Faith, particularly of the Christian nature, has been an inherent part of the United States military experience for decades — if not centuries. As a result, the nation’s military culture is generally regarded as conservative in nature.
But as atheists become a more vocal minority, they are also seeking greater recognition and more support services among military ranks. In fact, some non-believers are even advocating for their installment as officially-recognized chaplains.
Christian military chaplains are plentiful based on soldiers’ demographics. These faith leaders serve soldiers by ministering to them and by providing Biblical principals and advice. Of course, there are Jews, Muslims and others from diverse faith groups who are also a part of the chaplaincy as well. Currently, there are 2,700 individuals serving who represent 130 different religious groups.
According to the New York Times, “Defense Department statistics show that about 9,400 of the nation’s 1.4 million active-duty military personnel identify themselves as atheists or agnostics, making them a larger subpopulation than Jews, Muslims, Hindus or Buddhists in the military.” While still relatively small, the notion that this group makes up a more sizable slice of the overall pie than the others who are already represented by faith leader is intriguing.
Capt. Ryan Jean, based at Fort Meade in Maryland, is one soldier who claims that he’s been berated due to his lack of faith by others in the Army. After going through some negative experiences as a result of his atheism, he has decided to try and become a humanist lay leader — an individual, who similar to Christian, Jewish and Muslim Chaplains, would minister to his fellow non-believers.
And Jean isn’t alone. There are others across the nation who are seeking the same role within the military. These individuals believe that Christians take for granted the support and acceptance that they receive as a result of their faith. While the religious have people there to reinforce their values, atheists, humanists and others who follow similar world beliefs argue that they do not. Thus, they wish to gain official recognition so that they can respond to their fellow non-believing soldiers’ spiritual needs.
So far, though, the military hasn’t given official recognition to any atheists. Jason Torby, the head of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, says that he hasn’t seen much support for the proposal yet either. “What I’ve heard is, ‘Well, you guys aren’t like us. You guys don’t believe like we do,'” he said. “What I haven’t heard is, ‘Yes. We accept.'” Torpy, of course, is supportive of the movement toward atheist chaplaincy. The Kansas City Star has more:
In arguing for atheist chaplains, Torpy has stressed what he called the “positive values” of humanism: “community, making meaning in life, scientific naturalism.”
“We’re not just coming in saying we want someone to wander around talking about how much God doesn’t exist,” he said. “We talk about humanist values, humanist community, how we understand the world.”
In an interview with the Christian Post Paul Vicalvi, the executive director of the National Association of Evangelicals Chaplain Commission, said earlier this year that he was puzzled by atheists’ push to join the chaplaincy. “Traditionally chaplains are seen as a person of a higher power faith,” he said. “It would redefine the chaplaincy if a non-faith person becomes a chaplain,” he said.
Furthermore, Vicalvi claims that the support these individuals are looking for is already in place. With psychologists and counselors already available to military personnel, he maintained that non-believers already have secular resources to fall back on.
Mary Doyle, a spokeswoman from Fort Meade, said that it will be “a high mountain to climb” for atheists seeking this status. “The group that they want to be a lay leader for would have to be considered a recognized religious organization,” Doyle said. The Star reports about the complications surrounding this situation:
The military does not recognize atheists or humanists as members of an organized religion. (Atheists do not believe in a god. Humanists typically are nonbelievers who find meaning in ideas about community, science and human potential. There is much overlap between the two groups.)
But beyond this, one would wonder how atheists — many of whom vehemently deny the notion that they should be considered “religious” — would be able to rectify such a label. The mere notion that non-believers wish to be chaplains showcases that, in a sense, these individuals consider their system of non-belief structured enough to parallel that of Christian, Jewish and Muslim sects.
Also, as the Christian Post has reported in the past, there’s the issue of education and preparedness. The Army requires that chaplains have an endorsement from their faith group, which is problematic for non-believers for the aforementioned reasons. But beyond this, an individual must also have a graduate degree in theological or religious studies — something that’s simply not possible for atheists.
Watch what Penn Jillette thinks about atheist chaplains:
This move by atheists comes after other issues have arisen surrounding their recognition on military bases. Over the summer, atheists won the right to hold an atheist-friendly music concert (and they also received $50,000 from the military to put it on) at Fort Bragg in North Carolina; the event will be happening this March.
Do you think atheists deserve their own military chaplains as well? Take our poll: