Help me become the best atheist chaplain I can be.
September 1, 2008 10:27 AM   Subscribe

Help me become the best atheist chaplain I can be.

I'm in the ROTC at my University, and as a cadet master sergeant this year, I've somewhat taken it upon myself to assume the unofficial role of "atheist chaplain" for the Corps. There's no official position for this, though I'm told there was once an actual Atheist Chaplain some years ago (however, it seems to have been done more as a protest than anything, which has engendered some resentment for getting the position reinstated), but I've found myself filling the vacuum anyways.

The Corps has ~2,000 cadets. I've started in my major unit (one of 9 units) by getting the names of the atheist and agnostic freshmen cadets (as well as a deist and a neo-pagan), and I took 5 of them with me to the school's Agnostic and Atheist Student Group, which was a hit both with the freshmen and the organization. My current plans include trying to get all of the irreligious freshmen in the Corps to attend these meetings with me, pending cooperation with the Corps-wide Chaplain on just who those freshmen are. The AASG is a debate group that discusses such topics as morality without religion and so forth, and is actually a really fun group, so I'm definately going to be pushing it for these cadets.

However, since we're in a very conservative, religious university in Texas, these freshmen are getting inundated with religious pressure, and I want to expand my help to include something that passes as more of a alternative to all of the bible studies and prayer sessions they're constantly getting offered. (To get an idea of the atmosphere I'm talking about, we freethinkers sit through a mimimum of two prayers a day at morning and evening chow, and every speaker for every event feels the need to quote half of the bible. It does get a little old.)

I'm short on ideas of what all I can do for the freshmen, though. I've been thinking along the lines of having some group relaxed dinners (alternative to chow) so that they can get to know one another and realize they aren't alone, which would also let me keep tabs on if any are getting any harassment within their outfits (though in my experience, 95% of the reaction I got was, if not positive, then at least no worse than good-natured ribbing. Then again, I also know the Bible better than just about anyone else in my unit, which is a great defense against the conversion-minded).

What else could I be doing for them? I have a pretty good selection of Sagan and Dawkins and so forth, so I guess I could do either a borrow-a-book or book study thing, if there's any interest. Or maybe once monthly meetings about stuff like what it's like to be an atheist in the military (though not all are military bound)? There is an obnoxious attitude of "no atheists in foxholes" that I find offensive and I would like to try and counter.

So, please, does anyone have any suggestions? The normal chaplain types do bible studies, devotionals, church carpooling, BBQs, and general counseling, and nontheistic equivalents would be welcomed.

Please note, I am not trying to make waves with anyone. I will not be challenging prayers, or attacking the current chaplain system, so please don't make suggestions that would just create resentment for atheists.
posted by internet!Hannah to Religion & Philosophy (19 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
This may seem like a minor language quibble, but I'd start by getting rid of the word "chaplain". The whole "atheism is just another religion" thing is really irritating, and calling yourself a chaplain just feeds into it. As far as I know, a chaplain is by definition a member of the clergy, which you emphatically are not. (I do not in any way mean to leave the impression that I'm against what you're doing).
posted by the bricabrac man at 10:56 AM on September 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I'm just calling myself chaplain to clarify the sort of role I'm trying to take within the organization. I'm not actually considering myself a chaplain.
posted by internet!Hannah at 11:02 AM on September 1, 2008

I never had any Chaplain try to push anything religious orientated on me the few times I used their services.

They were more like a counselor who you could actually, maybe, think that they might not tell your chain of command.

Some of the things you'll do will be based on the service members stated religion, not yours.
posted by whoda at 11:04 AM on September 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: To clear up any confusion: I'm talking about aiding nonreligious freshmen in a university ROTC. Not filling a chaplain-equivalent role in the actual military. All of the chaplains in this ROTC are juniors or seniors in college.
posted by internet!Hannah at 11:06 AM on September 1, 2008

If the reason the military has chaplains is to show soldiers that God is behind their work, it seems to me that the role you can play for atheist soldiers is to help each of them to find for her/himself the nonreligious moral basis for his or her work. To that end, I'd see if anyone is interested in studying some basic ethical philosophy. Read the works of prominent moral philosophers, both ancient and modern and talk about what obligations individuals have to protect those who cannot protect themselves. Talk about why you each decided to join the military and where the duty to serve comes from. That will help cement the feeling that your military service is worth it through the tough times. These deep discussions can also bring you closer together, which will give you that support group you'll want if any of you suffer harassment down the line.
posted by decathecting at 11:24 AM on September 1, 2008 [3 favorites]

The MAIN PURPOSE of a chaplain in the military is to convince the troops that God is behind their work. Seriously. I'm not speaking out of my ass. I have experience with this.

Um...that's not true. The MAIN PURPOSE of a chaplain in the military is to minister to the troops and act as a spiritual counselor. Not once in my 20 years of military service did I *ever* hear of any chaplain (of any faith) attempt any sort of "God is our side" discussion.

Even as an atheist, I was usually impressed with the professionalism of the military chaplains that I encountered in my work. They were - to a fault - respectful of my (lack of) belief, and unfailingly kind and compassionate to all that I saw them interact with.
posted by davidmsc at 11:28 AM on September 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

Reiteration: the main purpose of military chaplains is NOT to convince the troops that "God is on our side."
posted by davidmsc at 11:30 AM on September 1, 2008

hal_c_on writes "YOUR job is to figure out what atheists might be thinking if they REALLY fear for their lives, and how you can prevent them from freezing up and not doing what they are supposed to so others don't die."

In that case, Marcus Aurelius's Meditations. He was, reluctantly and out of duty a soldier, and if not technically atheist, not a believer in personal God or Savior. His Meditations offer a way of coming to terms with duty and death that rely on inner strength, not the crutch of a God.

For myself, Dawkins also works: recalling that I'm the continuation of three billion years of genes "striving" to adapt makes my own demise seem part of a greater process and less of a personal tragedy.
posted by orthogonality at 11:30 AM on September 1, 2008 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Okay, once again, THIS IS NOT THE MILITARY! It's a UNIVERSITY ROTC! These are college freshmen who go to school in uniform and get trained in the mornings and evenings! Probably only around 25% of the freshmen will even be heading towards military service. We all live together on campus in a regimented miltary-style program, but we are not the military, just organized like it (thus the cadet chaplains in each outfit).
posted by internet!Hannah at 11:33 AM on September 1, 2008

Best answer: If it's the conservative Texas school I think it is, and the ROTC that I'm thinking of, expect to be a safety valve for Freshmen who are pretty thoroughly pushed, some of 'em to their psychological limits. Informal counseling will probably be a bigger part than actual chaplain-esque role.

Beyond any "anti-preaching," just letting them know it's safe to stick to what they believe in (or don't believe in, as the case may be) in a situation with immense pressures to conformity is probably a valuable service.

Coming up with a list of famous patriots, statesmen, and soldiers who were atheist, agnostic, etc. might be nice. Time to crack out the Tom Paine, maybe some Marcus Aurelius (sure, he was a stoic, but it works). Let them know that their beliefs don't disqualify them for their profession.
posted by LucretiusJones at 11:34 AM on September 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

My current plans include trying to get all of the irreligious freshmen in the Corps to attend these meetings with me, pending cooperation with the Corps-wide Chaplain on just who those freshmen are.

No. I'm an irreligious college student (well, it's become more complicated than that, but I still mostly identify that way), and I'd be annoyed as all heck if I was pressured to participate in an atheist student group. Organized events where you say, "hey, anyone ROTC who wants to come, I'll see you there", sure. But be sure it's not required.
posted by spaceman_spiff at 11:54 AM on September 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

Unitarian Universalism might be worth a look as a model of how to inclusively handle the needs of believers and nonbelievers.
posted by hangashore at 11:56 AM on September 1, 2008

Response by poster: Spaceman_spiff, it's not required. I've just been going to the freshmen and making sure they know about the group, and that they can attend with me and the x other fish who go with me.
posted by internet!Hannah at 12:11 PM on September 1, 2008

Is this right? You are a student at Texas A&M, and as an elective you chose to join the ROTC, which offers (in addition to your coursework) training in military leadership. The first two years involve no commitment to the military; to complete the second half you must make a commitment. You are not a freshman, and you have a mid-level position of authority within your group. Because ROTC is teaching people how to be good soldiers, everyone chooses to live together in a military-like environment, which includes "chow" instead of "dinner in the cafeteria". Before meals, the leaders have a prayer. Other activities offered as options to the ROTC people sometimes also have a religious slant. You want to offer the same activities, but without the religious slant. Yes?

As examples of the religiously-slanted ROTC activities, you give "bible studies, devotionals, church carpooling, BBQs, and general counseling."

Why not offer text studies of whatever texts define atheism, regular carpooling to other local areas that people go to, BBQs, and general counseling that does not include religious overtones? Instead of identifying these as "for non-believers only", why not adopt an all-inclusive attitude (for example, not "BBQ for atheists" but just "BBQ") coupled with adopting a leadership role in the groups you create, so that you can make sure the focus does not turn toward the religious?

Before meals, why not volunteer to do the prayer, and make it a moment of silence, or a reading from a non-religious moral/ethical text, a remembrance of fallen soldiers, etc.?
posted by Houstonian at 12:43 PM on September 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

You would do well to measure your success by how well you help your charges on a personal level.
posted by Ironmouth at 12:47 PM on September 1, 2008

Response by poster: Houstonian, you have it partly right. You can do all four years with no military commitment, though, and only 40% or so actually commission into the military upon completion of the four years. I am a junior, and on my major unit staff, which puts me at a fairly high rank. I'm trying to offer options specifically for the non-religious, so that they have their own options.

However, there are no real texts that define atheism, by its nature, and I'm really not trying to make any sort of all-inclusive group. I'm trying to make sure the atheists in the ROTC have an option for community too. I have made myself available for counseling should any freshman desire to come to me instead of their chaplain, but the rest of what you suggest isn't really viable.

The chaplains take turns doing the chow prayers over the announcement system. No way for me to do a moment of silence or anything. Regular carpooling isn't something logistically viable, and it'd be next to impossible to arrange a BBQ without some serious logic (like a meet-the-local-churches one coming up this week) behind it, as well as well above my budget.
posted by internet!Hannah at 1:08 PM on September 1, 2008

My current plans include trying to get all of the irreligious freshmen in the Corps to attend these meetings with me.... I'm definately going to be pushing it for these cadets.

If I was agnostic, I'd be put off by someone was pushing me to read their books and join their debate club. Maybe I'd just want to be atheist and agnostic and left alone about it. I think I'd be peeved if someone wanted to define me by my lack religion.

There is an obnoxious attitude of "no atheists in foxholes" that I find offensive and I would like to try and counter.

You have an agenda. Are you doing this for them or for you?

My suggestion is that you really examine your motives. I believe that you are well intentioned here, but you are also pushing your own beliefs. If you want to be helpful, then make it known that you are available. Offer assistance, books and debate tips when you are asked. You pushing your brand of non-religious activism is as bothersome as any other proselytizing.
posted by 26.2 at 1:27 PM on September 1, 2008

Best answer: Do you know about the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers (MAAF)? On their Resources page, they have some information that may be helpful, including meeting ideas. There is also a Community page, with links to local groups.
posted by Houstonian at 1:31 PM on September 1, 2008

Best answer: My school has a humanist chaplaincy--maybe you could check out the website for ideas or write to Greg Epstein for advice? He recently wrote an article in the Post about the need for atheist chaplains in the military, so I imagine he might be open to helping you out.
posted by phoenixy at 1:44 PM on September 1, 2008

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