Years ago, desperate for a subject for a short "light and bright" editorial, I came across a news story about a telephone company that offered a "Dial-an-Atheist" service. The seeming absurdity of the idea appealed to me, and a punch line formed in my mind. I wrote:
" 'Dial-a-Prayer' has met its match and Lloyd Thoren has met his reward. His reward is the title of 'Atheist of the Year,' bestowed upon him in honor of his answer to 'Dial-a-Prayer.' Mr. Thoren's rural telephone company is the only one in America to offer a 'Dial-an-Atheist' line. The American Atheist convention, which honored Mr. Thoren, did not say what the caller hears when he dials 'Dial-an-Atheist.' Perhaps there is no answer."
But the joke was on me. Increasingly, atheists are insisting that their message is not just a negative one, and are competing with theist religions for governmental recognition. When an interfaith service was organized to honor the victims of the
And now there are calls for the
Notwithstanding the old saying, there are atheists in foxholes. But is Fleming right that it is nonsensical to think that they could be ministered to by atheist chaplains? This month, The Times' David Zucchino wrote about Jason Heap, "a humanist who doesn't believe in God" but who aspires to be a Navy chaplain.
Heap’s application comes with the support of the Humanist Society, but it’s not clear the
The truth is that religion isn't interchangeable with belief in God. There are non-theistic Buddhists and faithful Unitarians who believe, as the joke goes, in "at most, one God." (And some practitioners of Judaism and Catholicism find comfort in religious rituals even if they doubt the existence of God.)
It's ironic that conservative such as Fleming would ridicule the notion of atheist chaplains because for decades conservatives have argued that "secular humanism" is a religion. If they're right, why shouldn't adherents be recognized by the chaplaincy program?