Can an Atheist be a Chaplain?

A recent column in The Dallas Morning News was headlined: What would an atheist chaplain do? The writer, Daniel Akst, an avowed atheist, questioned how an atheist could be a military chaplain. Apparently a number of service men and women who do not believe in God have requested an atheist chaplain to help them through difficult times.

Akst, wrote that he could not see how an atheist could be a chaplain as chaplains normally are connected to a particular religion, and one of the requirements to work for the military is a degree in theology. He didn’t think an atheist could get such a degree.

Actually, I think one could. Theology does not insist on a belief in God, it simply means knowledge of God. An atheist could study theology to have an understanding of a religious person’s connection to God, however he or she is perceived, but an atheist would not have to make a profession of faith to complete such a course.

I worked for a number of years as a hospital chaplain and our main role was to be an advocate for the patient and the patient’s family. An atheist could do that for military personnel without religion being involved. To counsel and support people in times of trauma and stress one does not have to bring religion into it, unless the person being counseled would find that helpful.

As part of my training, I learned that spirituality is not always connected to religion. One can feed their spirit – and everyone has one, even an atheist – through a lot of ways that don’t involve a god of any kind. Spirits are fed and nurtured via relationships, music, art, nature, connections to animals, and a myriad of other ways. The things that make us sigh in satisfaction and bring us a sense of wonder are the things that refresh our spirit.  For some, that is a god, prayer, and religion. For others it is not. And that is okay.

So I can see where an atheist could be a chaplain and help other atheists cope with the challenges of serving in the military. What do you think?

6 thoughts on “Can an Atheist be a Chaplain?”

  1. I only know one atheist. I think he would find talking to a chaplain – even an atheist chaplain – out of the realm of things he would ever do. But I could be wrong.

  2. I’ll admit I found the idea of an atheist even wanting to talk to a chaplain unusual. But apparently a number of people in the military have asked for one. Then when I thought about my role as a hospital chaplain and how often that did not involve anything religious, I started to see how a person could want to just talk through some issues with someone who knows how to listen without judgements.

  3. What a wonderful explanation, Maryann. I would like someone in authority to read your post. It sure seems to me that every soldier, whether religious or atheist, should have access to someone to talk to.

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