Atheist Chaplains

This is a picture of various religious circles with a red circle and line superimposed in it.An interesting New York Times headline caught my attention: Atheists Seek a Chaplain Role in the Military. I had two simultaneous thoughts: (1) Aren’t the terms atheist and chaplain oxymorons? and (2) Why not?

I was a chaplain for the military. I was a civilian chaplain, but fulfilled the same functions as the military chaplains. The military take the role of chaplain seriously. The chaplain’s role and function are well-defined. Chaplains are expected to serve all regardless of affiliation. I had a great relationship with the commanders I worked with and was brought in all the time as a resource.

There were a lot of times when a service member was required to come see me: an incident of spousal or child abuse; transmission of a sexual transmitted disease to a spouse; substance abuse. Other times, we were there to just listen. The chaplain was considered a resource, but my additional social work background made me a primary resource.

When covering one of the Army’s major medical centers, I saw everyone, patients and medical staff, on the floors assigned to me. Being the junior person, I got ICU, Neuro (spinal cord injuries, head trauma), Burns, and Pediatric Oncology…the specialties no one else wanted to cover! And for good reason; there were difficult and delicate issues.

Although I was an ordained Protestant chaplain, I never assumed the people I saw, or who came to me, believed as I did. In fact, that wasn’t my role. I was there to listen, be supportive, and make sure their needs were being addressed. No two people are alike, the manner of support was never going to be the same. If they didn’t want to talk to me, that was their prerogative.

There was a colonel who was having a complicated medical procedure. As often happened when logistics were involved, if someone had to be brought from one of the international posts for their procedure, they were admitted to the hospital without having a designated schedule. It was the classic hurry-up-and-wait. I was making my usual rounds and the colonel was more than happy to have a visitor. He thought I was just an attentive doctor. Chaplains wore a white coat and had the standard military issue name tags with the additional symbol of a cross. Everything went well until he saw the cross. His colorful language was heard all the way to nurse’s station! He made it clear to me, in no uncertain terms, he did NOT want a visit from the chaplain.

So I stopped going to see him. About two days before his procedure, he requested to see me. I figured he must really be bored since he never had any visitors (I wonder why!). I told him that I was happy to visit and it was my policy to only talk about what was important to them. We stayed in touch even after I left that Army hospital and moved to another Army post. When he died, he requested me for his memorial services.

There’s also a flip side of this issue for me: I am wary of clergy! When I’m admitted to the hospital, I now say I have no religious affiliations. I got tired of clergy showing up because they thought we were kindred spirits, even though they didn’t believe I was really clergy AND then dealing with their empty platitudes. I usually have enough to deal with before surgery, I don’t want to manage someone else’s ego.

I know that’s harsh. And it’s why I understand atheists wanting to have their own chaplain. We all want someone who will accept us for who we are…already. We want to know that we can say anything we need to and know it will be held in confidence without judgment. We need to be free to express doubts and unbelief without being proselytized.

We’ve each been given the gift of free will. We must be allowed to exercise it. We also live in a country where we are allowed to worship, or not, as we please. We must guard that right.


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