Crossing Divides: Can an Atheist be a Chaplain?


Can an Atheist be a chaplain?

It may seem like a ridiculous question, I know. However Great Britain recently named its first “Non-Religious Pastoral Carer” within its national health system. This sparked debate about whether or not it’s even possible for a non-religious person could technically be a “chaplain” given that the title itself has an obvious religious connotation.

While the argument is interesting, I don’t find it very helpful though. It becomes an argument about semantics and definitions. But frame the question this way and I think it gets interesting: Can someone of one faith provide spiritual support to another of a different faith, or of no faith at all? Put it that way and I think you are getting to a core question for those serving in Chaplaincy already, as well as those planning for ministry.

I think many would say, “absolutely!” in response to this question. Chaplains – at least well trained ones – are more about reinforcing the beliefs and spiritual supports of those they are caring for than about presenting their own or trying to change someone’s beliefs. That’s relatively simple when the beliefs of the chaplain and the beliefs of the other are at least similar, even if they aren’t the same. Christians have shared texts, stories, experiences and language that make spanning those bridges a bit easier. When there are differences that may be irreconcilable (I’ll explain more below) it gets harder though.

For example, early on in my work as a chaplain I had a couple on who  were very involved in the Charismatic movement and had been co-ministers with a nationally known faith healer. The wife had a stroke several years prior and was now on hospice, nonverbal and not eating. The husband was convinced that she would be healed miraculously even while he maintained her on hospice. On the last day I saw them before she died, he was watching a DVD from a faith healing service, full of people being slain in the spirit, speaking in tongues, and shaking violently. He encouraged me to watch and participate through prayer and praise. Meanwhile his wife was actively dying. He was quite wrapped up in the service, while I couldn’t help but feel sad and  torn. I was raised PCA, which meant that your hands better not be elevated any higher than your waist unless you had a Bible or hymnal in them!  It seemed tragic to me. He wanted me to help by sharing and participating in his religious experience, which was something that at the time I could not do because of my own feelings about faith, healing and the charismatic gifts. I helped as best I could by sticking with him through a situation which was uncomfortable for me, maintaining that presence and sense of hope that I provided simply because of my title and role. I provided prayer and support, and left feeling tremendously sad.

In this situation, even though we both fell under the banner of Christian, he and I didn’t share the same theological outlook. When I consider my patients now I can say that this is the case for so many of the people I see. The label Christian covers over so many of the theological and religious differences that are there between them and myself. Now those differences don’t bother me so much though, as I look less at the religious jots and tittles that accompany a label and more at the spiritual and emotional needs that are common to all of us. I’ve learned that I can bend my own faith around someone else’s without losing it or pretending to be someone I’m not.

A great example of this to me is a colleague of mine who is a chaplain and Rabbi in a local hospital. After Christmas we got to talking about how much he enjoys Christmas at the hospital. He loves singing hymns and carols, and enjoys sharing the joy of his Christian patients have during the season (“Jonathan, the Rabbi who loved Christmas” would make a great title for a children’s book!). At no time did he ever feel like he was “faking it” for their sake or losing his own identity. Rather he was sharing in their experience on a level deeper than that of religious identity.

So perhaps the question is not “can an Atheist be a chaplain” but can people of different faiths and traditions support one another on a basic, human level. I think the answer there is unequivocally yes. One can even turn the question around: “can I be a chaplain to an Atheist?” This is the more important question for the chaplain, as well as anyone providing spiritual care.

When Jesus encountered the woman at the well in John 4 He crossed about every line you could think of: cultural, religious, gender, social. Yet Jesus met her on a core level that was beyond all of those lines and ministered to her there. Even when Jesus recognized the religious difference between them (“You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews.” Jn 4:22) he didn’t hold it over her. Instead he looked beyond it to the spiritual needs of both Jew and Samaritan (“Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.” v23).

This does not mean that we will be able to fulfill every need of someone else, though. Good chaplains recognize their own limits and are able to step aside when a patient or family brings religious needs or concerns that he or she cannot fulfill. I can be open to supporting the other person, but they may not be open to me. That’s fine. It isn’t failure on my part or even on theirs. There are many who if they were met by an Atheist chaplain in the hospital would say “get out of here and get me a real chaplain!” But there are many who would say that to a Catholic chaplain, or an Episcopalian one, you name it.

It’s not merely a matter of believing “only religious people can be chaplains”. The initial question posed here asks if we can only minister to one another if we are the same. I think the answer is no. One nontheistic chaplain candidate put it this way: “If all people needed was a deity, there would be no chaplains. People in crisis need other people to walk alongside them and to love them.”

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3 thoughts on “Crossing Divides: Can an Atheist be a Chaplain?

  1. Would this be a progressive atheist?

    Thanks for sharing!

    Randy Johnson
    Assistant Director
    Chaplain Services
    Pikeville Medical Center

  2. Pingback: Luther on Being a Theologian: Oratio, Meditatio and Tentatio | Stepping Toes

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