Rex Murphy is Still Wrong About Chaplains

Huffington Post’s Diane Bederman comes out in support of Rex Murphy and his anti-humanist chaplain stance that I covered a few days ago.

Rex Murphy recently wrote an article about atheists requesting non-religious chaplains, specifically in the armed forces. He asked “Why should those who don’t believe at all clamour for the same structures, assists and services of those who in fact do believe?”

Because they exist. In a nutshell, it is patently unfair for one group of people to be provided a service that is not accessible by it’s construction to another group of people.

Let us take the disabled. If we didn’t provide low rise, wide door buses, people in wheelchairs would struggle for independence. Why must the disabled demand the things that the able bodied have? Why must women? Blacks? GLBT? Yes. Why Must The GLBT Ask for the Same Rights As Straight Couples?

For the same reasons many atheists would like a humanist chaplain.

Contrary to belief, there is spirituality in atheism. We too feel alone and adrift or connected and anchored. It’s just that we don’t require a god for those things to occur.

Actually, that is not what Mr. Murphy said. He in no way suggested that members of the military be denied compassionate care. He questioned the desire of atheists, who tend to demean those of us who believe in God, to have a chaplain, as if they’re missing something when there are wonderful secular therapists available like social workers or other secular therapists to “provide a sympathetic ear or calming word.” It isn’t that atheists are doing without; it’s that religious people didn’t get the comfort needed through secular therapy.

Except the secular therapists and social workers and the entire length, breadth and depth of human achievement with regards to civilisation is at the tips of the fingers of the religious too. We do not say “Well, you believe in a god! So no science! Only Witchcraft, Magic and Failed Prayers”.

The construct of secular therapists and social workers also apply to people who do have a faith. But the same does not apply.

In addition? In the USA we have seen cases where the Chaplaincy is used to insert Christianity into any and every surrounding possible. We have heard of “compulsory” voluntary prayer meetings. Or actions various members of religious groups that are nothing but bigotry or the support there off. The Family Research Council in particular loves the example of the good Christian who was banned from bringing the products of Chik-fil-A to meetings. Possibly for the same reason that the US Army would not allow food from a Klan Barbecue to be served at a meeting. Because it is tacit approval of a entity that is bigotted. And this was portrayed as stamping all over the Christian’s feelings because he wasn’t allowed to be an  insulting bigot. There have been cases of discrimination against atheists and the GLBT and even places where secular marriages were not allowed to be held in chapels. In short? Atheists are being discriminated against by a lack of services that are available to people who’s only claim is a belief in a god.

The Chaplaincy was created with the notion of helping soldiers who had crisis of faith, not to push religion on the bulk of soldiers without regards to their beliefs. Lest we forget the Christian Chaplains themselves utterly do not believe in the gods of the Hindu or Muslim ones. And vice versa. They are atheists in the eyes of each other’s faiths. Christianity being the norm of the US Armed Service only begrudgingly accepts the others. Possibly because it’s just a token resistance.

But Atheists though. They are relatively more likely to kick up a fuss. An atheist chaplain doesn’t believe in respecting the beliefs of the Christian majority  because there are no beliefs to be respected back. It doesn’t matter if you think the world was created out of marzipan and phlegm 300 years ago by the Great Sultana Steve, the atheist doesn’t believe in you Raisin based Saviour anymore than the Resurrection of Christ. By contrast the majority of atheists exist in a word of evidence is like bringing an ice lolly to a glass furnace. Atheists are used to not being respected by the religious so they don’t have  anything to lose by fighting against overt religiousness.

When a soldiers suffers doubts. Let’s say has been wounded and fears PTSD, he is treated by the humanist medical system. He is also provided with secular therapy alongside the chaplain if he so wishes.

I mean the reverse is madness right? We deny religious people humanist services? So why deny atheists the services of the spiritual?

I think it’s important to describe some of the services that chaplains provide.

Chaplains, working for the military or any other secular institution, are trained to care for everyone- with or without a belief in God. The problem is too many people today do not want to hear, or believe the fact that there is a difference between speaking to a soul, and proselytizing or preaching dogma.

Except the US Armed Forces have a “history” of not dealing with atheists in a fair and balanced manner. Justin and Paul are much better at this sort of thing really than I am since they are “Foxhole atheists”. Under the guise of “speaking to a soul” grave injustice has often been done.

Chaplains who work in institutions, hospitals, jails, hospices, or facilities for those with mental illness are part of a multi-disciplinary professional team all working to help people in crisis get better. Science and religion working together. All healing professions have different words to say the same thing: it is referred to as the discourse of the discipline.

Oh Really?

I must point out that I consider religious interference in medical treatment to be tantamount to asking for medical advice from a stuffed animal. You may need help in finding peace with your disease and indeed with your life. You may fear death. But the man telling you those things (and it invariably is a man in most cases) doesn’t know. He is not a man of knowledge, he is a man of ignorance.  Ignorance that we widely accept. We cannot consider that a man  flies around the world on a reindeer powered sleigh delivering presents yet we are to accept that Moses parts the waters, Mohammed had a flying horse and Vishnu’s homing buzzsaw (while awesome) never missed… I am afraid the only reason we regard these people as relevant while we regard the Scientologists as cultish lunatics who have fallen for superstition is time. One day we may believe that Lord Xenu is a clear and pressing threat to the safety of our patients and must summon the Scientologist Priests to waggle electronic devices and pretend to be in Star Trek over our patients.

Science and religion may seem to work together but one notices that science is kind of the important thing here. That sans priest the patient does just fine but sans doctor the patient may not.

Each profession has a place in understanding ourselves and the world in which we live. I would hear my patients’ concerns through their stories and assist them with pastoral language like grace, forgiveness and repentance as well as referencing the Bible which is the story of the journey to becoming human. For many people, concepts from psycho-social sciences like animus and anima, ego, id, and super-ego, repression, don’t always make a human connection while stories touch our souls.

I have never ever invoked animus, anima, ego, id and super-ego.

I invoke enemas… That helps a lot more.

You don’t need to flog religion to make people feel better. I will tell you this. Your words are just hollow if you aren’t willing to share suffering. I have and I know others who have sat up with patients who had no families because no one should die alone. What’s more? I know people who did so when they did not need to.

Grace, Forgiveness and Repentence may be pastoral, but human language has other words for it. Courage, Redemption and Admission. You assume we have none of those traits. But I say the problem is religion thinks it has a monopoly on them. That the Chaplaincy thinks that atheists cannot face death without fear, but we know that humans regularly overcome great fear to do amazing things. That we cannot forgive as atheists but without realising that most atheists are more forgiving than the religious. That without religion we cannot show regret and willingness to change when in reality we know that religion’s idea of repenting is to repent for things that are not even crimes.

Chaplains, like other therapists, help those who are living with fear and anxiety who are so overwhelmed that they become paralyzed, unable to make a decision, unable to cope. It is the type of fear that prevents logical thought, disabling free-will.

Then why call them chaplains? Why create a special wing of the army solely dedicated to therapists who believe in gods? Why not just call them therapists and be done with it? Unless there is something specific and special about their role. Most Chaplains in the healthcare system are multi-faith and indeed “secularised” in the sense that they are not regarded as priests of a single god. While this is not the case in the US Army. AND Medical Chaplains also include the humanist ones.

I remember my psychiatrist telling me as I was leaving, “You are taking a flight from freedom. Now is not the time to leave.” I was on the edge of a revelation that might have freed me from my anxiety, but I couldn’t face it. I ran; back to my comfort zone. I had no idea at the time, but I was replaying the behaviour of the Israelites from thousands of years ago. Psychiatrists talk about flight from freedom, chaplains share universal stories.

If the stories are that Universal then surely there should be no problem with the story being told by Humanists. Or does she think that we cannot understand sacrifice?

I can preach sacrifice and duty using the Bible, the Gita and Harry Potter if I so chose. Your Christian Chaplain Cannot. If you think the Bible is the only way to inspire then you have denigrated the Hindu Chaplain and if you think that any book can inspire then you have validated Harry Potter and thus proven the point that the book isn’t bloody important, the messenger and the message is.

The story of Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt, out of slavery, is the archetypal story of how we often cope with the struggles and fears many of us face in our lives. The Israelites had crossed the Sea of Reeds and were safe in the desert. But it wasn’t long before the complaints began. They were frightened. Where would they get food, water or basic shelter? So they began to wax poetic about the past through discoloured glasses. It had not been so bad. At least there they had food and shelter and a bed in which to sleep.

Yes, but so is the stories we can tell of human achievements like the Underground Railroad. I mean there were real people who lead people out of slavery. Remember the Slavery wasn’t important to Jehovah. He exhorted Moses and his followers to keep slaves rather than saying “I freed thee (because god speaks proper ancient like) from slavery and thus honour my law and keepeth no slaves”. Instead we saw “Keep these fuckers as slaves. Because they suck. Or you know kill them all! Don’t care! They are fuckers.”.

The whole story is a lot less tasteful in that regards I fear. Which is why I would prefer telling people about different exoduses. For all the cruelty and horror in the world there are stories of love, courage and humanity. Of men and women who helped those who needed help not because they were told to be a non-existent god but because we are human. There were Muslims who saved Hindus and Hindus who saved Muslims during the partition, not because they believed but because they were human beings and deep down they realised that killing each other for this was stupid and that we all just want to live.

There were Nazis like Schindler who saved Jews. There are all manner of people who have done wonderful things for others. From something as simple as a listening ear to something as great as giving someone a little more time to live. And they did none of these things because they believed in a god but because they were human beings and could empathise with someone else. That we can feel suffering in others.

Our hearts can be broken.

And religion will never understand why that is. Humans will.

Nostalgia through the lens of fear can lead to what Erich Fromm described as a flight from the freedom that is waiting for you; a new life, with more choices. Instead we turn back to the comfort of the enslavement of the known and familiar be it a reclusive life, an abusive relationship or a stifling job. 

Or you know.


I am confounded by the desire for people who are atheists to ask for a non-religious chaplain. I’ve never heard such an oxymoron. A chaplain is one of the strongest symbols of the representation of God. Why would atheists want to second religious language? When I responded to a request for the chaplain, I knew I was bringing into that room the idea of God to that person-their idea, their concept of God, not mine.

Of gods. Not God. There are many gods out there after all.

Because there exists an ethos within atheism that many subscribe to called “humanism“. There are also other services like acting as celebrants that the Chaplain service does. Humanist Celebrants are a thing. Atheists also live in the culture of their religious backgrounds. I Would want a Hindu wedding despite being an atheist because Hindusim is part of who I am and despite not believing in it, it’s my culture too.

I also refuse to wear a tuxedo when I can look like this….

As a chaplain I have witnessed an emotional change in the air when a priest is called to provide sacrament of the sick prior to surgery. I stood at the end of the bed in the emergency room, the family surrounding their father. There was a palpable sense of fear and anxiety in that small curtained cubicle. When the priest placed his vestments over his shoulders, opened his prayer book and began giving the sacrament, there was a transformation. I felt the hair on my arms and behind my neck rise and chills went up and down my spine. There was calmness, hope, faith and belief — a new energy was in the room. And for those of us who choose to believe, the energy was the Presence of God.

And do you think you influenced the outcome of the surgery more than the other people there? I am afraid the hands of whatever gods you believe in do not guide our hands.

Just education and practice. Practice, Practice, Practice.

And do you think an atheists cannot do that?

Why would followers of Hitchens, Dawkins, et al want anyone with the word chaplain in their title to visit them? Unless, they know deep in their souls that there is a language specific to the soul that comes from the language of God and not Freud.

We don’t follow Hitchens or Dawkins. I came from a Hindu background. So it would be Periyar I suppose but even that I didn’t read. I am afraid I grew up on my own. Ex-Hindu atheists are pretty rare as a group so it was on my own. I am afraid the truth is that I have only read a handful of atheist books. I have read more Greta Christina than Dawkins.

Freud? Er? We don’t use Freud in Psychiatry any more.

Or you know. Because it’s a service that is biased against atheists and is unavailable to them and has been used to denigrate them in the past and the hope is that if atheists get representation within it they will be able to affect changes that stop the discrimination. You know. Because it is a predominantly Christian service that ironically is meant to be secular but in practice is not.

What is a non-religious chaplain? A therapist. I have been blessed to have received wonderful care from different therapists: psychiatrists, social workers, psychotherapists; as have many of my patients.

A Humanist.

There are no gods. There is no justice.

There is just us. And we have to make our own heaven. And that is all humans hope to really do. To be happy. It doesn’t matter what you believe in but that is in effect what we want in life the most. And you don’t need to have read the Bible, the Koran or the Vedas to know this and to understand what suffering is.

If you cannot listen to those who suffer without reading those books then I am afraid you don’t know what humans are really capable of doing.


  1. says

    The Chaplaincy was created with the notion of helping soldiers who had crisis of faith, not to push religion on the bulk of soldiers without regards to their beliefs.

    Nonsense. It was created with proselytization as its goal, and has remained oriented toward that purpose. Let’s stop dancing around the issue.

  2. yoav says

    They keep ignoring some big problems even though it was explained to them repeatedly using only small words.
    1. The chaplaincy distribute all kinds of funds for social activities that are only available for recognized groups, as long as atheists are not included they are being discriminated against since they don’t get the same access to resources as religious soldiers.
    2. Unlike a meeting with a chaplain, if a soldier seek help from a therapist it would appear on their record and can adversely affect their career, the content of therapy session is also not confidential and can be summoned by the military authorities under the pretense of assessing the individual’s security clearance.

  3. gshelley says

    I still don’t get the insistence that the Chaplains must believe in some sort of deity. It doesn’t help them perform religious services. A Muslim or Buddhist Chaplain is no more able to hear confession and give absolution than a Catholic chaplain. For that matter, any other denomination of Christianity is probably equally irrelevant. Why do they believe a Hindu chaplain is better able to offer guidance to a Muslim or Christian than an atheist or any other possible combination of chaplain and personnel?

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