Buddhism>Atheism? How Religious Literacy Can Help the Air Force, Part I

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.

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10 thoughts on “Buddhism>Atheism? How Religious Literacy Can Help the Air Force, Part I

  1. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=113501618 According to this article, the Air Force constructed the Cadet Chapel at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, CO. I’m not sure what the rules are for hiring Buddhist chaplains in the Air Force, but I know that the Army has one. His name is Thomas Dwyer and he joined in 2008. ( http://www.army.mil/article/70976/Army_s_first_Buddhist_chaplain_serving_11th_Engineer_Bn_/ )

    Also according to this article from CNN, official Air Force policy had stated that “Airmen [could] omit the words ‘so help me God,’ if desired for personal reasons.” Apparently this policy was recently eliminated in 2013. So it’s not like this discriminatory policy has been a long standing tenet of the Air Force.

    As to your question of why Buddhists are included in chaplaincy programs. The term chaplain can now apply to any representative of a religious tradition. It no longer just applies to members of the Christian faith. Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chaplain

    1. Thanks for the references Rev Jo. It’s a good point that chaplains can represent any religious tradition, and I believe should expand to those who claim not-explicitly religious traditions. In the Air Force and elsewhere, many people are beginning to question the traditional definition of a religious tradition, but would still like guidance and space for ritual, practice, and deep conversations.

      1. Thanks for the response, Jem! Can’t wait for part two of this post!


        Rev. Jo

  2. Interesting observations, but is the military really an institution where young men and women “focus on the reflection of meaning for human beings”?

    I can see a place for a secular humanist chaplain on a college campus, but don’t really see a niche for one in the armed forces.

    1. Definitely a good question. Perhaps the Air Force’s mission does not include helping people find meaning, but I would guess that in a high stress, tight community, the question comes up for everyone. Especially when death and other tough situations to process manifest frequently, reflection on what it means to be “finite”, what death is and why we experience it should be at the forefront of everyone’s thoughts. I think a humanist chaplain as much as any other chaplain or advisor would help in these conversations, and that we need to rethink the strict boundaries between traditions in some ways. Obviously, everyone should bring their full religious, spiritual, or other identity to the table, but a conversation between, say, a Christian and a Buddhist on these deep topics would cause even deeper self reflection, thus a deeper understanding of how to live meaningfully in a place that may be difficult to make meaning.

  3. Hi Jem,

    This was a good read and I’m looking forward to reading your next installment. I just wanted to comment on a couple things if I may.

    In your original post, you asked the question “Why are Buddhists included in chaplaincy programs?” and I noticed Rev Jo talking about this as well. I think you answered your own question in one of your later replies when you said: “Especially when death and other tough situations to process manifest frequently, reflection on what it means to be “finite”, what death is and why we experience it should be at the forefront of everyone’s thoughts.”

    At least for me, this is precisely why I think a Buddhist would make an excellent chaplain. Buddhists recognize impermanence, the transiency of all things. I would argue that a basic understanding of the 4 Noble Truths would be a benefit to just about any member of the armed forces, regardless of their spiritual traditions or lack thereof. Buddhism itself could be humanistic in this sense, simply helping others to come to a deeper understanding of life and what it actually means to be human. I for one hope we will see more Buddhist chaplains both in the military and elsewhere; and indeed, more of these meaningful conversations that you are calling for….

    Anyway, as a Christian who is very fond of and has been heavily influenced by Buddhism, I very much look forward to reading more of your work!!



  4. Hey, Jem! Awesome and very well-put. I didn’t consider this perspective before, about why Buddhists are included in chaplaincy programs, but it makes a lot of sense. As you know, I am Muslim, but many of the teachings of Buddhism have a lot of wisdom behind them and I always appreciate these “gems” of wisdom, if you will, regardless of their origin.

    But I am not so sure that our culture means to denigrate those without a religion as any less legitimate. I think the reason why there are chaplains for specific faith traditions is because there are certain specific prescriptions that might not be a part of the “mainstream” (although I realize I may be a little fast and loose with my word choice here!). Those without a specific tradition don’t have those necessarily. I think it’s an effort to promote inclusivity rather than the other way around. But again, I only say this from my own perspective.

    Looking forward to the next post! 🙂

    1. Thanks Rafia, I appreciate your insight! I think you’re right to note the issue between a Chaplain’s leading prescriptions and practices and a more “spiritual care” role. I think one of the problems is the model itself: we hire “Christian” “Muslim” “Buddhist” chaplains, etc. and in some ways, this is extremely necessary…in other ways, it seems limiting to specific categories (I wonder what a Baha’i would do?). That is where the “mainstream” problem comes in.

  5. So when I was visiting a hospital as a Divinity School student learning about the chaplaincy program there, one of my colleagues asked if an atheist could be a chaplain. The head chaplain said yes. The reason is because atheists too, as you wrote Jem, have beliefs. I think some people may be wary of humanists that are so anti-religion, they fume at the mouth of religious people (Bill Maher anyone?) But, you’re right that fear drives a lot of how we perceive these programs and who can be included in them. Time will tell and I have no doubt that more Buddhists, Hindus and others of non-Abrahamic faiths, including atheists, humanists and agnostics, will be chaplains at many institutions.

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