Your weekend think piece: Interesting historical background about atheists in foxholes

Veteran GetReligion readers will know that my academic background is in history, just as much as in journalism and mass media. I have always been fascinated with the history of religion in America (this helps on the religion beat) and, in particular, church-state studies. While doing a master's degree in church-state studies at Baylor University, I focused my thesis research on civil religion in the Vietnam War era.

You can't study church-state issues and a war as controversial as the one in Vietnam without hitting issues linked to conscientious objectors, which leads you into studies of tensions between the military establishment and minority forms of religion. You also end up studying the tensions that have, for generations, swirled around the work of military chaplains.

What a paradox this is. How do people serve in the military without the support of clergy? The idea of a military force without chaplains is hard to contemplate. Yet how do you maintain doctrinal integrity in settings where it is impossible for a wide variety of faiths to be represented? How do you keep a rabbi on a submarine that contains one or two Jews? How do you ask a traditional Catholic soldier to say his confession to a female Episcopal priest?

And what about people who have no faith at all? The absence of faith is, of course, a faith position and these military personnel deserve some kind of support when it comes to stress and conflict over ultimate issues.

The following Religion & Politics think piece is not a news story, but I wanted to share it with GetReligion readers after it was recommended by a longtime reader. This is, of course, one piece in an equation that has many, many, many variables, as I have already said. Journalists who cover the military, or church-state issues, or both, need to read this. Here's the top:

Do American military chaplains need to believe in God? Or, as the Navy Times once asked, “Who supports the atheists in the military?” 
These questions attracted renewed attention this year after the Army formally recognized humanism as a religious preference for soldiers in April, and the Navy rejected the application of a humanist chaplain to join its ranks in June. The issue of how to meet the needs of non-theists in the military is neither new nor incidental. Rather, “who supports the atheists” is a question that has vexed the military for the better part of a century, as the U.S. tries to determine how to best serve a religiously diverse population.
More recently, a growing percentage of the military population has identified as non-theist. A 2012 Pentagon survey found more than 13,000 atheist or agnostic personnel, along with 276,000 troops (nearly a fourth of all personnel) who claimed no religious preference -- a proportion of whom may also be non-theist.

Note the size of the non-theist community. Clearly there is a threshold that, once passed, forces this issue off the military back burner. Non-theists have been pounding on the door, seeking their right to some kind of chaplain-like support, since the early 20th century.

And the numbers are crucial. Note this development at mid-century:

During World War II, as chaplains surveyed the religious preferences of their units, some acknowledged the presence of atheists among enlisted men and officers -- not as dangers, but as an unremarkable, if tiny, presence. Moreover, when the military desperately needed more chaplains to serve its rapidly swelling ranks, the Humanist Society of Friends (the predecessor group to today’s Humanist Society) offered their services. A nontheistic division of Quakers who had split off from their theistic, pacifist counterparts, these humanists strove to meet their patriotic obligations as non-combatant chaplains. The Army chaplaincy again resisted, declining to take up the humanist offer. 
But this time the refusal was different. Unlike the 1920s rebuff, lack of belief did not propel the War Department’s response. Instead, insufficient numbers did. Army policy dictated that chaplains were allocated to groups with a minimum of 100,000 adherents according to the 1936 Census of Religious Bodies. The Humanist Society of Friends -- like a number of fundamentalist Christian churches who also volunteered their ministers -- failed to reach the necessary threshold.

Keep reading, because there are possible story hooks in here -- especially in an age when chaplains for traditional forms of religion also feel that they are being locked out or overlooked in a military that has established a kind of pluralistic, liberal Protestant orthodoxy as the norm.

Strange allies ahead? Stay tuned. And read it all.

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