Atheist Chaplains, Support, and Actual Atheist Goals
The Catholic archbishop for the military Chaplaincy, Timothy Broglio, responded to the recent NYT article about “atheist Chaplains” by wondering aloud if such a position would be an oxymoron. Importantly, since atheists can already meet as any other secular group does (like any sports, academic, or other social group), he questioned whether atheists might actually be after a “counter-Chaplaincy” within the Chaplaincy, rather than a positive representation:
“The idea of a ‘chaplaincy’ for atheists seems contradictory,” U.S. Military Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio told CNA. Under present conditions, he said, “it would seem that they could meet and sponsor activities just as many other groups do on installations. Or is the issue here the desire to set up a structure in direct opposition to the chaplaincy?”
He brings up an interesting point. As noted elsewhere, for atheists to meet the intent of the concept of the Chaplaincy, they would essentially need to acknowledge the “organized religious nature” of their belief system. Some atheists vocally oppose that in principle. If they oppose that characterization, they are treated the same way as any other non-religious group on a military installation. If they want to be treated like a religious group, then they need to organize like one. Otherwise, they can simply meet the same requirements as the local chess club.
Paul Vicalvi, head of the Chaplain-endorsing National Association of Evangelicals, agrees:
Vicalvi, a retired Army chaplain of over 30 years, said he doesn’t see the logic behind humanist chaplains.
“Traditionally chaplains are seen as a person of a higher power faith. It would redefine the chaplaincy if a non-faith person becomes a chaplain,” he said…
When it comes to the argument that humanist chaplains are needed to take care of troops with atheist beliefs or values, Vicalvi pointed out that that role is already filled by psychologists or counselors in the military, most of come from a secular humanist background, according to his experience.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach agreed with the concept of counselors, but said they shouldn’t redefine the Chaplaincy to accommodate non-Chaplains.
There remains the less controversial method of simply supporting atheists within the Chaplaincy. Since Chaplains provide moral (and morale) support in addition to their religious roles, it makes sense they could provide atheists that support as well. And they do: It is happening at military installations around the world, including Fort Bragg, where Chaplains are helping local military atheists. It is also happening at MacDill AFB.
There, a local paper notes atheist Airman SSgt Brandon Crilley “banded together” with others of like faith to form an atheist group at MacDill AFB, Florida.
Crilley and a small group of active and retired military atheists recently banded together at MacDill to provide support for atheists who feel alien in a military culture where professions of faith and patriotism often go hand in hand.
The treatment of Crilley’s group flies in the face of the frequent (and unsupported) innuendo about the military’s treatment of those who profess atheism:
They meet in a room at the MacDill chapel where Sunday school is held and whose walls are adorned with Biblical scenes.
They meet with the permission and encouragement of the base chaplain…
Members of the MacDill group said they have faced no obstacles from the base…Far from it. Members say David Buttrick, chaplain of the 6th Air Mobility Wing at MacDill, has been supportive of their efforts and allowed MASH to use the chapel and display literature in it.
Buttrick said he views MASH no differently than a group of Muslims, Catholics or any other religion seeking space to meet.
Some of the positive atmosphere may be creditable to Sgt Crilley himself. While some military atheists have taken to denigrating religious faith (using the pejorative “woo” to describe faith is the latest trend), Crilley seems to have a slightly more amiable attitude toward his fellow religious troops:
Crilley…knows pushing it too hard might cause problems with others at MacDill.
“If I sneeze and someone says, ‘God bless you,’ I don’t tell them, ‘No, I’m an atheist.’ That would be ridiculous,” he said.
It is interesting that the positive tone of the article is tempered by MAAF’s Jason Torpy echoing a line by Chris Rodda implying the “positive” is the exception: It’s ok here, but it’s not so good at the rest of the military bases.
“We’re not asking for any groundbreaking change,” Torpy said. “We just want chaplains to support all service members. What’s happening at MacDill is excellent. But we have a long way to go.”
Of course, neither Rodda nor Torpy provide anything more than vague insinuations to support their criticisms, while the article contains many details of the positive experience at MacDill. Contrary to Torpy’s assertions, the US military Chaplaincy does an admirable job of “support[ing] all service members.” MacDill provides an excellent example. As does Fort Bragg, where atheists have had nothing but praise for the Chaplaincy. As does USAFA, which notably had an Chapel-associated “freethinker” SPIRE group.
If the US military Chaplaincy’s support for atheists is such a ubiquitous negative issue, why can’t Torpy provide something more specific, especially given the dramatic counterexamples? Archbishop Broglio, in the prior article above, asked the same question:
Leaders of the push for an atheist chaplaincy say that non-believers sometimes feel marginalized by the presence of religion in the armed forces. Archbishop Broglio, however, believes that the supposed taboo against atheism in the military may be more imagined than real.
“In my three years as the Archbishop for the Military Services I have failed to perceive any stigma attached to non-believers,” he stated…
[An atheist] felt no discomfort in voluntarily expressing his atheism to the archbishop. “The fact that he spoke to me and expressed his position certainly indicates that there was no fear in doing so.”
Some are saying the call for “atheist Chaplains” seems to represent less a desire for Chaplaincy and more a desire to be included in a group of which one is not a part (not unlike those who don’t understand why girls’ soccer teams are for girls and boys’ soccer teams are for boys). This attitude of “me too” is being repeated this Thursday, when atheist groups will hold a “National Day of Reason,” the stated purpose of which is to oppose the National Day of Prayer. From the atheists’ “organizational website:”
The important message is to provide a positive, useful, constitutional alternative to the exclusionary National Day of Prayer. This web site is designed to serve…as a platform to offer a criticism of the federally-sponsored National Day of Prayer.
The page then goes into a 9-point diatribe criticizing the NDoP.
When Christmas time approaches, atheist groups want to post signs deriding “myths” next to Christmas displays. When a religious concert is held at Fort Bragg, atheists want to hold an event not for their own support, but to “counter” the Christian one. When people of faith support a National Day of Prayer, atheists hold simultaneous events in opposition. Where is the established practice of proactive, independent thought demonstrating an atheist goal other than criticizing and reacting to religion?
And people wonder why the Archbishop thinks the call for an “atheist Chaplain” might just be a shtick to “counter” the Chaplaincy. The NAE’s Vicalvi agrees:
In the end, Vicalvi said he sees the demands for atheist chaplains being less about the needs of the active duty troops and more about a vocal minority of New Atheists wanting to spread its anti-Christian movement from the public square to the military.
“I believe this is a militant minority and it is specifically against evangelical Christianity.”