Concrete Thinking About Atheist Chaplains

A word can have two meanings?
Why, the notion is absurd!
There can only be one essence,
One true meaning of a word!

Ever since the time of Plato,
Though the world itself is real,
We have understood that meaning
Is a heaven-sent ideal

Since a chaplain is a chaplain
Which we must admit is true
We must look at definitions
Not at what the chaplains do

We define them by the sacred
And this usage makes it plain
They must focus on your spirit
And ignore the mere mundane

Why, a chaplain’s not a therapist
A chaplain’s not a friend
A chaplain’s not a man on whom
A soldier can depend

A chaplain serves the sacred, but
He’s useless here on earth
There’s nothing of a chaplain
That is any worldly worth

So it doesn’t really matter
What a chaplain really does
Cos the meaning is the meaning
And it’s what it always was

And it doesn’t really matter
What the soldiers say they need—
Cos… an atheistic chaplain?
It’s preposterous! Indeed!

Involved philosophical rant, after the jump:

So my aggregator pointed me to yet another wrong-thinking post on the current issue of atheist chaplains–this post uses the request for chaplains as (yet another) proof that atheism is a religion.

Sure Atheists are great at playing rules and language lawyers when it serves their own purposes. But if it walks like a religion (which means “a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe…”), and it talks like a religion (see again the monument, and the call for Chaplains), then by Gumby, it’s a religion!

Atheists even organize themselves into sectarian groups just like Christianity has Catholicism and the wide variety of Protestant denominations, just like Judaism has various sects, just like there are Buddhists and Taoists, Shiite and Sunni Muslims, and so on and so on. Just Bing-search “Atheist Organizations” and watch the various flavors load on your screen – each with their own organizational requirements, variations on Humanistic creeds, tax-exempt status, organized events, and funding drives!

As are bridge clubs, quilting bees, Red Sox Nation, the Justin Bieber Fan Club, and more–indeed, these religions, organized with specific purposes, fit their definition even more closely than atheism (nice try, though, taking the fact that atheism has no common positive definition and turning the resulting chaos into “sects”)

But for all their willingness to stretch and contort the word “religion”, they have a hard time seeing anything more than one narrow definition of “chaplain”. And that’s what I want to talk about here.

Plato defined things by their essences–“Platonic ideals” were non-earthly representations of, say, triangles, or cats, or chairs. We recognize triangles because our minds compare that which we see before us with our mental, ideal triangle. Chairs are defined by their chairness, red by redness, and chaplains by chaplain-ness. The essence of a chaplain, by this website, is that “a “Chaplain” is a person of a specific religion empowered to give spiritual guidance under the tenets of that religion.”

Wittgenstein, on the other hand, defined meaning as use. The meaning of a word is defined in how we use it–of course, this means that different language communities will have differing definitions of common words, depending on their differing uses. This, of course, is exactly what we observe. Context is everything. What a chaplain is, in this view, is defined by what they do. And what they do, currently, is allow a set of very earthly privileges to Christians (the vast preponderance of chaplains are christians, and of a small number of conservative denominations–the chaplains absolutely do not mirror the population they serve)–in terms of counseling that does not go on record (today’s post notes that secular counselors are available for the armed forces, but does not note that any visits to these counselors are part of one’s military record), and in terms of breaks from duty (worship services, in practice, are a chance for non-believers to be put to extra work while their peers are at chapel).

There are two ways around this. One way would be to institute a separate support service, available to all members of the armed forces, which takes over the mundane aspects of the chaplains’ jobs. Off-the-record counseling, time to meet with like-minded peers for down-time, and the like (whether at a chapel, a library, or a playing field). Chaplains would no longer be required for these things, and could sit in their offices praying for troops’ salvation. Since that is what chaplains do, once you remove the practical worldly duties that non-chaplains could perform just as well. Of course, this would require a lot of work, figuring out the limitations of each position, and the transition would be awkward, but it would at least treat all members equally, and perform the mundane purposes (that is, the non-religious) that chaplains currently perform.

The other way would be to allow atheist chaplains, and harden the fuck up about whether the word is being used as Plato would want. We already have people who perform those mundane aspects of a chaplain’s job–chaplains. We have people who need those mundane aspects of a chaplain’s job–members of the armed forces. Some of them are atheists.

The military can do this. Words change. The cavalry are no longer necessarily mounted on horseback. We are what we do, and the name attached to that job is secondary.


  1. CatMat says

    Interesting. Could Congress also pass a law banning LDS chaplains? Hindu chaplains? Muslim? Taoist?

    Neither [a state nor the Federal Government] can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion to another.

    If anything, Congress passing the amendment banning atheist chaplains kind of proves that atheism cannot be a religion, right?

  2. Joan says

    Maybe it’s just about semantics. Does the military have guidance counselors? Since a chaplain by definition is a member of (some) clergy and is supposed to be ordained and not only offer guidance but speak for God..(as long as God doesn’t interfere with the Military),then how about just Atheist guidance counselors?

    Well, they’d probably interpret that as recruiting for Atheism.. but it’s a thought.

  3. Cuttlefish says

    The chaplain is the only current place (that I am aware of) where counseling occurs without the visit being part of one’s official record. The services rendered are only part of the equation–the confidentiality of the service is just as important.

  4. Joan says

    Yikes! And where else could one be assured of confidentiality? Psychiatric services? Guess not because the minute you want to confer with someone it goes on your permanent record. I guess that is why so many who may be suffering from PDSD as well as any of the myriad other problems which might occur in the military just keep mum and suffer.

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