The Argument For Humanist Chaplains

There has been a lot of talk lately about “Atheist” Chaplains, and Atheist groups pushing to get them instated in the US Military. Fox News and other right wing outlets are playing it up as part of their imagined attack/war on and/or persecution of Christianity. I know the word imagined can be seen as inflammatory, but that is what it is. Imagined. That is a conversation for another post.

Real simple, while Christianity is by far the largest, most represented, faith group (or combination of faith groups) in the US Military, other groups exist as well. A lot of military personnel think of themselves as Humanists. With the exception of a few liberal Unitarian chaplains, that are functionally broad minded Christians, there is no Humanist representation among the Chaplain Corps. For that matter, when it comes to issues of accommodation and facilitation, a lot of Chaplains don’t know what is needed to support a Humanist group.

Most of the time, in this situation, the answer would be clear. Track down a phone number or an email address for a fellow chaplain that belongs to that group/category and ask them. The problem is that we don’t HAVE any Humanist Chaplains.

Notice something about the last two paragraphs. I don’t use the word Atheist anywhere in them. There is a reason for that. The groups that are pushing this are not asking for “Atheist” Chaplains. They are asking for “Humanist” Chaplains.

There are different kinds of Humanists, just like there are different kinds of Christians. Look at the difference between Catholics and Baptists, or Methodists and Seventh Day Adventists. They have some basic differences in their beliefs, but their beliefs are similar enough in nature that they can all be comfortable using the label Christian. They also share a common set of concepts and ideas that are derived from these beliefs. It forms a common set of experiences and a common vocabulary with which they can discuss these ideas. It is the commonality that makes them all Christians.

The same goes for Humanists. There are Secular Humanists, Buddhist Humanists, even representatives from various different spiritual traditions that think of themselves as Humanists first.

I myself am Buddhist. I practice a Humanistic form of Buddhism. This is to say that I am a Humanist first and a Buddhist second. That is true for most of the practitioners of my religion. Humanism is a part of who and what we are.

I am a Humanist. Humanism is the core of my morality. Humanism is the foundation of my beliefs and influences my every action, and my every decision. It is what provides me strength in times of suffering, and support in times of grief. It is the source of my spirituality. For me, it very much plays the same role as any other faith or religion does for others.

I would like very much to have a chaplain available that knows the language that I speak. One that can understand the way I think, the way I look at the world. One that is not going to look at me differently because my source of morality, my source of faith, my focus on life does not have or require a specific divine entity.

I am often alienated by the very community I serve because they do not understand the way that I look at the world. They make comments disparaging my faith as if it were not even real. They question if people who think the way I do can even understand concepts such as awe, wonder, or even joy and sadness. They say things without even realizing it that make me effectively “Other,” an outsider. And there are no Chaplains in our armed forces that can support me fully, because the military would rather pander to the concerns and fears of the Christian majority than actually fulfil their promise to support the troops in their spiritual needs.

I think the simplest summary of the situation is this: A faith group that doesn’t have Chaplains wants Chaplains. They have an endorsing authority that meets all the prerequisites. They have men and women they are willing to endorse that meet all the prerequisites other than having an authorized endorsing agent. If these people were allowed to become Chaplains, they would still be in the vast minority. Christians would not be harmed in any way. Those who profess to be Humanists would greatly helped. Religious freedom in the military would be improved.

When the subject first came to public light, there was a massive freakout, and politicians started playing the issue to their advantage by “Championing the Christian Cause.”

Basically, those politicians intentionally muddied the water, and changed words in order to freak out their base and use that fear to get more votes. I am not pointing fingers, because Republicans and Democrats alike lined up to say “We will protect your rights.” And by protecting their rights, they meant their feelings. In order to protect people’s feelings, they would proceed for multiple years to stomp (or rather renew their stomping with great vigor) on the rights of others who were not like them.

They would replace the word Humanist with Atheist, because the word Atheist scares people. They would insist that the military already had counselors, entirely discounting the need for actual Chaplains all together. They would propose bills to create a position for an “Atheist Chaplain,” knowing full well it would get no support and serve merely as a punching bag for them to attack to get more votes.

First off, no new positions are needed. The current Chaplaincy has the infrastructure and guidelines to support an interfaith community if they so choose. We already have Chaplains that are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Buddhist (Pretty much numbered in order from largest to smallest group). These are not four “positions,” or four “staff corps.” They are all Chaplains. They all have the same job description. Other than denominational and religious requirements placed on them by their endorsing agents, they all have the same rules and guidelines.

No new position is needed. They simply need to look at the organizations that have come forward and presented their credentials as endorsing agencies, and pick at least one. I am not saying they should just give it away. I am saying that they should verify that the organization meets their requirements, and move forward in partnership with them. They should treat them the same as they do any of the other two hundred or so endorsing agents.

Humanists are not all Atheists. Atheists are not all Humanists. A Secular Humanist Chaplain however would be able to understand the needs and thought processes of other Humanists. They would better understand where they gain their strength, their will the fight, their moral compass.

And briefly, for those who don’t know, and haven’t figured it out from the label yet, rather than our belief or disbelief in a particular deity or creative spirit (in the entity sense, rather than the metaphorical sense), it comes from our belief in our fellow man. We are driven by our belief in the potential that rests within us all. We believe that we should do what’s right because it is right and not because there is any reward in it. We believe that our most sacred duty is to work to create a better world for ourselves and our fellow man.

Want to know what the funniest part is? There is as much push back from the Atheist Community on this as there is from the Christian Community, because they have bought into the same damned notion of an “Atheist Chaplain,” as the Christians have. No, the Atheists for the most part don’t care if they have a Chaplain. Labels matter.

Christians are uncomfortable with the idea. Atheists are uncomfortable with the idea. I imagine some other religious groups may be as well (mostly because of the labeling). Humanists however need this.

Just remember, allowing other people the same rights that you have does not diminish your rights. Disallowing other people rights that you have however does eventually diminish your rights. If we allow anyone to be treated as less than human, it will eventually come back to us.