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Rabbi Shmuley Boteach Headshot

Atheist Chaplains and the Church of Evolution

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The report in the New York Times that atheists are looking for official recognition as chaplains in the US military in order to cater to the needs of non-believing servicemen is interesting.

On the one hand, it's kind of absurd. Atheist chaplains? It's a contradiction in terms. What are they going to teach? Non-belief? What services will they offer? Non-prayers and sermons on evolution? And what comfort will they offer dying soldiers, G-d forbid (oops! Even that doesn't work). Will they say, "Game over. You're going to a place of complete oblivion. Thank you for your service."?

On the other hand, I am completely opposed to any kind of religious coercion and why should non-believing military personnel not have someone they can talk to who shares their absence of faith? If you're an atheist and you've returned from Iraq or Afghanistan and you're finding it difficult, say, to reintegrate to life back home, maybe you don't want to talk to someone whom you think views life only through the prism of faith. In the same way that it might be uncomfortable for a Jewish soldier to talk about his deepest issues with, say, a Catholic Priest, it is arguably just as uncomfortable for an atheist soldier to talk to the same Priest.

Still it would seem that those who profess an absence of belief can't really be religious or spiritual chaplains. If you're an atheist then what you see is what you get. There is no other reality -- higher or lower -- and the word spiritual is nothing but a crude con.

I am well aware that many of my atheist friends will tell me, 'Come on Shmuley. OK, so an atheist 'chaplain' might not be able to offer the same comfort to a soldier who saw his buddy die in Iraq. He won't be able to say to him, 'Your friend is in a better place,' and we concede that telling him, 'Your friend died for a noble cause. Now he is decomposing in a dark grave from which there is no escape,' isn't as compelling as saying that he's up in heaven with the ministering angels. But why offer false comfort anyway, Shmuley? None of it is true and this is just religion once again serving as a balm for people's fear of death, a true opiate of the masses.'

I get it, and I'm not here going to enter into a lengthy discussion about the afterlife, a subject I recently debated with my friend, the world-renowned atheist Christopher Hitchens, and which is available on YouTube.

But even without solving the issue of the possible effectiveness of atheist chaplains, surely if the military agrees to create them there will have to be some new name for the profession, and I would assume they would fall more under the rubric of psychologists and other professionals who try to help those in need without professing, or utilizing, any particular faith.

So. Do I think it's a good idea for the military to have atheist counselor soldiers? Sure. Let's have trained professionals who profess atheism who are made available to non-believing service men and women who are reluctant to discuss personal issues with religious chaplains. But please, call them something that doesn't make a mockery of religion by pretending that someone can be a minister of the religion of non-belief.

Having said all this, I think it worthwhile to point out that the move on the part of atheists to create an official chaplaincy reinforces my firm belief that atheism is becoming its own religion. I will make this point at great length in my upcoming book, The Church of Evolution, slated to come out, G-d willing, later in the year. But there are many people whose atheism is supported by their own creeds and by the same willful denial of certain facts that has in the past characterized many of the faithful. In addition, the new atheists, like Richard Dawkins, demonstrate an intolerance and condescension to people of faith that is very similar to what one sadly finds among some of the most close-minded of religious people.

So perhaps it is just as well that we formalize the new Church of Atheism by creating a formal military chaplaincy.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach's debates with atheists Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris are available on YouTube. His book-length response to the new atheists will be published later this year. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.