Congress Moves To Block Atheist Chaplains

220px-American_Civil_War_ChaplainFor many years, there has been controversy over the funding of military chaplains and the preferences given certain faiths.  The problem is that as much 23 percent of our military list no religious association or preference. While many simply have no religious association with a particular faith, some are agnostics, some are atheists, and some are generally humanists.  It would seem logical to have some chaplains who can relate to those groups. However, members of Congress are irate and insist that chaplains must believe in a deity to be funded. They warm that humanist or secularist chaplains would be traumatizing dying soldiers about being “worm food” and dying without hope.

The firestorm was triggered by an amendment introduced by Rep. Rob Andrews (D-NJ) to the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act:

The Secretary of Defense shall provide for the appointment, as officers in the Chaplain Corps of the Armed Forces, of persons who are certified or ordained by non-theistic organizations and institutions, such as humanist, ethical culturalist, or atheist.

Presumably, the military could order such appointments on its own authority but members are moving to bar any funding for such appointments.

For many years, the military and Congress has insisted that these chaplains serve a critical function for even those who are not of their faith as counselors for military personnel. It is hard to see why a humanist or atheist chaplain would not be able to serve the same function. Moreover, chaplains are there for spiritual and emotional support. A common misconception of agnostics and humanists is that they are not “spiritual.” These sailors and soldiers and airmen and Marines simply believe in a different source for spiritual strength that may come from being human or nature or other sources. They are moral human beings who have the same conflicts and concerns that other personnel have in combat or serving abroad. Countries like the Netherlands and Belgium supply humanist chaplains for this reason. Moreover, many “faiths” are dramatically different with some rejecting any deity while others embracing multiple deities. If the military is going to fund ministries in the military, it is hard to see how it can ignore the beliefs of such a sizable portion of the military ranks.

Rep. John Fleming, R-La insists that “the idea of an atheist chaplain . . . is an oxymoron — it’s self-contradictory — what you’re really doing is now saying that we’re going to replace true chaplains with non-chaplain chaplains.” However, it is not a nonchaplain chaplain if you view their job as assisting in spiritual and moral concerns for the military personnel. Otherwise, you are telling many in that quarter of non-affiliated personnel that they need to see a priest or a rabbi discuss such questions.

Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga., who is also an Air Force chaplain, admits that he has had to counsel atheists and that “so many times people in our world today just need someone to listen.” The question is why a humanist chaplain cannot perform that same function. Many personnel are reluctant to see a psychologist and psychiatrist because of the stigma. Moreover, they are not having any more of a psychological problem as religious members are in seeking counseling from priests or rabbis. They merely want to speak with some about their moral issues who is not trained to ultimately refer to the commandments or direction of a deity.

We have discussed the international attacks on atheists and agnostics in recent years (here and here and here). That intolerance was evident in the comments of some members seeking to bar humanists from the chaplaincy. Consider the comments of GOP Rep. Mike Conaway. Conaway express disbelief that the prospect and added:

“They don’t believe in anything. I can’t imagine an atheist accompanying a notification team as they go into some family’s home to let them have the worst news of their life and this guy says, ‘You know, that’s it — your son’s just worms, I mean, worm food.'”

Obviously, agnostics, atheists, secularists and humanists believe in something, just not what Conaway believes in. As for a notification team, the only reason a humanist chaplain would be on the team would be if the dead soldier was a humanist. As a general rule, the military would not send an Islamic cleric to a Jewish home or a Catholic priest to a Muslim home for the same reason. If there were no other available chaplains, all of these chaplains are trained to offer care and support without proselytizing in such circumstances.

Yet, the scene of a heartless humanist taunting dying soldiers was repeatedly raised by members:

Rep. John Fleming (R-La.). “The last thing in the world we would want to see was a young soldier who may be dying and they’re at a field hospital and the chaplain is standing over that person saying to them, ‘If you die here, there is no hope for you in the future.’”

Of course, a minister or priest could tell someone from another faith that they are going to Hell for not embracing the true God. I doubt that would ever happen because such a person would be a monster. Yet, these members believe that a humanist or atheist is capable of such abuse. Conversely, if the dying soldier is an atheist, Fleming would guarantee that his last moments is spent with someone who rejects his very philosophy or beliefs. It does not appear to be viewed as equally traumatic to have someone using those final moments to assure an atheist that he will be soon in paradise in heaven with an almighty being.

Moreover, many soldiers and sailors do not have to be told that they will go to a heavenly paradise if they die for their country. They believe that they are doing the moral thing for their country. Conaway obviously does not like such views but he seems unwilling to allow brave men and women access to a ministry that speaks to their beliefs. They need to go to someone who believes that they will ascent to heaven or assume an angelic state after death.

220px-Corporal_Patrick_TillmanNotably, Pat Tillman, the NFL player who famously quit his lucrative position to serve in the Army after 9/11 was an atheist. Members of Congress fell over each other to proclaim his heroism and sacrifice. However, they would deny him access to a spiritual counselor in dealing with the extreme moral questions that present themselves in combat. His family did not view him as “worm food” simply because he does not believe in angels or almighty beings. He was a hero who led a moral life based on his own beliefs.

In the end, the question is whether we are willing to support our troops regardless of their beliefs and to give them the support that they deserve in the field. Soldiers like Tillman are dying as Americans, not as Christians, Jews or Muslims. They are moral beings who are prepared to give the final sacrifice for what this country represents. That patriotism is not grounded in the narrow mean-spirited views of these members but a pluralistic society of tolerance and free exercise and free speech. For these brave men and women, the message could be seen as either adopt a faith or die in silence. When a Tillman is dying in a hospital, I would like to think that we can honor his service by supplying a chaplain who shares his general beliefs. My guess is that those final moments will not be discussing “worm food” but a life lived well and a sacrifice that honors and inspires us all.

76 thoughts on “Congress Moves To Block Atheist Chaplains”

  1. Gene —

    Thank you for helping with my course correction. I appreciate it. I don’t have enough time for these type of discussions. Nor much of an educational base from which to operate. My time is mostly spent on what is the issue, what are the facts (assuming I have the evidence), what is the applicable law, what good faith arguments can I make on behalf of the client — kind of a Joe Friday approach. Other than instances of statutory construction, I rarely need to know how a law came into effect or the philosophical basis for the creation of that law. I am thankful for the commentators on this post for the depth of their articles.

  2. Oro,

    I don’t think there is anything wrong with your emotional thinking. I find it to be a perfectly understandable reaction to realizing that the Rule of Law in this country has been replaced with the Rule by Law and is on track to steadily march past that and into Divine Right with the expanding unitary Executive. You may not have quantified it as such, but I think that is what your response reveals to me you are perceiving. The difference between the propositions “of” and “by” in these concepts is far greater than two letters. It’s a vast gulf. It’s the difference between “justice for all”/”equal protection” and “justice for some”/”some animals are more equal than others”. It attacks the fundamental notion of fairness. As Tony and I have discusses on several occasions, the sense of fairness is deeply ingrained in primates including normal functional humans with a conscience. That you “feel” your response to seeing something inherently unfair not to mention unjust rather than “intellectualize” your response is not surprising.

    It’s human.

  3. Gene —

    Thank you for your detailed response. I lack the capacity to comprehend all that you have written even though I appreciate your obvious effort in explaining the matter in a clear and simple matter. There are some things I agree with, first among them is Geertz’s formulation “has less value as a definition than as analytical tool.” I also agree that there doesn’t seem to be any clear outer limits in applying the formula. Finally, it lacks the sacred or divine — no God. I’m not sure that is fatal. Huston Smith — who I believe is closer in smarts to you than to me — considers Confucianism one of the world’s great religions, and it has no God.

    I appreciate your high regard for the Rule of Law, but I think you describe the ideal and I think I may have been referring to a debased form. I am a really lousy swimmer and avoid still water that is more than knee deep. I am not a philosopher or academic and dare not follow where you so easily tread. Sometimes I just viscerally sense that something is awry in certain folks’ veneration of the Rule of Law.

    Two examples —

    1. Illegal immigration. Yes, for decades we have had laws restricting immigration, and for decades official policy — as demonstrated by lack of enforcement — tolerated massive amounts of illegal immigration. The restrictions were just words on paper.

    Though the reasons for ignoring the statues may be superfluous, I believe they were (1) cost and difficulty of enforcement, and (2) the suppression of wages. Both the lower wages and avoided expenses of enforcement keep the costs of goods and services — outside of the unionized arena — low and help stoke consumerism. Now that unions are going the way of dinosaurs and there is more head to head competition with undocumented workers for jobs, illegal immigrants must suddenly be deported BECAUSE THE LAW SAYS SO. Seems to me like self-serving, hypocritical lip-service to rule of law. Farm yard bird poop, I say.

    2. Conquest of the America’s and the dispossession of the natives. I cannot do justice to this idea other than to say that I just finished reading Prof. Robert A. Williams, Jr.’s book The American Indian in Western Legal Thought: The Discourses of Conquest (1990). This book and his other works, and John Echohawk’s book In the Courts of the Conqueror: The Ten Worst Indian Law Cases Ever Decided (2010), are having a tremendous impact on my former high regard for the virtues of Western Civilization and its favorite tool for conquest — the rule of law (this may actually be rule by law, I dunno). Almost every turn of the page delivered another revelation of the odious development of the Doctrine of Discovery with the impact of a hammer blow to my chest.

    I think Western Legal Thought convincingly demonstrates that the precepts of natural law and rights are every bit as normative laden as any statement of positive law, and both were self-servingly crafted and employed to LEGALLY dispossess the natives of their lands, even though they were just words on paper. Again, I say, farm yard bird poop.

    I am emoting rather than thinking, but religions were created so that their creators could get what they want. I see the same with the law. And the veneration of either shares the same purpose — to serve its creators.

  4. notonoahidelaws,

    “What an eccentric performance!”
    -King Arthur (Graham Chapman) in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”

  5. One issue here is that, while Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and others are recognized as religions, atheism, agnosticism, and humanism are not; they would be considered more philosophical than religious. That, I think, is one of the major hang-ups for a lot of people. To be a Chaplain you have to have a religion. Everyone has a philosophy; not everyone has a religion.

    1. C.A. Gibson wrote: “One issue here is that, while Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and others are recognized as religions, atheism, agnosticism, and humanism are not; they would be considered more philosophical than religious. That, I think, is one of the major hang-ups for a lot of people. To be a Chaplain you have to have a religion. Everyone has a philosophy; not everyone has a religion.”

      This gets a little sticky, because many Christians do not consider Christianity to be a religion, but rather they define Christianity as a philosophy of life centered around the philosophy taught by Jesus Christ. They say that there are many religions within Christianity, such as Roman Catholicism, or the Anglican Church, etc.

      In regards to Secular Humanism, the original Humanist Manifesto made it clear that the goal of Secular Humanism was to supplant all other religions with their better religion based on a disbelief in God and a focus on humanity. In the SCOTUS case of Torcaso v. Watkins, Justice Hugo Black listed religions that do not teach the existence of God as being Buddhism, Taoism, Ethical Culture, and Secular Humanism.

      So it seems to me that there may be a way to have a non-theistic religious chaplain that would cater to atheists, secular humanists, etc. For what it’s worth, many atheists are very fervent in their disbelief in God. They have regular meetings and outline a dogma and action agenda just like members of theistic religions might do. Of course, there are other atheists who do none of these things.

      In regards to the First Amendment, the prohibition is not against religion, but against respecting AN ESTABLISHMENT of religion. Military chaplains might be part of a particular establishment of religion, but they are expected to be non-sectarian in their service to our military personnel. For example, a Lutheran Chaplain might be of service to those of many different faiths, whether Methodist, Presbyterian, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or even Jewish, Muslim, Secular Humanist, Buddhist, or Atheist, if so requested.

  6. i guess any intelligent comment i make on here mysteriously get sent to the proverbial cornfield, hmmmm. i shant bother you folks anymore. it’s been fun, but short visit, chow.

  7. “The Seven Noachide laws are general commandments with many details. Transgressing any one of them is considered such a breach in the natural order that the offender incurs the death penalty.”

    You don’t know what you are talking about. Yes there are Noachide rules in the Torah, but they are merely a voluntary guide for Gentiles who wanted to practice as Jews without being converted. The rest of what you write is nonsense and gross misinterpretation.

    …. of course you would say this above, but you know full well i have it completely correct, the law is the law, and simple to prove. and it’s not from the Torah, but the Talmud Bavli (Babylonian Talmud). and have ya ever heard of google? are the THOMAS, the Library of Congress? like i said, it’s plume easy to verified what i’m saying as truth. but just cause you say it ain’t so,doesn’t make it not so.

    The U.S. Congress officially recognized the Noahide Laws in legislation which was passed by both houses. Congress and the President of the United States, George Bush, indicated in Public Law 102-14, 102nd Congress, that the United States of America was founded upon the Seven Universal Laws of Noah, and that these Laws have been the bedrock of society from the dawn of civilization. They also acknowledged that the Seven Laws of Noah are the foundation upon which civilization stands and that recent weakening of these principles threaten the fabric of civilized society, and that justified preoccupation in educating the Citizens of the United States of America and future generations is needed. For this purpose, this Public Law designated March 26, 1991 as Education Day, U.S.A. (From a web page titled “Articles Concerning The Seven Laws of Noah and Related Concepts”)

    Not surprisingly, the Lubavitchers—and many other Jewish groups—are big advocates of the Noahide Laws. They once actually got President George H.W. Bush (the senior Bush) and the U.S. Senate to pass a resolution praising both their beloved Rebbe, Menachem M. Schneerson, and the Noahide Laws. And what, do tell, do the Noahide Laws say?

    Americans who consider themselves Christian and who stand with Israel and the Mafia families which control her must at some time recognize that they cannot serve two masters. The Zionist infrastructure of propaganda in America, personified by groups such as the ADL, JDL, World Jewish Congress et al are, (if even only unofficially) arms of the same octopus of Zionist Marxism which Americans support with their tax dollars and now with the blood of their young men and women in the military. It is the same octopus which has been working diligently over the course of the last 3 decades to obliterate America’s moral foundations, and is the fountain from which all the poison which presently infects her society has flowed.

    One would think that such items which include Christ being depicted as a sorcerer and a mamzer (bastard child) who suffers in Hell by being boiled in excrement would arouse some suspicion among a rightly (and hopefully, genuinely) outraged Christianity. One would hope that religious sentiments depicting his mother Mary as a prostitute who mated with carpenters and Roman soldiers would spark some sense of curiosity to find out more. And finally, in the interest of learning all there was to know concerning religious extremism and how it has played itself out in the events surrounding 9/11, one would expect that the average Christian in America would like to understand better who is and who is not the real enemy, particularly when his hard-earned livelihood is sent to prop up a nation which has been billed as the only ally to Christian America in the Middle East. Sadly, this has not taken place, even when there are glaringly obvious reasons to do so.

  8. this is only to bury the “J” word, that’s all this is. and full of crap, crap i say, full to the brim. but love the intelligent arguments with big words and all. but yet i don’t got no formal learning, for us christian are simple folk.

  9. An act to prohibit “atheist Chaplains” is probably someone having a keen eye to spot an instigation of BS and block it. It sounds nothing more than some more atheist BS to stir up trouble or chip away more at the military and their opportunity to visit real Chaplains.

    What would be the point of going to an “atheist Chaplain”? That would be like taking your car to a service station that has been closed and abandoned for years.

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