National Public Radio last week reported on something I never would have thought of. Atheist chaplains. NPR, of course, used it as an opportunity to do what they do, which is to breathlessly report all the news that’s opposed to what most people believe and live by. If a story is odd and anti-anything, NPR will be right there. Anyway, here’s the link to the atheist chaplain story:
An atheist Chaplain? Reminds me of the old joke of what you get if you cross a Jehovah’s Witness with an atheist. Answer: someone who knocks on your door for no apparent reason.
You’d think there’d be no apparent reason for an atheist chaplain. The purpose of military chaplains is to be faith representatives to the soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines who serve our nation’s defense. The stresses and dangers our military has always faced caused Congress long ago to authorize a Chaplain Corps to address the religious needs of our military community. There are Protestant and Catholic chaplains who do that. Also Muslim, Jewish and Hindu. In warfare, when our men and women put their lives on the line, it’s the chaplains who stand beside them in prayer, ministry and spiritual encouragement. They evoke the presence of the divine in a setting that is anything but. Even for those who don’t share the particular faith of individual chaplains, there’s an undeniable need for everyone heading into harm’s way out of patriotic duty to be have their spiritual needs met. Otherwise the grim and brutal business of war reduces everyone to little more than soulless machines.
All of which is why I just don’t get it, at least on a spiritual level. What would an atheist chaplain have to offer, when an IED blows up your friend? What support or counsel? What prayers? What service could such a chaplain offer that would even begin to address the sense of loss and pain? I admit I’m coming at this from a traditional, Christian perspective, but it makes no sense to me.
I understand very well the constitutional prohibition of establishing a particular religion, and as a Baptist (it was a Baptist, John Leland, who was responsible for that portion of the First Amendment to begin with) couldn’t agree with it more. It’s the First Amendment, in fact, that necessitates the inclusion of Muslim and Hindu chaplains, for instance, in the military to begin with. While I’m obviously not on the same page theologically with those religions, I can certainly agree that military personnel of those faiths have every bit as much a legal right to spiritual care as do those of Protestant and Catholic heritage, as long as their spiritual care doesn’t call into question their loyalty to the nation.
There are other, stranger directions the military chaplaincy may be headed as well. At the Air Force Academy, there is now a tolerance for the religious practices of witchcraft, druidism and other nature-based religions. To the point that an $80,000 replica of Stonehenge was recently to facilitate the religious practices of these pagan religions. But constitutionally, that can’t be lumped into the atheist chaplain debate. Druids may be silly but their religious ceremonies are constitutionally protected. Atheism isn’t a religion and has no such protection.
So why would anyone even consider an atheist chaplaincy? Army Captain Ryan Jean from Ft. Meade, Maryland, a spokesman for the atheists, described his group’s drive for a chaplaincy to the Baltimore Sun: “It shows that we're not going to be silent and go away," he said. "It shows that we are a community with real needs. It shows that the chaplaincy by its very nature is not meeting those needs — and, I would argue, is inherently incapable of properly meeting those needs without some sort of liaison."
Captain Ryan reveals the real reason for an atheist chaplaincy. It has nothing to do with spiritual needs. Atheists don’t accept the existence of the human spirit to begin with. Instead, what they’re yearning for is recognition. For them, it’s a human rights issue more than a constitutional issue.
The military authorities—to their credit—have no comment regarding Captain Jean’s group’s request. Thank goodness. Maybe some adult thinking will finally start to emerge regarding our nation’s perspective on religion.