Atheist Chaplains: An “Oxymoron” or a Reality?

The headlines in England rang loudly on March 6: “New NHS obligation to provide equal pastoral care to nonreligious in England.” Such news is particularly important given that the National Health Service (NHS) in England—a socialized medicine plan funded by all taxpayers—has finally and officially recognized the “equal treatment of those with a religion and those without a religion in the receipt of pastoral care.” This means that not only do nontheistic patients receive the same quality pastoral care and counselling from hospital chaplains as theistic patients, but that it is a legal obligation for the government to ensure such provision. As David Savage, the British Humanist Association’s Head of Pastoral Support, said, “The new guidance puts patients first and focuses on their need.”

Such news from our friends in England stands in stark contrast to the rhetoric that we hear in the United States. In July 2013, Rep. Dr. John Fleming (LA) unequivocally declared that the “notion of an atheist chaplain is nonsensical; it’s an oxymoron.” Yet, the inflammatory remarks made by Fleming two years ago only served as a sound bite to disguise the truth that chaplains in institutional settings are not required to have theistic beliefs. With chaplaincies in major universities such as American University, Tufts, University of Southern California, Harvard, Yale or Rutgers, nontheistic chaplains have been proudly providing quality pastoral care for many years. However, what provision is being made for people in need of nontheistic pastoral care in US hospitals?

I was asked to conduct a Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) seminar in McAllen, Texas, a few days after the recent Texas Secular Convention. Not knowing the theological viewpoints of the eight-member team of resident chaplains was a challenge in itself, since the request for a nontheist to deliver CPE training was something new for that particular facility. The chaplain team represented a broad spread of Christian faith traditions: United Methodist, Roman Catholic, Baptist General Convention of Texas, Seventh Day Adventist, Pentecostal, and also a Moravian. To my pleasant surprise, the theistic chaplains were welcoming and open to the seminar, as they had been on a journey of their own with regards to accepting the nontheist chaplain in residence on their team: Stephanie Wiernek.

Wiernek was clear about the need for nontheistic chaplains in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas: “I quickly discovered that despite the rhetoric at the hospital about the deeply theistic nature of the Valley, I was meeting many people under the age of forty who were adamant nontheists. Even in this deeply theistic part of the country, there exist many people who feel silenced and atomized by their lack of affiliation with a religious group that believes in a deity.” When asked to describe her work as a chaplain in a hospital institutional setting, Wiernek added, “Being a chaplain doesn’t require our ability to bring God into a room (for theistic chaplains would say that God is already there), but our unique, well-examined, humanity. If all people needed was a deity, there would be no chaplains. People in crisis need other people to walk alongside them and to love them.”

Imagine this scenario: you are in a hospital and have just been informed by a medical professional that you have less than a month to live. How do you feel at this moment? Are you concerned about what provisions will be made for your family? How do you hope to spend your remaining weeks and days with your family? What legacy and memories of your final days do you wish to leave with your friends and family? Within the immediacy of this situation, who is helping you and your family with this traumatic situation? And, if the chaplain within whom you are confiding offers theistic-based reflections or prayers to your existential questions, what practical value does this have in your situation? It may—if you are theistic—bring comfort and help to you, but it might not offer practical relief to your family.

The work of nontheistic hospital chaplains like Wiernek isn’t new; it’s been happening for many years in Texas and in other locations. For example, one of the cooperating groups with the San Antonio Coalition of Reason known as FACT (Freethinkers Association of Central Texas) has developed a curriculum informed by scholarly best practice that gives holistic pastoral care to patients in and out of hospitals. Regular, well-attended meetings have also been held at Joint Base—San Antonio, and the number of attendees and recipients of pastoral care continues to grow exponentially. Similar curricula are being created to the individual needs of the community in Florida’s Treasure Coast area by hospital chaplains. Furthermore, Harvard’s Assistant Humanist chaplain also provides regular pastoral care in prisons and hospitals.

Most English dictionaries recognize that, traditionally, a chaplain was equated with a religious minister who was attached to a secular institutional setting, though some dictionaries are slow and perhaps loathe to accept the inevitable sociolinguistic evolution of how context changes definitions. The greater and more diversified work of nontheistic chaplains across the United States as well as around the world challenges the notion of any one particular, sincerely held belief having a monopoly on morality. It also demonstrates that no tradition has cornered the market on care giving, and that diversified institutional chaplaincies serve an increasingly diversified US population that will receive the chaplains’ care.