Somehow I always seem to stumble upon Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s articles on Huffington Post. Maybe this is because I survey the Religion section for interesting articles and he is a featured writer. This time he was targeting the idea of “atheist chaplains” in the military. Rabbi Shmuley references a New York Times article, which includes an interview with the man that taught me how to recognize blood poisoning, Jason Torpy, about the efforts of certain organizations advocating for a HUMANIST chaplaincy for our armed troops. The distinction between humanist and atheist is an important one as you will see.
The Rabbi starts off by calling “atheist” and “chaplain” irreconcilable terms. He has a point here, as do those atheists opposing interfaith because of the word “faith”. But his quips are repulsive:
“What are they going to teach? Non-belief? What services will they offer? Non-prayers and sermons on evolution? And what comfort will they offer dying soldiers, G-d forbid (oops! Even that doesn’t work). Will they say, ‘Game over. You’re going to a place of complete oblivion. Thank you for your service.’”
The message is clear: atheists cannot teach anything about human worth and compassion in the face of immense adversity in the military. Do we honestly believe there is no other way of consoling those who suffer in war besides offering religious afterlife? How about “You have fought for your country and that is something to be proud of. Your family and friends love you immensely and will never forget you.” Also, what if they did have “sermons” on evolution? I see no problem in educating our troops. We could go on and on but the point is that you can console someone without supernatural aid. To continue, Rabbi Shmuley, what about those in the atheist community that DO believe in some sort of consciousness beyond the death of the physical body? I am not one that does, but I know quite a few who do. Your quips are utter rhetorical nonsense. If the Rabbi does not believe there are other ways of providing aid to military soldiers psychologically than offering Heaven, he needs to wake up.
The Rabbi continues, to his credit, by pointing out that atheist soldiers may want consolation from non-believing chaplains and not religious ones. This seems a fair point and I am glad he acknowledges it. Shmuley does not explicitly mention this, but it would follow that the atheist soldiers are naïve for expecting true consolation outside of religion, since it is impossible in his view.
Next, he harps that atheists cannot be “spiritual”. For starters, Sam Harris is currently writing a book on this and I for one am very excited. As we know, spirituality comes in many forms, and they do not necessitate supernatural beliefs. Often ontological views void of G_d are interpreted in a very spiritual manner. Some say that it is a religious/spiritual experience to view scientific marvels, and if spiritual is anything that produces awe, we should allow this. Shmuley’s statement that atheists must believe this is the only reality – “no higher or lower” reality – is mistaken. We could well believe in the Matrix – a reality outside of another reality – and still not believe in G_d. As an avid fan of the film series and some of the philosophy written on it, it seems reasonable enough that we could live in the Matrix without the necessity of a god.
Shmuley pretty much takes care of his own arguments up to this point with the “atheist friend” quote. The question of effectiveness is no more pertinent to atheists than it is to religious people and he recognizes this. I do not understand why he decides to self-defeat himself mid-article, but to each their own. He then calls for a new name to the profession.
Here The Rabbi and I may not so much disagree as dispute labels. If this were simply “atheist chaplains” or members of the New Atheists or something akin, I would be on his side for labeling these military “chaplains” as counselors or psychologists. “Non-Religious Counselor” has a nice ring to it. But – if we are to use the same reference the Rabbi did – we are talking about humanists. Humanism is akin to religion in its structure – there are leaders and other lay people – and they have communities and whatnot. They preach the value of humans and inherent human worth without the necessity of G_d. They do all the good things religious people do without the religion. You know what is even more striking? They have CHAPLAINS who in fact work in chapels. So why distinguish them anymore than calling them Humanist Chaplains. There are Christian Chaplains, Jewish Chaplains, Buddhist Chaplains. For humanism, which acts as a religious organization for no believes, I see no reason to change the title these chaplains already have in exchange for a new one.
The mention of a “religious” organization of non-believers would metaphorically wet Shmuley’s whistle. He would exclaim. “YES! I am talking about this in my new book!” Excellent Shmuley, I will wait patiently for the book. I am glad you are hopefully broaching the subject of humanism. But if you do not distinguish New Atheists from Humanists from Ethical Society members, you are blurring the lines between distinct groups. You seem to be targeting humanists and ethical societies, so target them by name. No, Shmuley, there is no Church of Atheism. There are various atheists communities – remember now community does not equal church – who get together and discuss topics. There are atheists communities who have services in chapels involving readings on ethics and values. They tend not to worship deities.
This article from Shmuley fails on three accounts:
1. He conflates all types of atheists into one category
2. He tosses out the argument he spends half the article arguing for
3. The failed distinction between Humanists and other Atheists leads him to confuse who the term “chaplain” is being applied to.
I see Shmuley’s point that atheists should not integrate themselves with religious terms if they are opposed to them. Things like interfaith, the chaplaincy, and so on seem unavailable to them based on religious opposition. Here we get into the problem of atheists being those who lack a faith in god or those who despise religion. I think for Shmuley, this is one in the same. Yet there are many atheists who find some of the effects of religion quite good but have no belief otherwise. Many of the members of the Ethical Society in St. Louis have left their respective faiths and have opted for a godless congregation. I think it is a matter of choice whether one atheist or a group of atheists participates in things with religious-sounding titles. Those organizations that have chaplaincies (humanism) or leaders (Ethical Society) may have little problem adopting a religiously-tinged word that has no connection to belief in a deity. Chaplaincy is effectively non-problematic, especially if that is already your job title and you work in a chapel. The interfaith discussion is much stickier. No one would sanely argue that atheists should not give aid or help with service. While some may argue they lack the motivation (cough cough Bishop Rice), it is clear that atheists and atheists communities around the world do go out and serve their communities or contribute monetary aid. The question is that of atheists participation in interfaith. Can we ignore the word faith and get on helping people? (Note: this definition of interfaith is limited to the joint service some of the interfaith organizations do. I am not particularly concerned here with interfaith gatherings and meetings) I think it is up to the person or organization.
I will close with saying I hope the Rabbi addresses my concern of distinctions in his book. If he does not, he will be contributing to the vast ignorance about communities of non-believers and those non-believers who seek no congregative community.
Ben Conover is a freshman philosophy major and chief-of-staff of the Atheist Youth Movement. He currently attends Boston University but will be attending Saint Louis University in the fall. Ben has written for the Richard Dawkins Foundation and has written for the Soapbox about Rabbi Shmuley in the not-so-distant past.