April 26, 2015

Are Atheist Chaplains Needed in the Military?

Stained glass window, U. S. Pentagon, honoring...
Stained glass window, U. S. Pentagon, honoring the Four Chaplains, USAT Dorchester, 1943 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Using data from a recent Christianity Today article, Hemant Mehta (Friendly Atheist) wrote a post in which he noted: (1) there are more atheists than Southern Baptists among active duty military personnel, and (2) there are far more military chaplains who are Southern Baptists. And by far more, he shared that there are 437 Southern Baptist chaplains compared with 0 atheist or humanist chaplains. That is quite a difference.

If I am to be honest, I must admit that I am struggling a bit here to wrap my head around why non-religious individuals (i.e., atheists, secular humanists) serving in the military might want access to a non-religious chaplain. I can certainly understand why non-religious individuals would want access to professionals who would listen to them in a nonjudgmental manner, help them cope effectively, wrestle with existential issues, and the like. But they already have access to people who can do this in the form of counselors, psychologists, and other mental health professionals.

What is a secular chaplain able to do that a mental health professional cannot? I suppose there could be more of them because they would be cheaper to employ. Is that what this is all about though - access? If so, I can see how this could be framed as a church-state issue. Religious persons would have access to something that non-religious persons did not, and I can imagine how that could be a concern. But is there really a need to non-religious chaplains in the sense that this is something that military personnel want?

A religious chaplain has something that most mental health professionals do not: religious training. A religious chaplain is able to discuss faith with the faithful in a way some of us probably are not. While I certainly would not have any interest in this, it is not difficult to understand why a religious person might. But I'm really not sure what a non-religious chaplain has to offer in such a context.

Are there atheists and/or humanists in the military who are eager to discuss the intricacies of their atheist and/or humanist views with someone who might be more knowledgeable about them than either the average person or the average mental health professional? If so, then I suppose that could warrant the presence of non-religious chaplains.

I think it is likely that I'm missing something obvious here, so please feel free to share whatever insight you might have in the comments.