Army officials at Fort Meade are resisting calls from service members who describe themselves as atheists to officially recognize lay leaders to represent their beliefs and help military chaplains minister to the needs of nonbelievers. The Army recognizes lay leaders among Christians, Jews and Muslims, but says it can't do the same for 10,000 or so active-duty service members who are atheists because they belong to no organized religion.
It's debatable whether the set of beliefs to which many atheists subscribe — among them a conviction that humans cannot look to God to solve their problems, and that people must seek within themselves and each other to find meaning and fulfillment in life — constitutes a "religion" in the conventional sense. Many atheists do consider themselves part of a larger spiritual and ethical community of faith, albeit one that does not require belief in a higher power.
It's also a difficult question whether atheists would be able to effectively serve the function of a chaplain. Because of the nature of the military, there is a strong possibility that a soldier in crisis will find himself or herself seeking counsel from a chaplain of a different religion or denomination. A Catholic soldier may wind up talking to a Jewish chaplain, or vice-versa. Atheist chaplains would need to be able to meet the spiritual needs of not just other atheists but also those for whom a belief in God is central.
What's certain, however, is that the military needs to be accepting of those who do not believe, and that apparently hasn't always been the case at Fort Meade and other military bases. Chaplains and religious lay leaders have been accused of treating atheists either as moral pariahs unfit to wear the uniform or trying to convert them to their personal religious beliefs regarding God and salvation. Service members who describe themselves as atheists have complained of religious bias against nonbelievers and a lack of sensitivity to their needs for affirmation and a sense of connectedness to a community of like-minded individuals.
That's no more acceptable for a chaplain or lay religious leader than refusing to respect the beliefs of the service's other recognized religions or denominations. Commanders must demand that those entrusted with caring for the spiritual needs of troops refrain from proselytizing their personal religious convictions.
That will require strong leadership of the kind that Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz recently demonstrated when he issued a strong memo admonishing officers of their duty to balance the Constitution's protection of religious freedom with the prohibition against a governmental establishment of religion, and warned them against "appearing to officially endorse religion generally or any particular religion."
Military chaplains and lay religious leaders will also need better training in counseling and support for all service members who seek their help, including nonbelievers. The hoary aphorism that "there are no atheists in foxholes" is contradicted by, among others, the examples of Baseball Hall of Famer and combat pilot Ted Williams and former NFL player and soldier Pat Tillman, neither of whom considered himself religious.
If today's chaplains and lay religious leaders can't bring themselves to respect the beliefs of such men, both of whom performed courageously in battle, the fault lies not in their faith, whatever it may be, but in the narrow, intolerant way they — and the armed forces — have chosen to interpret it.