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?


#1 Strubie on Friday July 26, 2013 at 8:11am

Well said!  Secularists should not try to emulate the religious in this and most other respects.  I don’t want to join the religious.  I want the religious to join us and stop the legislative promotion of exclusionary policies.

#2 doctoratlantis on Saturday July 27, 2013 at 7:42am

I would argue for Humanist chaplains for a few reasons.  The role of the chaplain in the military is often that of a private confidant or friend that enlisted and officers can talk to about emotional problems.  The current situation in the armed forces is stressful and non-religious members of the military face many issues for which there is little advocacy - in fact, in some commands there have been issues where anti-secular sentiments from leadership sounded more like calls for witch-hunts. 

When an enlisted person needs to talk to someone for advice or comfort, having someone with a similar worldview to consult with is important. 

Religion isn’t going away - and while I do think it makes sense to continue to strive for a secular government, it is extremely unlikely that the military would abolish the chaplaincy.  (And I wouldn’t support that - those folks provide important emotional support for the troops.)  But I do support equal support for non-religious troops. 

This is another case of our congress being afraid to do what is right because they’re afraid of not being re-elected for supporting atheists and humanists.

That’s just my opinion - but until the military offers secular private counseling for everyone without religious affiliation as a prerequisite, then equal offerings for the non-religious seems a fair and reasonable alternative.

#3 dmbierlein on Saturday July 27, 2013 at 9:12am

I agree with most of what you said except for “That’s the lesson that House majority sent”. I don’t think, for one minute, the vast majority of the ones that voted for the anti-humanist chaplaincy even entertained that thought. It was most likely a vote against secularism/humanism.
Also, it’s a matter of degree. If our troops are required to get access to mental health counselling via clergy, just where can the humanist go? Why should humanists have to question their existentialist issues alone while the religious have an avenue for solace?

#4 SocraticGadfly (Guest) on Monday July 29, 2013 at 3:53pm

So, rename them. The idea of a chaplain-type position for secularists is the idea.

At least it is for those of us who still don’t have a heart attack about Christmas Day being a holiday.

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