Did you hear the joke about the atheists who claimed to be religious? Well, it’s not a joke, it’s a lawsuit.
On June 22, an avowed secular atheist and member of the Humanist Society, stood in court and—with a straight face—asked to have his group recognized as a religious organization so he could serve as a Navy chaplain.
What the court didn’t hear is that the Humanist Society is part of the American Humanist Association, a militant atheist organization that publicly mocks all religious belief and even aligns with others who accuse chaplains of being “spiritual rapists.”
Don’t get me wrong. We at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty defend an atheist’s right to believe or not to believe as he pleases.
Like James Madison, we agree that the “full and equal rights of conscience” should apply to people of all religious traditions and to those of no tradition at all.
The government should no more penalize a person for professing atheism than professing a belief in Christianity, Hinduism, or Islam.
For soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines who need it, chaplains perform religious services, pray on the battlefield, ensure access to religious scripture, and provide religious comfort to the men and women in the field and to their families back at home. These atheist litigants cannot do that.
That’s why we have opposed state laws barring atheists from public office and why we defend unequivocally the right of atheists to speak their mind and participate fully in public life without government repercussion.
However, we also know that religion is religion and that secular atheism is not. In fact, secular atheism by definition is the rejection of religion. And sometimes it’s important to defend what words really mean. These atheist organizations want “religion” to mean “anything that contributes to human fulfillment.” But under that definition, David Letterman’s “Top Ten” is just as religious as the Ten Commandments, and wandering the Met Costume Institute Gala is just as religious as circumnavigating Mecca.
If religion is redefined to include anything, including secular atheism, it really means nothing, and that is bad for religious freedom for everyone. That’s why we oppose forcing the military to let organizations that reject and mock religion choose the chaplains whose job it is to provide religious ministry to America’s service members who want it.
Military chaplains predate the founding of our country. As commander of the Continental Army, General Washington ensured that chaplains were available to meet the religious needs of our emerging nation’s soldiers. Then, as now, service members were uprooted from their communities, including their houses of worship, and deployed to serve for months and years at a time.
That’s why the courts have confirmed that denying service members access to chaplains would violate both the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause of the U.S. Constitution. For soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines who need it, chaplains perform religious services, pray on the battlefield, ensure access to religious scripture, and provide religious comfort to the men and women in the field and to their families back at home.
These atheist litigants cannot do that. The mission of the Humanist Society and American Humanist Association is to support atheism, not religion.
They’ve sued over war memorials with religious symbols, calling them “foul” and “sectarian.” They want the phrase “under God” out of the Pledge. They oppose the National Day of Prayer. They celebrate “Kids Without God,” pushing public campaigns that mock teens of faith for having “imaginary friends.” And they’ve even teamed up with folks like Mikey Weinstein at Military Religious Freedom Foundation, who accuses military chaplains expressing their faith of “spiritual rape,” saying they “should be punished” for “sedition and treason.”
What’s wrong with all this? Absolutely nothing. The Becket Fund fully supports the right of atheists to spread their message the same way as everyone else—be it through lawsuits in court or ads on the public transit system. While we would never endorse their anti-religious messaging, we do endorse their right to say it. And certainly we agree that atheists, like many patriotic Americans, have the right to serve their country in the military. If they want to serve as a counselors or in some other capacity supporting soldier morale, their anti-religious atheism should not preclude them.
However, what they cannot do is serve as religious ministers. There are already limited spots for chaplains in the military. Considering the broad diversity of America’s service members, not every soldier gets a chaplain of their own faith. That’s why chaplains must be able to support and respect the value of religion generally and the rights of every religious believer individually.
In the end, it comes to this: a soldier dying on the battlefield deserves to know that the chaplain coming to his aid respects his religious beliefs, not mocks and belittles them. It’s claimed conversion notwithstanding, the Humanist Society is an anti-religious, secular atheist organization and cannot fill a religious role.
Eric Baxter is senior counsel for The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a nonprofit law firm dedicated to the free expression of all faiths.