Humanist Chaplains in the Military: A Bridge Too Close?

Tom Flynn

Sometimes the best is the enemy of the good. A new campaign sweep-ing the humanist/atheist/freethought movement exemplifies this dilemma. The campaign is well meant, but I fear it pursues a seductive short-term benefit at the expense of greater long-term goals. At the same time, it actively endangers principles that secular humanists value highly. Along the way, it shows us clearly where today’s dividing line between religious humanists and secular humanists is drawn.

I refer to an issue that only a few years ago was on nobody’s radar scope: humanist chaplains in the military. Servicemen and -women who live without religion compose one of the larger “life stance groups” within America’s armed forces. A movement to broaden military chaplaincy to include them is gaining sudden traction. The cause has its own specialist organization, the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers (MAAF), a full-fledged member organization of the Secular Coalition of America. This past spring, MAAF was the subject of a front-page story in the New York Times, among much other attention in the mainstream media and in cyberspace.

At first glance, making military chaplaincy more humanist- and atheist-friendly seems like a no-brainer. Why shouldn’t military nonbelievers have the same access as believers to the counseling, mentoring, and the other kinds of support chaplains provide?

At second glance, secular humanists recognize that this stream surges over treacherous rocks.

First, let’s look at the context. Department of Defense statistics list 9,400 atheists and agnostics among America’s 1.4 million active-duty military personnel. That means they outnumber active-duty Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists—not a bad start. But a whopping 285,000 servicemembers claim no religious preference. No one knows how many of these “Nones” are truly nonreligious, though surveys of the general population suggest 50 to 66 percent of civilian “Nones” fall into that category. So we’re probably talking about a nonreligious population well into the six figures, a major and growing fraction of all Americans in uniform. Isn’t it outrageous that they, and they alone, are not easily served by the chaplains who minister to servicemembers of every faith? Additionally, shouldn’t military nonbelievers see at least some of their own among the ranks of the chaplain corps?

Jason Torpy thinks so. He’s the president of MAAF and the most visible campaigner for broadening the chaplaincy to include the nonreligious.

What is it like to be nonreligious in today’s military? I recently attended the American Atheists convention in Des Moines, Iowa, where Torpy, a former Army captain, and Kathleen Johnson, then-military director of American Atheists, made impassioned presentations. They paint a picture that cries out for reform—but which reforms?

Chaplains have been associated with the U.S. military since the American Revolution. Once volunteers provided by churches, they are now commissioned officers—but regulations still require them to be clergypersons accredited by some recognized religious institution. Each chaplain must serve all members of the unit to which he or she is assigned, regardless of their faith (or lack thereof). But today’s chaplains have ancillary responsibilities that extend well beyond their faith commitments.

Since the aftermath of Vietnam, the needs of servicemembers for counseling and other psychological services have been better recognized. This fortunate development has suffered from flawed implementation. While service members can sometimes access scientific therapists, psychologists, and counselors on their own initiative or upon referral from command and medical channels, the military command opted to task chaplains to serve as first-line counselors. In practice, these religious practitioners frequently serve as gatekeepers, mediating servicemembers’ access to mental-health support.

Here’s how it works if you’re in uniform. Having an emotional problem? Money trouble? Marital strife? Anxiety? The deck is stacked in favor of your talking it over with the chaplain. First, the chaplain is easily accessible; getting in to see a therapist can take doing. Second, discussions with the chaplain are protected by clergy confidentiality. Your commanding officer will not learn that you sought help, and the visit won’t go into your personnel file. Third and most worrisome, unlike a counseling session with a chaplain, a servicemember’s request for secular mental-health services is the opposite of confidential. Not only must it be reported up the chain of command, but the request alone (to say nothing of actually utilizing mental-health services) can be grounds to modify a security clearance or end a military career.

Nonreligious servicemembers face other obstacles unrelated to chaplaincy. In the Army, a new battery of standardized tests seeks to evaluate soldiers’ “spiritual fitness.” If you admit on this test that you’re not a spiritual person or that you don’t find deep personal resources in prayer, you may face punitive remedial training or even reduction in rank or security clearance. Under current Army doctrine, a deficit in “spirituality” is a defect in military readiness. Honest!

Servicemembers who are serious about living without religion clearly face daunting obstacles. Groups like MAAF are mobilizing opposition to the “spiritual fitness” movement, an absolutely necessary campaign. They also recognize the negatives associated with accessing scientific mental-health care as problematic. But as Torpy has explained to me in personal discussions and e-mail correspondence, they feel this issue is, to strain a military metaphor, a bridge too far—a battle for another time, perhaps for other activists. Finally, they believe that the best solution to press for right now is humanist chaplaincy.

I suspect that chaplaincy is too small a goal—as it were, a bridge too close. Consider that seeking to “humanize” the chaplain corps means tacitly accepting the current system. I for one see a profound church-state problem in the way the military has, mostly in the name of expediency, tasked a class of religious practitioners with significant mental-health and human-resource responsibilities.

In this connection, it’s worth noting that evangelical and fundamentalist Christian denominations have spent the past few decades encouraging their clergy to enter the chaplain corps in great numbers. This campaign has been so successful that evangelical and fundamentalist Christians are sharply overrepresented among chaplains relative to their incidence in the general military population. Yet these are the very Christian denominations that educate their clergy least intensively and harbor some of the most extreme antiscientific views, from intelligent design to Young Earth creationism to faith healing to, in some cases, a profound hostility toward psychology and psychiatry. Are these really the best people to exercise first-line influence over how our fighting men and women access scientific mental-health care?

Arguably, by shunting so much of this work onto chaplains’ shoulders, the military has sought improperly to discharge “on the cheap” its obligations to provide secular, scientific mental-health support. I submit that in a secular nation’s military, religious practitioners shouldn’t be the gatekeepers for important services that have nothing to do with religion. They should perform sacerdotal functions and nothing else. Therapists, psychologists, and other professionals should be easily available to any servicemember who requires their aid. And no one’s decision to access secular, scientific mental-health services should endanger a military career.

So I’m disappointed by a campaign that accepts this hugely unjust situation as a given and seeks to work small improvements within it. This is—among many other things!—a violation of the separation of church and state that demands reform.

There’s yet another problem with humanist chaplaincy—and this is the issue that relates to the divergence of views between secular and religious humanists. The problem is that when humanists, atheists, and other nonspiritual people lobby to be able to provide the same kinds of “spiritual” support that religious practitioners deliver, it encourages the false public perception that we are simply one more gaggle of believers seeking special privilege for our own “creed.” If the campaign for humanist chaplaincy succeeds, it may do permanent damage to unbelievers’ image as activists who stand—by choice—outside all religious traditions.

That’s already happening: After that New York Times story on MAAF appeared, Christian blogger David Lose cited it in a Huffington Post essay naming the humanist chaplaincy campaign as the first of four “inter-related bits of evidence” that atheism—not humanism but atheism!—was a religion in its own right.

It’s not MAAF’s fault. Make no mistake: MAAF is unequivocal in describing atheism and humanism properly as the naturalistic and nonreligious positions they are. The problem lies with chaplaincy itself, which most Americans perceive—also properly, I would submit—as a religious enterprise. Chaplaincy is inescapably faith-based, and when we who live without faith seek to enter it, no one can be blamed for wondering how serious we ever were about being “nonreligious.”

Why does this matter so much? Religious humanists, as well as other humanists who may eschew the “religious humanist” label but nonetheless feel comfortable with having their worldview understood as something closely akin to religion, may not see a huge problem here. Secular humanists will feel like they’re veering towards a third rail, and for good reason. Secular humanists view their life stance not as an alternative religion, but as an alternative to all religion. They reject religion as a category and take pride in having crafted a way to live without religion. In so doing they run counter to much “popular wisdom” in our culture that imagines religion to be a human universal and argues that “no one can live without religion.” Well, secular humanists can and do live without religion, and we’re leery of initiatives that blur humanist practice with religious practice in ways that suggest that our claims to live without religion are disingenuous or hypocritical. In addition, the charge that humanism is “just another religion in competition with Christianity” is one religious Right activists still use to argue that everything from evolutionary theory to the notion that the universe is billions of years old is a “dogma” of “the religion of humanism” that public schools must be forbidden to teach. (Indeed, that’s just about the only establishment clause argument you’ll ever hear from some Christian conservatives.) Historically, one of the reasons secular humanism established itself as an independent strand of the larger humanist movement in 1980 was precisely to demonstrate by example that while some humanists might be religious, at least one highly visible strand of the movement clearly and unreservedly was not. To most secular humanists, “I live without religion and I want to be a chaplain” is an oxymoronic statement.

Unfortunately, some rhetoric by humanist-chaplaincy advocates fosters further confusion in this area. “Humanism fills the same role for atheists that Christianity does for Christians and Judaism does for Jews,” Torpy told the New York Times. Secular humanists would disagree with that sentiment on several levels. First, humanism doesn’t fill any necessary role for atheists as a group. One can disbelieve in God without being a humanist; for that matter, many humanists do not describe themselves as atheists. Humanism and atheism are distinct worldviews; although many individuals embrace both, neither is a quality of the other. Second, and more important (see the discussion immediately above), secular humanists deny that their life stance fills the same role for them that, say, Christianity does for Christians. Though it may address some of the same psychological needs that religion does, they feel it does so very differently: without faith, without supernaturalism, and without the “spiritual.”

There’s a final objection, and it links to the point on which I concluded my op-ed in the previous issue (“Are Nonbelievers More Resilient?,” August/September 2011). There, I suggested that social scientists who are finally studying nonreligious people as such might investigate what seems a surprising excess of resilience among them. I won’t repeat my argument from last issue, but for folks who lack the “spiritual” and psychological solace derived from supernatural belief and membership in a supportive parochial community, most nonreligious people seem inexplicably happy.

Might it be that people who recognize there’s no such thing as “spirit” simply have fewer “spiritual” needs? If so, on top of all the other reasons to view humanist chaplaincy with misgiving, we nonbelievers may form a community that simply doesn’t have as much need for this kind of support as our more religious counterparts do.

So, what should secular humanists campaign for in this area? First and foremost, I’d suggest that instead of pressing for nonbelievers to be admitted to the chaplain corps, we should campaign for nonreligious servicemembers to be exempted from required interaction with chaplains. It should be understood that chaplains are there to serve servicemembers who happen to be religious; nonreligious ones should have a swift and painless way of wiring around them. This would necessarily require making scientific mental-health practitioners more easily available without chaplain referral. That might mean recruiting more of them, and it would surely mean discarding those elements of the current system that stigmatize servicemembers who seek genuine scientific counseling or therapy. Finally, a confidential path to counseling needs to be available for servicemembers who prefer not to exploit the chaplain’s clergy confidentiality.

And yes, that’s a big order. But I can’t help seeing it as a more worthy goal than campaigning for an oxymoronic humanist/atheist chaplaincy.

People who reject religion as a category have no business becoming chaplains. If we succeed in doing so, we should not be surprised if many in the larger culture find our claims to live without religion ringing hollow.

In fact, if the campaign for humanist chaplaincy succeeds, pardon the expression, heaven help us.

Further Reading

  • James Dao. “Atheists Seek Chaplain Role in the Military.” New York Times, April 26, 2011.
  • Cathy Lynn Grossman. “No God, No Mantra? You’d Flunk Army’s ‘Spiritual Fitness’ Test.” USA Today, January 14, 2011.
  • David Lose. “Has Atheism Become a Religion?” Huffington Post, May 26, 2011.
  • Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers. “Humanism Background and Philosophy,” “Humanist Chaplaincy Program.” Position papers. Washington, D.C.: MAAF, May 14, 2011.

Tom Flynn

Tom Flynn is editor of Free Inquiry, executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, director of the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum, and editor of The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief (2007).


Sometimes the best is the enemy of the good. A new campaign sweep-ing the humanist/atheist/freethought movement exemplifies this dilemma. The campaign is well meant, but I fear it pursues a seductive short-term benefit at the expense of greater long-term goals. At the same time, it actively endangers principles that secular humanists value highly. Along the …

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