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."
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?