Thursday, 20 October 2011

The Chaplain Conundrum

This is an interesting article/interview, about the viability of atheist chaplains in the US military. Farley's brief comment on the idea is interesting as well.  In a sense, Farley's point about definitions is pretty much irrelevant in practical terms (and I don't think Farley is arguing otherwise): if atheist soldiers want someone to attend to their spiritual needs, and if they want to call them "chaplains", then that's pretty much all their is to it.  Unless of course enough other atheists weren't happy with the title, but that comes down to weighing opinion, rather than sticking to strict use of language (I can imagine BigHead reading this and reaching for the shotgun, obviously).

And yes, I very much believe that atheism can have a spiritual aspect.  It doesn't have to, indeed if I were to be asked, I say that I don't think my personal variant does.  That doesn't mean it can't.  Of course, others would disagree, possibly depending on how they view the word "spirituality", and also how they define what it means to be an atheist, rather than an agnostic. Whilst such discussions of nomenclature can be very interesting, though- I've engaged in them myself many times - on the kind of practical level we're discussing here, then I'm not sure it's particularly helpful.  Again, it doesn't really matter whether I'm correct in terms of cold, unyielding definitions (and adjectives of this type must always be used carefully - human experience is a continuum that's generally too complex for these terms to be completely prescriptive), all that matters is that enough people agree with me, then we need to make sure those people are considered when putting together systems of support.

I can see why Farley is asking whether a chaplain without the faith might as well be a counsellor, but (to use anecdotal evidence) none of the counsellors that have guided me over the years ever really came close to discussing my religious views [1].  That's by no means intended as a criticism, I'm simply drawing a distinction between people who don't talk about faith and those who talk about a lack of it.  I think the idea of someone who has been trained to get people through a world without a God is a brilliant idea.  Certainly, to draw once again from my own experience, I wish that I'd had more experience of listening to the thoughts of other atheists whilst I was younger, rather than those of people who were pretty much just anti-religion (Richie D; I'm looking at you!)

Put simply, I can see why "chaplain" might seem like a strange title for such a role (though does it really make sense to talk about Jewish or Islamic chaplains either?), but "counsellor" isn't going to cut it either.

[1] I believe that they all knew I was an atheist, though (except for the counsellor I saw as a child), so for all I know they used different approaches when talking to those with faith.


BigHead said...

Space Marines have chaplains, so chaplains are obviously badass and increasing the number of soldiers served by them is naturally going to make your army more badass too.

Nobody will be arguing about definitions when they take a chainsword to the face.

On an entirely unrelated note, my word verification word is "seluctio", which sounds dirty and Italian.

BigHead said...

Also, we have humanist chaplains in the army here. I'm not sure the Belgian army has a reputation for badassery, though.

As far as definitions go, as soon as you call a non-Christian a chaplain you've already ruined the word, so it's fair game.