For 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.
Notably, 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.