Right Idea – Wrong Language: Lumping Atheists into “Nones” is wrong.

July 31, 2013 NPR’s John Burnett asked a question many of us have been asked or have asked ourselves: Can there be an atheist chaplain? Does that chaplain have to believe in a “higher power?”

The problem is that the use of atheist may be incorrect in NPR’s four minute report. But more about that in a moment. The question really concerns a Secular Humanist Chaplain who happens to be an atheist.

I am an atheist and a secular humanist. I believe these are two separate issues as it concerns my disbelief in a supernatural omniscient spirit and my belief in the spirit of Man’s natural goodness. I am “ordained” with the Universal Life Church. I am the Reverend Sage Dave and take my “calling” quite seriously.

I am also ordained with the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster – RAmen… and RAwomen.

Silliness aside, men and women who are in need of comfort by a “chaplain” in time of war, death, bliss, etcetera, are not limited to those who believe the mythologies of the world religions. From my personal experience, such comfort from a fellow traveler in the humanist community has been of great comfort.  This came from a civilian source, so why not in the American Armed Forces?

Part of the problem is fear – the fear that religions will somehow be diminished if non-believers are provided the same services as those of faith. That is what one heard when NPR interviewed retired Army Chaplain Ron Cruz who recalled the Chaplin Corps’ motto is “PRO DEO ET PATRIA!”, “For God and Country,” but can also translate to “For God and Father.” This should cause pause for all other religions that are permitted their own chaplains.

The problem with this and other reports concerning atheism is that the term is routinely lumped into the same pool as freethinkers, skeptics, humanists, secularists, secular humanists, agnostics and others who question the existence of a great sky god or gods. This is simply wrong.

Most atheists are Humanists but many Humanists are not atheists. Even those who consider themselves as a Secular Humanist may not be an a-theist – non-theist. They may believe in a god or gods, they may be agnostics who believe in a higher power greater than man’s imagination.

The same goes for skeptics and free thinkers. Some may be atheists but not all. Not even a majority.

That is the problem with the “Nones;” it involves too many different combinations of belief and non-belief, a continuum that is not easily explainable. Trust me, I have been trying to chart the beliefs of the “Nones” for a while now. Not in terms of how many but where each falls between the absolute belief and absolute non-belief.

I believe that part of the reasoning is that we have a hard time marking two territories. I am an atheist – I do not believe in a mythological god or gods who control everything or anything – but I am also a secular humanist, believing in the natural and “original” goodness of Man.

Should there be a Humanist chaplain in the American Armed Services? Absolutely. That person would care for all those who are not being ministered to by the Chaplain Corps, whether regardless where on the continuum one may stand. Does one need to believe in a “higher power?” Isn’t believing in the “human spirit” believing in a power greater than one’s own?


About David Rosman

David is the winner of the Missouri Press Foundation's "Best Columnist" in 2013 (First Place) and 2014 (Second Place), the 2016 Harold Riback Award for excellence in writing, and the winner of the 2007 Interactive Media Award for excellence in editing.
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