Working With Chaplains and Not Against Them

Working With Chaplains and Not Against Them July 10, 2011

Some of my greatest allies in the fight for atheists and humanists gaining acceptance in the Chaplaincy actually comes from Chaplains.

It’s difficult to write about many of these Chaplains, or other officers that support these efforts. They tend to get worried about publicity and things of that nature. This is one of the reasons why some readers may get the false impression that the entire chaplaincy is out to get us. Don’t get me wrong, there are things that desperately need to be corrected. But there are friends out there, and they are numerous. Respectfully, I’m retracting their full names for the purposes of this article.

Nearly 3 years ago I received a mass e-mail from a Chaplain informing us of his new Bible Study, and religious service schedule.

I replied to the message asking to be removed from the distribution list, as I was uninterested. He refused, but suggested that I start my own atheist group. He promised that he would enthusiastically defend my right to do so, and help coordinate it. Shortly afterwards, I found myself in another country, but I’ve been trying to take him up on that offer ever since. There have been a lot of roadblocks, but I know that this Chaplain was sincere and passionate.

I do not remember that Chaplain’s name, but I am going to write about a few that have also lent a helping hand.

All I want for Christmas is respect and tolerance for atheists.

One of the things that earns a lot of respect from the Chaplains (and other Soldiers) is a policy that I have of voluntarily working every Christmas. Normally, someone gets stuck with a 24 hour shift known as “staff duty” on Christmas. Most of the time, it’s a Christian – often with a family back at home. As a former Christian, I understand how important this holiday is to them. Last year I took the place of Sergeant M. – a Mormon with five young kids.

A Chaplain came in to wish me Merry Christmas (which I said in return). He started to sympathize with what he thought was a fellow Christian stuck at work on the holiest day of the year. I corrected his assumption, and we both talked at length about how easy it was for atheists to get along with religious people. Similar phone calls from commanders, and other leaders had similar outcomes.

I wasn’t the only one. The Facebook community had already been flooded with quite a few “me too’s” and “I thought I was the only one!” I’d like all my fellow foxhole atheists to know that this is an excellent strategy to break down barriers. I’d highly recommend it as a simple way to do your part in the fight against those negative stereotypes we all face.

Great, now I have to sing love songs?

Chaplain (Colonel) Q was the first of them that really convinced me that it was possible to work within the Chaplaincy, not just an empty promise. I consider him a friend, ally, and mentor. He provided me with the answers to my questions regarding the Distinctive Faith Group Leader approach that I’ve championed (later with the greatly appreciated help of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers – MAAF.) He printed out all sorts of statistics, regulations, and policies that applied to the process and steered me towards all of the right people.

I regularly attend non-religious Chaplain activities, and often volunteer to help them set up. Sometimes I just go for the free vacation, like you get when you sign up for a weekend marriage counseling retreat in Myrtle Beach. I saw Chaplain Q sing a love song to his wife at the climax of the marriage retreat. It was extremely touching, and you could feel the love there. The lesson was not lost on the young couples in attendance.

“Where’s my song?” my wife jested. I’ll spare you the vulgar, immature ‘love’ song I made up. We both laughed and remember that as the best part of the “free trip” / marriage retreat.

“Supporting the atheist group is supporting the Christian group” – source: Army Chaplain

Chaplain (Major) R. and Chaplain (Major) W. have both independently said this to me at times when I’ve been stressed out over the endless roadblocks on our path to recognition. My initial response was born out of frustration.

“Sir, that’s 50 IQ points too high for these people. I know you understand that the Constitution mandates equal support across the religious spectrum, including the non religious community… but these people think that I’m trying to fight a war against the Chaplaincy’s existence!” I responded.

Chaplain R.’s response was solemn and understanding, but mixed with a regretful ‘bound by the rules’ hesitancy. It was like he was commiserating with me, truly sympathizing for my plight – as if it now affected him too. Because it does affect him. If the Chaplaincy is shown to favor religion over non-religion, they are in direct violation of the First Amendment [see: Wallace V. Jaffree extrapolation below]


It is one of the fundamental principles of the Supreme Court’s Establishment Clause jurisprudence that the Constitution forbids not only state practices that “aid one religion . . . or prefer one religion over another,” but also those practices that “aid all religions” and thus endorse or prefer religion over nonreligion. Everson, 330 U.S. at 15. See Wallace v. Jaffree, 472 U.S. 38, 53 (1985)(“[T]he individual freedom of conscience protected by the First Amendment embraces the right to select any religious faith or none at all”); see also County of Allegheny v. ACLU Greater Pittsburgh Chapter, 492 U.S. 573, 589-94, 598-602 (1989); Texas Monthly, Inc. v. Bullock, 489 U.S. 1, 17 (1989); Torcaso v. Watkins, 367 U.S. 488, 495 (1961).

But, throughout my activism, I’ve been hearing this line popping up again and again; “If I support you, I support me.” Many of them clearly get it, approaching the subject with a deep respect and reverence for the U.S. Constitution. Chaplain W. is so advanced that you could call him super sonic. He not only repeated this line of reasoning, he and I’ve struck up a lasting friendship over it. I now see him weekly and even helped him put up signs for an upcoming event at the Chapel during our last conversation. I can’t go into the details, but he’s certainly been helping me a great deal as well.

But Atheists are critical of religion! How can you work with Chaplains?

I’ve had to explain to a few people that I may very well say things that are critical of religion to an audience of atheists (at a MASH meeting perhaps, or on this blog.) But that situation is exactly mirrored by many Chaplains who regularly preach that their faith / sect / denomination is the only way to salvation, and that all other paths logically must send you to hell (Christian theology in this example.) Now, the Muslim, Jewish, and Buddhist Chaplains will all understand that this is in-group speak, and is not meant to ruffle their feathers. In all likelihood, they are just as ‘guilty’.

So, if sectarian statements are made in a chapel to a congregation of Soldiers who are there to hear such statements, I would have no problem with it. In fact, I fully support this expression of the free-exercise clause of the First Amendment. All I demand is an equal opportunity to do the same. We don’t have that right now. Look at the picture from the NY Times cover story on our meetup.

photo: Travis Dove for New York Times

Notice the woods? Notice not a single Soldier is in uniform? This is a house 45 minutes driving distance from Fort Bragg (each way). Why? Because we are specifically banned from meeting on post by Army regulations until we are officially approved by the Chaplaincy. I’ve been told that I’m not allowed to appear in uniform because I’m not conducting activities that are Army approved. That’s about to change on multiple fronts.

While it’s comforting to know that our members take care of our own (thanks, Rachel!) we definitely need the logistical benefits of meeting in a centralized building on post. And, meeting in a building specifically designed for this purpose – a chapel! Six months after filing for recognition (three months after this picture was taken), and we’re still banned from meeting on post.

Atheists do not really eat babies.

Sandwich in image is rich in irony.

All sorts of sectarian commentaries are made from the pulpit at the chapels of Fort Bragg every week. It’s time for our sect to get that right too. Large atheist groups all over the nation meet regularly on church grounds, like the Unitarians who host the Triangle Freethought Society’s monthly meetings about 2 hours drive to the north of Fort Bragg. Atheists don’t burn down churches and eat little babies (not even when we’re hungry). It wont be the end of the world when we use the chapels of Fort Bragg to meet and discuss the things that the atheist community discusses.

There are Chaplains in my unit who have gone to bat for me, and even the Garrison Chaplain at Fort Bragg has recommended approving me as the atheist Distinctive Faith Group Leader for Fort Bragg. There have been some speed bumps, and an extremely long holding pattern, but we remain both optimistic and relentless.

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  • Tess

    I think this is lovely n all, but I feel thats it’s not directed toward that fact of proselytising to the young and vulnerable. It’s not about how we get along with Atheist vs Theist. It’s about the kids who are not mature enough to make an inform decision on what to believe. We have very strict guide lines in Australia for chaplains and they are not allowd to proselytise. You have to at least have a certificate IV in counselling to be a chaplain. They were not qualified but now that has changed due to a father who took the program to court. I still don’t think this will stop the Christian from doing what they clearly are taught to do by their doctrine, which is to preach. S.U., stands for Scripture Union, which is one of the groups that provide chaplains to the schools. The other is ACCESS Ministries. (Yeh, they get ‘access’ to our kids) That name in itself is clearly demonstrating what it stands for. There are many Christians that don’t push their religion onto others but where you have the Pentecostal Christian, their clear directives is to evangelise. This is the mainstream of the chaplaincy program here in Australia, 97% are Christians. This is a huge percentage of which ‘some’ proselytise. ‘Some’ is to many.