Christianity Today Article: Atheist Chaplains in Foxholes?

I just had the privilege of writing an article for the Christianity Today Theology in the News column.  Collin Hansen wrote this column for several years.  As one who loved Collin’s essays and counts him a dear friend, it’s an honor to be able to contribute.  That honor is compounded by the fact that the founding of CT is a part of my doctoral research at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.  It’s very cool to be writing for the magazine that Carl Henry, the most significant conservative theologian of the postwar period, began in league with Billy Graham and Harold Ockenga (the three horsemen of the neo-evangelical movement).

The article is entitled “Atheists in the Foxholes–as Chaplains” and was just published today.  I won’t give the store away, but will give you a snippet of the longer piece here.  Here’s the intro:

The military chaplain is a staple of the armed forces. Many have suggested that the sense of mortality that one feels as bullets fly and bombs explode lends itself naturally to prayer and supplication of a divine being. The axiom “there are no atheists in foxholes” emerged based on battlefield scenarios.

There may soon be atheist chaplains in foxholes, however. A recent story in The New York Times, titled “Atheists Seek Chaplain Role in the Military,” covered recent efforts by atheist members of the armed forces to secure chaplaincy positions for atheists. More than 9,000 military personnel self identify as atheist or agnostic, the Times reports, and some claim that many more members of the military adhere to these camps without reporting their preference. Conversely, about 1 million troops say they are Christians. They represent roughly 70 percent of troops and about 90 percent of chaplains.

Another section raises some questions about the pretty tricky matter of how atheist chaplains can offer meaningful support to theists:

The trickiest matter raised in the Times piece and Associated Press coverage of this effort relates to how atheist chaplains in, for example, the Army can fulfill the stated requirement that they not only serve “their own faith groups in the Army” but “also ensure and provide the means for others to observe their own faith in accordance with US law and regulations.” All religious groups make absolutist claims of one kind or another. But how can a belief system—or is it a lack of belief system?—championed by figures like Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens support Christian soldiers in any meaningful sense? When considering chaplains who support Hitchens’s rather broad contention that “religion poisons everything,” how can such leaders “provide the means for others to observe their own faith”? If Christians are indeed suffering from a “God delusion,” as Dawkins has suggested, how can a chaplain who promotes Dawkins’s ideas offer belief-respecting encouragement to a Christian soldier?

Here’s the whole piece.  Hope it stimulates some thought.  This phrase has been used many times before, but it fits the topic at hand: we are living in “strange times.”  It’s unusual to see atheists desiring to be chaplains, to say nothing but the very least.  The issue raised in the piece is a real one–is atheism a belief system that can play nice with others, or is it built to attack, by nature a predatory worldview fundamentally intolerant of all others? I make the case that Christianity, for example, has far more resources by which to tolerate other religions and views than atheism does.

At base, when the bullets are flying, do you want an atheist chaplain to help you?  Do you want a chaplain at all?  Interesting questions for those who worship the God who rules over all the earth, including the battlefield.

About these ads

6 Comments

Filed under atheism

6 responses to “Christianity Today Article: Atheist Chaplains in Foxholes?

  1. Renee S.

    How about I just want someone who listens and actually has a humanitarian heart and gives a darn. If the person sincerely just wants to be there to hold someone’s hand and offer support in a trying moment and has a good heart, who cares if they are religious or not? If my son is dying over in Afghanistan and an atheist chaplain offers him comfort in his last moments, I really don’t care. I just want the person to be kind and loving and to listen. A battle zone isn’t exactly a place where people can get into long winded discussions about their faith or lack thereof while bullets and mortars are flying….

    • owenstrachan

      Appreciate you weighing in, Renee. The scenario you present is a realistic one, though as you know chaplaincy involves far more than what you’ve sketched out. So that’s something to consider.

      Evangelical Christians and perhaps many other religious folks will, though, want chaplains who can do more than merely comfort soldiers. That’s important, but Christians like myself believe it’s essential to offer hope and even gospel hope if possible. It’s interesting to think about whether an atheist acting logically on their beliefs can offer people hope of any meaningful kind.

  2. I was, and still am under the impression that Atheism is basically the “anti-religion” so I can only shake my head at the idea of this politically correct mockery.

  3. huh? That makes no sense whatsoever.

  4. The pourpose of a chaplain is to provide spiritual advice. So how can an athiest, who doesent believe in any thing spiritual, be a chaplain? That is so dumb. What is next, Pacifist Infantry men?

  5. owenstrachan

    That’s no less ironic, Nemo–good point.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s