This is the first in a two-part post. Stay tuned for Part II.
A few days ago, I visited my undergraduate university, the University of Southern California, and made a beeline for the Office of Religious Life. I had come on a very meaningful day: USC had just hired a humanist chaplain, and this was his first day of work. We hit it off instantly, he an agnostic humanist, and I a Buddhist. In many ways, these “traditions”, or sets of beliefs, if we can label them as such, are very similar. We focus on the reflection of meaning for human beings, don’t really need ritual, and perhaps most importantly, we do not claim to believe in a higher being.
In the Office of Religious Life, we began talking about the Air Force’s recent decision to stop requiring the phrase “so help me god” in enlistment oaths for members. The basis for this decision came after an atheist airman was denied re-enlistment at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada when he would not include the phrase in the enlistment oath. The American Humanist Association threatened to sue on behalf of the airman, claiming that requiring the phrase “so help me god” in enlistment oaths violates the First Amendment. The U.S. Department of Defense confirmed that the requirement was unconstitutional. Those of us committed to maintaining religious freedom for every citizen of this religiously plural country should be excited, right?
Unfortunately I believe that although this case represents success, this case also highlights the subtle failure of our culture to accept those without religion, or any kind of ethical tradition, as legitimate human beings. Before this case, the Air Force hired Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox Christian, Jewish, and Muslim chaplains. No Buddhists, No Hindus, and certainly no secular humanists. One reason for the lack of non-Abrahamic chaplains is that chaplains hired in the Air Force need “ecclesiastical endorsement” in order to serve, meaning they need legitimacy from an organized religion or spiritual tradition. In other branches of the military, this requirement does allow Buddhist and Hindu chaplains, though these faiths boast a very small representation. So although the Air Force seemingly holds a major bias toward those of Abrahamic faiths, we will more likely see Buddhist and Hindu chaplains eventually than see a humanist, especially secular, chaplain. After all, secular citizens claim no “tradition”- the very thing we Americans actually fear the most- perhaps even more so than someone who does not believe in God.
Why are Buddhists included in chaplaincy programs? Though I cannot speak for all Buddhists, I and many others do not believe in God, and though many Buddhist teachers train rigorously for years and earn accolades from their respective schools, many of them cannot claim “ecclesiastical endorsement” in the way the Air Force requires. This puts us in the same boat as atheists, agnostics, and humanists. Yet the difference in the Air Force, one example of our society’s attitude, is not theological, it is democratic. As a result of our democratic tradition, we may fear those who do not believe, but we fear even more those who reject any kind of community that offers a set of ethical values stemming from a tradition. Buddhists, whether or not they believe in God, have a narrative, practices, rituals, and a set of texts and teachings that form a moral framework. Atheists, particularly in the eyes of institutions, do not.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.