Pastor: Atheist military chaplains would be a good thing

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 6 2013 4:45 p.m. MDT

When Congress blocked a push for atheist chaplains in the military, advocates for religion rejoiced while humanists called the exclusion unfair.

Now, a Baptist pastor says both sides should rethink their reaction.

"Contrary to what you may be reading, Christians should be disappointed and atheists should be glad," wrote Wallace Henley, senior associate pastor at Houston's Second Baptist Church and a former congressional staffer, in the Christian Post.

"Why? Because allowing atheist chaplains recognizes atheism as a religion and would make atheists subject to the same legal restrictions they have gleefully placed on every other religion."

Henley goes on to explain that allowing atheist chaplains would allow believers to threaten litigation against humanists for not allowing a prayer at a city council meeting.

"Atheism's well-financed institutions often base their arguments on the allegation that taxpayer money is being used to advocate a particular religion," Henley wrote. "But if atheism is seen for what it is, a religion, then theists might be able to claim their tax money is now used to advocate the atheist position of no prayer."

Getting believers to acknowledge atheism as a religion would be tough.

Battling amendments over military chaplains ended July 23 when the House of Representatives approved an amendment to a military spending bill that codified the existing requirement that all military chaplains be endorsed by a religious organization.

Juicy Ecumenism reported that the amendment's sponsor, Rep. John Fleming, R-La., said: "The notion of an atheist chaplain is nonsensical; it’s an oxymoron.”

But humanist chaplain Chris Stedman, who serves students at Harvard University, explains in the Huffington Post that atheists have the same needs as believers in the military who don't want to turn to a mental health therapist for some questions.

"We are available to talk with members of our community about how their nonreligious values inform their actions, and how their worldview helps them respond to and process tragedy," he wrote of his work at Harvard. "We are there to listen, but we can also share some of our thoughts and share from our experiences, something that most psychologists do not do."

The battle over atheist chaplains may not be over, however.

Jason Torpy, president of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, told the Religion News Service that military regulations don't require a chaplain candidate's endorsement to come from an organization of believers in a divinity.

“The language (of the amendment) only requires adherence to the applicable instruction, which in no way restricts chaplains to only those who believe in some higher power,” he said. “Their amendment does nothing, so there’s nothing to be done in response. It just shows their ignorance about atheists, humanists and military regulations.”

mbrown@deseretnews.com

Twitter: @deseretbrown

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