November 22, 2013
This summer the House finally passed its version of the National Defense Authorization Act, catapulting military issues to the forefront of public debate.
Among these issues was the question of Humanist chaplains in the military. Currently nearly 30 percent of the military identifies as religiously unaffiliated or atheist/agnostic. Yet there is not a single atheist or Humanist chaplain to serve these brave men and women who make incredible sacrifices to protect our freedoms every day.
To understand the importance of chaplains for all service members – including atheists – one must first understand military culture, in which a visit to a psychiatrist can have a devastating impact on the member’s career.
In contrast, despite that the nonreligious outnumber the combined total of Hindus, Muslims and Jews in the armed services, all of these groups have chaplains for their respective religions.
Furthermore, atheist or non-religious family members are also being deprived of a channel of support for their questions and concerns as they deal with issues of separation, life on a base and even the death of a family member.
The military began employing chaplains because they felt that the health of service men and women was not being sufficiently maintained by medical professionals. And the very fact that the Department of Defense has employed chaplains of different faiths indicates that they believe that a chaplain of the same faith as the service member who seeks their help is the ideal situation.
Despite that the amendments failed, real progress was made. In a historical and ground-breaking moment, 150 representatives openly and on the record, voted in favor of supporting nontheists—a strong showing that was previously unheard of.
And in a heartening and spirited show of support, several representatives spoke openly about their support for the nontheistic community—an act that could have meant political suicide not long ago. Rep. Adam Smith, a Democrat from Washington, stood up for the nontheistic community, saying that nontheists do have strong belief systems, which “they value just as much as Christians value theirs.” He continued, “To say that an atheist or Humanist doesn’t believe anything is just ignorant…The response to the gentleman’s amendment makes me feel all the more the necessity of it.”