Friday, April 29, 2011

Atheists in Foxholes

The old saw - "there are no atheists in foxholes" - is a lie.

If you need proof, visit the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers and the New York Times article that put me on to the topic.

In U.S. culture the military stands for traditional values - courage, commitment, and, to a large degree, Christian faith. It takes guts to "come out" as a non-believer in the military. According to Defense Department statistics, only 9,400 of the 1.4 million active-duty military personnel identify themselves as atheist or agnostic. The policy of don't ask/don't tell is clearly not limited to sexual orientation!

Jason Torpy, a retired military officer and president of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, explains that “humanism fills the same role for atheists that Christianity does for Christians and Judaism does for Jews - it answers questions of ultimate concern; it directs our values."

We health professionals don't often answer questions about suffering, death and other matters of "ultimate concern" the way a faith-based cleric would, but we're often deeply involved with people who are struggling with these questions. In that sense we're like the "non-theist chaplains" activists in the military are calling for.

In my psychiatric practice I only occasionally worked with people who were close to death, but many of my patients had chronic psychiatric ailments which were a cross to bear. Suffering, courage, resilience and meaning were common topics for us. I often thought that if an anthropologist from Mars were studying 1:1 human interactions, much of "medical" practice would look similar to "religious" practice - two people talking thoughtfully about life and death in an atmosphere of mutual respect and caring.

In my experience, health professionals often feel timid talking about the "transcendental" components of medical practice. Organized religions provide a vocabulary and a rationale for seeing healthcare as a calling and talking about it that way. I suspect that the same is true for the military. When we use the term "military service" we're rarely thinking of the historical meaning of "service" - to a higher cause, traditionally, a god.

The current wave of hostility to public sector employees - "public servants" - is a deeply destructive form of political demagoguery. Specific public programs may misfire and individual public employees may perform poorly. But serving the public is a noble calling, whether it's as doctor, nurse, teacher or firefighter.

I'm glad to learn that atheists and agnostics in the military are coming out and demanding recognition for their non-theistic orientation. The organized religions do not have a monopoly on service values. I've been privileged to be part of the health profession for my career, but even though society continues to respect us as secular servants, we don't have a monopoly on that role either.

I'm rooting for the emergence of humanist chaplains in the military!


Cat's Staff said...

Thanks for recognizing the atheists in the military. There are more atheists around then people realize, most just keep their mouth shut or identify as Christians in order to avoid the hassle that comes with being seen as an outsider.

Having a Humanist chaplain in the military would be nice, but it would be better if the existing chaplains and CO's would respect everyone and not take advantage of the opportunity to proselytize to a captive audience at every opportunity. There are theocratic fundamentalist Christians who want to allow military chaplain to "pray according to the dictates of their conscience" which is code for being able to pray in Jesus' name in front of a mixed audience. These are the same people who want conscience clauses for health care providers (and everyone else) so they can get away with not providing care and not be able to be fired.

Jim Sabin said...

Hello Cat's Staff -

Thank you for your comments and the link to the article about whether military chaplains should be able to make sectarian prayers at official, non-denominational military events.

It seems like a no-brainer that at mixed events, any prayers should be non sectarian, with no invocation of Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed, Shiva, Moses, or any other sectarian figures. I'm personally comfortable with the idea of non-denominational prayer and reference a non-sectarian god, but some non-theists may be troubled by any reference to a god.

I like the way AA refers to a "higher power" as each person understands that concept. That allows for non-theist interpretations. A patient of mine told me, with pride, about an AA group that interpreted god as the "Group Of Drunks."

The conscience clause for health care providers is more complicated. I support that concept as long as it's clear that providers must (a) ensure that alternative access to a service they will not provide is readily available to a patient, (b) provide information on how to access the service, and (c) do not proselytize for their own moral perspective.

Whether or not the military adds humanist chaplains (I hope it happens), I agree with you that all chaplains should "respect everyone," including atheists.



Cat's Staff said...

The problem with conscience clauses (in the case of health care), is that it could involve people who are licensed by the state to do a certain job (which they volunteered to do). A pharmacist is licensed by the state to dispense medication prescribe by a doctor. In a rural area, a person may only have one place to get medication.

Also the fact that, in some cases, an employer can't fire a person for not doing their job. Imagine a situation were someone gets hired at Planned Parenthood as a scheduler, but refuses to schedule anyone for abortions or birth control. PP would not be able to say "you're not fulfilling the requirements of the job as written in your job description". They could shut PP down.

It sometimes gets compared to conscientious objectors in the military. But people don't get drafted to work in health care, they choose the profession and they can choose to leave it. How long would I have expected to last working on an ambulance if I said 'for religious reasons, I can't do CPR on someone' when someone went into cardiac arrest and I was only person in the back and we were 10 minutes from the hospital.

We have a secular AA group here and there are others such as SOS. It seems to work better (initially) then religious versions of AA.

Jim Sabin said...

Dear Cat's Staff

I just found your comment - the program had put it into the spam folder. I'm sorry for the delay.

You raise excellent points. The way I see it is that a health provider's primary relationship is to those we're there to serve. If I'm an urban pharmacist it's acceptable to say - "I'm sorry, but that's a service I don't provide. But XYZ four blocks from here will do it for you." If I'm in a rural setting and XYZ is 25 miles away, that's not acceptable, since filling legal prescriptions is a core pharmaceutical service.

The Planned Parenthood example sounds more like an effort at sabatoge. I'm not an expert on labor law, but I can't imagine that an employer couldn't fire a pseudo employee who took the job to attack the employer's enterprise.

As in so many areas of ethics, the problem is one of balance. A responsible, caring health professional may occasionally convey, in effect, "I respect you, care about you, and respect your right to your moral outlook, but in this particular situation I can't provide the service, but here's how you can get it." That's a long way from the industrial sabatoge effort of the Planned Parenthood "worker, which warrants condemnation, not respect.

The AA issue is also interesting. Where I practiced, there were AA groups known to be non-theist. At one, they liked to make the serious joke that in their fellowship G-O-D meant Group Of Drunks! But I also saw folks who were more comfortable in programs like Rational Recovery.

Again, I apologize for my blogging program "mistreating" your valuable comment!