Rep. Bob Andrews (D-NJ) offered an amendment to the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act this past Wednesday that would permit atheists, humanists, or members of ethical culture groups to the military chaplain corps. His idea was to assist atheistic military members who want to speak to someone about their problems without seeking a medical professional. This idea has gained momentum recently.
Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee, however, objected greatly to the proposal. They maintained that atheists are unable to offer spiritual counseling and would likely offend service members or their families. Rep. Mike Conaway (R-TX), stated strongly, “They don’t believe anything. I can’t imagine an atheist accompanying a notification team as they go into some family’s home to let them have the worst news of their life and this guy says, ‘You know, that’s it – your son’s just worms, I mean, worm food.’” Rep. John Fleming (R-LA), added, “This I think would make a mockery of the chaplaincy. The last thing in the world we would want to see was a young soldier who may be dying and they’re at a field hospital and the chaplain is standing over that person saying to them, ‘If you die here, there is no hope for you in the future.’” The top Democrat on the committee, Rep. Adam Smith(D-WA), responded, “To say that an atheist or a 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.”
These politicians are obviously unaware of a couple of facts. First, atheists are able to speak about their problems with the chaplains who are currently serving. They are not prohibited from speaking with chaplains, and chaplains will not force their religious views upon them during counseling. Rather, chaplains are trained to work with an individual according to his or her worldview. Second, if atheists do not desire to speak with a chaplain, they may seek counsel from several sources, including mental health, Military Family Life Consultants, and a variety of options from Military One Source. In other words, they already have options – including both medical and non-medical ones. Rep. Andrews’ amendment would provide nothing useful, and serve only to undermine the role of faith in the lives of military members and undercut the beneficial and demanding work of the chaplain corps.