Culture At Large

A Christian case for atheist chaplains

Branson Parler

Can an atheist serve as a military chaplain?

Jason Heap, a humanist and atheist, recently applied to serve as a chaplain in the United States Navy. At the same time, the House of Representatives passed an amendment that affirms only chaplains endorsed by religious organizations that believe in a higher power. Heap’s application does raise the practical question of endorsement. Simply being a Christian does not qualify one to serve as a chaplain; one must go through a process within one’s ecclesiastical body. Given that there’s no atheist church, what qualifies Heap to serve in that role?

Although practical questions remain, I believe there’s a Christian case to be made for atheist chaplains. Moreover, rethinking the reasons behind atheist chaplains can help us embrace a robust pluralism that is not only open to atheism, but should make other public and governmental institutions more open to religious faith. 

The ban on atheist chaplains makes sense if we set “religion” over against something else, such as “atheism,” which is “non-religious.” But what if we change the terminology from “religion” to “worldview?” It’s standard fare for Christians to talk about atheism, naturalism or humanism as worldviews. And Christians have often argued against giving atheism a completely different status from theistic belief. For example, Christian philosophers Nicholas Wolterstorff and Alvin Plantinga have argued that everyone, religious or not, operates from a set of control beliefs or basic beliefs that we argue from rather than argue to. In other words, the military’s definition of “all faiths” is based on a dichotomy between religious belief and unbelief that Christians themselves have tried to deconstruct. So from a perspective that emphasizes worldview rather than religion, the military’s desire to be inclusive of “all faiths” would include rather than exclude atheist chaplains.

Christians have often argued against giving atheism a completely different status from theistic belief.

This issue can also re-open larger questions of the relationship between governmental institutions and religion. Pluralism can mean different things to different people. For some, a pluralistic society means that religion should be kept separate from governmental institutions, funding and discourse. For others, a robust pluralism means acknowledging religious traditions, both in public discourse and public funds. Having atheist chaplains would be a good reminder that unbelief in God is just as much a specific position as any religious tradition. So, for example, just as a robust pluralism would allow for atheist chaplains, one could argue that a robust pluralism would allow for public funding of schools from a variety of religious faiths, including no faith tradition. This is not establishment of religion, but a pluralism that refuses to privilege unbelief, just as the military should not privilege belief in a higher power over no belief in a higher power.

A chaplain can and does hold to a specific faith while operating in religiously pluralistic institutions, such as the military. Within a robust pluralism, Christian chaplains can be overtly and specifically Christian, Muslim chaplains can be overtly and specifically Muslim, Hindu chaplains can be overtly and specifically Hindu and yet all respect and honor those of other faith traditions or those whose faith tradition is atheism. To add atheist chaplains to this mix would not violate but affirm a robust pluralism. Further, it might open the eyes of Christians and non-Christians alike to recognize that a default neutral position that excludes religious faith in other governmental institutions and funding is not in fact neutral but favors a specific worldview, even if that worldview precludes any God from the picture.

Topics: Culture At Large, Theology & The Church, Other Religions, News & Politics, North America, Politics