Atheists in Foxholes Want Chaplains, Too

Secularists are pushing the military to provide non-religious ministers. Mark Dye/Reuters

As the U.S. Senate renews debate on the National Defense Authorization Act, secularists are pushing lawmakers to add an amendment to the bill that would permit non-religious chaplains in the military. Their initiative, which includes extensive lobbying efforts and a P.R. campaign, aims to provide equal access to counseling for religious and non-religious recruits. As it stands now, members of the military who seek psychological help from a therapist or counselor are not entitled to confidentiality, so what they reveal in those conversations could be seen "as a black mark" on their record – potentially jeopardizing their career, Lauren Anderson Youngblood, Secular Coalition for America spokeswoman, tells Newsweek. Conversations with a chaplain, however, are "100 percent confidential."

So what does this mean for the 4 percent of military members who identify as humanists and the approximately 12 percent who say they have no religious preference? According to Youngblood, nones seeking help are often steered toward a religious chaplain "who may evangelize." Overall, the group says 60 percent of military chaplains "evangelize," though only 1 percent of military members identify as evangelicals.

"There's not a single humanist chaplain," she says, adding that nones "are risking their lives, giving all these sacrifices to defend all our rights as Americans. Part of these rights are freedom of religion and they're being discriminated against. How ironic is that?"

The need for humanist and non-theist chaplains is real and pressing, she says, since so many soldiers have endured multiple deployments in recent years, and struggle with immense grief and combat trauma upon their return home.

Secularists, however, previously had a hard time making this case to legislators.

Colorado Democratic Rep. Jared Polis pitched this amendment to the House this summer, when the Congressional chamber was reviewing its version of the NDAA. It didn't have a prayer: 150 Congressman voted in favor of the amendment, but 274 voted against it. Some House Republicans decried the proposal, implying that atheists were insensitive nihilists who can't be trusted to deal with the important issues chaplains sometimes have to handle.

Texas Republican Rep. Mike Conaway said, "I can't imagine an atheist accompanying a notification team as they go into some family's home to let them have the worst news of their life and this guy says, 'You know, that's it — your son's just worms, I mean, worm food.'"

John Fleming, a Republican from Louisiana, said the amendment would "make a mockery of the chaplaincy… The last thing in the world we would want to see was a young soldier who may be dying and they're at a field hospital and the chaplain is standing over that person saying to them, 'If you die here, there is no hope for you in the future.'"

Fleming submitted an counter-amendment to bar humanists from serving in the military chaplaincy. Though 173 members of Congress voted against that amendment, 253 voted in favor of it.

Non-theists hope to do better in the Senate, where they know they have at least one friend, Iowa's Tom Harkin who, earlier this year, became the first sitting senator to ever address the foundation, Youngblood says.

Should the amendment fail in the Senate, however, the foundation will ask supportive legislators to write the Department of Defense, requesting the agency change the chaplain corps policy.