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Update: Why Would an Atheist Want to Be a Military Chaplain?

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Update March 23, 2018

The U.S. Navy turned down the application of an atheist who wanted to serve in the Navy Chaplain Corps. The decision follows a letter from 43 members of Congress warning that the very definition of what it means to be a chaplain is at stake if the Navy appointed an atheist to be a chaplain.

“Act naturally,” “found missing” and “deafening silence” are examples of oxymorons. Now you can add another to the list, “atheist chaplain.”

The Navy Chaplain advisory board is recommending the appointment of Jason Heap, a secular humanist, to look over the spiritual needs of sailors, marines and naval airmen.

But more than 20 Senators and 40 members of the House of Representatives have signed letters to the secretary of the Navy, asking that he deny the application. In fact, Senator Roger Wicker, one of the signers, says the plan to appoint an atheist as a chaplain appears to be based on political correctness rather than a concern for military members. In an opinion piece the lawmaker wrote, “The central question here is how an atheist chaplain can be expected to fulfill a role that, by its very nature, is supposed to serve the religious needs of our service members.”

Rep. John Fleming, R-La., is also opposed to the appointment. He told Christian News,

“What you’re really doing is now saying that we’re going to replace true chaplains with non-chaplain chaplains. It’s just total nonsense, the idea of having a chaplain who is an atheist,” he continued. “A chaplain is a minister of the faith—someone who believes in a deity of a spiritual life who is assigned to a secular organization.”

This isn’t the first attempt by Heap to join the chaplain’s corp. In 2015 he tried to sue his way into the chaplaincy. The Navy rejected him because he planned to associate with two humanist groups instead of a religious denomination. Ultimately, the military ended up in court defending the notion that religious leaders should serve a religious purpose. They won.

Now, Heap is trying again. He holds degrees from Oxford University and Brite Divinity School, and has experience in human resources.

“As both a humanist and a scholar of religion, I have a deep knowledge and understanding of world religions,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “My purpose and focus as a chaplain will be for holistic well-being of anyone who is in need of pastoral care.”

The American Humanist Association has argued that nonbelievers suffer the same fear and pain that affects every service member and should have representation from chaplains, but Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, asks, “Isn’t that why the military has psychologists?  

“The idea is even more ridiculous when you consider that barely three percent of our service members even identify as atheist or humanist. To fling open the chaplaincy to any ideology or philosophy would fundamentally change an institution that’s older than the country itself! Not to mention, the House letter reminds the Navy, that “The Department of Defense’s own guidelines also reinforce the uniquely religious purpose of the chaplain corps, defining ‘religious organization’ as ‘an entity that is organized and functions primarily to perform religious ministries to a non-military lay constituency’ and defining a religious ministry professional as ‘an individual endorsed to represent a religious organization and to conduct its religious observances or ceremonies.’”

Sen. Wicker also worries that allowing an atheist to be a chaplain would fundamentally change the chaplaincy.

“I hope our Navy leaders recognize that it is well within their authority to create programs outside of the Chaplain Corps to serve humanist or atheist service members. However, allowing a non-religious worldview to be represented among the Chaplain Corps would set a dangerous precedent for the military.

“What is to stop future demands for other philosophical preferences to be included in the Chaplain Corps as well?  

“Today’s Chaplain Corps includes leaders from a wide spectrum of faiths. None of these faiths challenge the religious purpose of the Chaplain Corps or the calling of these men and women to serve our troops. This service to God and to our nation, as the Corps’ motto describes, should not be trivialized.”

The Chaplain’s Corp was created in 1775 by General George Washington to serve the specifically religious needs of the troops.