Humanist Chaplains?

In his editorial “Humanist Chaplains in the Military: A Bridge Too Close?” (FI, October/November 2011), Tom Flynn states: “Discussions with the chaplain are protected by clergy confidentiality. Your commandi ng officer will not learn that you sought help, and the visit won’t go into your personal file. . . . 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 can be grounds to modify a security clearance or end a military career.”

It’s sad to see that secular counseling can be held against the servicemember while believing in an invisible presence in the sky cannot. It should be the other way around. Let’s push for that.

David Klement
Oconomowoc, Wisconsin

Tom Flynn may be unaware of the emerging role of creative chaplaincies based on pluralistic, inclusive models. One can choose to get “hung up” on the terminology or just be more humanistic. There will always be a need for “chaplains” in some form—competent, well-educated women and men who are readily available to listen and help in times of crisis, who see chaplaincy as a practice of being “present” with people where they are, deep and respectful listening, advocacy for human rights and justice, and “doing what is good and right.” This represents classic chaplaincy, minus the preaching. Yes, we need good therapists as well, but knowledgable, freethinking chaplains can balance the evangelists by sharing their “chapels”—presenting alternative places set aside for quiet, reflective thought and building inclusive interrelationships.

Having served as a chaplain with religious and nonreligious people in diverse settings, I now teach graduate students who seek to be chaplains that we have to be careful when using words like chaplain, ministry, spiritual—continually defining these terms for both theists and nontheists. (Personally I can live with Carl Sagan’s statement that since spirit comes from the Latin for breath “there is no necessary implication in the word ‘spiritual’ that we are talking of anything other than matter . . . on occasion, I will feel free to use the word.”) Likewise, I think the title and the term chaplain is still useful and even healthy, if the one assuming that honorable position can learn to breathe the same (secular or sacred) air as other human beings, especially when that air is filled with suffering. I deeply respect anyone who can do that, whether they call upon God or Good.

Chris Highland
San Rafael, California

Tom Flynn completely misses the point. Separation of church and state would suggest that, if religions want to proselytize the captive audience in the military, they at least should have to pony up the bucks to pay for the privilege. Even decades after leaving the military, I’m still angered when I recall all those chaplains wandering around aimlessly while the rest of us made far less and had far more to do.

Name Withheld Upon Request
Spicer, Minnesota

I very much enjoyed Jason Torpy’s article on humanist chaplains (“Humanist Chaplains: A Litmus Test for Equal Protection,” FI, October/November 2011) and Tom Flynn’s thoughtful analysis thereof. There is, to me at least, one glaring elephant in the room: there should not be chaplains in the military or anywhere else in government whose pay and benefits are on the taxpayer’s dime.

In the 1983 case Marsh v. Chambers, Ernest Chambers, a member of the Nebraska legislature, challenged the practice of offering a prayer at the beginning of each legislative session by a chaplain who was chosen by the state and paid out of public funds. In a 6–3 decision, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Nebraska legislature. Chief Justice Warren Burger’s majority opinion noted that the custom “is deeply embedded in the history and tradition of this country from colonial times and the founding of the republic.” Further, the Court held that the use of prayer “has become part of the fabric of our society,” coexisting with “the principles of disestablishment and religious freedom.” Justice Burger further noted that in such circumstances, an invocation for divine guidance is not an establishment of religion. “It is,” he wrote, “simply a tolerable acknowledgment of beliefs widely held among the people of this country.” (Both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate have chaplains who start each daily session with a prayer, as do most, if not all, state legislatures.)

But Justice Burger’s opinion turned the establishment clause on its head. The employment of chaplains in state and federal legislatures is a blatant violation of that provision and is unconstitutional for the same reason we can’t have chaplains in public schools to start each day with a prayer and/or conduct Bible study. The Court cannot argue that the Constitution should be dismissed or ignored due to some “tradition.” The Court has clearly established religion in government, including the military, by fiat.

Therefore, if the atheists/humanists/freethinkers argue for establishing their own chaplaincy in the military, then it seems to me that they are tacitly endorsing the Supreme Court’s ruling in Marsh. Indeed, I think nontheist groups can make a compelling case that chaplains should not be on the government payroll at all but treated like the press. Reporters are paid by their media bosses—CBS, NBC, New York Times, etc., even in the midst of battle. The same should hold true for chaplains in government, military or otherwise. They should be funded entirely by whatever faith organization they are representing.

Nonbelievers can try to re-litigate the Marsh case by using military chaplains as a proxy and, at the same time, offer a way for the military and legislatures to reduce their respective budgets, which is a popular thing to do these days. Looks like a win-win to me.

Herb Van Fleet
Tulsa, Oklahoma

All facts considered, I don’t think it is such a good idea to establish humanist chaplains in the military. True, humanism need not have a specific association with an alleged supernatural deity. But, having grown up with fundamentalist Christians, I am convinced that the religious Right would assuredly claim otherwise and try to expel from the military anything they consider humanist. Many Christian fundamentalists maintain that anything not expressly Christian is humanist by default. Humanism, they say, is a religion and should not be promoted by the military.

John L. Indo
Houston, Texas

Tom Flynn replies:

I agree with Chris Highland that it would be most desirable to have a skilled mentor/listener/adviser/advocate within arms’ reach of every servicemember, religious or otherwise. But that’s a secular desideratum, and I question whether further expanding the purview of chaplains (who are defined not by me but by the Military Code as religious practitioners) is the right way to go about it. A secular government should look at expanding the military mental-health apparatus to perform these functions, not the chaplaincy.



Murder in Norway

In “Norway’s Shame” (FI, October/November 2011), Christopher Hitchens maligns the 9/11 Truth movement. The people I know who question the official story about 9/11 are neither crackpots nor fascists. They are reasonable people with sound judgment and compelling arguments. I mean only to point to the folly of mocking those who question official dogma and of believing as gospel the word of national leaders, even when they violate long-established customs of fairness, destroy evidence, fail to allow the alleged perpetrator to defend himself in court and dump his body in the ocean, foreclosing any opportunity for identification.

Thomas Crancer
Denver, Colorado

Norway’s “shame,”according to Christopher Hitchens, is, in effect, that state’s failure to prevent or mitigate a mass murder. That failure, however, should be forgiven (by the world!) on the condition that those who propagate “innuendoes” about our government’s “inaction and inanition” should cease. He is concerned about that incompetence but denies others the curiosity to speculate about it because, it seems, such speculation amounts to accusing the Bush administration. Unfortunately such unbecoming illogic is not just Hitchens’s; it is pervasive. I fail to see the responsibility of “bizarre leftist Presbyterian groups” or any “truthers” to do so, especially when that duty is contingent upon a very dissimilar crime in Scandinavia. Such a preachy admonition sounds Glennbeckian; it doesn’t sound like the informed, incisive, rational commentator whom I look forward to reading.

September 11, 2001, was an extremely complex event that there will be questions about for, well, who knows how long. The tragedy in Norway could be better compared to Timothy McVeigh’s bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City. In both instances, the crime’s execution was fairly simple, and neither police nor farm-ware dealers had any indication or suspicion. With 9/11 there were suspicions and indications, and various functionaries had “dots” to work with. To compare that attack with the murders in Norway is a specious and moralizing conflation of, for instance, the motivation and characteristics of the perpetrators. The intent of both, however, was to kill as many as possible. Hitchens’s anger is understandable, but he seems to misplace both the target of that anger and the means of resolving it.

Jerry Bronk
San Francisco, California



The Problem of Evil

I certainly agree with Shadia B. Drury’s observation that Jews “make no bones about the fact that they live under an all-powerful but somewhat brutal God” (“The Problem of Evil, Part 1” FI, October/November 2011). Yet, just like loving parents who conceal or rationalize their children’s misbehavior regardless of how sadistic it may be, they lavish praise on their deity. Two examples are Psalm 100:5 (“Yes, God is good. His love is everlasting”) and Psalm 145:8–9 (“The Lord is gracious and full of compassion, slow to anger and great in mercy”).

Drury mentions that C.S. Lewis, a Christian apologist, at least had the good sense to admit that Jesus should not be a role model. Several passages in the Bible describe Jesus’s behavior as less than exemplary. In Luke 22:37–52, Jesus is invited to dinner at the home of a Pharisee. While eating the host’s bread and drinking his wine, Jesus insults him with these words: “You are full of greed and wickedness.” He then calls the Pharisee and his guests “foolish people.” I’m sure Emily Post would disapprove! In Mark 7:25–29, a pagan woman begs Jesus to heal her daughter. He not only initially refuses her request but refers to her and all pagans as “dogs.”

Since childhood, most people are fed a steady diet of unquestioning love and devotion to the religion of their ancestors. They revere their religious heroes as pure, brave, and perfect—and don’t anyone dare say anything that contradicts that image. It takes work, patience, curiosity, and a fearless spirit of independence to break the chains of indoctrination and finally learn the truth that makes us free.

David Quintero
Monrovia, California

Shadia B. Drury is right on the mark when she argues that Christianity with its emphasis of God’s goodness and compassion, has a peculiar obligation to explain the existence of suffering and evil in the world. But she focuses on only one of the explanations Christians like to give—a claim that we human beings have abused the freedom God has given us and that human rebellion and wickedness are the source of suffering and evil.

There’s another answer you can find in a lot of Christian writing and preaching through the centuries, an answer that lies at the heart of Christian apocalyptic. It’s a belief in a supernatural source of evil and rebellion: Satan. The devil. Muslims and Jews argue that Christians have corrupted their monotheistic heritage by interpreting God in Trinitarian terms. But you could also argue that a plan of salvation that is predicated on a supernatural war between God and Satan is not strictly monotheistic either. It resolves the problem of evil in the world by proposing a competing supernatural being.

Fritz Williams
Leader Emeritus, Baltimore Ethical Society
Shermans Dade, Pennsylvania




I applaud the effort made by Gregory Paul and his coauthors to set the record straight in their Washington Post op-ed (“Groundbreaking Op-Ed Puts Spotlight on Anti-Atheist Bigotry,” FI, October/November 2011). But I believe they overlooked an important point. Anti-atheist bias unquestionably exists, but it has less to do with a failure to comprehend the facts than with the way the human psyche responds to apparently irreconcilable or “dissonant” inputs. For example, when a believer is confronted with atheism, “cognitive dissonance” results, which the believer’s mind demands be resolved. Indeed, the more compelling the case for atheism, the greater the dissonance and the stronger the need to resolve it. What results is the factually unfounded and seemingly irrational animus toward atheists characterized in the op-ed as “stunning anti-atheist discrimination.” Believers are unable to refute the atheist “message” by proving that God exists; they can only attack the messenger. Mainstream representatives have a vested interest in not being subjected to the same types of attack, which explains the absence of pushback by them. Once atheists are marginalized, believers can see their “message” as aberrant and not worthy of belief. Cognitive dissonance is resolved, and their belief in God is left comfortably intact.

Geoff Gilbert
Galien, Michigan



Examining Mormonism

The latest issue of Free Inquiry featuring Mormonism is outstanding (“America’s Peculiar Piety: Why Did Mormonism Grow? Why Does It Endure?,” FI, October/November 2011). For the past sixty years, I have engaged the Mormon missionaries who come to my door in discussion. I try to give them a broader view of life. They are usually men in their early twenties and well trained in their beliefs, but they do seem to listen to me. I was surprised a few years ago to receive a visit from a missionary who was atypical in appearance: he was older looking, heavy, and had dark skin. He was from Tonga, an island northeast of New Zealand. He said that Mormon missionaries had converted his parents when he was a small child and brought them to the United States. He knew nothing of the beliefs of the people of Tonga. I helped him create an interest in his past.

Jim Sanders
Flagstaff, Arizona



Christian December

Warren J. Blumenfeld wants us to embrace cultural pluralism and to “value other peoples and others’ customs and cultures” (“The ‘Christian’ Month of December,” FI, October/November 2011). But to do so without discrimination would mean accepting cannibalism and child sacrifice. There are some things in other cultures that are not compatible with our U.S. culture and should be resisted. Blumenfeld is against the “melting pot” term and instead uses the analogy of a “great symphony orchestra, not sounding in unison but rather one in which all disparate cultures play in harmony.” But in order to play in an orchestra, you must first be selected and then must play the same music as everybody else. For me, the melting pot metaphor has worked in the past and hopefully will work in the future. Otherwise our great country may lose its way.

Gilbert Reeser
Galien, Michigan



Physics and the Soul

Re: “Physics and the Immortality of the Soul” by Sean Carroll (FI, October/November 2011): it seems to me a legitimate question to ask, “What do spirits, holy or otherwise, think with?” Most of humanity had no knowledge of what the brain was for. Egyptians disposed of it. Aristotle thought the brain might be a cooling system for the blood emotion. In the Bible some are able to read the thoughts in a person’s heart. With no knowledge of the necessity of a three-dimensional material thing for thinking, it is easy to have spirits and move them around.

Big spirit or small, smart spirit or dumb, what is the difference? Would your spirit/soul ever learn anything more? Life after death requires a lot that seems very unlikely.

Ralph Stewart
Mountain City, Tennessee

I’m sure Sean Carroll would agree that each of us contains something that is aware of the universe. He is certain the laws of science prohibit its existence after life. Does whatever it is that’s aware of existence exist before life? If his answer is no, I want to know where it comes from. How does it become a part of us?

My impression is that most scientists seem to think it simply pops up out of nowhere once a person’s brain becomes complex enough. My problem with this is that whatever it is, it is severely different in kind from matter. Maybe I’m excessively simple-minded, but it seems to me matter doesn’t really do anything but move around and stick to other matter or unstick from other matter—for an audience of awarenesses.

My objective belief is that mind, or whatever one wants to call this awareness of the universe we all have (or seem to have since I can only know for sure of my own), is beyond science. It also seems to me eternal, regardless of the fact that mine will leave my body and all the memories stored in it behind when I die—but I see no way that can be either verified or refuted.

Bob Grumman
Port Charlotte, Florida

Sean Carroll replies:

The origin of consciousness is certainly a good scientific question, one to which we have some intriguing ideas but no definitive answers at this time. That’s usually how science works. There is certainly no reason to believe that our capacity for self-awareness requires anything beyond ordinary matter. A camera can take a picture of itself; a computer can simulate its own operation. The brain is very complicated, but science will eventually figure it out.

  Humanist Chaplains? In his editorial “Humanist Chaplains in the Military: A Bridge Too Close?” (FI, October/November 2011), Tom Flynn states: “Discussions with the chaplain are protected by clergy confidentiality. Your commandi ng officer will not learn that you sought help, and the visit won’t go into your personal file. . . . A servicemember’s …

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