Military Atheists Seek Benefits of Theists
The Stars and Stripes recently had two articles on atheism in the military, one on atheism at the service academies and one in the military in general. Both were written by reporter Chris Carroll.
The first, “Atheists groups find doors open to them at service academies,” notes that all three primary service academies have groups for “nonbelievers.” The one at the Naval Academy is sponsored by Jewish Chaplain (LtCmdr) Seth Phillips:
“The group is no different than any other student group with connections to the outside world,” Phillips said. “The Baptists are supported by the Baptist Student Union, and some other Christian groups get support from the Navigators. In no way is this group unique, different or specially privileged.”
Of course, Chaplain Phillips’ comment makes the most sense with regard to student religious groups. Because there is a Constitutional protection of the human liberty of religious freedom, religious groups may have “unique” or “different” treatment than, say, the ski club — for which there is neither Constitutional protection nor a recognized human liberty.
The second article discusses the presence of atheists in the military in general, saying “Military atheists seeking the rights and benefits offered to religious groups” and noting atheist groups have “sprung up” on “bases around the world.”
Nearly 20 other unofficial atheist fellowship groups have sprung up in recent months on U.S. military installations in the United States and around the world…
It’s all part of a coordinated effort to bring atheists out of the shadows push for the Department of Defense to give groups that explicitly reject religion the status and First Amendment protections that religious groups have.
Therein lies an interesting issue. The “First Amendment protection” at issue is the one that prohibits Congress from making any law prohibiting the free exercise of religion. But is atheism a religion to be “exercised?” Does the Constitution guarantee the free exercise of atheism? Is atheism even a distinct ideology?
There are logical arguments on both sides of that question. Some say that “non-belief” is a legitimate theological framework deserving of the same protection as belief. From that perspective, atheists are just as worthy of “protection” as theists. Others say that atheists are simply those who do not have religious beliefs, therefore they have no more right to “religious protections” than the chess club or the Toastmasters. Thus, to give atheists the same “rights” as theists is to treat them differently and give them special rights. (Is “X” entitled to the same protections as “the absence of X” or “anti-X”?)
Another point of contention is the motivation behind the movements. When Christian, Jewish, Islamic, etc, groups gather, their stated intent is not solely to counter another faith’s group or to discuss or mock an atheist group. Each faith group has an independent theology allowing them to fellowship together based on their common principles.
By contrast, atheists have previously indicated, and others have asserted, that their whole purpose is to “answer” religion (often, Christianity specifically). Not unlike a child who cannot understand why he doesn’t get a gift on his brother’s birthday, some atheists can’t seem to understand or acknowledge the right of others to have and celebrate their beliefs. Some atheists have made a point of saying they need the freedom to “denigrate” religion when they meet together. When military atheists gathered at MacDill AFB they had a “Left Behind” picnic. Think they would take issue with a Christian “Psalm 14:1” picnic? Despite the claims of some that atheists “celebrate reason,” it seems many simply cannot exist without responding to — most often, mocking — religion.
One of the primary subjects of the Stars and Stripes article posted a comment on the article supporting this very idea. In trying to distinguish between atheism and humanism, US Army Captain Ryan Jean said
Atheism is a reason-based reply to the claims of the religious…and asserts nothing more than that the burden of proof is on the religious and that we have evaluated it and found it lacking… [emphasis added]
Captain Jean eloquently stated that atheism is not an independent ideology; it is a response to religion.
That doesn’t entitle it to the “benefits” of a religion. The head of the Air Force Chaplaincy spoke fairly clearly on his perspective on the issue:
Air Force Chief of Chaplains Maj. Gen. Cecil Richardson suggested it’s a contradiction to treat atheism as religion…
If atheists don’t want to interact with chaplains, there are ways to avoid them, Richardson said…
“it should be remembered that there are lots of non-faith-based helping agencies in the military,” he said, including family counseling and mental health services. “They are also available to atheists.”
Chaplain Richardson was also likely alluding to the recent calls for an “atheist Chaplain.” Responses to his line of thinking have included the (correct) assertion that only Chaplains have “absolute confidentiality:”
“But what about the fact when you go to a chaplain for counseling, it’s protected by a higher level of confidentiality than just about anywhere else?” responded Air Force Technical Sgt. Doyle Stricker.
The reason for that confidentiality is, again, the free exercise of religion. It is a recognition of the relationship between “priest and penitent:” The “penitent” cannot be free to exercise his religious confession, for example, if the “priest” can be compelled to reveal the details of the confession. Atheists already have access to that “religious benefit” if they need it. Seeking such access as Chaplains would be obtaining a “benefit” predicated solely upon a religious act.
As an aside, the media still can’t get their story straight over “Rock Beyond Belief”:
The atheism-themed “Rock Beyond Belief” concert, was canceled after base officials said it couldn’t be held in the same spacious facilities Rock the Fort had used. They relented after continuing accusations of bias, and the concert is scheduled for March 2012.
The accurate characterization is that “Rock Beyond Belief” — not the Army — “relented,” finally raising their own money and dropping their demand that the government (or military Christian congregations) pay for their atheist event.