Penn Jillette misses the point about Atheists and the Chaplaincy

Penn Jillette misses the point about Atheists and the Chaplaincy October 15, 2011

I still love you, Penn – but I have to rebut you here.

Penn released this video in May:

Penn Jillette mentioned my activism’s news coverage in the New York Times and the Rock Beyond Belief festival (which is most certainly ‘back on’, but was not at the time of this video.) This is a turning point in the push for respect and equality in the military for the atheist community, and he clearly appreciates this. In fact, a few months back he even offered to play a warm-up gig for us when he started tweeting back and forth with me, so he’s clearly an ally here.

However, he’s way off on some things. It’s understandable for civilians to have massive misconceptions about the military.

Misunderstanding 1: the foxhole atheist movement’s big goal is to have an atheist chaplain.

First off, my main push is not for an atheist chaplain. That was a distracting question asked by the NY Times. The real problem is that we want to use the chapels for atheist meetups and we want military chaplains to stop targeting us for proselytism because we are ‘unchurched’.

We are banned by regulations to meet anywhere on post regularly until the Chaplaincy approves our 10-month old packet. (the festival in March will be unique, but the chaplains aren’t even touching it). We can’t even meet in a gazebo!

I’ve spent a thousand dollars out of pocket because we are banned from raising funds until our packet is approved. Otherwise I would have to start a full on tax-exempt 501(c)3 non-profit organization. This would take 8-24 months and $800 just for the forms to be submitted to the IRS – and they might say ‘no’. In that time, I would almost certainly be moved to another base, deployed, or not able to respond for some reason.

Even if we did go the 501(c)3 route, we would not be welcome at the chapels, but we could use gazebos. We would become what is known as a Private Organization. Atheism is not a private organization, and it’s not a religion. But it is a religious preference (the Army’s term!)

Which brings me to misunderstanding 2…

Misunderstanding 2 – Having atheists in the chaplaincy would equate atheism to being a religion.

FALSE. We would never ever be a religion. We are a religious preference. That’s the Army term, and it’s a bit ugly but entirely accurate. The chaplain’s mission is to support all religious preferences equally, not just religions.

If they can’t or wont support our religious preference (by simply letting us use the chapels for small groups and meetings) then Penn is correct, and the chaplaincy needs to be abolished. But it’s entirely within the scope of the Establishment Clause for the U.S. Government to not favor one religion over another, and also religion over non-religion (us!)

Penn, we take the Constitution seriously – and you just have it wrong. Don’t let your libertarian ideas get in the way of my liberty 🙂

Misunderstanding 3 – There are other ways to let foxhole atheists meet.

There are only two ways that we can meet up on post. Tell me which group you think is more appropriate. Seriously, think hard about it.

Group 1: Massive visibility of the regular schedule and support for these religious preferences

Protestant, Roman Catholic, Spanish Protestant, Latter Day Saints, Wiccan, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Atheist.

Group 2: Tiny visibility and an almost impossible hassle for active duty group organizers-

Girl Scouts of America, Harley Davidson Enthusiasts, Women’s Soccer, Stamp Collectors, Atheist.

If you seriously think that group 2 is more appropriate, you need to re-evaluate and re-read. Stamp collecting makes sense, but a ‘not collecting stamps 501(c)3 tax exempt group’ does not make sense!

Plus, it’s offensive that we would still remain ‘unchurched’ in the eyes of an overwhelmingly evangelical Chaplaincy. They really need to stick their own regulation that clearly states the need to strike a balance between the Establishment and Free Exercise clauses of the U.S. Constitution.

Misunderstanding 4: A Christian Chaplain would have to perform Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist etc. services.

Any Chaplain can tell you that this is entirely false. They are free to refrain from performing any service that is contrary to their religious preference’s dogma. Virtually 100% of the time, a chaplain will simply not be able to perform a function for a religious preference outside of their own. So no chaplain-lead ceremonies for the Wiccan soldiers. The Chaplain is instead supposed to point an inquiring Wiccan over to the direction of the Wiccan lay leader for the post (if one exists).

Hence, the atheist fight for the use of the chapels and the right to be atheist lay leaders.

Penn and I agree about this:

Penn Jillette is actually right-on about the importance of allowing religious soldiers access to their religious preference’s teaching, scripture, and community. I would never try to take away this from my religious brothers and sisters in the military. In fact, I even go further than most. I volunteer to work 24 hour shifts every Christmas to let other Soldiers go home and be with their families.

He mentions that Muslims, Christians, Jews, should be able to wear their symbols and read their associated texts. He even trips up his own rant by saying “Just like an atheist should be allowed to carry around a Christopher Hitchens book.” That’s what we’re really fighting for here, Penn.

Currently, we are just targets for proselytism (or even violence and threats, sadly.)

So, why Atheist Chaplains?

Because the Chaplains from every branch of the military wont let us become lay-leaders because of their own misinterpretations of their own regulations. They are wrongfully demanding that atheist groups have an atheist chaplain before we can have our little groups (without chaplains).

The regulations are actually clear that we do not in fact need a chaplain for our religious preference to be allowed to have lay leaders (foxhole atheists who can run the little groups.)

Right now there are Wiccan lay-leaders – at Fort Bragg even! Yet, not a single Wiccan chaplain exists in any branch of the military. And that’s what we want to mirror.

But the chaplains in charge of approving our groups are lawyering up and incorrectly applying the wrong sets of regulations. The Chaplaincy are demanding that we get an atheist chaplain first (a much more difficult thing to accomplish – which they are also impeding).

Blame the Chaplains. Blame the NY Times (who undoubtedly were taking cues from the Chaplaincy, but still – it did focus on what I’d consider mostly irrelevant: atheist chaplains.)

I really want Penn Jillette to read this.

I think he would completely change his mind, and I hope he can help us explain this complex situation to civilians. He and I never formally exchanged e-mail addresses, but I know he would respond if he saw this.

Please help me reach him, send him a tweet telling him to check out this post. Tweet to @Pennjillette


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  • AtheistwithNukes

    What is required to get a Atheist Chaplain? I would gladly volunteer for this. I assume some sort of counseling degree would be required. I can easily get that done after my Master’s I’m nearly done with.

  • Makoto

    This one really struck me as particularly bizarre:

    Misunderstanding 4: A Christian Chaplain would have to perform Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist etc. services.

    Most religions a) require training for people performing their services (whatever the title of that person is) and b) expect that person to proselytize for their religion during said services.

    I don’t expect a Catholic priest to perform Baptist services, even though they’re similar. Nor Hindu or Buddhist or any other services but Catholic ones. Seems like each has to go through years of training just to lead one type of religious service.

    And I really don’t expect a Catholic priest to say “Hey, have you considered the joys of Mormonism / FSMism / Unitarianism / Whateverism?”

  • Zoe

    Don’t be frustrated if you don’t hear from Penn for a week. He took the unusual step of telling many friends that he’d be out of touch starting today. Then he’ll have a ton to catch up on, so it may take a little longer. I sent him an email for you.

  • Bruce S. Springsteen

    There really is only one answer that reconciles all these concerns — complete non-involvement of the government in promoting, facilitating, subsidizing, or otherwise intermeddling in religious questions. Government has no supernatural function or authority, and taxpayer resources of time, facilities and money should be completely unavailable for such things. Period. In other words, the First Amendment, the wall of separation, the secular state. Kill the chaplaincy, ban officially sponsored or promoted religious events, instruct all officers that their job description in no way includes the prerogative to preach on duty. Those are the lawsuits that need to happen.

  • amavra

    To be a lay leader for a religious group on an air force base I just needed to get a Universal Life Church ordination and a leadership recommendation. I am sure the situation is trickier in most places. We were trying to get a UU service started with the help of a few atheist service members but we don’t have a minister qualified. To get a purely atheist group on base would be very difficult however.

    • amavra

      ETA which is completely ridiculous of course and it is discrimination. The hoops they have you jump through only allow for a small number of options and atheist group isn’t one of them. I hope we can get that changed soon.

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