The military chaplain is a staple of the armed forces. Many have suggested that the sense of mortality that one feels as bullets fly and bombs explode lends itself naturally to prayer and supplication of a divine being. The axiom "there are no atheists in foxholes" emerged based on battlefield scenarios.

There may soon be atheist chaplains in foxholes, however. A recent story in The New York Times, titled "Atheists Seek Chaplain Role in the Military," covered recent efforts by atheist members of the armed forces to secure chaplaincy positions for atheists. More than 9,000 military personnel self identify as atheist or agnostic, the Times reports, and some claim that many more members of the military adhere to these camps without reporting their preference. Conversely, about 1 million troops say they are Christians. They represent roughly 70 percent of troops and about 90 percent of chaplains.

The story mentions Military Atheists and Secular Humanists (MASH), a group attempting a grassroots organization and advocacy for the cause. Based in Fayetteville, North Carolina, the group announced on its website that it is composed of "all shades of non-theism, be it: Atheist, Agnostics, Skeptics, Humanists, all are welcome and represented here." Interestingly, the group proposes a calendar of activities that bear remarkable resemblance to those in a traditional church. It seeks to "[p]rovide a safe, and fun environment for community oriented meetings" and offers "[p]otlucks, speakers, secular kids' play-dates, nights out on the town." The 86 members of the group, called "heathens" on the website, do their part to ensure that it is not only wizened Baptists who fellowship over covered-dish dinners.

One project of the group, called Rock Beyond Belief—a play on the title of an evangelical event at Fort Bragg called "Rock the Fort"—is a planned rock festival for freethinkers (maybe Atheiststock '11). The organizer of the event, a soldier named Justin Griffith, originally scheduled the event for April 2. The date has apparently been moved to the fall, though the interruption has not stopped 3,692 people from supporting it on Facebook. Richard Dawkins expressed his strong desire to come in a message posted on the event website: "I was hugely looking forward to it, and it was, indeed, my main reason for travelling all the way from England, at my own expense … . I regularly draw enthusiastic crowds by the thousands, especially in the so-called 'bible belt' where beleaguered non-believers flock to hear somebody articulate what they have long thought privately but never felt able to speak."

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The trickiest matter raised in the Times piece and Associated Press coverage of this effort relates to how atheist chaplains in, for example, the Army can fulfill the stated requirement that they not only serve "their own faith groups in the Army" but "also ensure and provide the means for others to observe their own faith in accordance with US law and regulations." All religious groups make absolutist claims of one kind or another. But how can a belief system—or is it a lack of belief system?—championed by figures like Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens support Christian soldiers in any meaningful sense? When considering chaplains who support Hitchens's rather broad contention that "religion poisons everything," how can such leaders "provide the means for others to observe their own faith"? If Christians are indeed suffering from a "God delusion," as Dawkins has suggested, how can a chaplain who promotes Dawkins's ideas offer belief-respecting encouragement to a Christian soldier?

One might counter by suggesting that Christians themselves cannot meaningfully respect the beliefs of people of other faiths (or anti-faiths). But we can look to evidence to see that the reverse is true. Such charity stems from the biblical doctrine of the image of God, for starters. For centuries, orthodox believers have celebrated the fact that in the beginning, "God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them" (Gen. 1:27). Though Christians have not always put this truth into practice, the God of the Bible imbues every human life with dignity. The social outworking of this biblical idea is that every person is deserving of respect. Paul's engagement with pagan philosophers, recorded in Acts 17, demonstrates that the apostle treated his theological opponents respectfully and even graciously. Paul by no means shied away from truth claims; he proclaimed them, though, even as he respected others.

We struggle to find similar respect in the atheist worldview. When Hitchens says, for example, that Billy Graham preaches lies, he means just that. Atheism, after all, is a response to theism, built off the back of Christianity and other faiths. It is inherently negative, built to attack, by nature opposed to religious belief. To what hope can an atheist call a despondent corpsman? Will suggesting that the soldier is a mass of particles driven together by blind cosmic forces inspire confidence in the heat of battle? To the dying soldier, will the message that the strong survive and the weak pass away give parting comfort? To a family that has lost a child in war, will the contention that cruel fate has taken its toll and that the departed is now just bone and decomposing flesh impart healing?

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Even as we stand up for the dignity of all humanity, we remember the need to proclaim an eternal gospel to every person, whether jogging through the park or pinned in a foxhole.

Related Elsewhere:

Previous articles on atheism include:

Why There Are Still Atheists | The heavens aren't the only proclaimers (and are sometimes silent). (March 28, 2011)
Reframing Human History | How we got into the atheism culture war in the first place. A review of David Bentley Hart's Atheist Delusions. (September 23, 2009)
Answering the Atheists | A Reader's Digest version of why I am a Christian. (November 13, 2007)