Though it didn’t make many headlines, a legislative showdown on Capitol Hill last week can be seen as the latest development in the so-called culture wars. On the surface it would appear that this particular battle was won by religious conservatives, but a closer look shows otherwise.
The legislation in question would have allowed nonreligious chaplains in the military, a proposal that sponsor Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO) said was designed to serve the large segment of America’s military (almost 25%) that is nonreligious. Currently, chaplains must be appointed by religious organizations such as the Catholic Church, but Polis said this unnecessarily excludes those who are "secular humanists and ethical culturists or atheists" and that nonreligious chaplains are needed to support the "brave (nonreligious) men and women who serve in the military."
Some have suggested that secular military personnel in need of chaplain services should opt instead for secular counseling services, but Polis pointed out that the chaplaincy option has definite advantages. “When someone (in the military) sees a psychologist, psychiatrist, or counselor, it has a certain stigma that can be attached to it that doesn’t exists when you’re seeing a chaplain,” he said. “It doesn’t enjoy the same confidentiality that a chaplain visit does.”
The Polis bill was defeated, 150-274, with every House Republican voting against it. This may seem like a defeat for seculars, but such a view would be shortsighted. The fact that a bill specifically recognizing and benefiting atheists-humanists was put forward at all, and then garnered the support of 150 members of Congress, is itself significant, something that would have been highly unlikely just a few years ago, and it demonstrates the progress that the secular movement has made.
Moreover, Republican opposition to this effort revealed the ugliness of anti-atheist prejudice, a fact that will only raise awareness further and motivate seculars to push forward. Rep. Mike Conaway (R-TX) aggressively opposed the idea of atheist chaplains, saying they would call fallen soldiers “worm food.” As outrageous as this sounds, it also ignores the reality that, under current conditions, dying atheist soldiers must face the possibility of meeting fundamentalist Christian chaplains who preach that they are heading to hell if they don't accept Jesus. Unlike Conaway's "worm food" absurdity, such proselytizing and threats of eternal damnation are not unknown in the military.
To add further insult, Conaway repeated the common, mean-spirited, erroneous slander that atheists “don’t believe in anything.” One must wonder whether Conaway realizes that there are atheists in his district and defending his country. Would he spit on the grave of Pat Tillman?
A Louisiana congressman, Rep. John Fleming, added to the insult, saying atheist chaplains would be “a mockery” and suggested they would only inflict misery on dying soldiers.
This may show that the American political arena is unlikely to be mistaken for an intellectual hotbed, but it also reveals something more. Seculars have lost a battle, but it’s a battle that would not have even been fought a few years ago. “Rather than dwelling on the disappointment,” said Edwina Rogers of the Secular Coalition for America (full disclosure – I am SCA president), “we are encouraged. We are proud that our issues are being more widely supported and that we are being heard and our issues taken seriously.”
Indeed, you can be sure these issues will not go away. Leading the effort for nontheistic chaplains is the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, a group that rebuts the common misnomer that there are no atheists in foxholes, which denounced the prejudice displayed by Conaway and Fleming.