08/02/2013 12:38 EDT | Updated 10/02/2013 05:12 EDT

Rex Murphy Is Right About Atheists

Rex Murphy recently wrote an article about atheists requesting non-religious chaplains, specifically in the armed forces. He asked "Why should those who don't believe at all clamour for the same structures, assists and services of those who in fact do believe?"

GrahamTempleton responded in Huffington Post, "Surely, a man who has spent much of his career commenting thoughtfully on the plight of our troops could not debase himself so shamefully over this petty religious point?...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..."

Actually, that is not what Mr. Murphy said. He in no way suggested that members of the military be denied compassionate care. He questioned the desire of atheists, who tend to demean those of us who believe in God, to have a chaplain, as if they're missing something when there are wonderful secular therapists available like social workers or other secular therapists to "provide a sympathetic ear or calming word." It isn't that atheists are doing without; it's that religious people didn't get the comfort needed through secular therapy.

I think it's important to describe some of the services that chaplains provide.

Chaplains, working for the military or any other secular institution, are trained to care for everyone- with or without a belief in God. The problem is too many people today do not want to hear, or believe the fact that there is a difference between speaking to a soul, and proselytizing or preaching dogma.

Chaplains who work in institutions, hospitals, jails, hospices, or facilities for those with mental illness are part of a multi-disciplinary professional team all working to help people in crisis get better. Science and religion working together. All healing professions have different words to say the same thing: it is referred to as the discourse of the discipline.

Each profession has a place in understanding ourselves and the world in which we live. I would hear my patients' concerns through their stories and assist them with pastoral language like grace, forgiveness and repentance as well as referencing the Bible which is the story of the journey to becoming human. For many people, concepts from psycho-social sciences like animus and anima, ego, id, and super-ego, repression, don't always make a human connection while stories touch our souls.

Chaplains, like other therapists, help those who are living with fear and anxiety who are so overwhelmed that they become paralyzed, unable to make a decision, unable to cope. It is the type of fear that prevents logical thought, disabling free-will.

I remember my psychiatrist telling me as I was leaving, "You are taking a flight from freedom. Now is not the time to leave." I was on the edge of a revelation that might have freed me from my anxiety, but I couldn't face it. I ran; back to my comfort zone. I had no idea at the time, but I was replaying the behaviour of the Israelites from thousands of years ago. Psychiatrists talk about flight from freedom, chaplains share universal stories.

The story of Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt, out of slavery, is the archetypal story of how we often cope with the struggles and fears many of us face in our lives. The Israelites had crossed the Sea of Reeds and were safe in the desert. But it wasn't long before the complaints began. They were frightened. Where would they get food, water or basic shelter? So they began to wax poetic about the past through discoloured glasses. It had not been so bad. At least there they had food and shelter and a bed in which to sleep.

Nostalgia through the lens of fear can lead to what Erich Fromm described as a flight from the freedom that is waiting for you; a new life, with more choices. Instead we turn back to the comfort of the enslavement of the known and familiar be it a reclusive life, an abusive relationship or a stifling job.

I am confounded by the desire for people who are atheists to ask for a non-religious chaplain. I've never heard such an oxymoron. A chaplain is one of the strongest symbols of the representation of God. Why would atheists want to second religious language? When I responded to a request for the chaplain, I knew I was bringing into that room the idea of God to that person-their idea, their concept of God, not mine.

As a chaplain I have witnessed an emotional change in the air when a priest is called to provide sacrament of the sick prior to surgery. I stood at the end of the bed in the emergency room, the family surrounding their father. There was a palpable sense of fear and anxiety in that small curtained cubicle. When the priest placed his vestments over his shoulders, opened his prayer book and began giving the sacrament, there was a transformation. I felt the hair on my arms and behind my neck rise and chills went up and down my spine. There was calmness, hope, faith and belief -- a new energy was in the room. And for those of us who choose to believe, the energy was the Presence of God.

Why would followers of Hitchens, Dawkins, et al want anyone with the word chaplain in their title to visit them? Unless, they know deep in their souls that there is a language specific to the soul that comes from the language of God and not Freud.

What is a non-religious chaplain? A therapist. I have been blessed to have received wonderful care from different therapists: psychiatrists, social workers, psychotherapists; as have many of my patients.

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