Should There Be Atheist Military Chaplains?

Jason Heap raised this intriguing question when he submitted his application to become a Navy chaplain. The words atheist and chaplain seem to be contradictory, since chaplains provide for the spiritual needs of the military.  They officiate religious services and provide pastoral care. How could an atheist do that? 

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There are a growing number of atheists/agnostics in America, including military men and women. Don’t they also need care?  Shouldn’t there be chaplains to meet the needs of this growing demographic?

Atheists, like Christians, should not be crammed into one box.  There are atheists whose mission is to disparage and destroy religion, and would not be the best caregivers.  But there are also atheists whose mission is to teach the value and goodness of the human being, without using religion to do so.  While there are irreconcilable differences between Christian and secular humanism, there are also points of agreement between them. 

To turn this argument on its head, is the chaplain required to share the spiritual beliefs of soldiers and military personnel? Chaplains are required to work in an interfaith (not just interdenominational) context.  Humanism is not completely faithless – but their faith lies in the dignity and goodness of humanity, not in a deity.  

While I’m sympathetic with some of atheism’s criticisms of religion, I find the denial the existence of a creator a logical absurdity.  It’s fatal flaw is it’s failure to account for the origins of the universe.  Atheism, in other words, requires a bigger leap of faith than theism. 

At the end of the day, if I’m critically injured I won’t refuse a humanist chaplain. We disagree on the source of my worth, but if they affirm humanity’s value just as much as I do, I’ll welcome their care and support. 

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About Corey Sharpe

Where do we get our beliefs? Three theological perspectives have significantly shaped my Christian identity: Evangelicalism, the early Methodist tradition and liberation theology. From my coming to faith in a Baptist church and throughout my education in a Baptist school and college, I was nurtured by convictions that emphasized a spiritual rebirth, a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and the centrality of the Bible. Even when I disagree with certain aspects of evangelicalism, it has deeply influenced my sense of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ. My seminary studies spawned my interest in early Methodism, particularly its approach to spiritual formation. Its leaders were convinced that only a foundation of doctrine and discipline would lead to a meaningful transformation of the heart and mind. In other words, having the mind of Christ enables me to be more like Christ. Life in a suburban culture obscures the increasing gap between the poor and rich, as well as the Bible’s close identification with the poor. My doctoral work in socio-cultural context exposed me to liberation theology, which helps me see redemptive history as a history of oppressed groups, written from the perspective of the powerless, about a God who is actively involved with the poor in their struggles. I am now the pastor at Huntingtown United Methodist Church in Calvert County, Maryland. Together my wife and I are raising 4 young theologians.
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7 Responses to Should There Be Atheist Military Chaplains?

  1. Carol says:

    Isn’t the very idea of an atheist chaplain an oxymoron?

    • Pastor Corey says:

      If so, maybe Buddhist chaplains should be banned. They teach a unifying spiritual power or principle that underlies all of reality, not a personal god.

      • Carol says:

        Well, yes, maybe they should ban Buddhist chaplains.
        After my initial comment I clicked on that first link (Jason Heaps) and read in the informative article that there is an amendment going to the US Senate from the House proposing to ban chaplains who do not believe in a personal god. So, I guess that means Buddhist chaplains. [How many would the US military lose if they were banned this very day? I wonder how only a few Buddhist chaplains are able to serve Buddhist servicemen in the US armed forces around the globe.]
        How big is the push for atheist chaplains and from which factions does this thrust come?
        May the Almighty God help our military if it comes down to this, if it comes to admitting atheist chaplains. Wish my dad were here to comment on this. He was a pilot in WW II. He always said there were no atheists in foxholes (a comment also appearing in the cited article as being opposed by humanists). I seriously doubt that a Buddhist or Scientologist or Unitarian or Islamist or humanist or atheist “chaplain” could fill the bill in his hour of need, any more than such a one could meet any Christian”s need to hear reaffirmation of the only God. And I have no doubt that he would not be drawn to attend a “worship service” conducted by any one of these. Such a chaplain would be absolutely worthless. Unless one needs to hear more about the goodness and worth of man.
        It’s because man already thinks so darn much of himself that the “fringe” is fast becoming the “garment”.
        And ask how the victims of the “workplace shooting” at Ft. Hood would have appreciated a Muslim chaplain on that fateful day or any day that has followed.
        More than absurd, isn’t it?
        A poll of veterans in Christian congregations on this issue might provide fodder for much more discussion.
        To welcome and encourage such a one as Jason Heaps seems to me to be the same as disobeying the first command, Thou shall have no other gods.
        Shocking to read the “credentials” of Jason Heaps. He has chosen to leave the camp. How very sad. And worse, he teaches teenagers in Britain…what does he teach them? Does he share with them his enlightened thinking?
        No, thanks!
        So interesting that Heaps has applied to be a humanist chaplain…sounds so much more palatable than atheist chaplain, doesn’t it?
        Mr. Heaps can best serve this country by staying out of the Navy entirely.

  2. Karen Schreiber says:

    I agree with Carol. No other Gods before thee–means even no other human above God. Thou shall love no other God and love your God with all your heart and all your soul. How can one love God and themselves.

    The trouble with society now is placing humans above all else. Remember Nebuchadnezzar dream about a statue and Daniel’s interpretation? We are the servant of God and we shall obey to receive His love and guidance. The placing of anyone above God brings about destruction. It also brought the scattering of the Jews, including a history of captivity.

    Will we as humans ever learn?

  3. Kara says:

    What is the role of a military chaplain? If it is simply to provide emotional support, any kind, caring person would qualify. If it is to provide spiritual support and guidance during a time of spiritual crisis an atheist would not be able to provide that support to a Christian. Our military face physical, emotional, and spiritual crises at a time when they are away from their family, and faith community. When faced with a crisis such as the horrors we see daily on world news this creates a crisis of faith. A non-Christian is not qualified to meet the spiritual need that witnessing and even participating in these horrors creates. A person of faith needs another person of faith to help wrestle with the difficult questions of how a good God allows such atrocities.
    If a soldier has a brain injury, then a neurosurgeon is the only qualified physician to meet the need. A general surgeon is qualified for many injuries, but no one would want them doing brain surgery. Likewise, an atheist may be able to provide for many of the emotional needs of the military, but when a Christian has a crisis of faith only another Christian is qualified to give spiritual support.
    In my own life when my infant daughter was stillborn, I faced both a physical, emotional and spiritual crisis. The first phone call I made was to my pastor. He came to my side and provided for my spiritual needs. He read to me the words of Psalm 46, the words were life giving to me, every bit as life giving as blood dripping into my veins.
    If a Christian chaplain is not available then another military person of the Christian faith should be made available to provide the necessary spiritual support needed.
    “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear…Be still and know that I am God. “ Psalm 46

  4. Pastor Corey says:

    The debate over the chaplaincy sounds like the one over gay marriage – should the definitions of institutions be changed to suit the changing times? Marriage, legislatively at least, is being redefined, to reflect changing attitudes. The same is happening to the chaplaincy. The new definition will retain the caregiving aspect, but “bringing God to solders and soldiers to God” part is becoming an option.

    • Carol says:

      If we ask ourselves if this direction is pleasing to God or not (not if this direction is pleasing to man or not) what would your answer have to be?
      Marriage is not being redefined by God, only by (some) men.
      Jesus the Christ did not descend to His Earth to declare all faiths and belief systems to be equal or worthy of honor. He came to show us the way to eternal life with Him. Our purpose is to declare this Gospel to the world. Anything or anything that deflects us in that mission is of the devil.
      It is a fool who will stand at the Judgment and say to God, “You were just another option.”

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