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Austin Cline

Humanist Chaplains in the Dutch Army

By May 15, 2009

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In the American military, chaplains are mostly Christian and universally religious. That's the way it is in most other nations' militaries as well, but not with the Dutch and Belgian armed forces — they actually have humanist chaplains who provide secular, non-religious counseling to both religious and irreligious service members. In Afghanistan, where these humanist chaplains have come into contact with the American military, it's caused more than a little bit of confusion for American Christian chaplains who can't seem to "get" this.
"One chaplain asked me about 10 times about my religion," said Eline who by Dutch military regulations is not allowed to have her family name published. "The man named about 10 different Christian religions. He just couldn't get out of the Christian box."

Eline studied "God Science" for four years at university. That was not about theology as Christian belief, but the "full spectrum" of religious experience. After that she spent a year as a social worker at the Bissell Centre in Edmonton while studying at Grant MacEwan College.

She is what the Dutch military describes as a humanist. Thirty humanists tend to the spiritual needs of the Dutch military along with 90 Protestant and Roman Catholic clergymen, two rabbis, two Hindu pandits and two Muslim imams.

To the best of Eline's knowledge, the only other military with padres who do not believe in God are the Belgians.

"Being a humanist is very common in Holland, so I don't need to explain what it is that I do. Here I do," said Eline during an interview in her cluttered office at the Dutch military headquarters, which was adorned with a Santa Claus doll wearing a hat with a cross on it.

"I definitely do not believe in a Christian or Muslim God or that it was a great spirit that has created this world. I don't know how we got here. That is the humanist view of the world. If you don't know something for sure, you don't follow it. We believe in what is proven. We may fantasize about the rest, but we don't take it as a given."

Source: Canada.com

Given how difficult it is to get the American military to simply be neutral in religious matters and not be used by evangelical Christians for their own ideological purposes, I doubt that we'll see humanist chaplains become this common any time soon. Right now the military seems to seek chaplains based on the religious makeup of service members — more Christian chaplains for more Christians, fewer Jewish chaplains for fewer Jews. All chaplains, though, are expected to serve all members of the armed forces equally — a tough task for conservative evangelicals who feel called to explicitly favor their religion.

I wonder, though, if the military wouldn't be better served by more humanist chaplains? Of course there would always be a need for sectarian chaplains who can administer sacraments and lead congregations in particular religious rituals, but couldn't the other functions of chaplains be just as easily served by humanists who aren't beholden to any particular religious tradition, ideology, or system? Well-trained humanists might arguably be able to serve everyone on an equal level more easily — or at least more easily than some conservatives. It's something to consider, at least.

May 15, 2009 at 4:26 pm
(1) Drew says:

Hey Austin, glad to see you posted this article!

Of course, what all militaries should use is professional social workers, psychiatrists, and psychologists, who are actually professionally trained to deal with emotional and mental wellness.

But, since that’s dreaming in technicolour, humanist chaplains are the next best thing. I will start working for them within the Canadian military in my limited capacity. If I were ever a colonel or general, I know what cut I’d be making in my budget . . . “sorry padre, you’re a great guy, but the troops need XYZ.”

November 17, 2011 at 1:26 pm
(2) chris says:

Drew I think that we should work on getting humanist chaplains. Also I wonder how many CF members are Humanists or irreligious.

May 16, 2009 at 4:47 am
(3) Ivan says:

In Belgium, atheďsts (humanists) act as “chaplains”, not only in the army, but also in prisons, hospitals, public schools (non-religious-moral teachers. Many of our government leaders are open en publicly atheist!! So, atheists come and visit our small country …

May 17, 2009 at 6:58 pm
(4) Ned B. says:

Austin, to echo Drew’s sentiments, thanks for posting this. I knew nothing about non-theist chaplains in any military. Not only is this nice for me to know personally, but I also teach various university-level sociology and cultural anthropology classes. One of the basics that I want my largely bible-belt classes to get is the importance of culture. Hence, dramatic examples of people who do things differently and, oddly enough, seem to get along just fine, are welcome.

June 6, 2013 at 1:07 pm
(5) Patrick says:

Excuse me if I sound a bit confused but, I thought chaplains served the spiritual needs of their people but, if humanists do not beleive in the “spirit” how can a humanist chaplain cater to the needs of something they do not believe exists?

Maybe the name is wrong, considering “Chaplain” is a word derived from “clergy”. Maybe they should be called Psychologists or Psychiatrists!!!! I would suggest that may be a great deal more honest than trying to call yourself something you are not.

July 24, 2013 at 10:56 am
(6) SeaRick says:

A ‘humanist” chaplain is an OXYMORON with the emphasis on MORON.

What these atheists are proposing is a mental health professional since they disavow belief in any supreme being and place their destiny and beliefs in the hands of those who have to belief system except what is tangible and provable.

Unfortunately this gross lack of insight and wisdom demonstrates the narcissistic and self-centric human flaws. The hypocrisy of the atheistic belief system is a progeny of neo-fascist social re-engineering. Every communist state disavows GOD so that tells me atheists place themselves as the ‘supreme being’ in the universe and that is a pathological illness called Personality Disorder of the narcissistic type with Cluster B traits.

You atheists go ask your counselor (aka psychiatrist) how to reconcile that and perhaps the doctor will prescribe some Seroquel and Abilify for your mental illness.

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