Free Inquiry: There are indeed atheists in foxholes

Saturday April 13, 2013

Several times a year for the six-plus years I have been religion editor of the Banner I have received a copy of the magazine Free Inquiry, published by the Council for Secular Humanism. This non-profit group says its mission "is to advocate and defend a nonreligious life stance rooted in science, naturalistic philosophy, and humanist ethics and to serve and support adherents of that life stance."

The phrase "advocate and defend a nonreligious life stance" at the beginning of the mission statement accurately signals a defensive and frequently hostile attitude toward religious belief and believers in the magazine’s content.

As a religious believer this is not a stance I share. Unsurprisingly, Free Inquiry has frequently published articles from such aggressive atheists as the late Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel C. Dennett.

Despite such luminaries, including the estimable pro-life civil libertarian Nat Hentoff, writing for the magazine, I frequently find that the articles in Free Inquiry rather uninteresting and/or polemical -- sometimes featuring juvenile stereotypes of religion and believers. Even when they do have value, I usually only read them long enough to get the gist of the argument, as at times they are overlong and repetitive.

However, the April/May 2013 issue (cover pictured above) caught my interest, containing a package of articles under the heading "Army of God: America’s Armed Forces vs. Their Non-Theists."

I have been following stories for a while about alleged conformity demanded by Christian evangelical U.S. military chaplains both in war zones and in places like the U.S. Air Force Academy. Being non-evangelical, and also not politically conservative, I have sympathy for non-evangelical Christians and non-Christians who get a hard sell in the military from what Free Inquiry calls "Christian-nation evangelism."

It’s hard to tell from the cover reproduction above, but the right eye of the soldier’s goggles has a stained-glass image of Jesus on it. Behind the issue is the indisputable fact that the number of those unaffiliated with any religious tradition is increasing in the U.S., as shown by numerous recent studies, and especially among the young, precisely those recruited by the armed forces.

The military chaplaincy appears to be a tricky issue among the staff, contributors and readers of Free Inquiry, because one camp apparently would like to the military chaplaincy eliminated as a violation of the constitutional separation of church and state, while others would like to see it expanded to include Humanist chaplains, such as those employed by the Dutch military.


Here are some excerpts from the six articles in the package.

In the first article, West Point graduate Jason Torpy, who served in Iraq and is president of the Military Association of Atheists & Freethinkers, writes that the term "Christian-nation evangelism" may seem inflammatory but "accurately represents the convictions of many in the chain of command that, among other things, that the United States is a Christian nation founded on Christian principles and that it is not only legal but required to utilize personal rank and military resources to spread the message of Christianity."

Torpy adds, "Military ministries like the Officers’ Christian Fellowship and the Campus Crusade Military Ministry operate with budgets in the hundreds of millions of dollars. The military chaplaincy is nearly 98 percent Christian, and nearly two-thirds of its members hail from denominations that prioritize proselytization of their beliefs. So-called spiritual fitness programs, which flourish throughout the military, are developed and overseen by those same chaplains, so no one should be surprised that servicemembers are being pushed toward religion worship and prayer."

The costs of this trend toward "compulsory religion" include "driving a wedge into the military team, failing to resolve issues of post-traumatic stress, isolating many service members and violating our Constitution."

In "The Ravages of Wartime Moral Injuries," another article in the package, Gretchen Brendel Mann, a civilian physician who has worked for the Department of the Army for 20 years, writes that, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs, moral injury "is an act of transgression, which shatters moral and ethical expectations that are rooted in religious or spiritual beliefs, or culture-based, organizational, and group-based rules about fairness, the value of life, and so-forth."

Mann writes that moral injury is increasingly seen as a precursor to PTSD, especially in combat environments.

Her argument is that commanders frequently refer troubled soldiers to chaplains, who "do not necessarily have any professional counseling credentials and have shown very little interest in reaching out to the non-religious."

She adds, "We must recognize that religious evangelizing and proselytizing are not mental health therapies." Moreover, recent polls showing that more than one-quarter of servicemembers do not identify with a specific religion. "Going to a chaplain and discussing serious moral injuries in the context of supernatural beings could increase feelings of isolation and hopelessness for the atheist or agnostic."

My vote for the best article in the package is "Why Chaplains Should be Contracted, Not Commissioned" by Carlos Bertha, an associate professor in the Philosophy Department at the U.S. Air Force Academy.

He argues that religious chaplains should be hired as civilian contractors, religious matters being the one task -- "meeting the free exercise of religion needs of servicemembers" -- that chaplains are constitutionally approved for. Now part of the official military command structure, chaplains in fact also "deliver a wide array of secular services, including coordination of religious services, informal (uncredentialed) coaching and counseling, providing ethical advice to the command, and various types of mental health and family training."

Bertha would like to see these secular services offered by other contractors, not religious chaplains, and offers several reasons for this. He notes, that as we all learned during the U.S. wars of the last decade, private contractors already serve the military in a variety of presumably sensitive roles such as guarding installations.

One advantage he notes that appeals to me is that under a contracted chaplain system "some more pacifist religions or denominations that currently do not provide commissioned officers may be willing to provide contractors."

While Bertha notes daunting challenges and objections to changing the military chaplaincy -- especially tradition -- "a reckoning is coming." This reckoning comes in the form of increasing numbers of personnel with non-theistic and non-religious beliefs. "The lack of diversity among chaplains is crashing violently into the expanding diversity of military culture and indeed American culture generally. For example, some chaplains fight same-sex relationships, and that losing battle will come into stark relief as same-sex couples appear at marriage retreats and counseling activities."

Full paoply of rights

Indeed, keep your eyes out: Now that a full panoply of rights has been extended to gay servicemembers, expect increasing media attention to clashes between conservative chaplains and their supporters and commanders and the civilian leadership.

It’s hard to disagree with the evidence of demographics. While I strongly believe that religious servicemembers do need chaplains to insure that their right to practice their faith is met, I can see where the chaplaincy may need to change, or be changed, with the times. Rather than a complete overhaul of the chaplaincy, the introduction of non-theistic Humanist chaplains may be a tenable compromise. And tasks such as marriage counseling, for instance, may best be put into the hands of trained secular contractors.

Mark E. Rondeau is the religion editor of the Banner. Follow him on Twitter @banner_religion


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