The military has broadened its views quite a bit when it comes to accommodating a wide variety of religions, including the choice of what religious symbols are allowed to be put on tombstones in their cemeteries. Yet when it comes to chaplains, the catch is that atheists, humanists, and other non-believers are not yet fully included because of the requirement that chaplains be endorsed by at least one of about 200 recognized groups, and non-believers (and Wiccans) are not among them. An army chaplain who wanted to change from Pentecostal to Wiccan (his would an interesting story to hear!) lost his position and some other chaplains who have become humanists are fearful of revealing their change for fear of meeting the same fate.
Now the American Humanist Association is urging that it be included in that list so that Humanist chaplains could also be allowed to serve in the military.
An ‘atheist chaplain’ seems like an oxymoron but is not really. Much of a chaplain’s work is not religious but consists of being someone that people can confide in confidentially and get advice and guidance and atheists can need those services as much as anyone. We need to rid the term ‘chaplain’ of its religious overtones because there does not seem to be a good word to replace it.
The need is surely there.
They note that when soldiers seek mental health counseling it is noted in their record and reported up the chain of command. But consultations with chaplains are confidential, making them a safe place to discuss the problems soldiers routinely face — loneliness, fear, anxiety and other personal issues.
There are an estimated 13,000 active duty servicemen and women that identify as atheists or agnostics — more than the number of Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus combined — all of which have their own chaplains. Add to that a significant number — more than 276,000 — who say they have “no religious preference.”
My university recently tried to revamp its chaplaincy structure and as part of that I suggested that a humanist chaplain be included for the same reasons as above. The various types of freethinking students need an identifiable someone to confide in about the many issues that young people face in college. The entire process has however stalled.