Atheists in the Military Are Demanding Their Own Chaplains

November 15, 2011 - 1:30 PM
Military Chaplain in Afghanistan

(CNSNews.com) – Atheists and humanists serving in the U.S. military are leading an organized push for official recognition of their own chaplains, or something akin to chaplains. They contend that they are being left out, even though they say they outnumber participants in established religions.

Retired Army Lt. Col. Robert Maginnis said he can see a case for accommodation if the numbers and organization justify it, but he believes there could be problems with a humanist chaplain who does not believe in life after death.

“A chaplain is providing encouragement to those who believe in the hereafter, primarily in the U.S. military to Christians,” Maginnis, a senior fellow for national security with the Family Research Council, told CNSNews.com. “If you get someone who says, ‘Sorry, if you get killed, you’re just going to become a potted plant. There’s no hereafter,’ that would not be terribly motivating, especially to a military that goes to war.”

There are as many as a dozen self-identified atheists or humanists in the military who are seeking status as a "humanist lay leader" equivalent to the Christian, Jewish and Muslim clerics who minister to troops, the Los Angeles Times reported. However, fewer than 10,000 of the 1.4 million active duty members identify themselves as atheists or agnostic.

Maginnis stressed that the military is an organization comprising all sorts of beliefs, adding that anyone who embraces the values of mutual respect and protecting the country should be allowed to serve and be promoted. Still, he said, there is a religious history to the U.S. military.

“You cannot teach just war theory without invoking the history of Christianity, because you go back to St. Augustine and others who have espoused just war theory, which is fundamental to how we fight wars in the United States,” Maginnis said.

“It has a very clear religious history. You can picture George Washington at Valley Forge for instance. The things described about Washington are that he was a Christian praying man. We just happen to have that as a history,” he added.

The Chaplain Corps goes back to the continental army. Also, service academies required cadets to attend chapel services until the 1970s.

Former Army Capt. Jason Torpy, president of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, contends the number of humanists in the military is between 10,000 and 40,000 and argues that many who do not claim a religious preference are likely atheists.

His organization, which he said has been a 501(c)(3) organization for five years, is leading the charge to install humanist clergy in the military.

Torpy said that under current rules, Catholic chaplains refer Muslims to Muslim military clergy, while a Muslim clergy is obligated to direct Jewish members of the military to a Jewish military clergy and so on. But, he said, humanists are left out when it comes to a support system.

“Those are all putting them in touch with their people,” Torpy told CNSNews.com. “So in that way, humanists can provide that same service and just as important, all the currently serving chaplains who are Jewish or Hindu or Muslim need to provide that connection and that support and that recognition and affirmation to humanists as well.”

Under the current practice, he said, the Department of Defense is using a religious test for public office, something that is specifically prohibited in the Constitution, and a standard that is biased toward theistic religions.

“The Department of Defense has kind of a definition of religion, but they only have one kind of religious test for public office,” Torpy said.

Torpy said it depends on how one defines religion.

“My organization also works with the humanist society and the American Ethical Union, both organizations that hold this church tax exemption, because the IRS does not discriminate on whether a church is monotheistic, or polytheistic or pantheistic or non-theistic,” Torpy continued.

“So the question is why the military having this test is not providing that same answer in the same way,” Torpy added. “The concern is that they have, they say, well, we only do our kind of religion. If you’re monotheistic, that’s OK. If you have many gods or maybe if you think the universe is God – polytheistic or pantheistic – that would be alright.

“But if you’re non-theistic, if you have your community, and your marriages and your deaths and your births and your values and your ethics, if you approach that in a non-theistic way, you don’t have God or the supernatural, then we’re going to reject support for you,” he said.

Torpy said the numbers are on their side.

“Self-identified atheists, which are a subset of the humanist population, that’s a larger [military] population than Jewish or Hindus or Buddhists or Muslims,” Torpy said. “So we are a significant minority that does need to be recognized.”

While Maginnis has a different world view, he sees some case for accommodation if the numbers are significant and they are organized like other religions.

“I can understand if you want to have psychological encouragement from someone that has a non-existent god view,” Maginnis said. “Maybe there is room for psychological counselors. That’s essentially what I would see an atheist chaplain doing. They are going to talk about life being where we are now and making it the best that it can be.”

“It seems to me if they have a large representation in the military and they see the chaplaincy as an encouraging mechanism, then there probably should be some sort of accommodation,” Maginnis added. “But they have to be organized just like any religious faith.”