Military chaplains provide spiritual support for religious members of the armed forces, though nonbelieving soldiers currently have no official representation in the chaplaincy. But despite their overall rejection of a higher power, some atheists and humanists are fighting to see secular leaders join the ranks.
The debate over humanist and atheist chaplains has been raging for years, most recently heating up after the Navy rejected a request by Jason Heap, a religion teacher and former youth minister, to become a humanist chaplain.
The military did not provide an explanation as to why they wouldn’t allow the designation, with Heap, 39, and others responding by asking the Navy chaplain’s office to overturn the rejection, the Washington Post reported.
Openly Secular, a group recently formed by atheists and “freethinkers” in an effort to target perceived discrimination in public venues, is supporting Heap, with the group’s chair, millionaire atheist Todd Stiefel, penning a letter to Rear Adm. Mark Tidd of the U.S. Navy chaplains’ office.
“As you know well, military chaplains advise on far more than faith and spiritual issues; they handle moral and ethical dilemmas, and enhance morale and unit cohesion,” Stiefel wrote. “If a service member needs bereavement leave to attend a funeral of a loved one at home, the chaplain is the point of contact.”
He continued, “Nonreligious service members face the same questions about life and death, fear and loss as any other person in the military.”
TheBlaze began covering arguments for an atheist and humanist chaplaincy in 2011. At that time, Jason Torpy, head of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, advanced similar arguments, noting that humanists didn’t simply want chaplains so that they can lambaste God. Instead, he said these leaders could provide insight on the secular values they embrace.
“We’re not just coming in saying we want someone to wander around talking about how much God doesn’t exist,” he told the Kansas City Star. “We talk about humanist values, humanist community, how we understand the world.”
Last summer, Democratic Rep. Rob Andrews of New Jersey offered up a failed amendment to the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act that would have allowed nontheist chaplains to join the armed forces.
“The Secretary of Defense shall provide for the appointment, as officers in the Chaplain Corps of the Armed Forces, of persons who are certified or ordained by non-theistic organizations and institutions, such as humanist, ethical culturalist, or atheist,” Andrews’ chaplain amendment reads.
Opposition from Christian advocates has generally centered upon the fact that chaplains have traditionally been people of faith who have guided soldiers in spiritual matters. An atheist chaplain, these activists have argued, is an oxymoron, though at least one Christian leader has posited that a secular chaplaincy could possibly benefit believers.
Wallace Henley, senior associate pastor at Second Baptist Church in Houston, Texas, wrote an op-ed past year for the Christian Post saying that, by allowing non-believing chaplains, atheists open themselves up to a scenario and label they may end up regretting.
“Allowing atheist chaplains recognizes atheism as a religion and would make atheists subject to the same legal restrictions they have gleefully placed on every other religion,” the Baptist pastor wrote.
The American Humanist Association defines humanism as “a progressive philosophy of life that, without theism and other supernatural beliefs, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity.”
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(H/T: Washington Post)
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