Anti-Humanist Chaplain Vote in the House Has a Lesson For Us

July 26, 2013

By a 253 to 173 vote, the U. S. House of Representatives passed an amendment to H. R. 2397, the defense authorization bill, that will block the appointment of humanist chaplains in the military. Most in the movement have been outraged (Secular Coalition for America executive director Edwina Rogers praised the Congressfolk who voted against the bill; follow the link at the bottom of this post). I follow a different drummer. By forbidding humanist chaplains, the House majority has reminded us of something important about chaplaincy -- and about religion itself -- something that I fear too many humanists have been willing to overlook in their recent "Ooooh, we want to be chaplains too!" enthusiasm.

Here it is: Chaplaincy is religious, and religion is inherently exclusivistic. Humanists (or at least secular humanists) aren't religious, therefore they can't be chaplains. As Homer Simpson might say, D'oh -- how did we manage to forget that?

Further, since the chaplaincy is inherently religious, chaplains can't aid the swelling number of service members who live without religion. They shouldn't even try. In fact, religious chaplains (which is to say, all chaplains) ought to be forbidden to come anywhere near a service member who is nonreligious. That means that current military rules that compel service members to turn to the unit chaplain for secular functions such as counseling deeply violate the rights of service members who are nonreligious.

As I see it, the problem is not that humanists and atheists can't be chaplains. The problem is that service members who are humanist and atheists can't avoid chaplains. Instead of pressing for humanist chaplains, we should be pressing for every service member, religious or otherwise, to be able to access professional mental health services without stigma and without having to go through the clergyperson assigned to his or her unit. And it should be made clear once and for all that chaplains are for the religious and only for the religious. (Actually government shouldn't be in the business of hiring chaplains at all, but for the moment I'll focus on the smaller of two impossible missions.)

Let's say that again: Chaplains are for the religious and only for the religious. That's the lesson that House majority sent, and they sent it loud and clear. Religion as they understand it is inherently bigoted, the role of chaplains is to transmit and model that bigotry, and that's the way they like it.

 So tell me again, if that's what chaplaincy is, why did anyone in our movement want humanists to be chaplains?