Some Free Inquiry readers may find the articles in this special section controversial. Most of these articles share the view that the best solution to tensions posed by a growing nontheistic/nonreligious contingent within a U.S. military steeped in “Christian nation” ideology is to expand the scope of military chaplaincy to encompass nontheistic/nonreligious service members. Some secularists find this objectionable: I summarized opposing arguments in an editorial, “Humanist Chaplains in the Military: A Bridge Too Far?” (FI, October/November 2011).
Rather than expecting military chaplains to support nonreligious service members as they do believers, I argued for what I consider a more secular approach:accept that the chaplaincy is irremediably religious and, therefore, that chaplains can never offer meaningful support to nonreligious/nontheistic service members. Reform efforts should then focus on exempting the nontheistic/nonreligious from current requirements that compel them to seek a wide range of services (from mentoring and uncredentialed psychological counseling to first-line, also uncredentialed, mental-health evaluation) from chaplains. This could improve military life for all, for, as Gretchen Brendel Mann notes in her article, the chaplain corps is currently being tasked with human-resources and mental-health responsibilities for which individual chaplains’ pastoral educations may or may not properly prepare them. If a significant minority of service members become exempt from reliance on chaplains, military command might be forced to find ways to deliver essential human-resources and mental-health functions using personnel specifically credentialed for that work. I also noted secularist concerns that the successful incorporation of humanist chaplaincy into existing, explicitly religious military chaplaincy structures might create a precedent for the view (in the opinion of the Council for Secular Humanism, a dangerously false view) that all forms of humanism are religious.
It is worth noting that opposition to the chaplaincy as a nonsecular institution has a long history in our movement. As early as 1870, Octavius B. Frothingam and Francis E. Abbott published a manifesto called “The Nine Demands of Liberalism” in their free-religious newspaper The Index. The second of its nine items read as follows: “We demand that the employment of chaplains in Congress, and in the legislatures, in the navy and militia, and in prisons, asylums, and all other institutions supported by the public money, shall be discontinued.” The Nine Demands received wide endorsement by freethought and atheist organizations, for example being adopted by the National Liberal League at its founding meeting during the national centennial inJuly of 1876, and served the movement as a widely accepted agenda for decades to come.
Some writers urge the chaplain corps to accept religious Humanism alongside other minority faiths such as Buddhism or Wicca. This can be an acceptable outcome so long as it borne in mind that secular humanism is inherently nonreligious, but such a reform does nothing to solve the problems faced by service members who are explicitly nonreligious, including atheists and secular humanists.
The latter problem will not be solved until the inherently religious character of military chaplaincy is altered (as special section editor Jason Torpy advocates)—or until the monopolistic scope of military chaplaincy has been reduced. That is what I and others have called for: because the military chaplaincy confines itself to serving the religious, new, secular support structures outside the chaplaincy will be required to meet the needs of non religious service members. Interestingly, Carlos Bertha, a contributor to this special section, offers a different approach to scope reduction with his recommendation that chaplaincy functions be discharged not by commissioned officers but by contractors.
In any case, the articles in this special section should go far to limn the scale of the dilemma now facing the armed forces—and the growing numbers of non theists and nonreligious who serve within them.