New Jersey Democratic Rep. Rob Andrews proposed an amendment to the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act Wednesday, the text of which is below in full:
AMENDMENT TO H.R. 1960
OFFERED BY MR. ANDREWS OF NEW JERSEY
At the end of subtitle A of title V, add the following
1 SEC. 502. INCLUSION IN THE CHAPLAIN CORPS OF PER-
2 SONS AVAILABLE TO PROVIDE GUIDANCE
3 AND COUNSEL TO MEMBERS OF THE ARMED
4 FORCES WHO ARE ATHEIST, AGNOSTIC, OR
5 BELONG TO NO ORGANIZED FAITH GROUP.
6 The Secretary of Defense shall provide for the ap-
7 pointment, as officers in the Chaplain Corps of the Armed
8 Forces, of persons who are certified or ordained by non-
9 theistic organizations and institutions, such as humanist,
10 ethical culturalist, or atheist.
In short, this amendment provides an expansion of services of the chaplain corps by allowing non-believers to join the ranks. Obviously they’re not “chaplains” in the same sense as their peers, but they will offer the same counseling services that religious members of the military regularly enjoy.
Given the increasing percentage of atheists, agnostics, secularists, and other unbelievers serving honorably in the military (*cough*PatTillman*cough*), giving them equal access to counseling services … along with just someone to talk to … makes logical sense, right?
Haha, no. They don’t need counseling because atheists don’t believe in anything. And how do we know? Because a couple of conservative Christian Republicans on the committee don’t understand the first thing about atheism:
But Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee objected mightily, saying that atheists can’t offer spiritual counseling and would likely offend dying soldiers or their families.
Two things come immediately to mind. First, of course atheists can’t offer spiritual counseling. That’s sort of by definition. They can, however, offer non-religious counseling that covers issues like coping with stress, anxiety, and grieving over the loss of a brother or sister in arms. The argument can possibly be made that they may not belong in the “chaplains’ corps”, but given the range of duties they have, it’s reasonable to suggest they do.
Second, if the dying or dead soldier identified as atheist or agnostic and the counselor is actually qualified for the position they hold, then the issue of “offense” is a manufactured problem. The only possible conflict I could see would be if they never came out to their family … at which point the offense might be aimed at the messengers.
“They don’t believe anything,” said Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas) “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.’”
I can’t imagine it either … and that’s because it wouldn’t happen. That would be like a Christian chaplain comforting a parent by saying something like, “Don’t worry … it was God’s plan that your son’s face was accidentally blown off by a grenade thrown by his friend. God was watching him as he suffered indescribable pain for hours while they tried desperately to save him, but they ultimately failed. But praise the Lord … he’s with Jesus now. You should be happy.”
See? We can all make offensive, exaggerated claims about the platitudes these notification teams will give based on ill-informed opinions surrounding certain beliefs. It doesn’t make them true.
“This I think would make a mockery of the chaplaincy,” said Rep. John Fleming (R-La.). “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.’”
As opposed to what? Look, I’m not going to pretend Fleming’s imaginary straw-chaplain would come close to saying that goddamned boneheaded to begin with, but he’s not going to provide any comfort for a non-believer by telling him that in a few short hours, he’s going to be spending eternity playing harp music with the Cherubim to praise the glory of the LORD he doesn’t believe in. It’s not going to happen. They will provide comfort and solace in the way that is best suited for the person to whom they are tending. That’s how it works for religious people, and that’s how it works for non-religious people too. I don’t know what’s so surprising about this.
For his part, Rep. Andrews (the sponsor of the amendment) vehemently defended the bill, saying that atheists obviously do have values and beliefs … and that suggesting otherwise is nothing more than ignorance on the part of those who are too damned lazy and self-righteous to bother actually understanding another perspective, but are happy simply to judge it based on what makes them feel good about themselves.
Besides, in this stage of our political discourse, there’s not many people who will call him out on it enough to make the effort worthwhile.