I started the credentialing process as a Christian. Now that worldview has crumbled, and I'm caught between an ecclesiastical endorsement and my own convictions
I remember the first time I saw the enemy. They weren’t anything like what I expected. I think I was picturing an Al-Qaeda version of a Navy SEAL, bulging muscles, armed to the teeth, all-around intimidating warfighters. But what I saw were young men hardly old enough to grow a beard, with a skinny physique and wearing flip-flops.
Something did not compute. This was the enemy?
Two US soldiers towered over these squatting and blindfolded prisoners of war, wearing the same gear I was: bulletproof vests, helmets, government-issued Oakley safety glass, M16 rifle, all the best gear a wealthy country can buy. I was walking to my truck for a convoy mission and just happened to see these “detainees” sequestered 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 started to crack.
I was only 20 years old at the time and saw myself in them: young, zealous, and ready to take on the infidels. They were just 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 subsequently became a chaplain in the US government. But what had started as a crack in my philosophical foundation years earlier in Iraq completely crumbled. I now doubt the divinity that I supposedly mastered. My deconstructing worldview changed from that 20-year-old patriotic Christian soldier to an agnostic chaplain. And let me tell you, it has been a disorienting, challenging, and exhilarating ride.
This is a glance into what it means for one former evangelical to work for the federal government as an agnostic chaplain.
Why we hide
For starters, I will not share my name. While there are many faith groups represented in this largely Christian profession, nonbelief is less welcome and taboo. Better a Buddhist, Jewish, or Muslim chaplain than one who is nonreligious. After all, aren’t chaplains supposed to be religious? Historically, yes. However, with nearly 30% of Americans, 40% of millennials, and 50% of Gen Z identifying as nonreligious, the time has come to embrace the need for humanist chaplains in the government. But until it is safe to do so, I will remain in my agnostic closet, only letting a few trusted peers and colleagues inside.
What’s ‘dangerous’ about being an agnostic chaplain? Let’s start with ecclesiastical endorsement.
To be a chaplain in the federal government, you need to be sponsored by a recognized religious institution that vouches that you are a bona fide minister with their blessing to engage in ministerial work. The government does not decide what you can or can’t believe, but they do decide who they consider as a “recognized ecclesiastical endorser.” The vast majority of these approved endorsers are some form of Christian, with some added religious diversity among other major world religions. Branches of the federal government have repeatedly denied the Humanist Society from becoming an approved endorser (with the Bureau of Prisons a notable exception).
So what do chaplains like myself do who are not in the Bureau of Prisons? Well, we hide. My endorser does not know that I am agnostic. If they did and then decided to stop endorsing me, I would immediately lose the well-paying, stable job that supports my family. It is also quite challenging on many other levels.
At the risk of sounding self-pitying, it’s lonely being an agnostic chaplain. Where are the other humanist chaplains? Aside from celebrities like Greg Epstein and Bart Campolo, humanist chaplaincy is a relatively new phenomenon. And if I’m honest, I don’t always feel like I fit into the humanist community. Sometimes the humanist camp seems just as dogmatic to me as the theistic camp. If that’s true, what about those of us who fall somewhere in between the polarities of certainty?
In response to this question, I started the Agnostic Chaplain Association. But who knows if that will take off or eventually fizzle out in the graveyard of good intentions?
Another challenge: I’m still figuring out what it means to be an agnostic chaplain.
I am a board-certified chaplain with all the necessary credentialing to hold the position I have, but I went through that multiyear process as “kinda Christian.” I am now trying to reorganize my philosophical footing to provide more humanist care that aligns more with my internal beliefs. I often feel duplicitous and like a chameleon since I’m still in the philosophical closet.
A short vignette might be helpful to illustrate this internal dilemma.
Recently a staff member asked me to pay a visit to a patient. Easy peasy. I do this all day every day. But upon entering the room, I clearly saw that the patient was dead. While it caught me off guard a little, this was not unfamiliar terrain for me. But I was curious why she wanted me to go see this deceased patient. Then it came to me: This staff member as a devout Christian, and I realized she wanted me to do my “chaplain thing”—bowing my head, saying a prayer, and looking serious.
I pondered an internal dilemma: On the one hand, I believe this patient is simply dead. Period. End of story. Nothing supernatural to see here. But the staff member was expecting me to do something religious—or more precisely, something Christian. Do I approach this encounter as an agnostic and refrain from praying or other religious rituals? Or do I capitulate and go through the motions of a religious chaplain because that is what everyone is expecting and hoping I’ll do? This is an internal tug-of-war I regularly feel with being authentic to who I am while also providing contextualized spiritual care.
In the moment, I chose to say a prayer in Christianese and committed him into God’s hands while inwardly thinking this was all for show.
Not every encounter is as pointed as this one. Most of the time, my patients do not desire anything overtly religious. I like to say the chaplaincy is not about religion, but the human spirit however you choose to define spirit. At its core, I understand spirituality to be all about connection: connecting to ourselves, connecting with others, and connecting with the world around us. These intra-, inter-, and trans-personal connections are what it means to be human.
A new philosophical foundation
There is so much stigma about being nonreligious. But at the end of the day, I believe we all just want to feel alive and connected with life. As an agnostic chaplain, I don’t need to invoke the supernatural in order to foster these kinds of connections. But the question is this: Can I foster these connections transparently as a nonreligious spiritual care provider, or do I need to remain hidden in a kind of “don’t ask, don’t tell” sort of way?
A couple of years later, after my first deployment to Iraq, I returned for another tour of duty in the Sandbox. This time we weren’t driving in convoys but working closely with Iraqi correctional officers and interpreters in an ‘internment facility’ (prison) for ‘detainees’ (prisoners of war). While I continued to see ‘the enemy’ in yellow jumpsuits, I also had hours upon hours of drinking chai and smoking hookah with the local interpreters. I learned about their families, hopes and dreams, and the risk they were taking to work with the US government. As I look back on these warm encounters (literally – it was hot!), they form the bedrock of a new philosophical foundation. This time, instead of building on the supernatural, I am building on the foundation 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 as I seek to connect with myself, others, and the world around me.
I would love to journey with other like-minded chaplains. I dream of the day when I can share my name as an open agnostic chaplain in the government. Until then, I will remain anonymous, forging relationships in the background and rebuilding a philosophical foundation for a life of service to others. Yes, it is challenging to be an agnostic chaplain in the government. But it is also the most authentic thing I know how to do, so I am keeping my eye on the long approach.
Until that day, you can call me the Agnostic Chaplain at Large in the US Government. If you want to connect, you can e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.