The challenge of being an agnostic chaplain in the US government

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I remember the first time I saw the enemy. They weren’t what I expected. I think I envisioned an al-Qaeda version of a Navy SEAL, bulging muscles, armed to the teeth, all-around intimidating war fighter. But what I saw were young men, barely old enough to grow beards, with skinny builds and in flip-flops.

Something didn’t count. Was that the enemy?

Two US soldiers towered over these crouching, blindfolded POWs, wearing the same gear as me: bulletproof vests, helmets, government-issued Oakley safety glass, M16 rifle, the best gear a wealthy country can buy. I went to my truck for a convoy mission and happened to see these “prisoners” seized behind a blast wall. We were at a base next to Baghdad International Airport at the height of the Iraq war, and my black-and-white worldview was beginning to crumble.

I was only 20 years old at the time, and I saw myself in it: young, eager, and ready to take on the unbelievers. They were as sure of their Muslim faith as I was of my Christian faith. It was the beginning of a lot of things that didn’t make sense.

After the military, I used the GI Bill to get a Master of Divinity and then became a chaplain in the US government. But what had started as a crack in my philosophical foundation years earlier in Iraq crumbled completely. I now doubt the divinity I claim to have mastered. My deconstructive worldview changed from that 20-year-old patriotic Christian soldier to an agnostic chaplain. And let me tell you, it’s been a confusing, challenging and exhilarating ride.

This is a look at what it means for a former evangelical to serve as an agnostic minister for the federal government.

Why we hide

First of all, I will not give my name. While many faith groups are represented in this largely Christian profession, disbelief is less welcome and taboo. Better a Buddhist, Jewish or Muslim minister than one who is not religious. After all, pastoral workers aren’t supposed to be religious? Historically yes. However, with nearly 30% of Americans, 40% of Millennials and 50% of Gen Z identifying as non-religious, it is time to embrace the need for humanistic ministers in government. But until this is certain, I remain in my agnostic chamber, only letting in a few trusted peers and colleagues.

What is “dangerous” about being an agnostic minister? Let’s start with church confirmation.

To become a chaplain in the federal government, you must be sponsored by a recognized religious institution that certifies that you are a bona fide minister, with their blessing to engage in ministry. The government doesn’t decide what you believe or not believe, however they decide whom they regard as a “recognized church supporter.” The vast majority of these approved supporters are Christian in some form, with additional religious diversity among other major world religions. Branches of the federal government have repeatedly refused to allow the Humanist Society to become a licensed endorser (with the Bureau of Prisons being the notable exception).

So what do chaplains like me who are not in the Bureau of Prisons do? Well, we’re hiding. My endorser does not know that I am agnostic. If they did and then decided to stop supporting me, I would immediately lose the well-paying, stable job that supports my family. It’s quite challenging on many other levels as well.

At the risk of sounding self-pitying, it’s lonely to be an agnostic minister. Where are the other humanist ministers? Aside from celebrities like Greg Epstein and Bart Campolo, humanistic ministry is a relatively new phenomenon. And to be honest, I don’t always feel like I fit into the humanist community. Sometimes the humanistic camp seems to me just as dogmatic as the theistic camp. If that’s true, then what about those of us who fall somewhere between the polarities of certainty?

In response to this question, I decided to start my own group, the Agnostic Pastoral Association. But who knows if that will start or will eventually fizzle out in the graveyard of good intentions?

Another challenge: I’m still figuring out what it means to be an agnostic minister.

I am a board-certified minister with all the necessary qualifications to hold the position I hold, but I have come through this multi-year process as “kinda Christian”. I am now trying to reorganize my philosophical base to provide a more humanistic care that is more in line with my inner beliefs. I often feel duplicitous and like a chameleon as I am still in the philosophical closet.

A short vignette might be helpful to illustrate this internal dilemma.

Recently, an employee asked me to visit a patient. Dead easy. I do this all day every day. But when I entered the room, I saw clearly that the patient was dead. Although it surprised me a little, this was not unfamiliar territory for me. But I was curious as to why she wanted me to go see this deceased patient. Then it came to me: This staff member as a believer in Christ, and I realized that she wanted me to do my “chaplain thing”—bow my head, say a prayer, and look serious.

I pondered an internal dilemma: on the one hand, I believe this patient is simply dead. Period. End of the story. There is nothing supernatural to see here. But the employee expected me to be something religious – or more specifically, something Christian. Do I approach this encounter as an agnostic and do without prayers or other religious rituals? Or do I capitulate and behave like a pastor because everyone expects and hopes that of me? This is an inner tug-of-war I regularly feel when it comes to being authentically who I am while also offering contextualized spiritual mentoring.

At that moment I decided to say a prayer in Christianesh and surrendered it into God’s hands while thinking inside that this was all just for show.

Not every encounter is as pointed as this one. Most of the time, my patients don’t want anything overtly religious. I like to say that ministry is not about religion but about the human spirit, however you choose to define spirit. At its core, I understand that spirituality is about connection: connection with ourselves, connection with others, and connection with the world around us. These intra-, inter- and transpersonal connections are what it means to be human.

A new philosophical basis

There is so much stigma about not being religious. But at the end of the day, I believe we all just want to feel alive and connected to life. As an agnostic minister, I don’t need to invoke the supernatural to encourage these types of connections. But the question is: Can I transparently cultivate these connections as a non-religious minister or do I have to hide in a kind of “don’t ask, don’t tell” manner?

A few years later, after my first tour of duty in Iraq, I returned to the sandbox for another tour of duty. This time we did not travel in convoys, but worked closely with Iraqi law enforcement officials and interpreters at a “internment facility” (prison) for “detainees” (prisoners of war). While I continued to see “the enemy” in yellow overalls, I also spent hours drinking chai and smoking hookah with the local interpreters. I learned about their families, hopes and dreams, and the risk they took to work with the US government. As I look back on those warm encounters (literally – it was hot!) they lay the foundation of a new philosophical foundation. Instead of building on the supernatural, this time I’m building on the basis of humanism and emphasizing life before death (vs. life after Death).

In short, I embrace the mystery of existence and find meaning in the present moment while seeking to connect with myself, others and the world around me.

I would love to travel with other like-minded ministers. I dream of the day I can share my name as an openly agnostic chaplain in government. Until then, I will remain anonymous, forming relationships in the background and building a philosophical basis for a life of service to others. Yes, it’s challenging to be an agnostic chaplain in government. But it’s also the most authentic thing I can do, so I’m keeping an eye on the long road.

To this day you can call me the most agnostic minister in the US government. If you want to connect you can email me at [email protected]

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