagree. The article is framed in a very abstract way: ‘we’ (atheists, humanists, etc.) want our own chaplains, and we should be able to have them, because ‘they’ (believers in sundry deities) have chaplains too. It is framed almost as a ‘rights’ or ‘fairness’ issue. I’d like it to see it dealt with as a ‘need’ issue; that is, I would have liked the article to speak more to why there is such a need, on the ground, as they say, for an atheist chaplain, and what specific functions they would perform, and whether or not there is a real felt need for such a thing.

  • Dave

    Jon, it’s hardly good journalism to assume lack of a need known to exist in service members identically situated but of different theologies — needs that evoked the chaplain’s office to begin with.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    Jon in the Nati –

    If so, how would this be different than going to your base or unit psychologist?

    It’s a little late, but – Communication with chaplains is privileged and confidential. Communication with (military) psychologists isn’t.


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