Why there should be humanist chaplains

Print More




This week the House of Representatives approved an amendment to the Defense Appropriations Act intended to bar the military from hiring Humanists as chaplains — or, as the bill’s sponsor, Rep. John C. Fleming, R-La, put it, “atheist chaplains.”

Fleming’s rationale was that “there is no way that an atheist chaplain or atheist whatever can minister to the spiritual needs of a Christian or a Muslim, or a Jew, for that matter.” I’d like to ask Fleming whether an atheist chaplain would be less preferable than a Wiccan (i.e. pagan) chaplain, inasmuch as Wicca is recognized as a religion by the military.

In fact, Wicca has to be so recognized, under the Free Exercise Clause of the of the Constitution. It’s because Americans are guaranteed the right to practice their faith — and serving in the military makes that more difficult — that the hiring of military chaplains does not represent a violation of the Establishment Clause.

Ah, but what about Humanists/Atheists?

I’d say that just as the government has, since Welsh v. United States (1970), recognized that non-theists are as entitled to be conscientious objectors as theists, so should it recognize that non-theists in the military have spiritual needs that entitle them to the same protection of the Free Exercise Clause as theists.

Indeed, the case for that was eloquently asserted just this week by Robby George, the staunchly conservative Princeton professor of jurisprudence who has just become chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed co-authored with the Vice-Chairwoman Katrina Lantos Swett, George wrote:

Because the freedom to live according to one’s beliefs is so integral to human flourishing, the full protections of religious liberty must extend to all—even to those whose answers to the deepest questions reject belief in the transcendent.

Military regulations merely require that a would-be chaplain have the endorsement of “a qualified religious organization,” and all the Fleming amendment does is bar that mandate from being contravened. If a Humanist is deemed qualified by the Humanist Society to address those deep questions, then that should be qualification enough him or her to serve as a military chaplain.

  • Nate


    I have two questions that come from my own ignorance:

    First, in the military, do soldiers have to go to whatever chaplain is available (Prot, Catholic, Muslim, etc.)? Or can they choose a chaplain that best fits their religious preference? Or is it a question of how big their base is, or availability of chaplain, etc.?

    Second, are their any secular/humanist/atheist associations that are also certified as “religious institutions” by the US Govt? If you read many of the “new atheist” authors, they are adamant that their belief system is NOT a religion.

    Thanks for clarification!

  • Nate,
    Soldiers can go to whatever chaplain they like, or not go. Chaplains are supposed to be available for all comers, and, the suggestion is that a non-theist chaplain would be unable to help military personnel who believe in God. I don’t believe that there are Humanist organizations that have been recognized as “religious institutions” for purposes of chaplaincy, but it’s important to note that the regulations do not make belief in God a criterion for such recognition. While it is true that some of the new atheists insist that their belief system is nothing like a religion, there have long been secular humanist organizations, e.g. Ethical Culture, that function very much the way religious organizations do.

  • Nate

    Thanks for the clarification Mark!

  • Kay Goodnow

    Doesn’t all of this debate depend on the definition of “God?” I am not an atheist, but my idea of a Life Force is that it’s so big that it cannot be defined…

  • Doug Lee

    There are no Wiccan chaplains in the military. Wiccans are supported (as are all faith-groups) but they are not able to be endorsed as chaplains. .

    Atheist/free thinker types are welcome to congregate and support each other, as is any support group. But just because a small group has “needs” does not justify an authorized clergy-like leader. If the Atheist groups want a clergy-like leader then they should ask for one appropriate to their non-religious, secular, worldview. They should ask for a military authorization for something like a “Human Focused Facilitator (HFF)” or “Secular Provider (SP)” and not try to co-opt the name and language of the religious world. They need to be creative and come up with their own language.

  • Jim Hughes

    “Chaplin” denotes clergy. Change the designation to “advocate” or “advisor”. This could be accomplished in the same way that people testifying in court can “swear” or “affirm” that they are telling the truth.

  • Nate

    I think chaplain is a perfectly fine title for anyone who ministers in the name of a religion. And religions are a broad category of human institution. I myself am a Trinitarian Christian operating out of a fairly traditional Christian tradition. But there are religions that are pantheist, deist, universalist, exclusivist, agnostic, and even atheist. In fact there are forms of modern Judaism and Buddhism that are functionally atheist: Both of which have organized, recognized ministers, some of whom are chaplains.

    The question Mark raises is this: Has postmodern American secularism coalesced enough to function as a “religion”? Do adherents to this large blanket of viewpoints even want to be known as a religion or function as a religion? And, if so, are there enough soldiers who adhere to this “religious secularism” to warrant authorizing secular chaplains by the military brass?

    Keep in mind, these folks are laying their lives on the line to protect a civilization where we have the freedom to be Trinitarian Christians, or secular religionists, or anything else. Unlike Mark, I’m not sure there is enough organization, nor enough demand, among secularists at this point in time to warrant a new kind of military chaplain. I’m not sure there ever will be, due to the “protesting” nature of American secularism. But if there is ever enough organization and demand to warrant it, I will support their right to it even as they support my right to practice my religion in our country, because Jesus told me to “do unto others as I would have them do unto me”.