UPDATE: Over at Choice in Dying, Eric MacDonald, an ex Anglican priest, weighs in. His verdict has special weight since he was a religious “chaplain”:
While it is true that, for the religious, chaplains provide the opportunity for service members to continue, during their military service, the practice of their religion, and have the comfort of their religious beliefs in the performance of duties that are often difficult and, at the sharp end, concern things which religions often concern themselves with: moral and spiritual reflection on things like being required to kill or to accept suffering and death in the performance of their duties, reflection on the suffering and death of comrades, and the reception of comfort, reassurance and counsel at moments of crisis in their lives, crisis which so often attends the performance of military duties. It is not only about church services, hymns, prayers or other forms of religious practice. Indeed, as a priest, religious ritual or belief often did not enter into the practice of ministry to those in times of crisis. To be a listening and sympathetic ear is often much more important than prayer or the sacraments.
. . . As a priest, I often thought that religious belief was an impediment to good pastoral care, for the temptation was always there to intrude religious belief into contexts where only the patient human ear, and the genuine presence of one human being to another was the crucial element of caring. This is not always possible. Pastoral relationships are often exceptionally intense, and I know many clergy who cannot forbear intruding their religious beliefs into contexts where their intrusion short-circuits the important work that simple human closeness and understanding can do. So Murphy is doubly wrong. Religious chaplaincy should often not be explicitly religious, and, since this is always a danger, only a humanist chaplaincy can really do the caring work that is necessary for those who do not believe at all.
If I tried to refute every atheist-bashing column or op-ed in the popular press, I’d never get anything done. And it would be tedious, for most of them say the same thing, or use the same tropes. I’m singling out one today, however, because the author is well known and his piece is ineffably stupid.
I have to admit that my knowledge of our Friendly Neighbors to the North is pretty much on a par with that of other Yanks: i.e., very little. So when a reader called my attention to a vicious and ignorant column by one Rex Murphy, I didn’t know who the man was. Wikipedia has now enlightened me, and I see that he’s a widely published Canadian columnist and broadcaster with some outré views:
He is a vocal in his denial of climate change and proposed policy responses for it, such as the Green Shift. On September 29, 2011, Murphy hosted “Climate Change 101” at the University of Calgary. The event was sponsored by W. Brett Wilson, a Canadian entrepreneur and a former employee of Imperial Oil.
He also looks a bit mean!
But of course that’s irrelevant to his latest column, “The angry atheist“, published three days ago in The National Post. It is a vicious diatribe about a fracas in the U.S. about nonbelievers wanting “humanist chaplains” in the military. (Many religious denominations have their own chaplains.) This week the U. S. House of Representatives passed a bill preventing the appointment of humanist chaplains in the military. That seems unfair, because although “chaplain” has the connotation of “religion”, there are nonreligious humanist chaplains (Harvard has one); because unbelievers can get counseling for such people if they need it, just as believers do from religious chaplains; and because if Christians can turn to a like-minded person for solace, why not atheists? It also seems to me like a violation of the First Amendment.
But before Murphy gets into that, he takes some pretty serious (and stupid) licks at Hitchens and Dawkins:
Anger seems a common condition among this kind [those who engage in “anti-God apologetics”]. Hitchens’ grim, self-advertising equal, Richard Dawkins, is a very bundle of anger and aggressiveness. Dawkins can be quite the toad, a kind of Don Rickles for unbelievers. He appears not so much as a person who subscribes to a particular philosophy or worldview as someone who cannot abide the thought that others do not wish to think the same as he. There’s something almost fanatic about the intensity with which he derides and insults Christians and other faiths (but, it seems to me, mostly Christians).
Such “professional” atheists also display an unseemly infatuation with being regarded as victims. When they are not being superior and angry, their more frequent pose, they are whining that their non-beliefs do not receive the respect or standing of their opposites. They cannot stand to be reminded of the mere presence of what they have absolutely no regard for. A strange posture.
I met Hitch only once, but I know Richard pretty well, and “anger” is not the word that comes to mind when I think of these men. “Passion,” maybe, but I’d rather spend an evening with either of them than with, say, an earnest and kindly preacher—or Rex Murphy. Hitchens was, and Dawkins is, a man of thought and erudition, and very pleasant in person. If Murphy thinks that Dawkins is the “Don Rickles of unbelievers,” he knows neither Don Rickles nor Dawkins. And really, how often have you heard Hitch or Dawkins “whine” about their lack of respect? I can’t remember a single time!
But here’s Murphy’s main beef:
Evidence of this prickly, acutely self-regarding perspective comes from the U.S., where a group of forlorn and (by their measure) much put-upon atheists are making angry demands that atheists in the military be granted their own chaplain.
Other than the whiny schoolyard temper-tantrum logic of “He’s got one, so I want one too,” what has this silly demand got going for it? How can a system of thought built on the not believing of/in something, on the non-existence of any god, require the services of a chaplain, a — need the qualifier be emphasized? — spiritual counsellor. Chaplains offer mediation on the supernatural, the afterlife, the individual’s relation with the/a creator.
Well, I bet chaplains offer a lot more than that: probably a fair amount of psychological counseling. I imagine, for instance, that chaplains in Afghanistan are consulted more frequently about fear, trauma, and death than about “the individual’s relation with the creator.” And, at any rate, if a humanist chaplain had some psychological training, he/she might be far more effective at such things than a conventional religious chaplain. Sometimes you just need someone to talk to confidentially, and I bet that’s a very important function of military chaplains. So why shouldn’t atheists get that, too?
Although I call people names only under duress, this is what really brands Murphy as a wingnut:
Very odd, to say the least. But, as usual, the professional non-believers see themselves as much put-upon and ignored. They claim, in fact, to be (within the Army) more numerous than “Jews or Hindus or Buddhists or Muslims.”
It’s very telling they make this comparison, for here, as in much else of modern atheism, they betray the need to be seen in the very category of those they derogate: a religious one. Why should those who don’t believe at all clamour for the same structures, assists and services of those who in fact do believe? Funny, you never hear them wishing for their own Hell.
After all, to chase the religious analogy to its limit, then they should equally be asking for prayer, the remission of sins, occasional fasts and Lenten exercises, and at least Sabbath and Sunday services. At which, under clouds of incense, they could intone from the works of George Orwell and Thomas Huxley and chant a hymn: Our Dawk, who art in the Guardian, and always on the BBC, hollowed be thy fame, thy royalties come, thy shill be done … “
When atheists wail for a chaplain, when they lament their status vis a vis Buddhists, Muslims, Jews and Christians, we have a group athirst for what they otherwise proclaim they despise. They unwittingly manifest an admiration and hunger for religion and its many solaces, and proffer anger as a cover for envy.
How anyone can think that wanting a humanist chaplain shows “thirst for what they otherwise proclaim they despise” is wrong on many fronts, not the least being that most atheists don’t despise God, since we don’t believe in him, nor have any hunger for the solaces of religion. The desire for a humanist chaplain is the desire to have what religious soldiers have: a sympathetic ear in times of trouble. It is, in effect, a psychologist in uniform. For Murphy to use that desire to attack atheists shows his complete lack of empathy, and also a covert hatred of atheists (is he religious?).
Fortunately, several people have taken up the cudgels against Murphy, one being Graham Templeton, a Vancouver journalist who deftly purees Murphy in a HuffPo Canada column, “How Rex Murphy went from critic to crackpot.” Templeton doesn’t pull any punches, and he hits Murphy right in his solar plexus:
In this article, Rex Murphy is upset with atheists. I am an atheist, but I’m also very open to hearing criticisms of the sometimes sickening levels of self-pity in which this group can indulge. Rather than point to such faults, he displays them himself, repeating the common, spineless complaint that prominent atheists like Richard Dawkins are just too darned mean. He characterizes the writer of a frankly dry philosophical treatise like The God Delusion as the Don Rickles of religious conversation. It’s idiotic, but hardly new. Along with a deliberately obtuse confusion of atheism with nihilism, the article begins as just another disappointing rehash studding the decline of a formerly great thinker.
. . .Let’s be clear. Rex Murphy is arguing that if you are a soldier who does not believe in God that you do not deserve access to a counselor as you risk your life to preserve his liberty. You simply ought not to need a sympathetic ear or calming word from someone trained in providing them as you lay wounded or dying — and if you do, well, isn’t that just proof that your atheism wasn’t as strong as you’d claimed? In our most harrowed moments, we all need someone who knows what to say — and rejecting belief in God doesn’t change that. To Murphy though, if you were really an atheist you would stride confidently into that good night, still scoffing at the weakness of the Christians and Buddhists who reach for a hand to hold as they shiver their last under the beating Middle Eastern sun.
In his own words, proudly pull-quoted for emphasis: “Why should those who don’t believe at all clamour for the same structures, assists and services of those who in fact do believe?” Read that again. Rex Murphy has devolved so far as to ask why an atheist should be subject to the psychological pressures of military service, the traumatic stresses of combat, or the grief of losing a friend. His thinking is so paper-thin that he truly believes these are religious issues, rather than human ones. He seems to almost take pleasure in the idea that the most vulnerable moments of brave atheist members of our Canadian Forces might play out like a believer’s small-minded thought experiment. A fitting punishment, in Murphy’s eyes, for being convinced by the arguments of BBC personalities whose highfalutin accents he finds annoying.
This is one of the more repulsive articles I’ve ever read in a professional publication, and it is beneath the dignity of someone like Rex Murphy. It’s one thing to resist this push for non-religious chaplains, to say that secular soldiers should have to get by with the help of counseling that stems from beliefs which they do not hold. I think that’s unfair and unjust, but it at least would not so callously disregard the basic humanity of many thousands of men and women in uniform. It would not use an article by Christopher Hitchens as evidence that atheists are less deserving of regard from the government that sends them into mortal danger. It would not literally ask why an atheist might want comfort while enduring the pressures and the horrors of war.
It’s time for Rex to get out of the game. His heart clearly isn’t in it anymore, and it’s becoming ever more difficult to remember a time when it was.
Well, the man is only 2.5 years older than I, and I haven’t followed his other journalism, but he should certainly be taken to task. Go over to HuffPo Canada and comment—there were only 59 comments a few minutes ago.