Atheists Seek Chaplain Role in the Military

The front page of the New York Times today features a story about efforts by the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers (MAAF) to better support atheists and humanists and to endorse humanist chaplains in the military.

FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. — In the military, there are more than 3,000 chaplains who minister to the spiritual and emotional needs of active duty troops, regardless of their faiths. The vast majority are Christians, a few are Jews or Muslims, one is a Buddhist. A Hindu, possibly even a Wiccan may join their ranks soon.

But an atheist?

Strange as it sounds, groups representing atheists and secular humanists are pushing for the appointment of one of their own to the chaplaincy, hoping to give voice to what they say is a large — and largely underground — population of nonbelievers in the military.

Joining the chaplain corps is part of a broader campaign by atheists to win official acceptance in the military. Such recognition would make it easier for them to raise money and meet on military bases. It would help ensure that chaplains, religious or atheist, would distribute their literature, advertise their events and advocate for them with commanders.

But winning the appointment of an atheist chaplain will require support from senior chaplains, a tall order. Many chaplains are skeptical: Do atheists belong to a “faith group,” a requirement for a chaplain candidate? Can they provide support to religious troops of all faiths, a fundamental responsibility for chaplains?

Jason Torpy, a former Army captain who is president of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, said humanist chaplains would do everything religious chaplains do, including counsel troops and help them follow their faiths. But just as a Protestant chaplain would not preside over a Catholic service, a humanist might not lead a religious ceremony, though he might help organize it.

“Humanism fills the same role for atheists that Christianity does for Christians and Judaism does for Jews,” Mr. Torpy said in an interview. “It answers questions of ultimate concern; it directs our values.”

Mr. Torpy has asked to meet the chiefs of chaplains for each of the armed forces, which have their own corps, to discuss his proposal. The chiefs have yet to comment.

The Chaplain Outreach program at MAAF also seeks to ensure that the 3,000 chaplains already serving in our military underst and both why and how they should support atheists, humanists, and other nontheists. Hemant Mehta, the "Friendly Atheist," highlighted Department of Defense demographics showing there are more atheists in the military than Jews, Buddhists, or Muslims, yet those smaller groups have endorsed chaplains. All of the above-mentioned services are already provided by chaplains for all religious groups (Christians for Jews, Jews for Muslims, etc). MAAF simply seeks equal support.

There are already closeted atheist chaplains in the military who just need a humanist endorser so that they can provide their services openly and fully according to their conscience.

Justin Griffith with Military Atheists and Secular Humanists (MASH) also took time to host Times reporter Jim Dao at a MASH-Fort Bragg meeting. His efforts are part of local activism around the world to bring military atheists out of the closet and to advocate for our needs. Local groups are already set up from Japan to Italy, including Fort Hood, Fort Bragg, MacDill Air Force Base, and the USS Abraham Lincoln, to name a few. The military academies are leading the way so far, with recognized groups at the Military (Army), Naval, and Air Force Academies.

MAAF is also sponsoring Justin’s efforts to be recognized as a lay leader, an officially-recognized leader of atheists and humanists at Fort Bragg. Lay leader certification will give atheists and humanists equal access to chaplain services, like facilities, scheduling, and rooms. Fort Bragg is still reviewing the application and after about a month has yet to confirm that the application has been sent forward to higher command. Pending the outcome of this effort, MAAF has other local group leaders are waiting in the wings to be recognized at their installations. The student situation is different and they benefit from the support of the Secular Student Alliance, but the military is slowly recognizing that atheists and humanists deserve fully equal support.

Through chaplain outreach, humanist chaplains, local group support, and official recognition by the military, nontheists in the military will know that they are fully equal members of the military team. The Military Association of Atheists & Freethinkers is stepping forward to make that happen, but the military must be willing to accept that help.

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