Buddhism>Atheism: How Religious Literacy Can Help the Air Force, Part II

Find Part I of this post here.

Alexis de Tocqueville, a 19th century French historian, observed how Americans treated religion when he visited the United States. The longer he stayed, the more he realized that it was less important which religion any individual citizen claimed, and more so that they claimed a tradition at all, because claiming a religion meant communal civic engagement. In his book Democracy in America, Tocqueville noted: “I do not know whether all Americans have a sincere faith in their religion — for who can search the human heart? But I am certain that they hold it to be indispensable to the maintenance of republican institutions. This opinion is not peculiar to a class of citizens or a party, but it belongs to the whole nation and to every rank of society.”[1] While Tocqueville aimed to describe a democratic revolution that was occurring in America, his observations still hold a general truth in our institutions today. America is now a religiously diverse nation, and scholars argue whether it is still inherently “Christian”. Perhaps the idea that any religion is better than none answers the perceived difference between Buddhism, as an organized religion, and Atheism- one seemingly requires civic involvement and commitment to a tradition, and the other implicitly rejects the importance of civic engagement by rejecting the notion of an ethical tradition that owns a narrative of past and future. Civic engagement may have significantly declined in the United States, but expectations of performing civic duty and loyalty to a community are still ingrained in our civic society. This explains why our military allows Buddhist chaplains, yet remains suspicious of (and in some cases downright hostile toward) an atheist who might guide our soldiers.

The humanist movement can answer this apparent suspicion that atheists lack ethical values because they lack guidance from a community, tradition, or narrative. Humanism, according to Jason Torpy, a former Army captain and president of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, “fills the same role for atheists that Christianity does for Christians and Judaism does for Jews. It answers questions of ultimate concern; it directs our values.”[2] In some sense, humanism amalgamates different traditions, beliefs, and values. There is no inherent problem in that, in fact, this movement speaks strongly to many young people in the United States. However, part of the appeal to atheism, agnosticism, and humanism, is the lack of leadership and tradition, because these very things have caused pain and disbelief for many. By equating humanism with one specific religious tradition in the case of a “humanist chaplain”, even if it is godless, we inadvertently consider humanism a religion, projecting the same elements characteristic of other religions onto this movement. In order to maintain true religious freedom and thus promote real religious pluralism in the United States, we must draw values from where we find meaning- for some of us, this is one faith tradition. For others, it is multiple. For some, it is none at all. The humanist movement, while fulfilling for many, cannot be grouped unquestioningly into a category that deceives the true meaning of the movement. Doing so undermines the diverse beliefs that make up the movement. Any religion is worth exploring for the myriad diverse beliefs and practices within the tradition. This includes “traditions” who reject narrative and authority. We need to face our fear- not of godlessness, but of authority-lessness and perceived lack of morality – of those who do not subscribe to a tradition with a narrative and leadership.

The concept of a chaplain assumes this person affirms one specific tradition- A Muslim Chaplain counsels Muslims, a Protestant Chaplain ministers to Protestants. This presents a problem within any religious tradition: how can one person represent an entire community? An even more difficult question arises: Is it possible to have someone represent “the rest”? Those who claim no tradition also need guidance and comforting. In hospitals and on college campuses increasingly, the goal of chaplains is to provide ways to practice, ways to find meaning and wholeness in peoples’ work, ways to learn values and to ritualize them. I think the answer to this issue is not to hire more chaplains, but to provide chaplains with greater religious literacy. Chaplains from any tradition share skills in whatever field they work. Why not equip them with knowledge to help those from any tradition, faith or non-faith, so that they can “minister” to everyone? I am not suggesting chaplains give up any aspect of their identity, including their religious or spiritual affiliation. I am suggesting that they could serve a larger contingent of people, especially in an institution like the Air Force, if they knew how to connect their values with values from other traditions or ethical frameworks. This way, if an atheist (or person of any faith) in the Air Force wished to engage in any type of reflection, meaning-making, or ritual, all chaplains would have the knowledge to help in some way. This also speaks to the issue we are just beginning to address in the United States, which is, “how do we minister to those who claim more than one tradition?” Increasingly, Americans are seeking meaning-making and ritual from multiple traditions, perhaps responding to our gradual recognition that we live in the most religiously diverse country in the world.[3] I have hope that we as a national community can find ways to help people of any and all faiths make meaning of every aspect of their lives.

[1] Alexis De Tocqueville et al., Democracy in America (New York: Colonial Press, 1899), pg. 334.

[2] James Dao, “Theists Seek Chaplain Role in the Military,” New York Times, April 26, 2011, New York ed., Section A sec.

[3] Diana Eck, A New Religious America: How a “Christian Country” Has Become the World’s Most Religiously Diverse Nation (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2001), pg. 4.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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