On April 27, 2011, The New York Times carried a story about atheists campaigning to have their own chaplaincy in the American military. The campaign is led by an organization called Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers. Jason Torpy, its president (a former Army captain) identified the group’s faith as “humanism”. He stated the case succinctly: “Humanism fills the same role for atheists that Christianity does for Christians and Judaism does for Jews. It answers questions of ultimate concern; it directs our values.” This campaign comes in the wake of a number of incidents in recent years with various “nones” (that is, people who answer “none” when asked in surveys about their religious affiliation) complaining of aggressive proselyting by Evangelicals, who are disproportionally represented in the chaplaincy.
Captain Torpy’s campaign is also supported by a grassroots group centered at Fort Bragg, called Military Atheists and Secular Humanists. Its rather suggestive acronym is MASH (emergency treatment for wounded non-believers?). In the absence of chaplains this group has lay leaders who conduct “services” in unofficial locations. The story gives no details on what these events consist of. I would imagine that these consist of rough imitations of Protestant worship—some music, some readings of inspirational scriptures, a morale-boosting address. The liturgical history of Unitarianism should provide useful guidance. Unitarians have defined themselves as “seekers” rather than atheists of even agnostics (though a malicious commentator has described Unitarians as atheists who don’t play golf—and thus have a serious problem on Sunday morning).
The chiefs of chaplains of the several branches of the military would have to approve the new institution. There is some understandable skepticism. A member of MASH reports a chaplain saying to her: “You’re not a faith group; you’re a lack-of-faith group.” Sooner or later, I am sure, there will be lawsuits based on first-amendment rights. I think that they will be successful. MASH and its allies will have to sort out their terminology: Just what are they—atheists?—freethinkers?—secular humanists? This will entail some coherent statement of the worldview they espouse. The way in which the federal courts came to define the rights of non-religious conscientious objectors may serve as precedent. The government cannot be in the business of deciding what is a “faith” and what is not. Of course the great majority of military chaplains are Christians, though there are some Jews and Muslims. Apparently Buddhist and Wiccan chaplains are about to be appointed. Many Buddhists will dislike being classified as a “faith” like Christians and Jews (indeed, some Jews would). And is Wicca a “faith”? All that an arm of government can constitutionally do is to apply some quite mechanical criteria—How many of you are there?—Do you have a coherent body of beliefs or values?—How long have you been around?—Are you willing to facilitate activities by faiths other than your own?
I have no doubt that many thoroughly admirable people have been atheists or secular humanists. I have known quite a few (not to mention a lot of loathsome Christians I have known). If some atheists feel the need for some kind of collective celebrations, in the military or anywhere else, they have every right to have these. But there is something here that makes me uneasy. The claim here is that atheism or secular humanism is a “faith” comparable to other historic traditions, and thus with the constitutional right to “the free exercise of religion”. “Free exercise”—sure—along with freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. But “religion”? If they mean anything, the terms “atheism” and “secular humanism” mean a negation of religion. Why then the insistence of associating the negation with that which has been negated? Put differently: Why do those who have rejected faith want to be called a faith?
The issue of same-sex marriage, which I have discussed in an earlier post, provides some clues. By now large numbers of Americans are willing to grant same-sex couples in civil unions all the rights now possessed by married heterosexuals. It is the term “marriage” which bothers many people, for whom it means what it has conventionally meant—a union of a man and a woman. Yet it is precisely the term “marriage” which many same-sex couples insist upon. Yet a homosexual lifestyle (no matter whether congenital or chosen) necessarily implies a negation of the convention. Why here too an embrace of the very term denoting that which has been negated? I think this comparison suggests an answer. The terminological insistence expresses the desire for an official legitimation of one’s identity. To achieve such recognition one appropriates the symbols of traditional legitimacy. An unkind way of describing this exercise is to call it a form of identity theft.
For most of human history identities were stable and taken for granted (though of course some identities were more pleasant than others). Modernity has undermined the stability and the taken-for-grantedness of identity. The reasons for this I have pedantically if not tediously explained in many writings over the years. This is not the place to repeat this argument. Its core insight is simple: Stable identities are found in stable social environments. When everyone around me agree as to whom I am, I will come to think of myself as such (unless I am a very unusual person, such as a philosopher or a psychopath—both human types who resist the views of others). Modern identities are inherently uncertain, increasingly available on an identity market. Thus identity becomes a choice and a project. Yet human beings crave certainty. I want to be recognized in my chosen identity—just as others have been recognized before me. What better way to achieve this than to appropriate the symbols of earlier recognition. America has been the prototypical modern society, thus a prime locus for identity politics of all sorts—notably the politics of race, ethnicity and gender. Religion, and worldviews of all sorts, are also involved in this drama of identity projects.
A newly independent country will want to be recognized as such. Almost immediately the country will adopt the symbols of sovereignty, similar to the earlier “colonial” ones that had been despised and rejected. The symbols, though of course different in content, will be the same in form. There will be a flag, a national anthem, postage stamps and (even if the government can ill afford it) an embassy at the United Nations.
Atheist chaplains? Why not.