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CULTURE DIGEST: Atheists seek chaplaincy
Posted on May 5, 2011 | by Erin Roach

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)--As contradictory as it sounds, a lack-of-faith group is seeking to be acknowledged as a faith group within the United States military. Atheists are pushing for status as chaplains.

The New York Times reported in April that joining the chaplain corps is part of a broader campaign by atheists to win official acceptance in the military, which would help ensure that their literature would be distributed, their events would be advertised and they would have clout with commanders.

"Humanism fills the same role for atheists that Christianity does for Christians and Judaism does for Jews," Jason Torpy, president of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, told The Times. "It answers questions of ultimate concern; it directs our values."

Atheists groups are emerging at military posts, including one called Military Atheists and Secular Humanists at Fort Bragg in North Carolina and a new chapter at Fort Campbell in Kentucky.

"Defense Department statistics show that about 9,400 of the nation's 1.4 million active-duty military personnel identify themselves as atheists or agnostics, making them a larger subpopulation than Jews, Muslims, Hindus or Buddhists in the military," The Times said.

Atheist leaders, though, say those numbers don't even take into account the nonbelievers among the 285,000 service members who claim no religious preference on military surveys. Yet about 90 percent of the 3,045 active duty chaplains are Christians.

"Military atheist leaders say that although proselytizing by chaplains is forbidden, Christian beliefs pervade military culture, creating subtle pressures on non-Christians to convert," The Times said.

One example is the Army's Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program, which requires soldiers to complete surveys to indicate their risk for stress and suicide. The Army says the surveys are meant to determine whether a soldier has "a strong set of beliefs, principles or values" that can sustain him in adversity, but atheists don't appreciate being probed with religious code words.

The Times also cited an event sponsored by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association at Fort Bragg last fall called Rock the Fort, held on the post's parade grounds. In response, an atheist soldier is testing the waters by organizing a counter event called Rock Beyond Belief with author Richard Dawkins headlining.

"Atheist and secular humanist groups in the military are hardly new," The Times said. "But at some bases, they have become better organized and more vocal in recent years."

REBECCA ST. JAMES MARRIES -- Grammy Award winning Christian singer Rebecca St. James, who encouraged millions of youth worldwide to remain sexually pure until marriage with her song "Wait For Me," married Jacob Fink April 23 in San Diego.

The ceremony at the Junipero Serra Museum included self-written commitment vows, an exchange of purity rings and a demonstration of commitment to serve one another by the washing of feet in front of 150 guests, according to St. James' publicist.

The bride's brothers sang "You Make Everything Beautiful," co-written by St. James for her recent praise and worship album, and the ceremony was officiated by her longtime pastor Rick White of The People's Church, a Southern Baptist congregation in Franklin, Tenn., and the groom's youth pastor Chris Schmaltz.

"Today has been a very special day for which I have waited a long time," St. James wrote to her fans on Facebook. "I married the love of my life, Jacob. Thank you so much for your prayers and support."

For years St. James, 33, promoted a lifestyle of sexual purity until marriage, lending her talent to the True Love Waits abstinence movement. "Rebecca St. James has been a prominent, positive example for sexual abstinence for many young people during her teenage and young adult years. She was one of the first Christian artists to support and encourage True Love Waits and has stayed true to her commitment to remain sexually abstinent until marriage," Jimmy Hester, cofounder of True Love Waits, told Baptist Press following her engagement announcement in December.

Evie Tornquist Karlsson, St. James' spiritual mentor, said after the wedding that it was "a marriage ceremony where from beginning to ending Jesus was the absolute focus and the special guest of honor of the bride and groom."

EXPECTATIONS HAVE CHANGED FOR ROYAL BRIDE -- When Diana Spencer married Prince Charles 30 years ago, her virginity was so scrutinized that her family made a public statement before the wedding to confirm that she was indeed sexually pure.

"What a difference a generation makes," The Washington Post wrote in April ahead of the wedding of Diana's son Prince William and Catherine Middleton. Few people were concerned that the couple had been living together off and on since they met in college.

"We live in a modern age and people do all sorts of things before they settle down," one British observer told The Post. "It's probably best that they lived together before making a commitment."

The expectation that Diana be a virgin had little to do with a biblical belief in purity until marriage and more to do with a desire to ensure that she wasn't carrying another man's child, bringing an illegitimate heir to the throne. The Post said the idea of a virgin bride also had come to "represent a yearning for lost innocence as Britain was gripped by a perceived social breakdown."

"Diana's virginity became symbolic of the possibility of a return to an innocent past for everyone, and now we're so past that, it's laughable," Deborah Cohen, a historian at Northwestern University in Chicago, told The Post.

The article said Middleton's age of 29 versus Diana's younger age may have had something to do with the removed expectation. At 19, Diana was expected not to have had boyfriends with embarrassing stories to tell. Charles, though, was known at the time to have been in a romantic relationship with Camilla Shand, who later would become his second wife.

"Charles may well have wanted to marry Camilla, but she was not seen as an appropriate choice because she was known to have had several boyfriends by that time," The Post said. "Some historians and commentators believe this was a major factor in Charles' fateful decision to marry Diana rather than Camilla."

A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last year found that cohabitation is increasingly becoming the first co-residential union formed among young adults, but those who practice some facets of marriage without the foundation of commitment are harming their relationship.
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Erin Roach is an assistant editor of Baptist Press.
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